Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

Liverpool’s midfielder Mohamed Salah vies with Southampton’s defender Ryan Bertrand during a recent English Premier League match in southern England. (AFP)
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Updated 17 January 2021

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

  • Jurgen Klopp’s men could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them

LONDON: Liverpool and Manchester United face off on Sunday as the Premier League’s top two teams for the first time since 1997 — with the rivalry between England’s most successful clubs rekindled by a fascinating title race.

United top the table after the New Year for the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 thanks to an 11-match unbeaten run to take them past Jurgen Klopp’s men.

Liverpool have surrendered top spot after three league games without a win and could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them.

The last time United and Liverpool locked horns in a title race was 12 years ago.

Back then United were hardened winners under Ferguson, who saw off Rafael Benitez’s challengers to win a third consecutive league title.

Now it is United who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits are the “hunters” chasing the champions.

Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 with United firmly in Liverpool’s shadow, once famously said his goal was to knock them “off their perch” and he went on to win 13 league titles.

But United have been displaced as top dogs even in their own city by Manchester City.

And fans have been forced to watch Klopp spearhead another era of glory at Anfield, winning the Champions League in 2019 before ending the club’s 30-year wait for a league title last season — putting them just one behind United’s record tally of 20.

But, in a strange and at times soulless season in empty stadiums, the relentless consistency shown by Liverpool in recent
years has dropped off.

Hampered by a series of injuries, most notably to talismanic center-back Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool have already dropped more points in 17 games than they have in either of the past two seasons.

That has allowed United to overtake them despite a slow start to their own campaign.

Solskjaer’s men won just two of their opening six games, suffering a humiliating 6-1 reverse at the hands of Tottenham at Old Trafford.

But, on the road, United’s form has been remarkably consistent. Come Sunday, it will be almost a year to the day since they last lost an away game in domestic competition — on their last visit
to Anfield.

Since then Bruno Fernandes’ arrival has helped transform United’s fortunes. On Friday, the Portugal playmaker won his fourth Premier League player-of-the-month award in 2020 by picking up the prize for December.

“Unfortunately a good signing for United,” said Klopp.

“He is a very influential player for United obviously, involved in a lot of things.

“I know people talk mostly about the goal involvements, which is very important stuff, but he is a link-up in a lot of other situations as well.”

Without the silverware on his CV to rival Klopp or City boss Pep Guardiola, Solskjaer’s credentials for one of the biggest jobs in football are questioned every time he has a couple of bad results.

But the Norwegian has guided United into a position his more storied predecessors, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, could not manage.

“The last few years, there have been two teams running away with it already by the end of October,” said Solskjaer.

“Now, at least, we’re in it at half-way. We’re a much better side now than a year ago.”

Questions remain over whether United’s revival is for real or another false dawn, of which there have been several in the post-Ferguson era.

Liverpool’s three-decade drought without a league title stands as a warning of how far even giants can fall.

One of Klopp’s first iconic phrases when taking charge in 2015 was his ambition to change the fatalism around the club’s mentality from “doubter to believer.”

Should United become the first visiting side to win at Anfield in the league for nearly four years, it is they who will have the new-found confidence that a 21st league title in 2021 is possible.


Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points

Updated 28 February 2021

Man City win 20th straight game to lead by 13 points

  • Guardiola’s side are unbeaten in 27 games and their run of 20 successive victories in all competitions is a record for an English top-flight side

MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola rates Manchester City’s 20-game winning run as one of the greatest achievements of his glittering career.

City moved 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League with a hard-fought 2-1 victory over West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Saturday.

Guardiola’s side are unbeaten in 27 games and their run of 20 successive victories in all competitions is a record for an English top-flight side.

The Spaniard has won 29 trophies as a manager with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City, including consecutive Premier League titles in 2018 and 2019.

But Guardiola believes City’s remarkable winning streak this season, amid a pandemic and despite injuries to Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, is up there with his finest moments.

“It is so difficult. Twenty in this period, in this era, with this situation around the world. To be able to do 20 is maybe one of the greatest achievements we have done together in our careers,” Guardiola said.

“That doesn’t mean we will win titles but we have not had one week’s rest in three months. A game every three days, with the Covid situation, injury situations — to make this winning run shows mental strength.”

City were not at their best against in-form West Ham, but Guardiola was delighted with the way they fought for the points.

“We didn’t paint something nice but there are many of these games during the season,” he said.

“It was obvious to every person who saw the game it was really tough. The opposition is incredible, well composed.

“So, a big compliment to West Ham. After 26 fixtures they were in the Champions League positions. They have everything.

“It was a really tough game but that is good for us for the coming games, to realize what is going to happen.”


