Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao

If Inter Milan, before the Champions League season began, had been given the chance of being level on points with the second-placed team in their group going into the final match day, not only would they have taken it, it would have been a positive. After so long out of club football's elite, no one was expecting the Nerazzurri to pull up trees on returning, and as such there were expected to be baby steps of progress.

That Inter's first Champions League campaign for six years lasted only six games wasn't really surprising. They only managed to get here thanks to a late collapse by Lazio in the final Serie A game of last season, and when the draw was made, they looked below Barcelona and Tottenham in Group B. But rather what's irksome is the manner of which their departure came. At the end of Matchday Two, Luciano Spalletti's side were on six points, level with Barcelona and six ahead of both Spurs and PSV.

Even after Matchday Three, when they suffered their first defeat at the Nou Camp, Spurs' draw in Eindhoven meant they were still five points clear of the bottom two with three games left. Then came what looked like a giant point at home to Barcelona, before the setback at Wembley at the end of November.

Yet, qualification was still very much attainable going into the final group game. A win at home to PSV, coupled with Spurs failing to win at the Nou Camp, would send the Italians through. Given that Barcelona hadn't lost at home in Europe since 2013, a win for Inter would almost certainly be enough. But if anything was debatable in the final games of this group, it surely wasn't whether Inter would beat PSV. 

And when Barcelona took an early lead in the other game, Inter were on the right track. Yet somehow, they conceded early as well, a piece of sloppy defending from Kwadwo Asamoah leading to Hirving Lozano eventually giving the visitors the lead. This was the kind of cock-up that was supposed to no longer be associated with Inter. This was the kind of failure that was meant to have gone with the old Inter, the Inter that led Serie A unbeaten for about half of the season, yet managed to finish outside the Champions League places; the kind of Inter that ended Juventus' unbeaten run and we're second in the league, yet just managed to hold on to a top-half spot; the kind of Inter that mounted a six-game winning run in spring, yet weren't good enough for a Europa League position.

Yet here they were, shooting themselves in the foot. 'We did less than we could have done', said Spalletti, who saw his side get an equaliser via Mauro Icardi in the second period. That's one of Inter's problems this season, and the previous ones. For all their improvements, their mini and relative rejuvenation, Inter still haven't found a cure for their over-reliance on their skipper. Of the six goals they scored in the Champions League this season, Icardi bagged four. Their method of 'Icardi will bail us out' has served them well, but it's bound to not be enough in some cases.

Yet, at the time Icardi got that leveller, the Milanese sleeping giants were heading for the last 16, with Spurs still trailing at the Nou Camp. But Spurs would get their own equaliser, and that left Inter needing one more goal to go through. They wouldn't get it, and with elimination came La Gazzetto Dello Sport giving Spalletti and his side the tag of 'Scempions'. 

Elimination is by no means disastrous for the Italians, the Europa League, as winger Matteo Politano and goalkeeper Samir Handanovic pointed out, is very much winnable, and going out at the group stage wouldn't have been out of the question at the beginning of the season. But what stings is the fact that they came so close and had it in their palms. The fact that they let it slip, is a giant kick in the teeth.

Elsewhere

  • It was job very much done by Liverpool, who needed to beat Napoli to go through to the knockout round. The Reds were utterly dominant at Anfield, yet very nearly paid the price for missing a catalogue of chances. Those misses ultimately mattered little.
  • Real Madrid were already assured of top spot in Group Group after Matchday Five, so a weakened lineup was as expected as defeat would be unsurprising. But no one foresaw CSKA Moscow scoring three at the Bernabeu without reply. Yet it's just as bewildering that the Russians did the double over the European champions yet managed to finish bottom of the group.
  • It was a brilliant display by Tottenham at the Nou Camp, as Spurs got a point, the least they deserved, to make the last 16. Yet one goal in either this game from Barcelona, or in the other from Inter, would have meant a different story on the night.
  • Six goals. Two red cards. Two goals in stoppage time. Ajax-Bayern Munich at the Johan Cruyff Arena was the definition of a classic.

Results

Club Brugge 0-0 Atletico Madrid

Valencia 2-1 Manchester United

Plzen 2-1 Roma

Benfica 1-0 AEK Athens

Manchester City 2-1 Hoffenheim

Red Star Belgrade 1-4 PSG

Galatasaray 2-3 Porto

Inter 1-1 PSV

Barcelona 1-1 Tottenham

Liverpool 1-0 Napoli

Real Madrid 0-3 CSKA Moscow

Shakhtar Donetsk 1-1 Lyon

Schalke 1-0 Lokomotiv Moscow

Young Boys 2-1 Juventus

Monaco 0-2 Dortmund

 

Through to the last 16

Seeded: Dortmund; Barcelona; PSG; Porto; Bayern Munich; Manchester City; Real Madrid; Juventus

Unseeded: Atletico Madrid; Tottenham; Liverpool; Schalke; Ajax; Lyon; Roma; Manchester United


As December arrives and starts to make itself comfortable, removing November’s prints and marks from the office and making it its own, introducing itself to the staff and getting to know the environment, the Champions League group stage edges closer to its end. The fat lady hasn’t quite sung yet, but she’s prepping her vocal cords, calming her nerves and being told to get ready, while the curtains on the stage start to come up to welcome her arrival.

Going into Matchday Six, many are already set for the last 16, 12 in fact, and by Wednesday night, the numbers will finally be complete, the Champions League will become the European Cup again (let that Clive Tyldesley quote go), and we’ll be 29 games away from knowing who Real Madrid will beat in the final at the Metropolitano come June.

