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Liverpool on the charge as Manchester United stumble, Aguero awesome

Liverpool on the charge as Manchester United stumble, Aguero awesome


It was in Nashville, last July, when Pep Guardiola excitingly revealed that Manchester City's capture of Benfica goalkeeper Ederson had ended a two-year wait to work with the Brazilian.

Ederson had endured a bumpy start to his City career following his £37.4 million transfer, with the 24-year-old making a high-profile mistake in his first game, the International Champions Cup clash against Manchester United in Houston, when he raced out of his penalty area and missed the ball in a challenge with Romelu Lukaku prior to the Belgian scoring his first goal for Jose Mourinho's team.

Having been criticised and ridiculed in equal measure for parachuting the ill-equipped Claudio Bravo into the City team 12 months earlier, to replace England keeper Joe Hart, Ederson's error in Houston suggested that Guardiola had erred again in his recruitment of a goalkeeper.

But with City still on course for an unprecedented quadruple as they prepare to resume their Champions League campaign with a round of 16 first-leg tie against FC Basel in Switzerland on Tuesday, nobody is questioning Guardiola's judgement of goalkeepers now.

Not only has Ederson solved City's problem between the posts, he has arguably rewritten the goalkeeping rulebook by transforming how the role is now perceived.

When Peter Schmeichel arrived at Manchester United in 1991, the Dane had a similar impact on the goalkeeping discipline, with his unique style, both in terms of making saves and using his long throw to launch rapid counter-attacks, becoming the norm.

Managers and coaches set out to find keepers capable of performing like Schmeichel, yet none could match his presence and persona.

Ederson is now showing the ability to be as influential as Schmeichel -- he would go a long way to doing that if he helps City win all four trophies this season -- and part of that is rooted in Guardiola's excitement at having signed him last May.

While speaking in Nashville, ahead of City's ICC encounter with Tottenham, Guardiola revealed that he had monitored Ederson's progress ever since his Bayern Munich team came up against the youngster while playing for Benfica during the 2015-16 Champions League quarterfinal.

Guardiola was so taken aback by Ederson's distribution, particularly his kicking, that he and his Bayern coaches spent an hour attempting to devise a plan to nullify his ability to transform defence into attack with one powerful left-foot punt.

Bayern's superior quality ultimately told, but it was a close-run thing, with Benfica only losing out 3-2 on aggregate.

Ederson's kicking was a big factor in their ability to hurt Bayern and Guardiola noted the potentially game-changing advantage of having a goalkeeper with the same ability.

Bravo did not work out as planned, the Chile international too extravagant and careless with the ball at his feet last season, but the principle was the same -- Guardiola wanted a keeper to sweep up at the back and initiate attacking moves and that need became even greater at the end his first season as a manager in the Premier League, when he realised that a more direct and targeted approach was needed by his team.

Ederson ticks both boxes emphatically, with official Premier League statistics showing that he has made 32 sweeper-clearances so far this season -- more than any other keeper in the league, which is an achievement considering City's dominance at the other end of the pitch.

For the record, that is four more than second-placed Hugo Lloris and 12 more than Petr Cech in third position in that particular table.

David De Gea, who tops the clean sheet ladder with 15 (four more than Ederson), has only made five sweeper-clearances -- a number which highlights one key difference between Manchester's two first-choice keepers.

Ederson also out-scores De Gea with throw-outs, with 124 to 97, again underlining the distribution qualities demanded by Guardiola.

And with the ball at his feet, Ederson also does the job demanded by his manager, with an average of 25.7 passes per game and 104 accurate long balls this season.

Keeping the ball out of the net is, ultimately, the primary quality required by every goalkeeper and Ederson has conceded just 20 goals in 27 Premier League appearances.

Yet when the individual awards are voted for in the coming weeks, it will be the likes of City teammates Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane who will dominate the polling. Ederson has earned his admirers, but it is the goal scorers and creators who are most likely to earn recognition.

But to win the major honours, all teams need something that marks them out from the rest and Ederson gives City the X-factor required to win big.

There is not another goalkeeper like him in Europe and his talents could be the crucial difference that City need to beat the rest in the Champions League.

It is little wonder that Guardiola was so enthused by the signing of Ederson last summer. They City manager knew back then that he had secured the services of a player who take his team to the very top.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

Rounding up the best and worst of the Premier League action over the weekend.

