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What we learned this weekend: Why Mario Mandžukic, not Cristiano Ronaldo, is Juventus' big-game MVP

By Tom Bodell, Football Whispers

A hectic festive period got underway at the weekend and there were thrills and spills aplenty across Europe.

Liverpool were the big winners in the Premier League, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0 on Friday before watching Manchester City fall to their second defeat of the season, 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace. That leaves Jürgen Klopp’s side four points clear at the summit.

Those of a red persuasion in Manchester had cause for celebration on Saturday as interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær began his tenure with a 5-1 win at former side Cardiff City.

On the continent, Juventus overcame AS Roma 1-0 to strengthen their grip at on top spot while FC Bayern are up to second in Germany. They still trail Borussia Dortmund by six points after BVB overcame Borussia Mönchengladbach, though.

But what did we learn from a breathless weekend of action?

Eagles soar to prove Manchester City are fallible

Last season Pep Guardiola’s side did not suffer a Premier League defeat until the new year, finally going down 4-3 at Anfield in a game for the ages. But this year they have faltered after a remarkable start, losing two of their last three.

Worse still, they lost a Premier League game on their own turf for the first time since a 3-2 defeat to rivals Manchester United in April. The fact that defeat was against Crystal Palace was something no-one could have predicted.

There could be little denying Palace rode their luck. Andros Townsend’s 35th-minute strike to put the Eagles in front was truly remarkable and will likely win Goal of the Season. But Palace deserve credit for taking the game to their hosts who had 78 per cent of the ball and 19 attempts on goal.

Tellingly, though, City only hit the target with five – two more than their visitors – while they slung in 30 open-play crosses, not something one would usually associate with the Premier League champions.

“The first time they passed halfway – it was wow, a goal,” Guardiola said afterwards. “Second time too. I want to give credit to Palace and I don't underestimate what they have done, but that is football sometimes.”

The Catalan clearly felt Palace’s success had an element of fortune about it, but he will privately be fuming and determined to eradicate any weaknesses he saw in his side.

Ousmane Dembélé becoming increasingly vital for Barça

It was not that long ago that the jury was well and truly out on Dembélé. The French winger, who was signed as Neymar’s replacement last summer, endured a difficult first season at the Camp Nou following his $120million switch from Borussia Dortmund with injuries preventing him from settling.

But this season the 21-year-old has come into his own and has seven goals from just 11 LaLiga starts. Crucially, four of those strikes have yielded points for the Blaugrana, in wins over Real Valladolid, Real Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano, while his last-gasp effort at Atlético de Madrid stole a point from a title rival. He was at it again on Saturday, scoring the opener in a 2-0 win over Celta de Vigo.

In fact, in his last ten games in all competitions Dembélé has contributed five goals and three assists for the reigning champions. Dembélé is second among LaLiga attackers for successful take-ons per 90 (3.29), third for open play key passes (2.06) and third for big chances created (0.56).

By joining Barça last summer, Dembélé became the third-most expensive player of all time behind Neymar and countryman Kylian Mbappé. Perhaps it was a level of expectation he was not yet ready for. Regardless, this season he has shown he can burden the kind of responsibility which comes with that kind of price tag.

Forget Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandžukić is Juventus’ MVP

Since moving to Turin from Real Madrid in the summer, Cristiano Ronaldo has, unsurprisingly, stolen the headlines. Rightly so, the Portuguese has made a flying start to his Juve career with 11 goals and five assists from 17 starts.

However, when the Bianconeri need someone to come up big for them they’ve got just the man to do: Mario Mandžukić. The Croatian is perhaps the first of his kind, a wide targetman, pairing his frame and physical attributes with guile and technical ability.

Mandžukić has been Juventus’ man for the big moment this season, netting winners against Parma, Valencia, Inter and now AS Roma, heading in the only goal of the game in Saturday’s big Serie A showdown at the Allianz Stadium.

The Croatian was similarly reliable in the crunch moments last season, scoring winners against Fiorentina and Sporting Lisbon as well as notching twice at the Santiago Bernabéu in that unforgettable UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg.

At 32 he is the old warhorse of Juve’s front line but his contribution shows no sign of diminishing. He had already bettered last season’s goal tally with nine Serie A strikes but is also ranked eighth the league for accurate pull-backs per 90 (0.07), 11th for aerial duels won (3.37) and ninth for tackles (1.49).

Other things you may have missed

  • Harry Kane has something of a toffee addiction – thankfully for Tottenham Hotspur it’s not the candy that he’s fond of, rather Everton. Kane has bagged twice in each of his last four games against the Toffees, including a double in the 6-2 trashing of the Merseysiders on Sunday.
  • FC Bayern are almost as dangerous when they’re trailing as they are when way out in front. They will end 2018 six points behind Borussia Dortmund but only after a fifth straight league win, courtesy of a brace from Franck Ribéry – the Frenchman becoming the oldest Bayern player to net twice at 35 years and 259 days.
  • It’s the stat which has haunted Arsenal all season but, finally, they went into half time in the lead against Burnley on Saturday. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal, which makes him the division’s top scorer, gave the Gunners the advantage at the break and they went on to win 3-1.
  • Across the North London divide, Heung-min Son continued his rich vein of form with a double in the demolition of Everton. He’s now contributed to 50 goals (35 goals and 15 assists) in 112 Tottenham appearances.

 

READ MORE: THREE STARS – SON, RIBÉRY OR BENTANCUR?

 
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