So, how does each team look, as they head into their final games in the group?

Group A

Group A is very nearly done and dusted. The teams heading for the last 16 are already known, with Atletico Madrid’s and Borussia Dortmund’s place for the knockout round very much sealed. Club Brugge have also already acquired third place and the Europa League spot, with Monaco guaranteed to finish bottom. The French side’s quest for a first win in Europe since April 2017 continues, and they host Dortmund, who still have a chance of finishing in top spot. Atletico travel to Belgium.

Fixtures: Club Brugge v Atletico Madrid; Monaco v Dortmund

Group B

Barcelona are already through to the next round, and as group winners too, but the battle is the one to make the last 16 with them. Inter Milan and Tottenham are currently locked on seven points, with Spurs above the Italians by virtue of a better head-to-head record. Spurs will go through if they win, but they have the small matter of playing group winners Barca at the Nou Camp. Inter will hope the Blaugrana do them a favour, as the Nerazzurri host a PSV side already guaranteed to finish bottom of the group.

Fixtures: Barcelona v Tottenham; Inter v PSV

Group C

The state of Group C still remains quite unknown, as many predicted when the draw was made. Napoli are currently top of the group, after three draws and two wins in five games. Paris St. Germain are close behind with eight points, while Liverpool, last season’s finalists, are two points further back. PSG will go through with as much as a point away at bottom-placed Red Star Belgrade, the Serbians still having an outside of making third place and the Europa League, but that rests on them beating PSG and Liverpool losing at home to Napoli. The Reds need nothing less than a win against the Italians to go through, and that might not even be enough. A 1-0 win will do, but they will need to win by two clear goals if Napoli score, or win by one and hope PSG, almost improbably, lose in Belgrade. Napoli will finish top if they win at Anfield.

Fixtures: Liverpool v Napoli; Red Star Belgrade v PSG

Group D

The top two have already been decided in Group D, as well as the order they’ll be in, Porto’s win over Schalke on Matchday Five sealing top spot for them, with the Miners themselves guaranteed to finish second. The only thing to be decided is who finishes third and takes the Europa League place, Lokomotiv Moscow’s win over Galatasaray at the end of November making that far from settled. Yuri Semin’s Russian side visit Schalke on Matchday Six, knowing a win and failure for Galatasaray to do similar at home to Porto means third spot is theirs.

Fixtures: Galatasaray v Porto; Schalke v Lokomotiv Moscow

Group E

Bayern Munich and Ajax are guaranteed a place in the last 16 – Ajax getting that far for the first time in 12 years – and face a battle for top spot, with both teams meeting in Amsterdam on Wednesday. Ajax can finish top with a win, while Bayern need just a point to be confirmed number one in Group E. With Benfica already assured of third spot, their home game against AEK Athens is little more than a dead rubber.

Fixtures: Ajax v Bayern Munich; Benfica v AEK Athens

Group F

Manchester City have already booked their passage to the next round, after a draw in Lyon last month. That result in France also means Lyon’s qualification chances still hang in the balance, and Bruno Genesio’s side travel to Lviv to face Shakhtar Donetsk. Shakhtar will go through with a win, but anything less won’t suffice. A defeat could even open the door for already-eliminated Hoffenheim, who travel to the Etihad, to finish third.

Fixtures: Manchester City v Hoffenheim; Shakhtar Donetsk v Lyon

Group G

Real Madrid are through to the last 16, and as group winners too, with Roma assured of second place behind them. That leaves the only area undecided to be third spot, with CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen both on four points. Czech side Plzen are ahead of CSKA on goal difference, and so will make the Europa League if they match the Russians’ result against Real Madrid.

Fixtures: CSKA v Real Madrid; Plzen v Roma

Group H

In Group H, Manchester United’s late winner against Young Boys on Matchday guaranteed their passage to the next round, and all that remains is the small matter of who finishes top between them and Juventus. United will win the group if they beat Valencia, and Juve fail to do similar against Young Boys. Young Boys’ fate as the bottom side in Group H has already been sealed.

Fixtures: Juventus v Young Boys; Manchester United v Valencia


It’s been six months since the Nigerian Professional Football League saw the light of day, particularly in terms of on-pitch football. The 2018 domestic season took a break in June as a result of the FIFA World Cup in Russia, but not long after the tournament in Russia ended, the league season reached its end. Not by means of the 380 games being played, but rather abruptly, the League Management Company claiming that CAF had been on their heels over representatives for the continental competitions.

As a result, the league season come to an end after 24 games, like a television series that was cancelled midway over lack of viewership. The league body opted to crown its league champions then, decided against any relegation, and also decided that the new league season would begin in December. Well, we’re into the final month of the year, and we still await the NPFL season to kick off. This season was due to kick off early in the month, a draw for fixtures had been made, but kerfuffle arose when the Nigerian National League, the second division league in the country, brought forth eight promoted teams.

The top-flight teams have since come out to reject such notion, and quite rightly so, a decision bordering on preposterous, and given the league’s scheduling history, a 28-team season would probably take three years to finish. It was commendable for the NPFL teams to come out in protest of developments in the league below them, drawing a line, but in truth, they should have done this when last season was given an abrupt halt. It’s simple: if you’re going to be definite over the choice to make a team champions, then why not be definite and relegate teams as well? Sure, those relegated teams would probably rise to protest at not being given a chance to fight for survival, with some 14 games still to play, but those are the top can claim to not being given a chance to catch Lobi Stars, who were crowned winners.