Peshawar defeats two-time PSL champion Islamabad by 6 wickets

Updated 27 February 2021

Peshawar defeats two-time PSL champion Islamabad by 6 wickets

  • Zalmi’s third straight victory has put it on top of the tournament’s points table
  • Peshawar’s skipper Wahab Riaz led from the front by taking four wickets and conceding 17 runs

KARACHI: Peshawar Zalmi on Saturday outclassed Islamabad United in a one-sided contest, winning its third straight match and reaching the top of the points table by defeating its rival by six wickets in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) tournament.
Peshawar won the toss and invited Islamabad to bat on a wicket where all PSL matches during this season have been won by the teams chasing, including those who faced the daunting challenge of making over 190 runs.
Zalmi took early wickets and dismissed United for the tournament’s lowest total of 118 runs in 17.1 overs.
In response, Peshawar cruised to 122-4 with 17 balls to spare. Haider Ali hit three sixes and three fours in 36 off 18 balls.
Zalmi was 6-2 when it started batting, but Tom Kohler-Cadmore (46) and Shoaib Malik (29 not out) steadied the chase and Ali finished off.
Earlier, Riaz led his team’s strike against Islamabad by taking the wicket of Paul Stirling in the first over. Phil Salt was the second to go after he lost his wicket to English bowler Saqib Mahmood. Salt scored 9 off 11 balls.
Faheem Ashraf who had made significant contributions to his team’s total in the last matches only managed to score two runs. Skipper Shahab Khan was run out on a good throw by Imam-ul-Haq to wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal.
Alex Hales who remained the top scorer of the match for his side (41 off 27) was the next to go to the pavilion. Hussain Talat scored 22 off 15, Iftikhar Ahmed 7 off 12, and Asif 19 off 12.
Wahab Riaz remained the most successful bowler and showed his best performance in PSL tournaments by grabbing four wickets and conceding 17 runs. Saqib Mahmood also demonstrated outstanding bowling skills by taking 4 wickets in 2.1 overs.
Mujeeb-ur-Rehman and Umaid Asif both grabbed one wicket each.
Earlier in the day, Babar Azam helped Karachi Kings win a match against Multan Sultan by hitting his second successive PSL half century.
Babar’s unbeaten 90 off 60 balls — including 13 fours and a six — led Karachi to 198-3 with seven balls to spare in yet another successful chase in Pakistan’s premier Twenty20 league, Associated Press reported.
Multan had earlier spoiled a blistering start and were restricted to 195-6 as Karachi skipper Imad Wasim followed a familiar script of captains putting the opposition into bat after winning the toss.


Babar leads Karachi to 7-wicket win over Multan in PSL

Updated 27 February 2021

Babar leads Karachi to 7-wicket win over Multan in PSL

  • Multan had earlier spoiled a blistering start and were restricted to 195-6
  • All nine league matches in this season’s PSL have been won by the teams chasing, including four successful chases of 190-plus runs

KARACHI: Babar Azam hit his second successive half century in the Pakistan Super League and anchored Karachi Kings to a seven-wicket win over Multan Sultans on Saturday.

Babar’s unbeaten 90 off 60 balls — including 13 fours and a six — led Karachi to 198-3 with seven balls to spare in yet another successful chase in Pakistan’s premier Twenty20 league.

All nine league matches in this season’s PSL have been won by the teams chasing, including four successful chases of 190-plus runs.

Multan had earlier spoiled a blistering start and were restricted to 195-6 as Karachi skipper Imad Wasim followed a familiar script of captains putting the opposition into bat after winning the toss.

“Credit goes to the bowlers first,” Wasim said. “The way we finished at the end was fantastic. We saved almost 15-20 runs at the death.”

Englishman Joe Clarke (54 off 26 balls) took the game away from Multan by combining in an electrifying stand of 97 runs with Babar.

Clarke smashed four sixes against spinners Shahid Afridi and Khushdil Shah and also hit three boundaries in his robust half century before he was caught at short fine leg while attempting to ramp a slow bouncer from Shanawaz Dhani (2-28).

Babar led Karachi to its second win in three games with a six and two fours in succession against fast bowler Sohail Khan in the penultimate over.

Earlier, Multan failed to cash in on Chris Lynn’s robust start (32 off 14 balls) and were cruising along at 72-1 in the first six overs of batting powerplay.

James Vince (45) and skipper Mohammad Rizwan (43) both fell in successive overs of fast bowler Arshad Iqbal (2-36) as Multan slipped to 133-3 in the 14th over.

Karachi came back strongly in the last five overs with their fast bowlers leaking only one boundary. Left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Amir, who earlier started with a maiden over, bowled seven wide balls in his next three overs but got the dangerman Shahid Afridi (3) in the 19th over to finish with 1-34.

