Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao

 

If ever you could say a club are doing a ‘go unnoticed’ challenge at the moment, then it’s Arsenal. The Gunners have won nine successive games in all competitions, have the second-best attack so far, have won four straight away games for the first in almost two years, have racked up 60% of their away league goals of last season, and are just two points off the top of the table. Yet Unai Emery’s men have hardly graced the spotlight, operating in the shadows, unnoticed but effective.

Perhaps there is a fair amount of reasoning to that. The Gunners are still adapting to life under Emery and the sense of building up expectation this early is still very much ill-advised. But life under Emery is going well so far, and there’s a different feel to things as an Arsenal fan, no sense of dread at the expected fatalism that’s bound to come, rather than continuing to dive into the unknown with a sense of adventure and excitement.

There’s no building angst for home games, and away matches are not approached with a defeatist atmosphere even before kick-off, as it had been for some time in the past. Players have also spoke of the increased intensity in training, which has shown in matches, and there’ also being improvements in forms of players, the likes of Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi finding their feet after an almost regressive stagnation last term.

There’s always the check on Arsenal’s form, on the point that the defence still looks very much shaky, and has only kept two clean sheets so far. Plus, there’s the fact that for all of Arsenal’s improvements, they’ve hardly completely convincing, and the highest-placed side they’ve beaten in the league so far are ninth-placed Watford; the two games in which they’ve come up against teams whose levels they aim to get to, they’ve suffered defeat, played off the park on home soil by Manchester City on the opening day, before looking defensively haphazard at Chelsea a week after.

So, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The Gunners host Leicester on Monday night, and with the glass half-empty perspective of their form meaning that every win so far has come with at least an ounce of ‘yeah, but’, this is not the time to slack off. Because nobody expects the problems that have dogged Arsenal to be gone after just four months, wins will still be met with scepticism for now, and failures to attain victory will be followed up by derisive snorts of ‘see, there you go’.

But right now, the Gunners should continue to go about their business quietly and away from the limelight. Operating in the shadows hasn’t failed them so far, and the chance of a perfect ten looms very large.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s a return to Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho, as he takes his squad on another save-the-boss quest, this time in a trip to the capital. Whether their comeback win over Newcastle was a form of defeating defiance or a turning point will certainly get more evidence, as they face a Chelsea side with a number 10 in absurdly good form.
  • Sit back and ignore them and check the scores after, or see them on the goal rush, it’s the first six-pointers of the season. First off, bottom-placed Cardiff host fourth from bottom Fulham, with the Welsh side still seeking their first win of the season; a clash of lacklustre attack against leaky defence. Then the other is the clash between Newcastle, second from bottom, host Brighton, six points ahead of the Toon.

 

  • Sticking with the bottom-dwellers, Southampton are winless in five league games, losing four, their only win of the season coming in a game where they managed to be so poor yet won at Crystal Palace. The Saints visit sixth-placed Bournemouth (can’t believe that was mentioned so casually), and a defeat at the Vitality stadium will surely see the start building on Mark Hughes at the South Coast… or maybe not.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Leicester

Chelsea v Manchester United

Everton v Crystal Palace

Bournemouth v Southampton

Wolves v Watford

Huddersfield v Liverpool

Manchester City v Burnley

Cardiff v Fulham

Newcastle United v Brighton

West Ham v Tottenham

 


No retirement. No injury. Just a case been taken out of the firing line for a while. John Obi Mikel still waits in the wings, like a sort of Captain Nigeria, shield in hand, waiting for the phone to ring, signalling a call from Gernot Rohr to get going again. To thrust himself back into the thick of national action once more.

But the Super Eagles have been getting by without the skipper, without the man who’s been part of the national furniture for more than a decade. In recent past, on good days, our traits have been die-hard commitment, and an unyielding never-say-die attitude, partly because the fans demand that, and also because we lack creative nous; until lately, with the – whisper it quietly – positional re-invention of Alex Iwobi.

The Arsenal man has spent most of his time with the national side deployed out wide, the result being mostly minimal, cutting inside and shooting has never been his ilk, neither has it been running at defenders, skipping past them and delivering an inch-perfect cross. Lately, he seems to have found his most effective base of operations, as the playmaker, the man positioned beside the centre-forward but given the license to roam and drift, looking for the perfect pass rather than running in behind, or running at opponents from out wide.

Iwobi is certainly the biggest winner from Rohr’s shift from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, especially with the presence of two more robust midfielders shielding him most defensive responsibility, reducing his need his track back, something he’d have to do if he was used as a winger, something neither he nor the team would really have benefitted from.

But with Rohr having stated that there’s more than a window for the return of Mikel, what happens when Mikel does return? His presence in the side as the skipper, his ability to galvanise and mobilise the side is – truth be told – underrated, and in his absence, Ahmed Musa has played the role of player more often than that of leader, hence the return of the regular captain is a bonus. But someone would have to be the fall guy when the Tianjin Teda man does make his way back into the fold.