Yes, this would lead to a standstill that brings forth no representative for the Champions League and Confederations Cup, but it would show that the teams in the first division have standards by which the league should abide, that the teams very much stand for some values and principles that should be upheld. And as for the lack of continental representatives it would bring, what’s the point of showcasing in the continent if the national domestic issues are not worth their salt. For all its claim of urgency about six months ago, the league body itself could show that it’s goal-oriented, and focused on the smooth running of things, by giving the lower division a deadline to get its act together or carry on without them. That’s another show of standards, another way of demonstrating that there are values and principles that must be followed.

But there are hardly any values and principles when it comes to Nigerian football, particularly league football, which is why, ultimately, the league will start when it starts. And the worst part is everyone hides when the question of ‘who really cares’ is thrown forward. The Media? (No way, we’re focused on the sport politics, not the actual thing). The Players? (This is all just a way for us push for a move to Sweden, Turkey, or somewhere). The country itself? (This close to an election, LOL, are you kidding?).

Hence, the league is out there, like an abstract entity, just floating in lonely nothingness, and this will keep happening. Having advocated for the league to be halted because of the need for continental flag-bearers, what happens when the new Champions League and Confederation Cup seasons roll around and nothing has still happened, would the LMC pick a league champion based on alphabetical order? Perhaps it’s best to end the whole thing, and put the league out of its misery. As each day goes by, the meaning of the ‘P’ in NPFL becomes more and more derisory.


Episode Three: Winter. (Extra) Traffic. Fuel Scarcity. They are all hereeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Wow! December already? How time flies. Just yesterday 2018 begun, Manchester United were about to make a lucrative deal in getting Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal, the home-based Eagles were about to begin their adventure of getting walloped by Morocco at the CHAN final, Cristiano Ronaldo was still kicking it for Real Madrid, this column wasn’t up-to-date in Game of Thrones, and Lagos was swamped in traffic.

Now here we are, the final month of the year. Cristiano Ronaldo has swapped Spanish capital white for Italian old lady white and black, Monsieur Arsene Wenger is no longer Arsenal manager, Liverpool haven’t moved on from losing the Champions League final, England’s national team is actually made up of players, not white chess pieces, Thanos got all six stones, the Nigerian Professional Football League now has 148 teams, our president may be a counterfeit, and Lagos is still swamped in traffic.

But anyway, December also means a new month, which means we look back and give awards to those who deserve them the most, because no one else will…

Worst Goal of the Month

No matter how you do it, the ultimate aim of a football team in a match is to put the ball into the back of the net. Whichever way it happens, a 30-yard belter, a 12-yard penalty, a goalmouth scramble, or in the case the winners of this category, a goalkeeper making a mess of a back pass, and the ball is tackled into the net by the opposing striker, as was the case for Valladolid’s goalie Jordi Masip against Leganes’ Guido Carrillo.

Goal Buzzkill of the Month

Manchester City are nigh-on unstoppable of late, so much so that losing to the English champions by a single goal is almost a win. But one team that seems to have got their number are French side Lyon, particularly their forward Maxwel Cornet, who scored three of Les Gones’ four goals against Pep Guardiola’s side in the Champions League. Cornet’s second of those three goals looked a beauty, a curling shot that bent past Ederson and into the top corner at the Groupama stadium. Except, not quite, close look showing Cornet’s shot took a significant deflection on its way, rendering the praise given to him by commentators far too overblown, as overblown as the length of this particular category.

The Headline That Should Have Been of the Month

Chelsea at BATE Borisov. UEFA Europa League Matchday Four. The Blues managed a one-nil win in Belarus, thanks to Olivier Giroud. That gave the opportunity for this golden headline, but everyone decided not to do it. Bugger.

Biggest Reveal of the month

It was inevitable that Cristiano Ronaldo would score against Manchester United in the Champions League, and in early November he latched onto Leonardo Bonucci’s pass with a first-time volley against the Red Devils in Turin. As Ronaldo wheeled off in celebration, and showed off his abs, everyone missed the appearance of Steve Bruce, except this guy.

The Thank-goodness-for-the-offside-flag award for Miss that might have been

Yerry Mina for Everton at Stamford Bridge, who contrived to sky his shot from two yards out, and would have been relieved to see the linesman’s offside indicator.

How You Could Miss That of the Month

To paraphrase Andy Brassell’s line, how did Cengiz not put this Under the bar!

The Ted-Mosby award for Most romantic

Jose Mourinho, after Manchester United’s win over BSC Young Boys, quick to point out that of the 14 seasons he’s managed in the Champions League, he’s gone past the group stage in all of them, and the two seasons when he wasn’t participating in the Champions League, he was winning the UEFA Cup/Europa League, deeming it as a ‘message to my lovers’. While Jose Mourinho was blowing verbal air kisses and bringing verbal flowers to his heartthrobs, Ben Hayward summed up his de-evolution quite nicely.

Most Adrenaline Infused of the month

Still on Jose, over that win against Young Boys, taking his bit out on Gatorade bottles after Marouane Fellaini scored the late winner. But Jurgen Klopp ups that in the Merseyside derby, celebrating Divock Origi’s winner by running well into the pitch, before speaking about how he didn’t want to run into the pit... oh wait, this was December. Right. Carry on, Jurgen. See you next month.

Most Straightforward of the month

Hearts manager Craig Levein, explaining his team’s 5-0 hammering at the hands of Celtic, his first words being ‘the manager’s an idiot’. One for the Proper Football Men Association.

