EPL

Guardiola streak ends, no capital gains for Palace, history for Firmino - Premier League quirky facts

By Sports Desk August 16, 2021

Manchester City saw their main rivals for the Premier League title get off to a flying start on Saturday before the champions stumbled at Tottenham on Sunday.

Son Heung-min continued his phenomenal recent record against City with the only goal, while Pep Guardiola's men drew a blank for a third consecutive game in all competitions. Perhaps there's someone in north London who could help them out with that?

Manchester United and European champions Chelsea revelled back in front of full houses and Liverpool gave newly-promoted Norwich City a reality check.

But those are the bare facts. Let's delve a little deeper to examine some of the quirkier happenings on the Premier League's opening weekend.

Stumbling start for City

Guardiola suggested his stars returning from Euro 2020 and Copa America duty might be undercooked and so it proved. The 1-0 loss at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium puts City in territory they are not used to.

You have to go back to 2008-09 and a 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa for the previous time City lost their opening Premier League fixture.

In that same campaign, Guardiola's fledgling Barcelona tenure got off to an inauspicious start with a reverse against Numancia that indicated little of the treble win that was about to unfold. The Catalan had overseen 11 subsequent opening day wins since then.

Perhaps it was always going to be Spurs who halted his run, Guardiola has now lost more away games against Tottenham (five) in all competitions than any other opponent in his career.

It is also worth considering whether he is chasing the wrong Spurs forward. Only Jamie Vardy (nine) has more than Son's seven goals against City since Guardiola took charge in 2016.

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  • Xavi praises Barca for saving their season as Dembele's potential final game looms Xavi praises Barca for saving their season as Dembele's potential final game looms

    Xavi hailed Barcelona for saving a season that "could have been worse" but wants improvements next term from the Blaugrana, who Ousmane Dembele could play his last game for on Sunday.

    Blaugrana great Xavi was appointed in November as the successor to Ronald Koeman, with Barca languishing in ninth in LaLiga after an underwhelming start to their 2021-22 campaign.

    However, Xavi has reinvigorated Barca as the Catalan giants have climbed up to second in the league, albeit 13 points behind champions Real Madrid with one game left to play.

    Barca conclude their campaign at home to Villarreal, and with second place already secured Xavi praised the recovery his side has made, but urged them to improve to compete with Madrid next season.

    "We have saved a situation that could have been worse," he told reporters at a pre-match news conference on Saturday. "We have gone from less to more. We have competed but it has not given us any reward. We have to win titles. 

    "I don't give myself a grade because whatever is said will be criticised. We have improved a lot. I am the first to demand more from myself. From now on, we will look to improve further.

    "We have to improve in every way – psychologically, physically, which we have already improved, and reinforce the squad with two players per position. And also tactically, so everyone understands our ideas."

    The game against Villarreal could prove to be Dembele's last at Camp Nou as contract negotiations remain ongoing.

    Bayern Munich and Chelsea are reported to be keen on the World Cup-winning winger, whose 11 LaLiga assists in 2022 is more than any other player has registered across Europe's top five leagues.

    Blaugrana president Joan Laporta has reiterated his desire to keep the France international at Barca, and Xavi hailed Dembele for his efforts in the second half of the season.

    "It could be the last. You have to be optimistic. He has played excellent games and when he has not been involved we have noticed," he said of the former Borussia Dortmund player.

    Barca have won their last five games against Villarreal in LaLiga, and could register six wins in a row against them for the first time in the competition.

    However, Xavi expects a tough task when his team host Unai Emery's side, who made it to the Champions League semi-finals this season, where they were defeated by Liverpool.

    "The result will be important. I would like to see a team with good feelings, bravery and finish with the best feelings," he continued.

    "Villarreal is the best team we have faced. They have a lot at stake, and are a difficult opponent. You have to have a personality that the fans come to enjoy. There will be chances and it will be a good show."

    Barca have confirmed Ronald Araujo will return to the squad after recovering from a head injury that caused him to spend a night in hospital following the game against Celta Vigo on May 10.