After its third loss, Multan slipped to fifth in six-team event with a solitary win against Lahore Qalandars, who are due to meet Islamabad United in Saturday’s other league match.


Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’

Updated 27 February 2021

Mourinho says pressure at Spurs ‘like oxygen’

LONDON: Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho said on Friday that being under pressure was “like oxygen” for him as he seeks to turn around the club’s terrible Premier League form.
Mourinho’s job has come under scrutiny after a run of five Premier League defeats in six games left them ninth in the table — nine points outside the top four.
But the Portuguese, whose team topped the table in December, said it was just part of the job.
“The problem is if you don’t have pressure,” he said. “I felt in trouble when I was at home and did not have pressure for a few months.
“That’s the problem. It comes like oxygen, it is our life; I don’t think there is any coach in the world without objectives or any kind of pressure.
“You just get used to it and also used to the way the press is at the time, you just have to adapt to it.”
Mourinho said earlier this week that he was confident he would be remembered for the right reasons at Spurs despite overseeing a collapse in their form during his first full season in charge.
The poor run in the league is unprecedented for the 58-year-old in a long and mostly successful managerial career at Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United.
However, Tottenham’s season could still be saved by success in cup competitions.
Spurs will meet Dinamo Zagreb in the last 16 of the Europa League after completing an 8-1 aggregate win over Austrian side Wolfsberg this week.
Mourinho’s men also face Premier League leaders Manchester City in the League Cup final in April — looking to win their first silverware
in 13 years.
 


Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

Updated 27 February 2021

Solskjaer wary of Chelsea challenge in battle for top four

LONDON: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes the race for the Premier League top four will go down to the wire as Manchester United prepare to face Thomas Tuchel’s revitalized Chelsea on Sunday.
United were knocked off top spot by Manchester City on Jan. 26 and a run of just two wins in six top-flight matches means they are now 10 points behind their rivals.
Second-placed United head to the Etihad Stadium for a Manchester derby clash on March 7 but before then they have back-to-back fixtures away to London clubs, with Sunday’s match against Chelsea followed by Wednesday’s game with Crystal Palace.
“We’ve got Chelsea just behind us, we’ve got City away in front of us,” said Solskjaer.
“Of course we can’t let them run further away if we have ambitions of catching them and we can’t give Chelsea too much hope to catch us either.”
Solskjaer believes United are over their recent wobble ahead of the match at Stamford Bridge, where Tuchel has made an impressive impact since succeeding Frank Lampard last month.
The Blues have yet to lose under the German and can halve the six-point gap to United on Sunday as the race for Champions League qualification spots heats up.
“You can see the results, you can see the stats, the possession they’ve had, they keep teams away from their own goal, keep the possession,” Solskjaer said.
“He’s (Tuchel) done really well ... It’s never easy coming into a season halfway through so he must be pleased as well. Hopefully we can stop that run. That’s my job now.”
The Norwegian predicted a tense battle for Champions League places with a third of the season still to go.
City, United, Leicester and West Ham are currently in the top four but a clutch of teams, including Chelsea and champions Liverpool, harbor ambitions of dislodging them.
“I don’t think the positions will be decided early,” said former United striker Solskjaer.
“With this season as well, it’s unpredictable. We’ve seen teams going through bad phases then a run and then who knows what’s going to happen with injuries, with how players react to the circumstances.”
Solskjaer’s remarks came as Manchester United and AC Milan prepare to meet in the round of 16 of the Europa League, putting 39-year-old forward Zlatan Ibrahimović up against his former English club.
Ibrahimovic played for United for two years, including in the 2016-17 season when United won its only Europa League title.
Milan, a seven-time European Cup champion, has never won the Europa League or its predecessor the UEFA Cup — the only continental title it is missing.
“It’s one of the those draws again that you feel could be a Champions League game,” Solskjaer said on Friday.
United dropped into the Europa League after finishing third in its Champions League group. Milan last played in the top-tier competition in 2014.
Both teams are on track to qualify for the next Champions League, in second place in their domestic leagues trailing crosstown rivals Manchester City and Inter Milan, respectively.
“They’re on the up and have done really well this season,” Solskjaer said of Milan, who are scheduled to visit Old Trafford for the first leg on March 11.
The return leg at San Siro is one week later.
Arsenal will face Olympiakos and go back to Piraeus for its second straight game in the competition.
The London team used Olympiakos’ stadium as a neutral venue on Thursday and beat Benfica 3-2 in the “home” leg in the round of 32.
Arsenal and Olympiakos will be meeting in a European competition for the sixth time in the past 12 seasons. Olympiakos won in the last 32 a year ago.
Two-time UEFA Cup champion Tottenham will face Dinamo Zagreb and play the first leg in Croatia, while 1992 champion Ajax is at home first against Swiss club Young Boys.