Most Thorough Description of the month

Sky Sports, who did their best to label Zeli Ismail. Top research, that.

Biggest Cop-out of the month

 

Ballybrack FC, an amateur football team in the Leinster Senior League in Ireland, got out of a match against Arklow Town by faking the death of their player Fernando Nuno La-Fuente. The match was postponed and there was even a minute’s silence for La-Fuente in every other LSL game, before league chairman David Moran dug deeper and found that the story was false. That’s one way to get out of a fixture, but what happens now, particularly after the minute’s silence? Does the league hold a minute of cacophonous noise in every game to even things out?

Mix of the month

Charlie Austin made the rounds last month, his outburst over Southampton having a goal disallowed against Watford making quite the impact, almost single-handedly bringing forth VAR. But that was little compared to the effect his rant gave to Parklife. Terrific.

Most Opinionated of the month

After that Southampton draw against Watford, manager Mark Hughes was quick to point out how the referees are costing them, and how VAR has to be implemented as soon as possible. After Southampton’s defeat to Leicester in the Carabao Cup, in which the Saints had a goal disallowed by VAR, Hughes hinted at how the technology might be hampering the game. Pick a side, Sparky!!

Stat of the month

A.) Alexis Sanchez has less Premier League goals in 2018 than Patrick Van Aanholt, as well as Chris Smalling, the latter two are defenders if you didn’t know, and have less than six goals.

B.) Manchester United ended November with a negative goal difference.

C.) Paco Alcacer has nine Bundesliga goals in two starts.

But the winner is undisputedly: D.) Chesterfield, who are winless in 19 league matches, their worst run in history. Yet in that run, The Spireites are also unbeaten in 12 games in all competitions, their best record in almost a decade. ‘It is confusing’, said coach Martin Allen, whose reaction on discovering the stat was just gold.

The It-has-to-be-Sergio-Ramos Award for shithousery

It is said that some elements of shithousery are so shithouse, they should be called ‘shithotel’, ‘shitmansion, or ‘shittowers’, just like this!

In Conclusion:

Bayern Munich won’t win the Bundesliga by 200 points this season, nobody wants to win La Liga, Serie A has just one team in it, and the next Avengers movie is likely to be out before the new NPFL season begins.

Now, get a coat and a helicopter, this will be a lonnnnnnggggg month.

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It wasn’t quite Sarriball. Nowhere near it, in truth. Chelsea by no means flowed and swerved in the way that they’ve done on occasion this term, and the way they’ve promised to. Instead, this was a top-draw act in suffocation, a world-class display in stifling the opposition and being sturdy and compact. By the end of the game at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had delivered a stout display, ended Manchester City’s unbeaten start to the season, and when Kyle Walker booted a shot errantly in stoppage time, it embodied the state of frustration in which the Blues put the champions all day.

After two defeats and a draw in four league games, Chelsea were expected to be up against it as Pep Guardiola’s side came to the capital. And they were up against it, as City began in sprightly fashion, bossing possession and making inroads. That was expected, but it was also expected that Chelsea would come and serve up a game of two similar teams, if not in level, but in style. Those assumptions, however, were proved to be presumptuous, as the Blues showed their intent to not be constantly on the front foot, by starting with Eden Hazard as a false nine.

Chelsea were very much second-best in terms of possession (61-39%) and pass completion (669-422), but their game plan was nifty, as they sought to outfight the champions, seeing outthinking them as a bridge too far. That resulted in the Blues having more crosses and having more long balls, the latter of which resulted in the opening goal, a raking pass from David Luiz finding Pedro, before Eden Hazard eventually laid on a cut-back for Ngolo Kante to score.

Sarri has received some form of stick for playing Kante in a more advanced position, opting to use him as a box-to-box midfielder, rather than an archetypal ball-winning middleman. But this game was some form of justification for the Italian’s choice, as the French midfielder played that role almost to perfection, despite starting the game in rather poor fashion. The Blues also benefited from an improved performance from Jorginho, who, unlike recent previous games, didn’t have any opponent specifically tasked with hounding and suffocating him.

But Chelsea’s result particularly owes to the defence, which was compact, deep and secure. Between the time when Kante scored and second half stoppage time, the only test for Blues goalie Kepa was a Walker free-kick which wasn’t in any way difficult to save, and the only other time the Spaniard had to made a save was to deny Gabriel Jesus a chance he himself had presented him, as the game reached its embers. Marcos Alonso at left-back looked shaky early on, but steadied himself, Cesar Azpilicueta on the opposite flank put in a number of crucial tackles and blocks, while Luiz and Antonio Rudiger looked imperious at the centre, Luiz in particular, banishing his Wembley demons of two weeks ago, and it was the Brazilian’s header, with 12 minutes to go, that made the game safe.

Only two sides had a kept a clean sheet against Manchester City in the league this calendar year, and not since Everton in January of 2017 did City lose a league game without scoring, but Chelsea achieved both things in impressive fashion. Sarri, before the game, had spoken about not knowing how to beat City, but he found a way. Chelsea’s ultimate aim of being a fluid ball-playing machine is still a work in a progress, but that ability to suffer and sacrifice, persist and persevere, and the stomach to get down in the mud still typifies them.

Reds find their way to the top

That loss for City means they drop to second place, with Liverpool having beaten Bournemouth earlier on Saturday. There was a hat-trick for Mohammed Salah, his eighth, ninth and tenth league goal of the season, as the Reds strolled to success at the South Coast. Jurgen Klopp’s side are the only ones in the league yet to taste defeat. Hay liga.