  • Guardiola suits Brazil and would get the best out of Neymar, says Julio Cesar Guardiola suits Brazil and would get the best out of Neymar, says Julio Cesar

    Pep Guardiola would be an ideal coach for Brazil as his style of play would benefit the likes of Neymar and Vinicius Junior, according to Julio Cesar. 

    Brazil are on the hunt for a new boss with Tite leaving the role after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and Guardiola has been linked with the position.

    The Catalan is under contract at Manchester City, who he could lead to Premier League glory on Sunday, until June 2023 but has previously expressed a desire to move into international management.

    Julio Cesar thinks he would be a great fit for the Selecao as his possession-based approach would help Brazil's most talented players.

    "He has all the qualities to do it. He is one of the best in the world, his style of play is very Brazilian," Julio Cesar told Stats Perform courtesy of Enterprise Rent-A-Car. 

    "Everyone knows that Brazilian players love to keep the ball; the majority of them also play in Europe and they are learning to play better on the pitch.  

    "We have so much quality on the Brazilian national team: Neymar, Raphinha, [Lucas] Paqueta, Vinicius Junior. All these players are very talented and having a manager like Guardiola would give these players the opportunity of playing the ball more. 

    "Every player would love to work with a manager like him. It wouldn't be a bad idea, although we also have really good managers in Brazil. He is a big name in the football world and it wouldn't be a bad thing having him representing our national side. I like the idea." 

    Tite's only previous World Cup campaign with Brazil ended in a quarter-final defeat to Belgium in Russia four years ago. 

    He steered the Selecao to Copa America glory in 2019 but they were unable to defend their title two years later, with Argentina defeating them in the final. 

    Julio Cesar already believes Tite will leave a lasting legacy but has no doubt that leading Brazil to glory in Qatar would achieve him an even higher status. 

    "This is what the World Cup gets you, it will level you up. If you can bring the World Cup to Brazil, you can leave with your head held high, you have done your job," he said. 

    "He won the Copa America in 2019, he got to the final again against Argentina. He did very well so far, even in the [World Cup] qualifiers he got first place ahead of Argentina.

    "He can leave with his head held high, but winning a World Cup with Brazil will take him to the top." 

  • French Open: Swiatek and Alcaraz are killing it on tour, and next step is slam domination French Open: Swiatek and Alcaraz are killing it on tour, and next step is slam domination

    Miami. That's where this started. Where Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek were both champions at the same tournament for the first time.

    Expect it to become, if not the norm, a regular occurrence over the coming years. Like Serena and Roger, and like Pete and Steffi before them, Carlos and Iga could well become the tennis royalty that reign above all others on the tour.

    The 19-year-old Alcaraz heads to Roland Garros with four titles on the ATP tour this season, while 20-year-old Swiatek has five on the WTA circuit. Those are both tour-leading figures, with Alcaraz triumphing in Rio de Janeiro, Miami, Barcelona and Madrid, while Swiatek has won in Doha, Indian Wells, Miami, Stuttgart and Rome.

    It is a global game, and these two are world leaders, based on their recent form. The Miami Open was as recently as April, and now the French Open awaits.

    Swiatek has shown she can win big in Paris already, storming to the title without dropping a set as the world number 54 in October 2020, against all expectations. Nobody, Swiatek included, saw that coming, but the emergence of Alcaraz has been longer heralded, and now that is happening too.


    "Practically unstoppable". "An overwhelming favourite". What the greats say about Swiatek and Alcaraz

    Martina Navratilova, who landed the French Open singles at the height of her career in 1982 and 1984, won 74 consecutive tour matches in the latter year. That puts Swiatek's current streak of 28 into some perspective, albeit the young Pole is just seven away from matching the longest run on the WTA circuit since the start of the year 2000.

    According to Navratilova, the Roland Garros tournament starts with an obvious prime contender.

    "It's Swiatek against the field," she said, describing the Polish player as an "overwhelming favourite".

