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European football talking points: United continue winning run under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Barcelona extend lead and more

With the German Bundesliga and the Italian Serie A yet to wake up from their winter slumber, the spotlight was on the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga in the weekend, as heavyweights huffed and puffed their way through a difficult schedule.

The headlines leading up to the Gameweek had been stolen by Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, who admitted that he spied on his opposition, but football took the centre stage again when Arsenal were held to a draw by West Ham United early on Saturday. It wasn't all bad news for the Premier League big guns though, with leaders Liverpool and fourth-placed Chelsea, edging Brighton and Newcastle respectively to keep their season up and running.

In La Liga, a Philippe Coutinho-inspired Barcelona defeated Eibar 3-0 to open up a five-point lead on top of the table. Sevilla's 2-0 defeat to Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid's 2-1 away win against Real Betis meant the Los Blancos are now tied on points with the Seville-side.

The biggest victory of the weekend went to Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer though, who overcame a tough challenge from Tottenham Hotspur to maintain a six-match winning streak — the first time a newly-appointed manager has done that at United.

Ole, United!

Anthony Martial running at defenders, Marcus Rashford excelling as a forward and Paul Pogba picking passes like plucking apples off a tree. Surely, this is a dream? Manchester United are playing like a side who have their freedom back, after being stifled for the longest time by Jose Mourinho. Solskjaer's United play for the win, and against Spurs, they came with a plan to counter-attack with speed. While the home team dominated the early parts of the first half, United grew into the game, largely due to the pace offered by the front three of Martial, Jesse Lingard and Rashford.

Lingard squandered an early opportunity that fell his way in the first half, but Pogba's inch-perfect through ball, after latching on to a mistake by Kieran Trippier, found Rashford in space and the England international showed age-defying composure to slot it past Hugo Lloris to give United the lead.

Spurs threw the kitchen sink at United in the second half but David de Gea was having one of those possessed days as the Spanish number one blocked everything that came his way to ensure a cleansheet.

Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino was not helped by the injury crisis that has hit his already thin squad. He started the match with the likes of Victor Wanyama, Eric Dier and Lucas Moura not available and ended with Moussa Sissoko and Harry Kane added to the list. Will this prompt Spurs into some transfer activities in January?

Barcelona mid-season favourites to win La Liga

Barcelona have a five-point lead on top of the La Liga table and certainly look the team in form as the league enters the second half of the campaign. The Catalunya-side cruised to a 3-0 victory against Eibar at Camp Nou in the weekend thanks to a brace from Luis Suarez and a goal by Lionel Messi, while their chasers struggled to shake off the winter-induced inertia. Atletico Madrid kept pace in chase through a 1-0 victory over Levante thanks to a 57th-minute penalty by Antoine Griezmann but Sevilla missed their big chance as they lost to Basque side Athletic Bilbao.

Real Madrid (yes, remember them?) have clawed their way into the fourth position on the league table and are level on points with third-placed Sevilla. The Los Blancos' latest victory came against Real Betis. With the January transfer window open, Real Madrid might plunge into the market for some reinforcements with some stars set to leave the team. Isco looks likely to move away after not featuring in current manager Santiago Solari’s plans. A move to the Premier League on the cards?

Sarrismo needs to start firing

We've been saying this week after week but something needs to change at Chelsea if they are to be taken seriously in the title race. Maurizio Sarri had promised at the beginning of his Chelsea career that his method of football a.k.a Sarriball/Sarrismo would take around three-four months for his players to fully understand. But after an unexpectedly bright start to the season, Chelsea have looked toothless and one-dimensional in their approach this season. Every team in the Premier League knows Jorginho is the key to Sarriball and they have begun man-marking the Italian out of the game, thereby not letting Chelsea dictate the tempo.

Surprisingly, 22 games into the season, Sarri still has no answer to what his team will do when the opposition shadows their pass-master. They also managed to sell Cesc Fabregas, the only capable deputy, to Monaco without signing a replacement. The Italian manager's problem doesn’t end there though. Alvaro Morata has been sulking on the pitch without actually scoring big while Olivier Giroud hasn't been able to impress Sarri either. With no strikers to choose from, Sarri has entrusted the job on Eden Hazard who clearly dislikes playing as a false nine.

Against Newcastle, Chelsea were lucky to secure a 2-1 victory, but the Blues are bound to struggle against sides who can sustain a high-press and shadow Jorignho, especially with the lack of pace in Chelsea's defence. Nick the ball off Jorginho, make a through pass into space for a pacy forward to run into, and Chelsea have a problem.

A not-so-young-anymore Gonzalo Higuain transfer might raise a few eyebrows in the football transfer world but this team surely needs a striker who can finish and also free Hazard from his false-nine duties. Getting Higuain will just be the football equivalent of sticking tape to prevent a leak on a sinking boat though. The problems are bigger at Chelsea and it will definitely take two or three successful transfer markets to build the side capable of playing the Sarrismo. Throw the cash, Roman!

Unai's big test

Unai Emery was the hero at Arsenal until a month ago. The perfect heir to Arsene Wenger's throne! We even wrote about how Arsenal's well-oiled attack was winning over the fans. Emery led the Gunners to a 22-match unbeaten run, but the good patch ended abruptly against Southampton in December and it has been downhill for the club ever since. Emery's men also featured in a draw with a struggling Brighton side, a disappointing defeat against Tottenham in the League Cup and an implosion at Anfield against Liverpool in December. And things haven't looked better in the New Year.

The weekend's defeat against West Ham United exposed Arsenal's defensive frailties once again. The usually reliant attack also didn't turn up against the Hammers, failing to score for the first time since the opening weekend.

Unfortunately for Emery, the solution isn't the January transfer window after admitting he has funds for only loans signings this month. Arsenal have gotten themselves into a messy deal with Mesut Ozil who enjoys a fat contract but did not even merit a place on the bench against West Ham which contained 19-year-old forward Eddie Nketiah and three full-backs. A change in philosophy with more protection for the defence then?

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Updated Date: Jan 14, 2019 11:15:48 IST

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