If Rohr opts to stick with the 4-2-3-1 when Mikel returns, then that leaves Oghenekaro Etebo perhaps the most likely to drop out of the eleven. Etebo has had a sticky patch of late, playing far below his usual self in both Libya games, and would make the most sense as the fall guy should Mikel return. But on his day, especially with two less attacking-minded midfielders with him, Etebo can offer a threat going forward, and his seeming tirelessness means he can bomb on to and fro both ends, like a mathematical equation of pseudo-defensive midfielder plus pseudo-attacking midfielder equalling the perfect man in the middle.

So, does Rohr go to a 4-3-3 and keep Etebo and Mikel in the side? It’s worked when it’s been done, so it’s far from a far-fetched idea. But deploying that formation means dropping Iwobi to the bench, or shafting him to the wings, where he’s usually ineffectual, and robbing the side of a more incisive wide-man, particularly with Rohr’s current setup apparently restricting the full-backs’ attacking plays. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and Iwobi enjoying himself in that No. 10 role is reaping dividends all across the attack.

A three-man midfield and Iwobi in the hole in front of them could also work, something of a 4-3-1-2, with all of Mikel, Etebo, and Wilfried Ndidi playing alongside Iwobi. But that means the full-back have to spend most of the time bursting lungs from one of the end of the pitch to the other, and, perhaps most crucially, means the midfielders have to drift wide much more often, and can Etebo and Mikel (the most likely to be required to fill those roles) really do that?

It’s the kind of conundrum that Rohr is likely to find himself in come the future, but does it have to be a bad thing? The presence of these sort of potential questions also means the tendency for tactical flexibility increases.

For now, though, it’s a case watching Iwobi flourish, and seeing the rest of team benefit from it. Rohr will cross that Mikel bridge when he gets to it.


If Odion Ighalo had some semblance of pettiness in him, he’d start holding us to his goals. The forward who’s been much-maligned, particularly due to his misses in the World Cup in Russia, has taken Nigeria to the cusp of a first Nations Cup appearance in six years, contributing five of the Super Eagles’ seven goals (over 70%) in the double header over Libya.

If Ighalo had been previously accused of not coming to the party in an Eagles shirt (and four goals between 2015 and 2017 means those accusations are not so wide of the mark), then on Tuesday’s second leg against the Mediterranean Knights it was the rest of the team who failed to RSVP coach Gernot Rohr’s call to remain focused and not rest on the laurels of Saturday’s win, slacking off and blowing away a two-goal lead, before the Changchun Yatai forward rescued the points late on.

Ighalo then came out to speak on the amount of stick he received after Nigeria were knocked out of the World Cup by Russia less four months ago.  ‘They said a lot of things’ said the former Watford striker. ‘To my innocent kids, to my wife, even to the extent they threatened my life and the life of my family’. Death threats. Ighalo is the latest line of footballers to suffer from this and yet carry on with his business like a professional.

But why does it always have to be so? Being a footballer, especially representing your national side, requires quite the thick skin, but why? Yes, fans financially and emotionally invest in the teams, and perhaps have a right to voice their displeasure when the results are way far from satisfactory, but certainly not to this level. Dejan Lovren received death threats last season when his form for Liverpool was appalling. Loris Karius, also Liverpool, received death threats after his errors cost the club in Champions League final against Real Madrid. Suddenly in football, when the occasion is big, your safety and psychological well-being are on the line.

It’s always to the players’ credit that they try as much as possible to face the football and focus on their game when all this is going on, but the responsibility put on footballers to be calm in the face of absurd levels of criticism is just as absurd as the levels of criticism the players come under. And how does the world expect footballers to keep their minds on the football and get out of the said form they’re been criticised for being in, when there are of psychologically disturbing thoughts on their minds.

Asking a footballer to focus on the football and look to get back in form when his family face constant threats is a bit much, that the footballers also manage to keep their focus on the football more than anything else during that time merits some serious praise. In this age where footballers are encouraged to come out to speak if ever they’re suffering from depression and such psychological distress is no longer an unknown, expecting a player to stick with the football amidst animosity and intimidation seems unfair.

It’s the Nigeria whom some of its people give Ighalo and his family death threats for blowing opportunities at the World Cup, that some of its people also proceeded to kidnap John Obi Mikel’s father and inform of it hours before that same World Cup encounter against Argentina. Nobody pummels the finance people with death threats when the economy sinks, nobody fuels exaggerated criticism towards the people in the power sector because electricity continues to fail, so why should footballers be any different?

It’s important to keep in mind that these footballers are playing for their teams, not their lives, and maybe, maybe, just maybe, some things are much more important than football.