One-nil to the Arsenal

The performance from the Gunners was far from convincing, in both attack and defence, and it looked like there were going to drop two points for the second game running. But new Emirates darling Lucas Torreira was on hand again, a second league goal in as many home games, as Unai Emery’s side scraped past Huddersfield. The unbeaten run is now 21 games.

Elsewhere

  • Stat: Since December 2015, only once has Cesar Azpilicueta not completed 90 minutes in any league game for Chelsea. That’s absurd.
  • It was a welcome for new Saints manager Ralph Hassenhuttl, who wasn’t given a dose of Southampton’s problems, as his defender Wesley Hoedt went out of his way to gift opponents Cardiff a winning goal. Southampton are now second-bottom, Cardiff, meanwhile, go up to 14th, after a third successive home win.
  • Three wins in a row for West Ham, who climb into the top half for the first time this season, after beating Crystal Palace in a game manager Manuel Pellegrini labelled as ‘strange’.
  • A win for Manchester United! By four goals!! And a goal at Old Trafford for Romelu Lukaku!!! Even Ashley Young scored!!!! What is happening!!
  • Despite spending zilch in the summer, despite stadium concerns, and, frankly, despite looking less than fluid at times, Spurs have made their best start to a league season. Mauricio Pochettino’s side, after winning at Leicester, are six points off the top. Perhaps there will be quite a race after all.

Results

Arsenal 1-0 Huddersfield

West Ham 3-2 Crystal Palace

Newcastle 1-2 Wolves

Leicester 0-2 Tottenham

Bournemouth 0-4 Liverpool

Burnley 1-0 Brighton

Manchester United 4-1 Fulham

Cardiff 1-0 Southampton

Chelsea 2-0 Manchester City

Monday Night Football: Everton v Watford


At the beginning Maurizio Sarri said his Chelsea project would take time, the Italian keen to stress that implementing his Sarrismo system that reaped such dividends at Napoli would be no quick fix, or cake walk. But it would have been easy to dismiss his words in early November, when Chelsea were still unbeaten in the league, 12 games in and the Blues hadn’t tasted defeat, Sarri breaking Frank Clark’s record for games in the Premier League without a loss for a new manager.

Yet that didn’t in any way mean Chelsea were fully immersed in Sarriball mode, fluidity hasn’t quite been achieved in the system, the defence is still far from sturdy, the substitutions are rather predictable, and there tends to be a bit of over-reliance on Eden Hazard, not to talk of the Ngolo Kante conundrum. If results weren’t reflecting that Sarri and Chelsea are still a work in progress, they’ve started to. One win in four league games, two of those games defeats, and it’s becoming more and more evident that there’s as much work to be done as there’s progress made, if not more.

Those past few games have reflected the progress that still needs to be made. Chelsea have looked predictable in attack, the lack of a regular goal scorer hasn’t helped in that regard, the absence and/or suffocation of Jorginho lately has yielded little, given that there seems to be no Plan B for that, and they’ve looked very suspect at the back, the defending in defeats to Spurs, and more recently, to Wolves, was the kind that would make even schoolboys cringe.

So, all signs point to a bad day out when they host champions Manchester City on Saturday. Before Chelsea tasted defeat in the league, the only loss they had suffered this season was the nigh-on irrelevant Community Shield lesson they received against the champions, showing Chelsea the difference between the level they want to get to and the one they were then, if not are now. The onus is on the Blues to show they can compete and have improved when they face the leaders, but, the question is, will it really matter?

A defeat to City would be expected, and while it would show that there’s still loads of work for the 2017 champions to do, it’s likely to come as little more than an expected outcome on Saturday evening. A win for Chelsea, meanwhile, would be huge, and could act as a springboard for forward momentum. But will it mean Chelsea are operating close to City’s level? Not at all. Chelsea could go ahead and muster a win over the champions, but one of City’s ammos is the fact that they can make light work of relatively smaller sides, an area where Chelsea have already faltered this season, hence City would still be far ahead irrespective of the result.

Such is the pedestal have put themselves on, that no matter what happens at SW6 on Saturday, it would hardly affect the view of how both sides have come of late. Such is the difference between both teams that this test for Chelsea is little more than a one-off, and passing it would be quite as inconsequential as failing it would be predictable.

Elsewhere

Liverpool will surely have one eye on Tuesday’s game at home to Napoli in the Champions League, no matter what anyone says, but present is the challenge of sixth-placed Bournemouth. The Cherries are very much riding high, but Liverpool have been getting results any which way in the league this season, and have the chance to go top, at least for a few hours.

It’s a debut for new Southampton manager Ralph Hassenhuttl, as the Austrian begins his rein with a trip to Cardiff. There was no new manager bounce at Wembley on Wednesday after Mark Hughes was dismissed, Hassenhuttl will hope there is in South Wales on Saturday, and more importantly, signs of progress.

This has the look of a must-win for Burnley, who lie second-bottom and host a Brighton side coming off the back of victory over rivals Crystal Palace. Sean Dyche and his side offered positives despite defeat at home to Liverpool last time, now is time for some substance.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Huddersfield

Cardiff v Southampton

Leicester v Tottenham

Burnley v Brighton

Manchester United v Fulham

West Ham v Crystal Palace

Newcastle v Wolves

Chelsea v Manchester City

Everton v Watford

Bournemouth v Liverpool


The momentum was high for the Gunners as they travelled to the Theatre of Dreams, coming off the back of that morale-boosting derby win over Tottenham on Sunday, and the small matter of a 19-match unbeaten run. Those facts, as well as Manchester United looking lacklustre, meant the hosts were very much there for the taking, and it wasn’t wide off the mark to put the Gunners as favourites going into this game.

