Usually, international breaks are drab; an annoying diversion from the drama of club football. But as 2018 World Cup qualifications came to a head, the international fixtures of past two weeks turned out to be an unforgettable, gladiatorial event. Giants such as Netherlands, USA and Chile failed to qualify while Iceland continued to add pages to their football fairytale. Mohammad Salah scored a last minute penalty to send Egypt to only their third finals in their history, becoming a hero in the process. So when Premier League returned this Saturday, it had a lot to live up to. It didn't disappoint. Well, mostly.
With Liverpool versus Manchester United thrown in the mix right off the bat, you'd think that 'the best league in the world' was flaunting what you'd been missing. But if anyone remembered the very forgettable encounter between the two teams at Anfield last season, they'd be wary. The fixture got Jose Mourinho'd. It was a damp squib, a waste of 90 minutes plus extra time. Mourinho went to Anfield and chose to park the proverbial bus again. Oppositions are tired of being treated as parking lots, but Mourinho won't have it another way.
United had just one attempt on target, Lukaku was invisible and David de Gea single-handedly squeezed a point out of the game. But the fact that Mourinho chose to play it safe even though his team has been in rampaging form, even though Liverpool have been woeful, both up front and in defence, was telling in many ways. The two Mancunian teams are the favourites for the title this year and every gameweek is becoming a statement of sorts. And as statements go, the stalemate United happily played out at Anfield was a tame one. It was not the case that Liverpool were good. They would have managed to get three points if they were. That Mourinho didn't go in for the kill despite the apparent stench of blood at Liverpool is, well, not really surprising. It's Mourinho's thing. It's part of his package: "Get confirmed draws away to top teams free with one year of Jose subscription".
The larger implication of the miserable performance, especially in context of what Manchester City offered, is the understanding that United do not deserve to win the title and, most likely, they won't. Swallow the bitter pill, United fans, Manchester City will win the league. They might as well hand it to them and spare us the debate. Yes, City were hyped after first six games last season as well and then Chelsea refused to lose . But things are different this time. Pep Guardiola has the team he wants. City's 7-2 win over Stoke City was scary. It was the best performance by an English club in the league in ages. Guardiola's team made 894 passes, with 91.3% completion rate and 79.4% possession. That's illegal. And at the centre of the crime was its mastermind, Kevin de Bruyne.
What do you really say about him? How do you come up with a praise that actually matches up with what he has been doing on a football field in recent times? The only statement one can make is blasphemous: based on his current form, De Bruyne is the best footballer on the planet at the moment. Or, you could also say, no one is playing football as good as he is currently. Before one screams Messi and Ronaldo, a reminder that this is not an absolute statement and it has reasonable caveats. Yes it's a blasphemous statement, but if you have been watching Europe's top leagues, you would know it's also empirical.
De Bruyne is the pinnacle of distilled brilliance the game can offer and if anyone has loved football and watched it over a long time, there would be no bigger joy in the sport than to watch him play at the moment. We can throw a bunch of adjectives like majestic, supreme, otherworldly, but they don't come close.
Every time De Bruyne made a diagonal long pass, dissecting Stoke's defence like it was a dead frog on laboratory table, tiny explosions took place in your head. He was involved in almost every goal City scored, every chance they created, every move they made. He was the guy assisting the assists. He was the point on the field and the game was his locus. He was a Rothko painting in a renaissance-era art exhibition: he'd make you stop, look at him twice, scratch your head and say 'this shouldn't be allowed here'.
The most incredible thing about de Bruyne's style is that it is so quintessential and organic. If the Ronaldos and Neymars are the Lamborginis and Ferraris of football, De Bruyne's kind are like the Porsche 911s. This could go on. Guardiola is a lucky, lucky man. No doubt he is transforming how City play and is creating this well-oiled machine that will outpass and outscore every team in the league. No doubt his coaching methods are revolutionary, so much so that Bayern Munich still can't get over him. But in De Bruyne, he has found the perpetual engine to power that machine. In the space of 90 minutes, the two Manchester teams, though separated by only two points, showed that that couldn't be far off from each other. City should win the title, if not for its fans, then just for the triumph of true football; to stand as a vindication and justification for a brand of football that leaves you in awe. They deserve to be champions.
In other news, Harry Kane didn't score. Tottenham edged past Bournemouth, courtesy a Christian Eriksen strike, registering their first league win at Wembley. The gameweek's biggest headline came at Selhurst Park, however. Crystal Palace not only scored a goal but also bagged three points, breaking their seven game-long duck in the league. Trust Chelsea to be the team that helps a brother out in need. With their in-form forward Alvaro Morata sidelined with injury, Chelsea failed to pose a threat upfront in a 2-1 loss. Wilfried Zaha made a spectacular return to Palace and tormented the Chelsea defence throughout the game. His goal just before halftime turned out to be decisive as Chelsea failed to launch a comeback in the second half. The third loss of the season puts Antonio Conte's team considerably off the pace in the league and out of the top four too.
Speaking of top four, guess who's in it? Marco Silva's Watford. Their stunning season continued, as they came from a goal down to sink Arsenal 2-1. Silva is proving his mettle as a top manager, week in week out. Watford now sit fourth on the table, just two points behind Spurs and two above Chelsea, Arsenal, Burnley and Liverpool. Arsenal had been resurgent since their hammering at the hands of Liverpool early on the season, but the latest slip only comes as reminder of problems that persist within. Mesut Ozil had a great opportunity to come off the bench and silence his critics, but he missed an easy chance to put Arsenal in the lead. Tom Cleverly, who scored the winner for Watford, said after the game that he "smelled a little bit of blood" in Arsenal. That's really not how you want your team to smell. Could Watford continue their quest and upset the establishment by finishing top four this season? Let's not jinx it right now. Let us allow Silva to continue the fine job he has been doing and not ask him about Champions League plans for next season.
Speaking of jobs, Ronald Koeman probably owes his to Wayne Rooney. Everton were down and almost out against new-comers and lightweights Brighton and Hove Albion. But the golden boy came to the rescue with a confident penalty just before the final whistle. Koeman is walking a fine line between employment and unemployment and a loss could have shoved him towards the wrong side. The gameweek closed out on Monday night in stark contrast to how it began on Saturday at Anfield as Southampton and Newcastle United played out an excellent 2-2 draw. More a tightly-paced drama than an edge-of-the-seat thriller, the game was a classic Premier League presentation. Nothing can be as Premier League as two mid-table teams fighting till the last minute, sharing the points and remaining mid-table.
The Champions League gameweek is back. And for all the talk and praise, it is here that the top English teams have a chance to truly impress. There have been talks of an English resurgence in competition and few good performances have backed that claim. But this week offers a chance to gauge where English teams truly stand as Spurs face Real Madrid, City take on Napoli and Chelsea host Roma. Time to sink or swim.
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Updated Date: Oct 17, 2017 16:29:55 IST