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Pat Nevin: Opportunities and options

With his Anfield analysis and the chance to speculate on the Swansea game, there is plenty for former Blue Pat Nevin to write about in this week’s column…


Sunday was a pretty difficult game to get your head around, not just during it but afterwards as well.

Liverpool seemed completely in control for a couple of short periods and then Chelsea as a team appeared to turn on the afterburners at will and take over. It left the feeling that two points were lost even though it was a game at Anfield, we were behind until the dying minutes and our players had just been on a quick tour around a fairly decent chunk of the planet in the days leading up to it.

In the widest sense, it was a decent result of course, especially with Spurs slipping up in what was an easier-looking fixture, but somewhere in the back of the mind you thought Liverpool were there for the taking.

Once again, for about the umpteenth time, Antonio made some changes that affected the game positively at the end. Willian came on to get the equaliser but the impact of Cesc Fabregas totally spun the game on its axis. After his introduction, Liverpool could do nothing to stop him controlling the match and five more minutes of play would probably have been enough for him to secure us the points.

Now I know what you are thinking, maybe he could have started and done that from the beginning of the game, and there might be a point there. It is however important to know that this game, and indeed every game, opens up and space becomes easier to find the longer it goes on. It might be that when a fresh Cesc is playing against a tiring opposition, it makes his difference in quality that much more pronounced.

As an old-school attack-loving player it was great for me to see Willian, Eden, Cesc, Alvaro and Pedro all tearing into Liverpool at the same time, even if it was only for part of the game. Once again, it showed the spirit the manager desires is back with a vengeance within the group.  Willian obviously deserves fantastic praise for his reaction to his recent opportunities. Last week on this page I wrote: ‘Willian and Pedro have done nothing wrong, are in fine form and do not get as many opportunities to start. They are however still vital because there will be injuries, some games will demand different methods (3-4-3 will be utilised again) and of course those substitute appearances can be, and usual are critical for Antonio. Do not be surprised if either of those two are integral to results in the next few games, whether they start or not.’ 

Well the Brazilian certainly hasn’t let me down. 

With the block of games coming up being very winnable, Willian in particular will be desperate to have a few more chances to keep his scoring run going. For all that his goal, lucky or not, against Liverpool was important, I think the biggest moment of the game came from Mohamed Salah and I am not talking about his goal. Mo is playing very well and I appreciated his respectful reaction after scoring, but it was his foul on Eden Hazard that slowed our talisman down.

Before that tackle, Eden was absolutely on fire. The level he was playing at was right up there with the best I have ever seen from him. The entire opposition team looked like they were wearing lead boots in his presence and the only useful thing they could do with those lead boots was try to kick him. It was a masterclass of skill and balance and he must have hips of cast iron considering the stresses he puts on them with those turns. I speak with a little inside knowledge here, I made some extreme twists and turns in my time I think, and I now have two (perfectly functioning) metal hips for my troubles!

After Salah’s kick, Eden was clearly hampered and I have to say I was devastated for him. He was clearly in peak form and peak fitness with absolutely nothing troubling him. It is amazing how unusual that is for a footballer, who usually has some little niggle affecting him somewhere in his body. Even if it is just a strapped-up ankle that no one outside the dressing room knows about, it can have a little effect. For Eden until that kick, he looked completely free and flying. It also helped that he was playing more centrally so was getting on the ball constantly, but it all looked so easy for him.

I hope it was just a short-term knock that will be cleared up by tomorrow and if it is, I almost feel sorry for Swansea. Almost but not quite.

So once again Antonio has a whole bunch of difficult decisions to make. Can you drop Willian after his last two performances? If you play him, do you the drop the 3-5-2 formation? Can you even think of starting without Cesc, but he doesn’t always start if we change to a 3-4-3 to suit Willian.

Fortunately, these are not actually problems; they are opportunities and different options, any of which might just work as well as the others do when playing at home. Davide Zappacosta was once again an impressive menace on the right-hand side but you can’t think about that team performance without considering Cesar Azpilicueta. He was immense throughout.

So though Man United won again, and I went to see Man City squeeze by Huddersfield on Sunday, it still in the end feels like a positive week. Through in the Champions League with a game to spare, a late equaliser at one of the most difficult trips in any season at Anfield, but more importantly a whole host of players playing at or about their best, in a team that has rediscovered its form.

Between now and Christmas there are a huge number of games all in quick succession. We have something close to a full squad, most in good form and improving, so it is a good place to be. The Manchester clubs may have a points advantage just now, but there will be some nervous looks over their shoulders if this form continues.