Yet it’s been something of an Arsenal blueprint to fail to take opportunities, particularly one in which they seem outright favourites against a top-six side, defeats against United and Chelsea in 2016 spring to mind. That’s just one of the habits that have characterised the latter years of the previous Arsenal regime, one of the habits Unai Emery is expected to abolish in his time at the Emirates. On Sunday in the North London derby, they did show that they curbing some old bad habits, like the ability to cave in when things got tough. In the win over Spurs, Emery’s side showed that when the pressure hit home, they could rise above it.

So, on Wednesday in Greater Manchester, it was time for another kind of evidence that they’d come far under Emery, showing that when they’re put as outright favourites in a game against teams of their ilk, they wouldn’t falter. It didn’t quite go that way, the performance, particularly in the first half, lacked much of the zest and energy that was on show on Sunday. Then again, Arsenal have been slow starters, if not completely in performances, then definitely in stats, the Gunners haven’t led at halftime in the league this season, and would be 18th if games finished after 45 minutes.

They did take the lead at Old Trafford around the hour mark, Shkodran Mustafi’s header fumbled over the line by David de Gea, but they still wouldn’t go into the break ahead, some sloppy defending and goalkeeping meant United would find a response almost instantly, Anthony Martial dragging the hosts back on terms. Despite the obvious improvements under Emery, defensive frailty has still been one of the flaws in the side, hence two league clean sheets in 15 games, and that goal conceded from Martial was proof that they can still very much be got at.

Arsenal have always shown that they can rally in second halves, proving that time and time again this season, Emery not afraid to make halftime calls, adapting to and changing games, and here he would throw on former United man Henrikh Mkhitaryan before the second half began. Arsenal’s second half improvement wasn’t quite as immense or substantial as on Sunday, but they showed something different, another trait they’ve been accused, with reason, of lacking in recent past. Playing against this current United side was coming up against who wouldn’t be uncomfortable spoiling games, making them scrappy and ugly. And Arsenal scrapped, and fought, as Premier League analyst Don Hutchinson put it, they steeled up, not minding having to scrap, not particularly fearful of going down in the dirt if required.

It was the kind of mettle and metal that the Gunners hadn’t shown in the past, but defensive fragility would undo them once more. After retaking the lead thanks to an own goal from Marcos Rojo, Arsenal would go on to surrender that lead immediately. In fact, from the time United kicked off, they were only six touches of the ball before Jesse Lingard got Jose Mourinho’s side back on terms, thanks in no small part to some schoolboy defending from Sead Kolasinac. When Arsenal rose to the challenge, self-inflicted wounds hampered them. Even in the victory against Tottenham, errors at the back could have done for them.

Arsenal turned on the style late on, and should have grabbed a winner, but would settle for a point. Despite their recent improvements, factors at the back prevented a good week from becoming a very good one, clear signs of shards from the past. But it’s also testament to their new-found resolve that this is likely to have little bearing on their good run.

Elsewhere:

  • Another win for Manchester City, but this time it was not quite a stroll as it had been lately, at least on the scoreline anyway, but it’s still seven league wins in a row for the champions.
  • Liverpool are still doing their bit to keep on the leaders coattails, as they came from behind to win at Burnley. It was an improved performance compared to recent games from the hosts, who could consider themselves not to have gotten anything from it, but Sean Dyche’s side are bottom bar one, thanks to a less inferior goal difference.
  • After six winless games, five of which were defeats, Wolves got back to winning ways, beating Chelsea at the Molineux, thanks to overdue goals from Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota, the latter’s first of the season. Two league defeats in three for the Blues, who host City on Saturday.
  • It’s a place in the top-six for Bournemouth, whose 2-1 win over Huddersfield sees them very much in line to be the team that everyone talks about not being talked about this season.

Results

Manchester United 2-2 Arsenal

Tottenham 3-1 Southampton

Fulham 1-1 Leicester

Brighton 3-1 Crystal Palace

West Ham 3-1 Cardiff

Burnley 1-3 Liverpool

Everton 1-1 Newcastle

Wolves 2-1 Chelsea

Bournemouth 2-1 Huddersfield

Watford 1-2 Manchester City


There was a time when Southampton were the prototypical club for continuity and success, achieving and being themselves in spite of adversity. Many have made the analogy and likened the Premier League to a school, and if that’s the case, Southampton are the side who many parents would show their kids and ask them ‘look at Southampton, does he have two heads? Can’t you be more like Southampton? Just do what Southampton does.’ Despite the loss of players and manager – there was a case at the start of the 2014/15 season when then-new manager Ronald Koeman tweeted a photo about getting ready for training that showed an empty pitch – the Saints managed to succeed and defy expectations.

In 2014/15, the Saints lost four key players, five if you include injuries, yet were second in November, and eventually finished in seventh place. Then in 2015/16 they lost three key players, had many eyes on them and some form of pressure, they were near the relegation zone in December of that season, surely they couldn’t do it again. Except they went one better, going on a strong run of form that saw them eventually finish sixth.

The following season they saw pivotal players depart again, as well as the manager this time, yet the Saints finished eighth. But it was far from plain-sailing, and the table didn’t quite reflect things in the club, and that seemed to be the beginning of the end of their time as the model club. There were signs of discontent in 2016/17 under Claude Puel, who, despite a League Cup and a top-half finish, was binned at the end of the season, the football was nowhere as romantic as the fans were promised, and the signings did little right.

