It’s hotting up at both ends of the Premier League table as we head towards the final third of the season.
Liverpool face a must-win game away against West Ham on Monday night if they are to maintain a significant advantage over Manchester City after the champions saw off Arsenal 3-1. Spurs kept in touch with a win of their own, but face into a busy period without the services of Harry Kane and Dele Alli. Behind them now are Chelsea and Manchester United following Arsenal’s defeat.
At the other end of the table, as many as eight teams look to be mired in a relegation battle.
Here are five things we learned from the opening round of February fixtures in the Premier League:
1) Marcus Rashford is the man to lead the line for United
Rashford’s winner against Leicester today marked a series of impressive statistics in what was his 100th Premier League appearance.
Since getting the nod from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to play down the centre, he has scored six in eight league games. In all, it was the Englishman’s 26th league goal – the most for the Red Devils since his debut three years ago.
Winners against Spurs, Brighton and now Leicester mark him out as United’s first-choice centre forward, though the now oft-benched Romelu Lukaku still has a role to play as evidenced by his significant cameo on the right against Arsenal last month.
2) The more things change, the more they stay the same for Arsenal
Despite a change in manager and playing personnel, defensive woes undone the Gunners yet again against City.
To be fair to Unai Emery, the absences of Hector Bellerin and Sokratis were dearly felt in the Arsenal back four. Stephan Lichtsteiner’s right side in particular was hammered, with each of City’s three goals coming from that flank.
Indeed, Arsenal were lucky not to concede more early, as their narrow back four (that perhaps should’ve been a back five in hindsight) barely held court against a vengeful City who had suffered a huge upset against Newcastle in midweek. It was only a matter of time before City would exploit that weakness again, however.
With the knowledge in mind that Bellerin was out for up to nine months, Arsenal would have been better served bringing in a defensive recruit in the January window, rather than Barcelona’s Denis Suarez, who was always unlikely to turn the match in their favour at 3-1 down.
3) Maurizio Sarri’s gamble is paying off already
Having shipped the struggling Alvaro Morata off to Atletico Madrid on loan, the Chelsea boss put his faith in Gonzalo Higuain to save the club’s season.
The hammering courtesy of Bournemouth aside, the Argentine could yet fire the Blues to Champions League football. Though some worry that his best days are behind him, the manner in which he took the first of two goals against Huddersfield indicated a player who remains confident despite his unfamiliarity with the powder keg of playing for Chelsea in the Premier League.
His presence will put the Eden Hazard false nine experiment to bed, and with the Belgian getting two goals of his own in his preferred winger position, Chelsea may now have the adequate firepower to finish top four or even win the Europa League.
4) Spurs’ gamble may not have the same result
While they retain an outside chance of a league title, Spurs face a Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund and domestic action against Chelsea and Arsenal in their next set of fixtures.
They will more than likely have to do so without the services of the talismanic Harry Kane, if not Dele Alli also. While cult hero Heung-Min Son has saved them twice already since his return from the Asian Games (including on Saturday against Newcastle), it’s asking a lot of the South Korean to hold down the fort.
Spurs were reportedly in the market for Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi, but in apparently not wanting to sell him to a rival, the Blues instead let him go to Crystal Palace. Not bringing in him or another loanee of similar quality could yet derail a promising season for the North Londoners.
5) Cardiff showed a remarkable spirit that could yet save them
The Welsh outfit were dealt a devastating blow with the disappearance of record signing Emiliano Sala after the Nantes player’s plane went missing.
While their first game since the tragedy saw their fourth defeat in five games, Neil Warnock’s side rallied in an emotional home return against a buoyant Bournemouth who had swept aside Chelsea. The out-of-favour Oumar Niasse of Everton was drafted in on loan to help Cardiff score the goals needed to survive relegation.
While he didn’t score, Bobby Reid showed the promise that made him a favourite at Bristol City by grabbing a brace. Now just two points from safety and with a bevy of points still to play for, Cardiff can look to capitalise on being the only side in the bottom six to win this weekend.