It was unconvincing and shaky, but it did the trick, as Nigeria completed a qualifying double over Libya with a 3-2 win.

Odion Ighalo was once again the main man in front of goal, as his double edged us past the Mediterranean Knights in Tunisia, in a game where virtually everyone in a green shirt could have performed much better:

Francis Uzoho: His game swung one way and then the other, a couple of basic errors were made, and position-wise he was found wanting on some occasions. Did produce some really good saves on the day. (7)

Ola Aina: Started this game from the off, but like the first leg, he barely went forward. Most importantly, though, he was caught out napping on a few occasions, including for both Libyan goals. (5)

William Troost-Ekong: Not at his best at the back on the night, as, like Aina, he failed to read the threats for both of Libya's goals. (6)

Leon Balogun: Also far from his best on the night, like the entire backline. Carried the ball with usual confidence and adventure, but will have better games. (6)

Jamilu Collins: Offered little up front, and didn't do much to the back either. Perhaps playing twice in four days took his toll on the newbie, but he was found wanting on occasion. (6)

Wilfried Ndidi: Didn't do a bad job in midfield, but a player of his quality will feel he should have done much better. Was loose on the ball on some occasions, and will miss the next game after getting himself needlessly booked for dissent in stoppage time. (6)

Oghenekaro Etebo: If he was quiet in the first leg, he was next to non-existent here. Didn't quite show his guile in the middle, and barely put a foot right. Deservedly substituted. (5)

Samuel Kalu: Didn't get on the ball as much as he liked, and couldn't quite run at the defence like he usually does. Deservedly taken off as well. (6)

Alex Iwobi: His range of passing was still on show, as he continues to embrace the role of playmaker in the Eagles setup. But some of his decision-making in the final third were very much questionable. Involved in the opening goal with a well-timed pass. (7)

Ahmed Musa: A much better day at the office for the skipper than on Saturday. Was unselfish in setting up Ighalo for the opener, and showed impressive persistence in scoring the second. Faded after the break. (7)

Odion Ighalo: Followed up his treble on Saturday with a brace here, and his hold-up play was also commendable. His first goal might have been a tap-in, but his second showed his attacking prowess. (8)

Substitutes

John Ogu: Came on for Etebo, but looked nothing like his calm and assuring self in midfield, looking all over the place instead. (5)

Henry Onyekuru: His impact was minimal but he still proved lively. Very nearly found the net with a shot from a difficult angle. (6)

Semilore Ajayi: Came on deep into stoppage time, a time-wasting substitution, and had virtually no impact. N/A


The Super Eagles are well and truly up and running, after following up their win in Seychelles in September with victory over Libya at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, to go above the Mediterranean Knights and into second place in Group E of the 2019 African Cup of Nations qualifying. An Odion Ighalo treble did the trick as Nigeria considerable light work of the North Africans, a kind of trouncing that might make their former coach accuse us of using metaphysical powers.

So, how did the players fare in the Eagles’ success in Uyo:

Francis Uzoho: The goalkeeper had very little to do on the day, but when required he did his bit with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. Made a terrific reflex save to deny Libya’s Mohammed Anis Saltou early on. (7)

Shehu Abdullahi: Had a quiet 15 minutes, before going off injured. The Bursaspor right-back will hope to recover before the return leg on Wednesday. (6)

William Troost-Ekong: Did very well to quell the threat of Anis Saltou, particularly when the ball was on the ground, and hardly looked troubled. Unfairly booked late on. (8)

Leon Balogun: Had little trouble to deal with in the game, moping with ease and effectiveness. Made an error midway through the second period, but it amounted to little. (7)

Jamilu Collins: Perhaps a tactical instruction, but didn’t go forward as much as you’d expect a full-back to, spending most of the game tucked in at the defence. The one time he went forward, he struck the crossbar from close range. (6)

Wilfried Ndidi: Came close to scoring in the first half, when his header hit the outside of the post, and had his usual calming display in midfield. Booked for a foul midway through the first half. (7)

Oghenekaro Etebo: Another tireless display in the middle from the Stoke man, although he didn’t get forward as much as he usually does. By his standards, a little quiet day at the office. (6)

Ahmed Musa: Not the best performance from the skipper, who spent the first half tasked with crossing from the right, as opposed to his typical cutting in from the left. His passes were mostly a yard or two off, even his assist for Ighalo’s third goal was grateful to a defensive mishap. (5)

Alex Iwobi: The in-form Arsenal man carried that rich vein of form to the national scene, as he flourished in the No. 10 role. Played a part in the second and third goals, with a couple of well-threaded passes. (9)

Samuel Kalu: Looked lively throughout and did well to track back and provide support to Collins, particularly in the first half, but his decision making was quite lacking, a couple of one-touch-too-many situations as well as some ill-advised shots. Seemed desperate to find the net, but when he did, in stoppage time, it was a brilliant finish. (7)

