Most important goal of the weekend… Zlatan Ibrahimovic
There are not many people who have the self-belief of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. As much as he does disappear occasionally, and fail to take as many of his chances as a man of his self-declared talent should do, he is never cowed. His arrogance is self-fulfilling. If he didn’t think he was the best, he would end up embarrassed by his occasional failures, and be worse for it. He is sustained by self-confidence as much as anything else.
[Manchester United Player Ratings]
[Mourinho frustrated with Klopp: ‘We attacked, Liverpool defended]
[Ibrahimovic: We were not at our best against Liverpool]
But, while people argue that he’s a fraud, or overrated, or other tiresome terms, the fact remains that the goals he has scored this season have been crucial for Manchester United. Without him, they would have Wayne Rooney or the profligate Anthony Martial up front, or the increasingly green Marcus Rashford. There may be a fair few better strikers right now, but few have made as many vital contributions to their team(s) as Ibrahimovic this year. His goal against Liverpool is just the latest example.
Surprise of the weekend… Manchester City are actually regressing
Only a fool or a savant would write off Pep Guardiola at City. He has time and almost unlimited financial resources to make another superb side. The evidence of his previous teams suggest he can do it, as do the rumblings over Lionel Messi’s new contract.
Despite that, the wretched nature of Manchester City’s defence is worrying. At Barcelona and Bayern, while the defence wasn’t his strength, he had the personnel to repel most sides. Assisted by the attack, teams had to spend more time worrying and concentrating than they ever did putting pressure on their opponents. At City, they have Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones, neither learning from the other, neither leading the other. They are a mess, and this is exacerbated by the tedium ahead of them.
Guardiola can claim to be the best coach in the world, or at least the coach to have produced the best ever football and the best ever team. This is an entirely different circumstance from having Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, or Xabi Alonso, Arjen Robben and Manuel Neuer to build upon. But it is still surprising that City are treading water after six months of the Brain.
Miserable weekend… Antonio Conte
OK, it’s not as poor a weekend as it could have been. Playing without Diego Costa is not a handicap he would have wanted to maneuver around, but he managed it against Leicester City in what became a simple victory. Positively, Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard linked up with wit, speed and verve to suggest that without Costa, they will cope. They remain the best side in the league, and their 3-4-3 system appears to be durable even if there isn’t a striker to lead from the front. There is also time to bring in reinforcements, should they prove necessary.
.Britain Football Soccer - Tottenham Hotspur v Chelsea - Premier League - White Hart Lane - 4/1/17 Chelsea's Diego Costa Reuters / Dylan Martinez Livep...
Nevertheless, it is a waste of everyone’s time and energy to have to deal with Costa. We are used to him being pointlessly obnoxious on the pitch, and last season he came back from his summer break out of shape, and agitating for a move back to Atletico Madrid. He clearly has no special attachment to remaining in the Premier League, or with Chelsea. Fair enough, he is not paid for sentiment, he is paid to turn up.
It appears that he is no longer able to do that reliably, or rather, he has rarely been able to do that. When he’s focused, he’s brilliant, and when he’s not, you might as well have Wayne Rooney up front for all the good he does. It’s hard, though, to be especially tough on him wanting to leave right now, though. £30 million after taxes is a ludicrous sum of money, and provides security that even the Premier League cannot. The situation will have to be managed for the next six months, when we can assume he will finally leave – it is an avoidable hassle Conte and Chelsea do not need.
Best goal… Andy Carroll
Another player who has had enough of doing his job is Dimitri Payet. As irritating as it is to see people feign injury despite being paid huge sums of cash, it should be remembered that it is rare that clubs, in turn, won’t cut their losses whenever it becomes practical. No wonder, in an atmosphere of grasping and avarice on the sides of many parties, that players aren’t reluctant to look out for themselves.
Payet’s crime is two fold. One, it is reported that he will feign injury to not play, essentially going on strike. Not out of hardship, but simply because he can. Logically, it doesn’t seem especially wrong to withhold labour so that it is properly remunerated – it’s not analogous to a tube strike, for example – this is going on strike to effect a preference. It grates more than Costa’s move, because the sums of money on offer