    "Clearly, the pressure is not bothering her," Navratilova added, as quoted by the WTA website. "She’s just embracing that. It's great to see – when you are the favourite, and you keep on winning."

    When Novak Djokovic lost to Alcaraz in the Madrid semi-finals, the disappointed Serbian said: "He held his nerves very well. For somebody of his age to play so maturely and courageously is impressive."

    This is greatness recognising potential greatness.

    Rafael Nadal had been beaten by Alcaraz in the previous round and accepts there is a changing of the guard in motion.

    "When adrenaline goes up, he's practically unstoppable," Nadal said of his fellow Spaniard, "but then in some moments he commits errors, but it's logical because he plays with a lot of risk. It's his way of playing, and in that sense I think he has the level to be able to win against anyone in the world."


    Handling the pressure, in their own words...

    Swiatek, a natural introvert, travels with psychologist Daria Abramowicz, and is learning on the move how to handle the pressures of life at the top. Winning her last five tournaments points to a remarkable mentality, with Swiatek now firmly established as the WTA number one.

    "I already know that I did some great stuff this season, so I feel like I can just play freely and not think I have to win some tournaments, or I have to win some matches, or I have to save some points," Swiatek said in Rome.

    "This year, the pressure that I always put on myself, it's a little bit lower. For sure the expectations around are higher, but I never had a problem to cut it off and not to think about it. Also I'm gaining experience at that. I think with more and more tournaments, it's going to get better and better for me to cope with all of that."

    Alcaraz, who has become physically mightier in the past 12 months, appears to have the mental steel that a champion requires, albeit he has yet to win one of the four majors.

    He is embracing the hype around his French Open prospects by encouraging title talk.

    In Miami, he said: "This year, I think that people are going to think that I'm going to be one of the favourites to win Roland Garros, but I always said that I have a different view. I don't have it as tension; I have it as a motivation. I really look forward to going to Paris, to fighting for the grand slam, and I am really looking forward to showing my great level in a grand slam too."

    After triumphing in Madrid, he went a step further, telling Tennis TV: "Yes, I think I'm ready to win a grand slam."


    What can they achieve?

    Alcaraz and Swiatek would not be the youngest champion duo in a single edition of the French Open – Michael Chang was 17 years and three months when he triumphed at Roland Garros in 1989, and women's champion Arantxa Sanchez was only three months older.

    They would be the youngest champion pairing this century, however. Currently, the youngest winners at the same French Open in the 21st century are Nadal and Henin, who turned 19 and 23 respectively during the 2005 tournament.

    World number six Alcaraz is a long way off number one in the ATP rankings, but at the start of the year he sat 32nd, an awful long way from sixth spot. He is skipping steps as he races up the ladder and seems destined for the top.

    He sits third in the Race to Turin, which ranks performances in the calendar year rather than on a rolling basis and decides the line-up for the end-of-season ATP Finals. There, Alcaraz is closing on leader Nadal and just a sliver (3,490 to 3,460 points is the margin) behind second-placed Tsitsipas, who has played 11 tournaments to Alcaraz's seven.

    For Swiatek to be champion, she must break the run that has seen eight different women crowned in the last eight years: Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Ash Barty, Swiatek and Barbora Krejcikova.

    The men's singles has been rather more predictable over the same period, with Nadal winning five times, Djokovic twice and Stan Wawrinka once. Nadal in 2005 was the last teenager to scoop the men's title.

    The last woman to truly dominate at Roland Garros was Justine Henin, who won four years out of five from 2003 to 2007.

    Swiatek can make it two from three, and if she reaches the title match, it would be a brave person to back against her given she has won 16 consecutive sets in finals.

    With her five titles already this year, Swiatek is one away from becoming the first woman to beat that total in a season since Serena Williams won seven in 2014.

    She is a red-hot favourite, while Alcaraz is a serious contender. A repeat of Miami would shock nobody who has been paying attention.

    As the Big Three of the men's game begins to break up, and the Williams sisters dot the i's and cross the t's of their careers, the future of tennis looks to be in secure hands.

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