Goal of the weekend

At first glance it was one of those where you thought the keeper might have done better. The ball flew in right over Kasper Schmeichel's head, and given his previous errors in the game it would be easy to point the finger at him. But when you watch Sergio Aguero's thunderous fourth goal for Manchester City in Saturday's 5-1 mauling of Leicester, you'll see that the ball was hit with such dip and power that Schmeichel actually had no chance. Not many can strike a ball like him.

Assist of the weekend

Liverpool might have been a touch disappointed they didn't beat Southampton by more than 2-0 on Sunday, but if it was panache you're looking for then look no further than Roberto Firmino's flamboyant back flick for Mohamed Salah's strike. Impudent, showboating, damn entertaining, but most importantly, brilliantly incisive.

Prediction of the weekend

With six more wins required to confirm themselves as champions, it would take an act of God to stop Manchester City at this stage. Beneath them, though, it's all up for grabs. Most have thought Manchester United would take second place, and for much of the season they have justified that to a point, a relatively grim accumulation of points leaving them clear of the rest.

But the way things are going, they might not stay there. United weren't calamitously bad against Newcastle but were still beaten by a team that was in the relegation zone at the start of play. United haven't been in dazzling form recently, to say the least, winning four of their last nine: not a calamitous run, but neither one that will put any sort of fear into their rivals.

Liverpool, on the other hand, have matched Manchester City over the last 10 games, and are now only two points behind United. So here's a prediction: Liverpool will finish second in the Premier League, or at least above United. At the very least, the match between the two on March 10 looks like a spicy affair.

Resurrection of the weekend

A few months ago, it wouldn't have been the most outrageous conclusion to more or less write off Mousa Dembele. Certainly to say he would never return to his imperious best, constant injuries having taken their toll. Mauricio Pochettino was apparently worried about the same: at least part of the reason for his extended interest in Ross Barkley was that he suspected Dembele's best days were behind him.

But to watch Dembele strut around the Wembley pitch on Saturday as Tottenham thrashed Arsenal 1-0 (if such a thing is possible) was to watch a man return to his peak. At his best, getting the ball off Dembele is like trying to extricate fluff from Velcro: frustrating and impossible. That's what he did to Arsenal this weekend.

Unsurprisingly, Pochettino is convinced again. "For me he is a genius," he said, "an unbelievable player."

Big-game player of the weekend

His team may have been given a hiding, but Jamie Vardy continued his extraordinary record against the Premier League's big six. His strike against Manchester City means he has scored past all six this season, taking his total to 23 in 43 appearances since Leicester were promoted in 2014.

Manager of the weekend

Four wins in seven league games for Swansea since Carlos Carvalhal arrived. That's one more than Paul Clement managed in his 20 at the helm this term. It's easy to be distracted by his eccentric analogies (something about putting meat on the barbecue this time -- don't ask), but over the last month or so there hasn't been a better manager in the Premier League.

Debut of the weekend

Ask your average football fan who Newcastle's first-choice goalkeeper this season was, and chances are most wouldn't know. Which isn't that surprising: even Rafa Benitez didn't seem to know, giving Rob Elliot 16 starts and Karl Darlow 10.

The answer might be slightly easier now, though. Martin Dabrovka learned he would be playing against Manchester United only a couple of hours before kick-off, and perhaps that's why he made such a confident debut between the Newcastle sticks, having been given little time to get nervous.

It wasn't the saves he made -- though they were excellent -- but more his assertiveness coming for crosses and generally commanding his area that were impressive. "Often new players can be a bit shy," Newcastle captain and defender Jamaal Lascelles said after the game. "But even in training he's been bossing people about a bit." It showed.

Childhood frustration of the day

The Ayews haven't played together since Jordan left Marseille in 2014. Now together again at Swansea, there was a moment in their win over Burnley when Andre possibly wished he had stayed at West Ham.

Jordan ran into the area from the right, less than a yard from the byline, with Andre in the middle, a few yards from goal. The cross was the sensible option, but Jordan instead tried a toe-punted shot that was never going to go in. And we all saw a flashback to their youth, the impudent younger sibling refusing to pass to his older brother. Andre, we've all been there.

Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.