April 30, 2019

EPL FREE KICKS: Aguero’s goal a great metaphor for title race

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

The slimmest of margins could settle the tightest Premier League race we’ve seen in years.

With Burnley piling as many players behind the ball as it could, Sergio Aguero eventually played the hero for Manchester City, scoring the game’s lone goal to give his side the three points and retake the lead atop the table.

But it wasn’t his most convincing strike. In fact, the ball barely crossed the line before being cleared by a Clarets defender. This time, technology was on City’s side (we won’t delve into the VAR controversy against Spurs in Champions League) as the Hawkeye system ruled the ball crossed the line.

It was one of the closest calls we’ve seen this season and fitting for a race like this one. Thanks to Liverpool’s dominant win over Huddersfield Town, City’s goal-differential advantage is now down to four. So even if this race comes down to an unlikely tiebreaker, even that is getting a bit dicey.

Going back to City’s Champions League ouster, it may be a blessing in disguise. Liverpool has two games against one of the best teams in the world, Barcelona, in the next two weeks for their semifinal matchup. Pep Guardiola’s crew will be fully focused on their final two games of the season with the FA Cup coming the week after.

Even with just two games to go, there’s still plenty to watch.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Mohamed Salah may have spotted midweek hob-nobbing with the Mother of Dragons, but it was the Egyptian King who was breathing fire on Friday.

Salah scored twice and set one up against relegated Huddersfield Town, pushing him above the 20-goal mark for the second straight season, although he won’t be matching last year’s record-setting haul of 32.

While Sadio Mane – who also scored twice against the Terriers – recently got the nod on the PFA player of the year shortlist, Salah has an equal or better shot at making the team of the season.

Oh, and Salah set a new mark in Liverpool history by scoring the most goals in his first 100 appearances with the club at 69. Nice.

ANYBODY WANT EUROPE?

Between the four teams fighting for the remaining two Champions League spots for next season, there doesn’t seem to be any real sense of urgency. The four clubs combined to take home two points this weekend, with Arsenal and Spurs both losing and Chelsea drawing with Manchester United. Over the past three weeks, these supposed European contenders collected just six of 36 possible points.

The Gunners were embarrassed by Leicester City 3-0 after going a man down in the 36th minute, but let’s not forget that this is their third straight loss – all against midtable competition.

Spurs lost for their first time at their new name, the aptly named Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. London-rival West Ham did the honours and have made a habit out of handing out firsts: The Irons also gave Arsenal its first defeat at the Emirates back in 2007.

As for the Blues vs. the Red Devils, this was a matchup that didn’t feel like it had the stakes that it does. United has started to slump after its boost from the hiring of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer while we had honestly forgotten that Maurizio Sarri hadn’t been sacked yet.

ANOTHER DE GEA HOWLER

Is David De Gea still a world-class keeper? The numbers and the eye test say otherwise.

Long-touted as one of the world’s best between the sticks, De Gea let in another howler this weekend, joining a growing highlight reel of them since last summer’s World Cup.

After being named to FIFA’s team of the year in 2018, he certainly won’t be receiving similar honours at the end of this season. In fact, United has fewer clean sheets (seven) this season than nearly relegated Cardiff City (eight).

Is his confidence shattered? Does he have the yips? While the Spaniard is still more than capable, he doesn’t seem to be the wall he once was.

ESPN reported on Monday that United could go after Atletico Madrid keeper Jan Oblak this summer, paying his $120-million release clause. We’re sure they could recoup most of that by selling DDG, but seeing that happen may only further cripple his seemingly fragile confidence.

THE LAST WORD

Welcome to the Premier League, Norwich and Sheffield United.

It sure wasn’t without its fair share of controversy this weekend, though.

While Norwich sealed its automatic promotion and return to the Premier League after three seasons in the second tier, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry for the Blades.

After Villa’s Jonathan Kodija went down injured, his teammates stopped playing as it seemed like Leeds was going to put the ball out of play.

Instead, Mateusz Klich was sent in alone on a through ball and scored.

Understandably, Villa players were upset – to say the least – and a pseudo-brawl broke out. Anwar El Ghazi was sent off for taking a swing at Leeds’ Patrick Bamford, who greatly embellished what had happened. Bamford deserved a swat, too, as he had an opponent in a headlock moments prior.

Players all over the pitch and reserves on the sidelines engaged in screaming matches with referees also caught in the middle.

After everything got cleared up and Villa kicked off, Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa had his team allow Villa to even the score, though defender Pontus Jansson did put up a bit of a fight.

In the end, the game was a draw which allowed Sheffield United – no doubt entertained to the nines watching at home – to clinch automatic promotion.

The best out of all of this: Leeds and Villa could meet at Wembley with a spot in the Premier League next at stake. The Whites are likely to finish third in the table while the Villans should be fifth, both earning spots in the four-team playoff.

If that turns out to be the Richest Match In Football, it’ll be a damn good one.

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