Odion Ighalo: The striker who’s been subject of some criticism in the national side of late, offered a retort with a top-class performance. Bagged his first hatrick for the Super Eagles, and his work ethic wasn’t lacking, which helped in winning that early penalty. (10)

Substitutes

Ola Aina: Came on early for the injured Abdullahi, and after a rather nervy first half, steadied himself. Like Collins, he didn’t get forward as much, but was tidy in defence, particularly after the break. (6)

Henry Onyekuru: Came on for Musa, and could have scored with his first touch. Did well to set up Kalu for the fourth goal. (6)

Isaac Success: Barely had an impact on the game, particularly because he spent little time on the pitch. Played in Onyekuru with a good pass late on, but had little else to shout about. (5)


Katsina United’s brave fall on penalties, to Kano Pillars, in the semi-final of this year’s Aiteo Cup has a story in it, an unfancied northern side with an impressive (by our standards) youth system coming within only two games from continental football is worth talking about. But will we talk about it? Do we ever talk about how what happens in our football?

It’s a continuous cancer that eats up at our game, and this year’s federation cup only serves as one of the effects, another evidence in a long list of incriminating metaphorical documents that show why and how our football is lacking. Nobody has any interest in it, nobody wants to be interested in it, and nobody wants to interest us in it; so club football in Nigeria just goes past, like the most redundant extra in a movie set.

So, who’s to blame? Who bears the brunt of culpability over this increasing shitshow that is our game? Perhaps the most Nigerian thing about our football is the fact that no one will take responsibility, or be held accountable, so we let the mediocrity and haphazardness drift on.

Who’s to blame? The league body, because it’s more than happy to schedule two semi-finals in the same day (Rangers’ win over Nasarawa in the second semi also took place on the same day), at noon as well. The league body, because it moves league games to Monday mornings. The league body, because it cancels games set to be played on Easter holidays and reschedules them for the first working day after, because the fans they’re meant to attract won’t work to pay to see games. The league body, because it keeps no information on its players whose most reliable source of income are paltry bonus fees over continental games. The league body, because its marketability is as awful as its football, its lack of palpable revenue generation does its best to put off any prospective owners lingering out there.

Who’s to blame? The federation, because it’s more interested in grabbing sponsor finances than the players and clubs. The league body, because it would rather focus on its elections, as if the national ones don’t bother and sicken us enough. The federation because there are supposedly no funds to release to the league, but there are funds to fight over.

Who’s to blame? The media, because we’re more interested in covering the administrative elections than what happens on the pitch. The media because you tune in to an hourly programme on the radio, supposedly dedicated to sports in the morning of the cup semi-finals, championed by those who bellow media patriotism in your face, but you get nothing on the cup semi-finals until the programme’s final three seconds. The media because the said-renowned sports newspaper in the country doesn’t give a hoot and a half about the cup, that’s supposedly prestigious and reputable in nothing but name these days. The media because the only television that gives the league a lick apparently can’t tell a razor blade from a cutlass.

Who’s to blame? The country, because these days everything going on is a microcosm of its state. The country because we’d rather design supposedly indigenous brands in Asia. The country because its economy makes being a match-goer so ridiculously fanciful, its bashed in whatever scale of preference it falls in. Support the NPFL on Twitter, but do nothing nowhere else.

Are there solutions to these problems? Obviously. Are we ever going to talk about and get to the point of applying them? Don’t be absurd.


‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ chants came Jose Mourinho’s way early on from the Newcastle fans at Old Trafford, but this was one of those times when that overused line of words had some justification. The morning before the game against the Toon, news had started circulating about the Portuguese manager’s impending dismissal, with UK’s Daily Mirror bringing out an ‘exclusive’, which, after supposed information from ‘top sources’, stated that Mourinho was getting the sack irrespective of what happened against Newcastle. Manchester United’s board were quick to dismiss such reports, but given how the two previous managers had been dismissed, many would be forgiven for thinking there was an element of truth about the rumour.

And things looked to be going even more south on the pitch on Saturday, less than 15 minutes had been played when United found themselves two goals down, strikes from Kenedy and Yoshinori Muto from Newcastle, courtesy of some atrocious defending, seemed to put Mourinho on the brink of a p45. That the goals were easily avoidable, as well as the overall play of United in the first, once again raised the issue of whether the players were playing for the manager. At fulltime it seemed like they were, a remarkable fight-back turning a nightmarish afternoon into the stuff that’s made United so reputable and historically formidable.

Not that the manager was prioritising the players playing for him over winning for the club. ‘If the players play just for the manager, they are not good professionals because, one day, they like the manager and they play for them, and the next day comes a manager they don’t like and they don’t play for him…’ said Mourinho post-match. ‘So I think it’s ridiculous talk’.