The football unromantic. The signings doing little right. That has been the story of Southampton of late, wrong managerial decisions and poor recruitment have stopped them being the model club for success. The appointment of Mauricio Pellegrino in the summer of 2017 didn’t go well, in terms of performance, style or substance, and the Argentine was binned in March, then came the appointment of Mark Hughes, who, with eight games to go, performed a miracle and took the Saints from 17th to…well, 17th.

And Hughes himself has now been shown the door, after a run of three league wins in 22 games as Southampton, among his personal run of 32 points from 40 games. Hughes’ sacking, his second in the Premier League this calendar year, was inevitable, they hadn’t won since September, the football lacked any form of identity, and the Welshman whinged at almost everything. But now Southampton face something of a defining moment, the next managerial appointment crucial, as they face a challenge to avoid being a washed up club, a battle to prevent being the next stable and model club turned shambles.

Ralph Hassenhuttl has reportedly agreed a deal in principle, and word in the (social) media is about how his style of football is largely attractive. That may be true, but Southampton fans have been here before, promised flair as the board and the world spun gold over their previous managerial appointments, but saw little of it. This midweek’s game at Tottenham will be under the stewardship of Kelvin Davis, and it will be interesting to see how the Saints fare. Some might say the departure of a manager always spurs a side on, but the Southampton players have been on the low, performance-wise, even before Hughes came in, the new signings haven’t been inspiring, and the old guard has waned a bit.

All of which made Hughes’ decision to use youngsters, Frenchman Jan Valery and Irishman Michael Obafemi, at home to Manchester United understandable, if not inevitable. Whatever happens to the Saints at Wembley looks like it would be discarded and matter little, particularly if they lose. Southampton are very much being swallowed by short-termism, and face a fight to avoid being another has-been.

Elsewhere:

  • Hughes’ sacking also means failing to win at home to Manchester United is a recipe for dismissal, irrespective of the club. So, Arsenal, travelling to Old Trafford on Wednesday on the back of their North London derby win, will have the onus on them to win at the Theatre of Dreams, and with United ridiculously light in defence, victory is not so much plausible as it is quite expected.
  • It’s derby day in Sussex, as Brighton host Crystal Palace in a rivalry clash that hasn’t quite lit up in the Premier League. Palace halted their wretched run at the weekend with a win over Burnley, while Brighton won at Huddersfield on Saturday, so both teams enter this game in good stead.
  • Cue the romance at Craven Cottage on Wednesday when Leicester visit Fulham and their new manager Claudio Ranieri, who, perhaps you may have heard of this, led the Foxes to the title in 2016. Not that it would overshadow the fact that the West Londoners are bottom of the league and need wins to prevent the horror tag of ‘bottom at Christmas’.

Fixtures

Bournemouth v Huddersfield

Brighton v Crystal Palace

Watford v Manchester City

Everton v Newcastle

Burnley v Liverpool

Wolves v Chelsea

Manchester United v Arsenal

Fulham v Leicester

West Ham v Cardiff

Tottenham v Southampton


18 games unbeaten. No defeat since August. But there was a bit of scepticism towards Arsenal. The defence was branded, not without reason, as shaky; the Gunners were guilty of underwhelming first halves, if not in performance, definitely in results. So, those 18 games unbeaten had elements of ‘although’ in them, and as Unai Emery’s side prepared to host Tottenham in the first post-Wenger derby, many saw this as the game where their progress could truly be measured, irrespective of the Gunners having played Liverpool earlier in November, a game against opponents who spent the week beating Inter Milan and Chelsea.

In that case, the Gunners gave the most resounding statement with a 4-2 win in a brilliant derby at the Emirates. It was a game that showcased qualities Arsenal used to be known for; resilience, doggedness, spirit and a sheer sense of superiority. ‘…we had the fans behind us and we had power, we felt strong’, said forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang afterwards, while his teammate Lucas Torreira pointed out Arsenal showing their ‘spirit and our soul during the game’. ‘We won against a good team and showed a very good performance’, was goalkeeper Bernd Leno’s assessment after the final whistle.

If you were a progress examiner sent by the Premier League or football itself to evaluate Arsenal on their improvements, it would have been hard to resist the temptation not to mark them as ‘ready and primed’ after just ten minutes. The Gunners were well and truly on the front foot from the off, pushing Spurs back, harrying their visitors, and celebrating a deserved lead after Jan Vertonghen’s ill-advised handball meant Aubameyang would score from 12 yards.

Arsenal had been accused as slow starters so far this season, again a valid point – they hadn’t led a single league game at halftime in the league – but here they paid very little interest in playing in accordance to the ‘getting-to-you-know’ phase of the game, quickly out of the blocks, and only a sharp save from Hugo Lloris denied Alex Iwobi putting the hosts two up. It was the kind of display Spurs have been synonymous with putting, particularly against this same club during the old and sometimes lacklustre regime, but here it was Spurs who looked like they hadn’t left the bus, passes astray, panicky in midfield, and offering next-to-nothing in attack.

But they would get their break just past the half hour mark, after Sokratis’ foul on Son Heung-Min outside the box, with Eric Dier heading Christian Eriksen’s free-kick into Leno’s near post for the equaliser. Dier’s ‘shush’ celebration sparked a few handbags on the touchline between opposing players, but it was followed afterwards on the pitch that had the semblance of chaos, particularly for the hosts. Both teams had barely gotten to grips with the game being 1-1 when Spurs broke forward again, and Son was deemed to be have been fouled again, this time by Rob Holding, and, more crucially, in the box. Harry Kane stepped and made no mistake from 12 yards, equalling Emmanuel Adebayor’s record of eight goals in this derby.

