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Weekend Review: Just the Start for City, Arsenal Embarrassing, Lukaku on a Roll

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2018

The first of three trophies for Manchester City as Arsenal were humiliated at the weekend?
The first of three trophies for Manchester City as Arsenal were humiliated at the weekend?Tim Ireland/Associated Press

Given the hollow accusation readily pointed at Manchester City that they have a surfeit of both class and history, there was a certain poignancy to how Pep Guardiola's first trophy at the club arrived courtesy of three players who havealong with the absent Yaya Touremost defined the club's new era as a major force.

The Carabao Cup was probably not the one he dreamed of winning when he agreed to take the reins in Manchester, but as Guardiola was quick to attest post-match after the most comfortable 3-0 defeat of Arsenal (via the Guardian): "Winning titles helps you win more, that's true."

Only a fool would suggest any of Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany or David Silva lack either class or history. It's arguable the trio represent the club's best-ever goalscorer, captain and player.

There's no doubt all three merit their place in the club's rich annals just as much as the likes of the revered Mike Summerbee, who was a guest of honour at the game and would almost certainly wholeheartedly agree. Like the aforementioned, he is bluer than a Smurf. 

The triumvirate were just as much a key part of the 2011 FA Cup-winning side as they are now. In terms of longevity in the modern game, to keep a team's spine largely in tact like that is quite the feat.

The win over Stoke City seven years ago provided the first return on Sheikh Mansour's investment. Sunday, though, will represent the closest City have looked to fulfilling the grand Abu Dhabi vision. Winning isn't, and has never been, enough. To do it with style is everything. To do it in Guardiola's style is the gift that keeps on giving, whatever the cost.

B/R Football @brfootball

Sergio Aguero—joined 2011 Vincent Kompany—joined 2008 David Silva—joined 2010 Manchester City's old guard got it done in the final 🏆 https://t.co/apWVc0doi6

In truth, such was Arsenal's ludicrously horizontal approach to the occasion (it's a wonder they didn't wear flip-flops), the game was effectively over from the moment Aguero opened the scoring on 18 minutes. His 30th goal of the season, a 15th in his last 13 matches, was a dink as brilliantly deft in its execution as Arsenal's defending was excruciating.

Guardiola is not the most natural heir to Charles Hughes, but the fundaments were all there as City went back to front from a Claudio Bravo goal-kick. Aguero's nudge on Shkodran Mustafi was so soft it was practically a nuzzle. For the German to be meek is one thing; for him to be the wrong side from a goal-kick is amateurish beyond belief. Yet still we believe it. This is Arsenal, after all.

For Kompany, it was the type of game that proves vindication for all the tireless work he has put in over the years when injuries have proved such a harsh mistress. When he stuck out a boot to add a second-half goal to a peerless performance that saw him play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Mozart did a piano, with absolute control, it underlined how when he is properly fit the Belgian is as peerless a performer in his position as there is in the Premier League. 

And then to David Silva, the player Mesut Ozil might have been. Arsenal's schemer could not have been more peripheral had he been selling programmes along the pitch's perimeter. He had 48 touches, one more than Calum Chambers, and was so effervescently vacant throughout that he may as well have been stoned. He certainly played as though he was.

Alongside him, Arsenal ball-winner Granit Xhaka made one tackle. Someone needs to get that yard dog on a leash—or let it bite Aaron Ramsey to wake him up.

B/R Football @brfootball

Pep Guardiola gets his first taste of silverware in England https://t.co/IUaCNISAVw

Speed was Silva's drug of choice, in terms of both movement and thought. He has had less obvious standout moments than Kevin De Bruyne this season, but he has been just as effective. If he doesn't make the PFA Player of the Year shortlist, City's players should wear a ribbon in protest.

Fittingly, his goal was a thing of real beauty. Danilo, City's left-back, played a pass either of Silva or De Bruyne would have readily added to their own collection as Arsenal's back line was dissected with a surgeon's precision. Silva's angled finish was a striker's finish. A bloody good striker's finish too, from the left boot of a wonderful midfield player. 

This is just the start for Manchester City, but perhaps the end for Arsenal in their current guise. 

              

Can Arsene Wenger come back from this? 

B/R Football @brfootball

👀 https://t.co/9vPohixgLi

This may be the game that liberates Arsene Wenger supporters from guilt. Arsenal's abjectness in falling to a 3-0 defeat at Wembley might, and should be, the tipping point.

To display such embarrassing rank disinterest at the home of English football may prove the equivalent of the waft of a bacon sandwich that undoes the vegetarian who can't walk past a butcher's without taking a surreptitious glance, and inhaling. It is time for even the staunchest loyalists to be true to themselves, not tied to their principles.

Wenger's time is surely up at the end of the season. To prolong his stay is to invite more of the same. "We self-inflicted our punishment," the Gunners boss said at full-time (via the Guardian), speaking on behalf of all Arsenal supporters, including a majority who had long since left the building while the Frenchman held the mic. It was less a sense of entitlement over silverware that instigated mass departures, than a sense of entitlement over simple effort.