From Mourinho’s demeanour on the pitch, it seemed like he knew a lot- if not everything- was on the line. His usual sulk of resignation when United concede bad goals lately wasn’t there, instead there was yelling, bellowing, gestures of obvious displeasure, and the tactical move of taking off Eric Bailly after 20 minutes and bringing in Juan Mata.

That was one of the changes that showed United were out to risk it all on the day, as well as the removal of Scott McTominay for Marouane Fellaini before the second half began, which meant Paul Pogba played as something of a false centre-back. ‘Of course we had some tactical touches, of course we risked a lot, of course we went in different directions’ said Mourinho, while forward Romelu Lukaku also echoed his manager’s point risking it all. ‘We thought let’s just go for it, give everything we have got’.

And it did look like United were going hammer and thongs for it, especially in the final 20 minutes, wave after wave of attack, roared on by the Old Trafford faithful, before Juan Mata and Anthony Martial dragged them level with two goals in six minutes. ‘I think, at halftime, we had a good conversation’ said Mourinho. ‘We didn’t promise each other that we are going to win the match, because we couldn’t promise that. We promised each other that we were absolutely going to give everything without any fear...’ I think the boys they deserve (the win), but even if the game ends with 2-2, even if we don’t score the last goal, the feeling would be a positive feeling…’

But they would score that last goal, an Ashley Young cross was met by the head of Alexis Sanchez, who hasn’t had the best time since swapping Arsenal for United in January. The Chilean started this game on the bench after his poor run of form, and his goal was only his fourth for the goal, but it says something that it was one of the players who has quite underperformed lately that would complete their turnaround on Saturday.

So, the question: Is this a turning point for Mourinho and United or a stay of execution? United’s kitchen-sink final 20 minutes, as pleasing and rewarding as it turned out, left holes that other sides would have capitalised on, just as other teams would have taken even more advantage of that dire first half. They travel to Chelsea next, after the international break, and whether sets the tone for their season to get back on track under Mourinho, or is just a mighty gesture of defeating defiance, remains to be seen. But at least there’s defiance in them. For once in a long time, they simply left it all on the pitch.

Cherries keep going

‘It was an incisive, efficient performance and we dealt with the physical contest really well’, said Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe after his side’s 4-0 at Watford. The comfortable victory, after which Howe said his side could still play better, puts the Cherries in sixth-place, and in the top four in terms of league goals, only Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have found the net more often this season. The side from Dorset have 16 points after eight games this term, it took them 17 matches to reach that much in the last campaign.

Goalless at Anfield (!!)

Well congratulations and nice going to us all, our salivation over the Liverpool v Manchester City game jinxed it, as it produced only goalless game of the weekend. There was no shot on target until the 56th minute, just one overall in the first half, and there was even a penalty miss from City’s Riyad Mahrez. Absurd!

Elsewhere

  • Nine wins in a row for Arsenal, up into fourth place, braces from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and a cheeky finish from Aaron Ramsey to boot. Only Man City has scored more league goals than Unai Emery’s side so far. It’s all coming together nicely for the Gunners.
  • So it’s a trio of twenty at the top, with City, Chelsea and Liverpool all locked on 20 points. Before Liverpool and City contrived to play a goalless stalemate, Chelsea made light work of Southampton at St. Mary’s, Eden Hazard getting on the score-sheet, as is customary, while Ross Barkley got his first for the club.
  • For Southampton, they could look back at a glaring three-yard miss from Danny Ings with the score still goalless, as their woeful run of form continued, despite the positives on show. They’ve now lost their last 31 games against top-half opposition, and since December, haven’t won as many games on their own turf as Leicester City. Yes, really.
  • It looks to be coming together for Marco Silva and Everton as well, who grabbed a second successive win, away at Leicester, thanks to a gorgeous piece of finishing from Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has three goals in two games, and looks to be hitting form for the Toffees. Leicester, for the second time in four league games, had Wes Morgan sent off.
  • Two goals in three games for Huddersfield. Don’t make it a familiar feeling, lads!
  • Crystal Palace didn’t win at home. But you knew that already.

Results

Fulham 1-5 Arsenal

Brighton 1-0 West Ham

Burnley 1-1 Huddersfield

Manchester United 3-2 Newcastle

Leicester 1-2 Everton

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Crystal Palace 0-1 Wolves

Southampton 0-3 Chelsea

Watford 0-4 Bournemouth

Tottenham 1-0 Cardiff

 


The climb. The climb is strenuous. Harsh and gruelling. Every move done with care and thoughtfulness; the climb may be hard but the fall is unpleasant. But there are not many better feelings than a successful climb. You get to the top of the mountain, and amidst the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, you savour the view from the top. But here’s one thing you overlook when standing at the top, one thing you never think of when admiring that sight from up above: the only way now is down. The climb was gruelling and rewarding, but to be mobile and prevent stagnation, the only move you have is to go lower. The cruel and unyielding reality that is.

