Football
Plus: Liverpool thrashed Leeds 6-0 at Anfield to ramp up their title tilt, while Antonio Conte sparked doubts over his future at Spurs; Watford’s woeful home form; Wilfried Zaha’s stellar performance in 4-1 win at Watford; Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane shine once again
By Sky Sports Football
Friday 25 February 2022 01:10, UK

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Alexandre Lacazette led the celebrations after forcing Arsenal’s winner. The equaliser was Nicolas Pepe’s moment to savour. But neither goal would have been possible without Martin Odegaard.
It was his superb lofted pass that released Eddie Nketiah in the build-up to the leveller and he was there again to force the opening for the second, receiving Pepe’s pass in a pocket of space on the right-hand side of the box then sliding the ball through to Lacazette.
When Arsenal needed a cool head under pressure, that little bit of guile to pick a way through the massed ranks of gold-shirted defenders in front of Jose Sa’s goal, the Norwegian provided it.
It is what he does.
Odegaard’s numbers for goals and assists in the Premier League this season are modest at four and three respectively in 22 appearances. But Arsenal’s best moments almost always start with him.
Mikel Arteta has praised him for his leadership as well as his quality and he shows it off the ball as well as on it. Against Wolves, he worked tirelessly, running 11.9km, nearly a kilometre further than any of his team-mates, and also recording the most sprints (20).
He drove them on in the closing stages and while the adulation was mostly directed at Pepe and Lacazette, the significance of Odegaard’s role in the comeback, and in Arsenal’s top-four push more generally, should not be underestimated.
Nick Wright
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The title tussle between Liverpool and Manchester City appears to be heading to the wire and if there were any doubts whether Jurgen Klopp’s side could sustain the challenge – those were quashed with this utterly dominant display at Anfield.
Liverpool truly dominated a pulsating 90 minutes and appeared to have far too much time and space in midfield to punish the visitors, approaching the game with a statement of intent for the race ahead and exposing Leeds’ customary, open approach when playing top teams ruthlessly.
Leeds are widely regarded as the masters of pressing but Marcelo Bielsa’s side looked divisions apart, with Liverpool challenging for every 50/50 with a far-from-equal share of gusto in midfield areas to minimise counter threats.
At times, Mohamed Salah was once again unplayable, displaying ice-cool composure for both penalties and executing passes few in the world could conjure. But the Egyptian was not alone.
Joel Matip, who has been in impressive form, dominated the halfway line to protect his side’s high line and charged forward with assurance at every opportunity. Trent Alexander-Arnold was spraying pinpoint passes at ease. Thiago flowed through the park surveying openings.
Speaking after the game, Klopp suggested a tight title race is good for the fans. Indeed, it is. This race could be among the tightest in Premier League history and promises to deliver an enthralling run-in between two teams that are among the very best in the world, if not, the best.
Leeds were last season’s entertainers, but the fear factor of their renown intensity appears to be waning as the Yorkshire club slips dangerously closer into the relegation fight.
Marcelo Bielsa admitted the club were in a battle for survival in his post-match comments, in his familiar abrupt style, and few would argue with him after such a devastating and humbling defeat – and their current league standing.
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In terms of possession and passing, Leeds produced similar returns as most teams facing Liverpool – but the notable difference was a distinct lack of mettle in the centre of the park.
Additionally, expected goals, which arguably measures the true value of chances created in front of goal, suggests Bielsa’s side mustered opportunities worthy of a meagre 0.15 goals, compared with the hosts’ 4.37.
Bielsa refused to blame sidelined players for the result, saying, “You can’t explain today with the absentees”, but there is no question that Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford have been sorely missed and the aforementioned issues reflect that very fact. And then there’s another absentee: centre-back and club captain Liam Cooper.
One thing is for sure, Leeds must regain their fear factor through intensity, sure, but coupled with the midfield solidity and attacking threat from last term to protect and capitalise on their gung-ho forays upfield – otherwise the long-awaited top-flight return could be curtailed and consigned to second-season syndrome.
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The trip to Burnley was always going to be the litmus test for this Spurs side. Forget Saturday’s win at Manchester City; it was this wet and windy Wednesday night at Turf Moor that would prove a real examination of Tottenham’s top four hopes. And they failed miserably.
It was all so predictable too. The win at City should have turbo-charged the club’s top-four bid, but instead they are back to square one.
It is no wonder Antonio Conte gave an extraordinary post-match interview questioning his future at the club. But unlike Jose Mourinho and Nuno Espirito Santo before him, Conte has the full unequivocal support and respect of the fans. So the spotlight is now firmly on the players.
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Publicly it appears they all love playing under Conte, but it has not been reflected in recent results. If they really want the Italian to remain at the club, then the coming days – not weeks or months – are critical.
It is Leeds away in the Premier League on Saturday followed by a trip to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup fifth round on Tuesday. These are two matches that now determine not only Spurs’ season, but the future of Conte.
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Roy Hodgson may have complained after his side’s 4-1 home defeat that the scoreline “flattered” Crystal Palace, but he will know that he must improve Watford’s home form if he wants to keep them in the Premier League.
The Hornets’ thrashing at the hands of the Eagles was their 10th league defeat at Vicarage Road this season – only in 1971-72 and 1987-88 (both 11) have they ever lost more at Vicarage Road in a single league campaign.
That doesn’t bode well for Watford given they have seven Premier League fixtures remaining at home, including four – against Everton, Leeds, Brentford and Burnley – that could have a major impact on the relegation picture.
The fact that Watford’s only home win in the league this season was a 4-1 hammering of Manchester United – which occurred under ex-manager Claudio Ranieri – feels like a strange quirk in their season.
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That victory in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final game as United manager came hot on the heels of a 5-2 win at Everton and sparked hopes of a revival.
But four months on and Hodgson is faced with the ugly reality that, in English top-flight history, no side has reached 10 home defeats in fewer games than the Hornets this term.
Unless things change quickly, Hodgson’s long Premier League tenure could end with a whimper.
Zaha had been booked on his previous five visits to Vicarage Road and had even had a run-in with Harry the Hornet after Watford’s mascot mocked him for diving in 2016, but this time the Palace forward ensured he had the last laugh.
The 29-year-old was kept relatively quiet in the first half, and regularly swapped positions with fellow winger Michael Olise as the duo searched for space in the Watford half.
He was also the subject of jeers from Hornets fans on a few occasions, as well as some tough tackling from the likes of Kiko Femenia, but he kept his composure before striking twice late on to secure the points for Palace.
Zaha’s second was particularly impressive and was similar in creation to his wonderful strike at Norwich earlier this month, with both goals seeing him cut in from the left before rifling a shot past a helpless goalkeeper and inside the far post.
The Ivory Coast international’s goals came from his only two shots in the game, but his other statistics demonstrated how impressive his performance was.
No Palace player had more touches in the Watford box, while he also created three times as many chances as any of his team-mates.
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Zaha’s work off the ball was also crucial – he won nine duels during the game (the next highest by a Palace player was four) – while the 11 occasions on which he regained possession was also a team high.
“People will talk about the two goals he scored, but what I love was his work ethic,” said manager Patrick Vieira after the game. “Out of possession I think it was his best game since I’ve been here.
“Today he had a really complete game – from the start to the end, he was really focused on his defensive duty and that allowed him to score his goals. Scoring goals is something he’s been doing for years.”
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