Few had Arsenal down as anything other than outsiders, but this was everything last season's FA Cup final defeat of Chelsea was not. As the biggest advert of the season for an energy drinks company, Carabao must be fuming. Arsenal's players played as though they collectively had just escaped from a prisoner of war camp. Jack Wilshere looked as if he cared; the rest at full-time wore the mild disappointment of having missed a bus.

B/R Football @brfootball

Arsenal fans right now https://t.co/1dUhIhWSa0

It's not even as though City were close to being at their best. In that first period, Guardiola will have been quietly fuming, despite going in at half-time with a 1-0 lead. It was like putting Floyd Mayweather into the ring with a pacifist. Arsenal would not have laid a mark on City's chin if they had still been playing now and Guardiola had brought Moonchester on in place of Bravo.

Over 90 minutes Arsenal created two chances. The whole game had the feel of when a lower-league side gets a dream cup-tie at a Premier League giant and doesn't have a go.

Gary Neville on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports was beside himself, and rightly so. Commentator Martin Tyler could barely get a word in edgeways as he launched himself into a diatribe everyone watching worldwide will have been nodding in agreement with. For once, one hopes on this occasion Wenger really didn't see or hear it. For it was a painful and truthful listen. Arsenal really were pathetic, or in the words of Neville, "spineless." 

Muha @lcmuha

If this kid is crying like this after Arsenal lost the League cup, what if he gets to find out Arsenal has never won the champions league 😆 https://t.co/GGhciBQDCN

What solace could the father give to his son caught on camera in floods of tears? "Don't cry, son, we've only got another 20 years of Wenger left, by the time you've finished university he might have gone…" Neville was hardly helping things as he raged: "Look at that…you've caused that." It's a wonder he didn't abseil down from his commentary booth to give Arsenal's players a few home truths face-to-face. Tyler desperately trying to unclip his microphone to stop Neville attacking Ramsey WWE-style with a steel chair.

There will be endless pieces written over the next few days dissecting in minute detail exactly what went wrong, but in all honesty, it's a waste of time to write it. And an even bigger one to read it.

Arsenal were Arsenal: hopelessly inept when it mattered.

                

Will Lukaku kick on after breaking his top-six hoodoo?

B/R Football @brfootball

Big game, big goal 💯 https://t.co/8pcUyQGUzS

Given Graeme Souness usually delivers an opinion as he did a tackle in his playing days, it was with surprise his Sunday Times column on the respective merits of Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata was a tame to the point of being empathetic affair.

Headlined "Misfiring or Misunderstood?," he came down on the side of the latter with no little conviction. Who'd have thought grumpy Graeme would provide a psychiatrist's couch for goal-shy strikers to lay their worried heads?

Later in the day, his words would prove prescient, at least in the case of the Manchester United striker. Less so Morata. On his first start for Chelsea since early January, he was for the most part so far off the pace that he became the first Premier League player this season to be lapped. 

There was no misunderstanding the mood in Old Trafford during the 39 minutes prior to the Belgium international finding a scantily deserved equaliser against his former club. If Manchester United supporters were fined a pound every time they groaned at a heavy Lukaku touch, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward would have been able to pay off his £75 million transfer fee twice over already.

The only thing looser than Lukaku's control as Chelsea took the lead through Willian, after Morata had earlier rattled the crossbar in what was a classic sliding-doors moment, was Alexis Sanchez's.

At the minute, the Chilean looks distracted, as though he has to think about every touch. It's as if he has left the iron on at home and is wondering if his dogs, Atom and Humber, will have the foresight to unplug it.

As has always been the way with Lukaku, there is a tendency to focus on what he lacks rather than what he offers. It's a bit like when people started to wonder if Dimitar Berbatov might run the channels. Having watched his top goalscorer fail to net in any of United's previous six matches against the top six this season, Mourinho felt moved pre-match to claim he didn't care whether the former Everton man scored or not. It didn't look that way when he did.

OptaJoe @OptaJoe

1 - Romelu Lukaku has scored 13 goals in the Premier League this season, however this was his first against a team currently in the top eight. Overdue. https://t.co/bi4Qn1IwhY

There was something sweetly poignant how in the buildup to the goal Lukaku won the ball back after giving it away. Nothing about his United career has been easy; here it was presented in a bite-size snapshot.

For once, a stodgy United side moved the ball quickly in and around the area with real incision. Nemanja Matic gave it to Sanchez, on to Anthony Martial, before his cute pass allowed a rampaging-through-the-middle Lukaku to work the ball on to his left foot and finish with elan.

Like a fighter on the ropes who suddenly manages to steady his feet after rocking an opponent with a shot dug from the bowels of defeat, Lukaku thereafter gave a complete No. 9's performance. He led the line with an intelligence matched by its aggression. Too often he demonstrates one or the other, rarely both in tandem.