So, Mohammed Salah. The Premier League’s latest golden boot winner. The record-breaker for goals in a 38-game season. 32 league goals. 44 in all competitions. The man who reached ludicrous heights for Liverpool last season. There were always going to be eyes around waiting for Salah in his second season at Anfield, can he do it again? 44 goals as a winger is a preposterous record, expecting it to be done more than once at any point is a little impractical, expecting it to be done in successive seasons is almost herculean.

But that’s the issue Salah faces now. Because he bagged over 40 last term, a current read of three league goals in three months is almost unacceptable by the Egyptian’s standards. But should those be his standards? Shouldn’t there be a difference between reaching a height, and setting a bar? In this modern football world of black and white, perhaps. Don’t meet up to your previously supercilious standards and you’re disappointing. Don’t recreate such outrageous levels you once did and you’re criminally underperforming. Leicester City’s fairy-tale league-winning season will never be forgotten, yet the fact that they’re on a third manager since then means they’ve struggled to get out of the shadow of that 2015/16 season: the Foxes know that season was a one-off and can hardly ever be repeated, yet a taste of what has been achieved, however unfancied or unlikely to happen again, is also a prospect of what can be achieved.

Failure, in most cases, is relative. Little success is comparatively seen as no success. So, in the eyes of many, Mohammed Salah is currently failing, as a result of three league goals of in seven games, his current goal to games ratio in the league will be absurdly compared to that of the whole of last season; 0.4 to 0.8. In truth, Salah has looked less of himself, not just in the goals, but his overall influence on a game, his movement et al. But again, failure is relative, which means this would have been next to no big deal had Salah scored, say, 14 goals last term.

However, this is what Salah has to live with now, and the onus is on him to return to a semblance of last season’s form. And what better way to make known your that you’re still king, than with a top performance against the champions. Liverpool host Manchester City this weekend, a side they beat in three out of four games last season, Salah scoring against City in each of those three victories. The Reds have been tipped by many as the side to run City close in the league this season, so a this game poses a chance to make a statement that they can indeed push the champions to the limit, and for Salah it represents a chance to make a personal statement of his own.

Salah will probably not reach the level he did last term, and he’ll probably not avoid the analysis that will come with that. But he can start to find a middle ground, a consistent level of performance that shows he’s no one-off and takes him out of the shadows of last season’s heights. The only way from the top of the mountain is down, but it’s up to Salah to land, not fall.

Elsewhere:

  • Things are at a stage for Manchester United, where every failure is met with a dagger of criticism, whether or not it’s merited, whether or not it’s over the top. They host winless Newcastle this weekend, a game Jose Mourinho has described not winning as unacceptable. Right now, that’s quite an understatement.
  • Fulham have been branded as entertainers in the Premier League so far, but that’s starting to look like a smokescreen tag to cover their failings, the Cottagers are one place above the relegation zone, with just one win all-season. So perhaps this is not the best time to face an Arsenal side who have won eight games in a row, and despite their entire lack of convictions, will be chockfull of confidence as they travel to West London.
  • And in the biggest contender for least exciting match of the weekend, Huddersfield travel to Burnley this weekend. The Terriers are lodged at the bottom of the table, winless and remarkably toothless, and it’s not outlandish, even this early, to say this game is vital to their survival chances.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Newcastle

Burnley v Huddersfield

Crystal Palace v Wolves

Leicester v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Tottenham v Cardiff

Watford v Bournemouth

Fulham v Arsenal

Liverpool v Manchester City


Real look Predictable under Lopetegui so far and, Despite long-term Preaching, Patience Hardly Lasts in the Capital: UEFA Champions League; Matchday Two

It’s important to keep things in perspective and not go overboard. Real knew what they were getting into when they appointed Julen Lopetegui, and there have been more than a couple of signs that when his system is well ingrained into Los Blancos, they may well look a cut above the rest. But so far, they’re still facing teething problems under their new boss, and following defeat to CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, have failed to score in three successive games- the first time that happened in over a decade-, an aberration by their standards.

Lopetegui, though, is keen to dispel talk of under-performance, preaching calm. ‘Ten days ago we beat Roma and weren’t so invincible’, he said post-CSKA. ‘Now, we are not so bad’. The manager’s words do possess some form of truth, but here’s some more actuality: at a club like Real Madrid, tags like ‘weren’t so invincible’ and ‘not so bad’ are almost unacceptable. Perhaps the biggest problem with Real so far isn’t that they are unconvincing or haven’t scored in three straight games, but that Real look predictable.

