On a day uncertainty reigned in England as the nation prepared to go back into lockdown, the Premier League returned to something resembling normality.
Three of the teams expected to contend for the title — Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool — all picked up wins in back-to-back fixtures on Saturday. There was also the familiar sight of Liverpool, the defending champion, back atop the standings thanks to a late goal that is becoming its trademark.
Diogo Jota came off the bench and scored in the 85th minute to earn Liverpool a hard-fought 2-1 victory over West Ham, extending the team’s unbeaten record in league play at Anfield to 63 games — tied for the longest streak in the club's history.
That’s a goal in three straight games for Jota, an offseason signing who is giving an extra edge to Liverpool’s attack. It is needed given the team’s troubles in defense.
Somewhat bizarrely, the defending champions lead the league — by three points from Everton, having played one game extra — despite having the worst defense in the division after conceding 15 goals so far.
The latest goal Liverpool let in was avoidable, too, with Joe Gomez heading a clearance straight at Pablo Fornals, who drove a finish into the bottom corner in the 10th minute.
Mohamed Salah equalized for Liverpool from the penalty spot just before halftime after he was tripped by Arthur Masuaku. That lifted Salah to seven goals, one behind the league’s top scorer, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min.
Jota’s winner came about the same time British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was announcing a four-week lockdown in England, starting from Thursday. The Premier League will be allowed to carry on — matches are already being played without fans, and with players undergoing regular testing — so the much-anticipated meeting between Man City and Liverpool will go ahead as scheduled next weekend.
City might be starting to find some form after a difficult start.
A well-controlled 1-0 win at Sheffield United saw City return to the top half of the standings and stay five points behind Liverpool, with a game in hand. Kyle Walker was the scorer against his boyhood team.
Chelsea followed that with a 3-0 win at Burnley — secured through goals by Hakim Ziyech, Kurt Zouma and Timo Werner — and moved into the top four.
The opening six rounds of the Premier League were marked by lots of goals, and even more bizarre score lines — including Liverpool’s 7-2 loss at Aston Villa and City’s 5-2 home defeat to Leicester.
Things might be starting to normalize, though.
Kyle Walker still supports Sheffield United, the club where he was an academy product after joining as a 7-year-old and also where he signed his first professional contract in 2008.
There was another reason the Manchester City right back didn’t celebrate his winner at Bramall Lane.
“My Mum and Dad live here,” he said, “so if I celebrated they would have probably have got a lot of stick!”
It was a brilliant goal, too, with the England right back controlling a square pass from Kevin De Bruyne, driving forward and smashing a low, 30-meter (yard) shot into the bottom corner.
City dominated possession, especially in the first half, but again lacked a cutting edge without a natural striker while Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are out injured.
While City slowly climbs the standings after starting the season a week after the majority of teams and following its early loss to Leicester, Sheffield United stayed in the relegation zone after this sixth loss in seven games so far.
STARTING TO CLICK
Chelsea’s offseason spending spree is starting to bear fruit. The clean sheets are coming in their droves and the remodeled attack is also starting to fire.
Ziyech has started the last two games after recovering full fitness following his move from Ajax and has scored in both of them, including the first goal against Burnley at Turf Moor with a low drive from the edge of the box.
Werner, another summer signing, completed the win with a curling finish after running onto a pass from Ziyech and now has four goals in his last five games.
In between, Zouma — a center back — scored a powerful header for his third goal in the league already.
Chelsea has kept four straight clean sheets, which will delight manager Frank Lampard following criticism about his ability to set up a defense. The reassuring presence of goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and experienced center back Thiago Silva, two more new signings, is helping in that regard.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80