Chelsea's back three were regularly pulled further apart than they would have liked by his movement, as was the case when he assisted substitute Jesse Lingard's winner. After a smart run down the right channel, delicate feet one does not normally associate with the big man saw him drift between two challenges before putting in the type of cross he has himself been starved of too often this season.

With three months of the season still to play, Lukaku has now scored 22 goals in all competitions. For a 24-year-old settling into a club the size of Manchester United, that's a decent return.

Just ask Morata. Or Souness.

               

Kane just keeps on coming

B/R Football @brfootball

‘The Harry Kane Team’ 🔥 https://t.co/T6xtS1MPHt

There's a certain paradox to the point strikers such as Lukaku and Morata are often judged harshly in comparison to Harry Kane, when at the same time there's an argument the Tottenham Hotspur striker isn't rated highly enough himself. As with Aguero, his extraordinary exploits have become so commonplace they are less celebrated than expected.

If Kane's name is absent when checking Premier League results and goalscorers, my first thought is surprise at how I've missed the fact he is injured.

To read his name on a scoresheet elicits no response. It neither quickens nor slows the pulse, which, coincidentally, is how one suspects Kane reacts to bearing down on goal. To point out the fact he has scored would be like being at a bus stop and feeling the need to inform those in the queue every time a car passes.

For those of a sensitive or egotistical disposition such complacency in the company of elevated quality would cause chagrin. Kane probably barely notices. He loves goals as a sushi chef loves fish. Everything else is a distraction.

Harry Kane @HKane

We kept plugging away and got our reward eventually! 👍⚽ #COYS #THFC #Premierleague https://t.co/R31AVCAE1h

None of which should detract from how remarkably brilliant he is. Not that brilliant would have been the adjective Mauricio Pochettino would have used to describe his talisman for 88 minutes of Tottenham's 1-0 win over Crystal Palace, which saw them supplant Chelsea in fourth.

On four separate occasions, he missed chances he would have bagged on a good day while not bothering to look up from his phone. There was no such profligacy when he was presented with a fifth opportunity. A looping heading at the far post saw him raise his bat at 150 club goals not out.

Gianluigi Buffon once said, per The Independent, Morata could be one of the best in the world, "if only he could get over his mental hang-ups." By not having any, Kane has made himself arguably the best centre-forward in Europe, if not the world. Missing chances simply doesn't bother him.

Kane has had 156 shots this season. On its own that may seem a fairly worthless statistic, but to give a little context that number completely dwarfs Mohamed Salah (108), Aguero (88), Lukaku (76) and Sanchez (69).

Essentially Kane is the guy who holds you up in the supermarket because he has a punt on every Lottery going and picks up a bunch of scratch cards while he is at it.

If he ever won, you know the first thing he would do is buy another ticket.

             

Do Liverpool have Europe's best attack?

B/R Football @brfootball

They can't stop scoring ⚡️ https://t.co/I3GZy8FwpC

Was it really this season Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp felt moved to defend his forwards' finishing? Those early profligate games in August and September against the likes of Watford, Burnley, Spartak Moscow and Newcastle United seem so long ago now surely it would have been Ian St John or Roger Hunt who would have been cited had he flagged up any wastefulness at the time.

Once more there was zero to admonish about Saturday's 4-1 defeat of West Ham United that saw Liverpool break the 100-goal barrier for the season, to end the day on 103 and counting. Manchester City have scored 111 in all competitions, which given they are regularly cited as being the best side since Brazil 1970 is quite the measure of the direction the Reds are heading.

On an afternoon when it was as windy as it was cold, Liverpool were perhaps never quite as fluid as the scoreline suggests. Still, when you house a front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, it must be like being married to a chef. Even with a barren fridge, the fare dished up is invariably a treat for the senses. 

And so it proved as Liverpool's Fab Three, seemingly more liberated by Philippe Coutinho's departure than daunted, set about West Ham with ravenous gluttony.

Emre Can's prosaic header to break the deadlock was followed by more poetic offerings, as the aforementioned triumvirate each provided an individual vignette to collectively paint an evocative portrait of perhaps, on current form, Europe's most insatiable attack. Some 11 times this season Liverpool have scored four or more goals in a single game.

B/R Football @brfootball

Mohamed Salah matches Luis Suarez's most prolific goalscoring season in a Liverpool shirt 🔥 https://t.co/6fMNsDGLn6

Salah's goal, Liverpool's second, proved a record-breaker. It was his 20th Premier League with his left foot, edging past Robbie Fowler's record for a single season. The Egyptian king has similarly been afforded deity status on Merseyside. His 31st of the campaign was a typically assured finish that followed the line of best fit as it nestled in Adrian's far corner.

It's tempting to say Salah is the best forward Liverpool have had since Luis Suarez, but then he's already scored the same amount as the Uruguayan managed in his final and most prolific season at Anfield.

The king is dead, long live the king.

             

All stats provided by WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.

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