Real have been many things in the past; a slapdash side with very little long-term view; a well-oiled counter-attacking machine; a street-wise side with an iron will to win, among others. But never have the European champions looked predictable. Perhaps it’s due to fatigue suffered by a few players (read: Luka Modric), the arrival of a new manager that requires acclimatisation, or complacency, but there’s been very little urgency in Real’s games. The passing game will take some getting used to, and is showing signs of progress, but Real haven’t quite displayed those passing methods in really breaking down a side, they’ve never really applied any kind of earnestness in the final third with their passing game.

Then there’s the personnel being set up so far. It’s been a pattern of Los Blancos this term, when chasing a game or needing a goal, the option is to bring on Lucas Vazquez and Mariano Diaz- if they’re not already on the pitch. There’s little dynamism in the substitutions, little potential of game-changing alterations. Perhaps this is where Real missed a trick by not quite acquiring a marquee-like player after Cristiano Ronaldo, for a side that was always going to need time to fully blossom this season, having a game-changer or proven match-winner to get you past those inevitable games where you’ll lack conviction is quite an enviable feat.

In the defeat in Moscow, Real’s numbers read: 26 shots, four on target, 72% possession, 712 passes, with a 91% completion. Possession, not penetration. And the ratio of shots on target to shots show that Real are neither creating many chances, nor are they taking the little ones created. They dominated CSKA, but lacked penetration. They were just about the better team against Atletico Madrid in the derby last weekend, but it was all a bit dreary. They had possession in Seville, three days before the Atletico game, yet looked incompetent of creating anything in a 3-0 defeat.

Lopetegui said post-match that he has no doubt the goals will come, as will the wins, and he’s not wrong. But perhaps what the manager should worry about is the air of predictability when Real take to the pitch these days. If that continues, then the fear-factor dissipates, and, for all the prospects of this new Real project, that would be unacceptable.

This is still the third month of the season, so once more, it’s key to note the importance of not going overboard. There have been more than a few promising signs, and even the most infallible sides go through blips. But the problem is, Real Madrid are never like most sides.

Messi Masterpiece at Wembley

Only a minute had gone at Wembley when Lionel Messi got a pass, turned, looked up, saw Jordi Alba, and proceeded to find him with an elegant. How long did it take you to read that previous sentence? Yet Messi did all that almost at once. Two goals, many dribbles, passes, side-stepping, and the fact that he hit the same base of the post twice in three minutes with virtually the same run, almost like he took back us in time with the second effort. He’s still better at playing football than we’ll ever be at describing him play football.

Partenopei Get Going at Last

Napoli did everything right at Red Star Belgrade, except score, as the game in Serbia ended goalless. A similar theme was showing on Matchday Two, as they outplayed Liverpool, making the reds look remarkably prosaic, but couldn’t score. But salvation came in the final minute of normal time, when Lorenzo Insigne slid in Jose Callejon’s cross, to give Carlo Ancelotti’s side a win that takes them top. There’s still much time for twists and turns in Group C, but the team considered by many to be the third-best placed to qualify from this group lead the way with a third of its games played.

Elsewhere

  • At some point, Red Star goalkeeper Milan Borjan had to raise a smile, and that facial expression that asked the question ‘what else could I do’. The goalie had just been beaten by a Neymar free-kick for the second time, as the Serbians conceded six at Paris St. Germain. At least they can take solace in the fact Marko Marin got them a goal of their own, and that but for Borjan, PSG would have surely hit double figures.
  • In other circumstances, it would have been a case of Lyon’s stark inconsistency, beating Manchester City yet trailing at home to Shakhtar Donetsk. But two goals in two minutes erased a two-goal deficit, and suddenly a case of how Les Gones showed resolve to come back from the dead. Most importantly, they’re still top of Group F.
  • In this week’s Anti-Mourinho development, aren’t we glad to report that Manchester United looked tepid in a goalless draw at home to Valencia.
  • Another game, another defeat for Monaco. Leonardo Jardim has so far this season tried a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1, as well as a 3-4-3, all yielding little joy. Worrying times for Les Monegasques.

Results

PSV 1-2 Inter

Bayern Munich 1-1 Ajax

Lokomotiv Moscow 0-1 Schalke

Roma 5-0 Plzen

Hoffenheim 1-2 Manchester City

Juventus 3-0 Young Boys

CSKA 1-0 Real Madrid

Tottenham 2-4 Barcelona

Galatasaray 0-1 Porto

Napoli 1-0 Liverpool

Manchester United 0-0 Valencia

Atletico Madrid 3-1 Club Brugge

Lyon 2-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

PSG 6-1 Red Star Belgrade

AEK Athens 2-3 Benfica


 

Episode One- The Calm After Watching Infinity War for the 486th Time.

 

 

 

Testing, testing. 1, 2, 3. If you’re reading this, you’re one of those privileged to view Spotkick’s first ever of its monthly alternative awards, with a brand of ingenuity and pizzazz.

 

Translation: if you’re reading this, you’re one of those who we probably have to apologise to for this load of gobbledygook- which may or not appear ever again, because we may or may not have had nothing better to do.

 

Either way, you’re reading this, no backsies, as we give out the awards that really matter, starting with:

 

Worst Goal of the Month

 

The category of goals always overlooked, because we selfish lot keep having a thing for the belters, howitzers, the crafty build-ups and what not. You’ve lived in the shadows for too long. Daniele Dessena’s scruffy goal for Cagliari against Inter in Serie A would have been a worthy winner, but got VAR’d off. So, step forward, Iker Muniain’s strike literally on the goal line for Athletic Bilbao against Real Madrid. Don’t thank us, you earned it.

 

Goal Buzzkill of the Month

 

If belters will always tickle your fancy, then you really should have seen John McGinn’s strike for Aston Villa against Sheffield Wednesday; a goal so good FIFA can’t wait to deny it the Puskas award. Then, closer analysis, turns out McGinn just about mistimed his effort, shinning it. Like admiring Andros Townsend’s goal against Manchester United in February, only to see that it took a deflection. Buzzkill.

 

Best retort            

 

Akwa Starlets goalkeeper, Franklin Akwari, who was having none of 3SC’s coach Edith Agoye’s masterminding of a draw in a Nigeria National League game, and responded by whacking Agoye in the head, with the gaffer getting concussed. Take it out of your system, Franklin.

 

The Lincoln-Burrows award for being vicariously punished

 

A tearful Cristiano Ronaldo at the Mestalla, sent off for touching Jeison Murillo’s hair with very murderous intent.

 

Best crisis

 

Barcelona have gone three league games without winning. Real Madrid haven’t scored in two. Mohammed Salah has just three league goals this season. Manchester United are winless in three, or maybe it’s make-believe; just like Southampton’s run of form. So, best crisis surely goes to, drumroll please, Bayern Munich, for having the audacity to follow up a draw with Augsburg with defeat at Hertha Berlin. The Bavarians aren’t even top of the Bundesliga!!!

 

The Thank-goodness-for-the-offside-flag award for Miss That Might Have Been

 

Trust Alvaro Morata to throw his hat in the ring for this category, a late September audition after coming off the bench for Chelsea to head well wide against Liverpool, only to the linesman’s flag. Romelu Lukaku’s header against Wolves is also worth a mention, but the winner has to be Lukaku’s Manchester United team-mate Anthony Martial at West Ham, primarily because it was funnier.

 

The Legends-of-Tomorrow award for eternally pointless graphic

 

La Liga’s 360 replay cam. Stop this madness, please.

 

The City-beat-Newcastle award for consistency

 

Or is it the Mark Hughes whinge award? Take your pick. But Juventus have won seven consecutive games to start the Serie A season. Even in their previous seasons of domination, they haven’t started this well; at least then they had the humanity to let the other sides think things could be different, and that they had a shot at the title. And you thought Cersei Lannister was cruel.

 

How Could You Miss That of the Month

 

This award is a pure no-brainer, going to the linesman who failed to notice Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang being three weeks offside for Arsenal’s second goal against Everton. Well according to John Brewin, the linesman was completely gobsmacked at seeing Aaron Ramsey make a mess of the initial chance that his mind blacked out Aubameyang.

 

Most subtle cry for help

 

West Ham 3-1 Manchester United at the London Stadium. Paul Pogba walks out of the United dressing room, then is asked for a word by a journalist. Apparently his reply was: ‘You want me dead?’ Light a candle on the highest window, Paul.

 

The Lauren-at-Eastlands award for most level-headed own goal

 

This!!

 

The Sarah-Jibril award for standing out

 

Chinedu Okoye, chairman of amateur football club Bimo FC, who decided to run for the post of Nigerian Football Federation president, and ended up with no votes, one less than Sarah Jibril did in her primaries for the 2011 general election. Is there a chance Okoye becomes Pinnick’s special adviser on ethics, or is this where he becomes a she, travels back in time, and joins Wakanda’s reputable King’s Guard?

 

Biggest reveal of the month

 

Kevin Keegan opening up that Newcastle United are a badly-run club. Who knew!

 

The Incompetence Escapology of the month

 

The Nigerian ‘Professional’ Football League, who decided to call off the league season with 14 games left, and did in the final few days of August. If you’re going to be incompetent, at least be timely about it. Help the content-seeking.

 

In Conclusion:

 

Huddersfield won’t win a game in the Premier League this season, Scott McTominay is not Bobby Moore after all, Alaves are the best team in Spain, and Frank Lampard is starting to look like a manager, except for how he celebrate goals.

 

Now, Infinity War 487.

 

 

 


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