Arsenal fans were stunned, and the feel at the Emirates was one akin to catastrophic disbelief, this was what many deemed as their first real test, they were failing, and once again they’d go into halftime without a lead. This was the time to test Arsenal’s mettle; and they lived up to that challenge after the break, the sense of deflation and shock didn’t pervade the Emirates for long. ‘We don’t give up and that’s the mentality’ said Aubameyang on whether the Gunners are becoming more resilient, and it was the Gabonese forward who grabbed his side’s equaliser, a finish of deluxe class for his 10th league goal of the season.

From then on, it was practically all Arsenal, the Gunners had shown resilience once again, just as they’d done in some games prior to this, particularly at home to Liverpool. But this was the first game against any top-six side in a while where they was a palpable sense of superiority, and huge credit falls to Emery for restoring that in this game, not least with those halftime substitutions. ‘Before I started this match I prepared in my mind different situations in the match. One was this’, said the Gunners manager. ‘Why? Because Lacazette has very big efficiency in scoring against every team and because Aaron has experience against Tottenham and in derby matches.’

And did those work a treat; Ramsey supplied Aubameyang for the equaliser, and Lacazette, with the aid of a deflection, put the Gunners in front. Spurs never looked like replying and when Torreira added a fourth with his first goal for the club, and followed it up with a typical derby celebration (shirt off, knee-slide and bellowing at the sky), the Gunners had the derby very much in their palms. It was a nigh-on complete performance, the ‘yeah buts’ that followed previous games was non-existent, no ‘what ifs’ over this win, it was unquestionable and unadulterated.

The Gunners face another tough test right after this, with a trip to Old Trafford coming in midweek, but are far from fazed, and not without reason. Emery signed up for big tests, and was hired to provide a sense of belief going into those said tests, and isn’t failing so far. ‘We know it will be difficult (against Manchester United), it’s a big challenge for us and we want to have a lot of challenges like that.’

**quotes from arsenal.com

Sense of what might have been lingers in South Coast stalemate

Two points dropped, or one point gained? For Southampton it would look like a good point against Manchester United had they not thrown away a two-goal lead, no side has dropped points from winning positions this season than Mark Hughes’ side. For United, it was a commendable fight-back at the South Coast, at least it would be if they weren’t so awful before going two behind, and so listless after going level. The Saints are still in the drop-zone, with just one win all season, while the Red Devils are in seventh, eight points off the top four, and 16 from the top, with a run of three league wins in nine.

Bedlam in Merseyside derby

It was done and dusted. Four minutes of added time were given in the Merseyside derby. Six had been played, and we were heading for a fair draw when Liverpool launched one last attack. As the ball came the way of Virgil van Dijk who set himself for the volley, images of Germany-Holland in the Nations League formed, except this time the volley was awful. Yet as the ball spun and moved, Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford made a clanger of anticipation, resulting in the ball falling to Divock Origi, who couldn’t miss from a yard out. Jurgen Klopp sprinted onto the pitch in bedlam, Origi grabbed the ball in a fit of confusion, and the Everton players raised their hands to the officials, almost like they needed a message that there was no way a point just got taken from them. Liverpool were anything but convincing, superior, or fluid, but they’ve won again. No matter how they do it, they just won’t lose sight of leaders Manchester City.

Liverpool and the most berserk of derby wins

Elsewhere:

  • It was back to winning ways in the league for Chelsea, who saw off Fulham in the West London derby (that many don’t really fancy) to go third. Fulham boss and former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri saw the positives in his side’s loss, claiming this performance was even better than the win over Southampton, and while that may seem patronising, it wasn’t without reason. Fulham didn’t let their heads drop after conceding early, no sense of defeatism, and when Chelsea’s second goal came, it was a game still very much in the balance. The Cottagers, though, still remain at the foot of the table.
  • Another defeat for Wolves, whose bubble has very much burst. Five losses in six, Nuno Esprito Santo’s side host Chelsea next.
  • Newcastle fans were just finishing their 11th-minute protests when they were put in bother, Javier Hernandez putting West Ham in front early on at St. James Park. A resounding win for the Hammers, who climb above their hosts, while Rafa Benitez’s Magpies’ winning run comes to a giant halt.

Results

Leicester 2-0 Watford

Liverpool 1-0 Everton

Southampton 2-2 Manchester United

Newcastle 0-3 West Ham

Cardiff 2-1 Wolves

Huddersfield 1-2 Brighton

Chelsea 2-0 Fulham

Manchester City 3-1 Bournemouth

Crystal Palace 2-0 Burnley

Arsenal 4-2 Tottenham


Some things are supposed to happen. Some things make other things what they are, the traits and idiosyncrasies that give some things recognition, prominence and what not. Imagine The Blacklist without Reddington giving the FBI a case; nigh-on pointless; what would they do, sit around all day filing paperwork? Who’d want to watch that? Just like it’s hard to impossible to picture Legends of Tomorrow without a time glitch; if we don’t get to see the misfits go back in time and do something like put the year 1923 in its original state, or save H. G. Wells, then what’s the point?

All of the above boloney leads to pointing the Cirque du Incompetence. To be fair, these days there are many of them, it’s almost hard to keep track, but here we talk about African Cirque du Incompetence, or rather, as it’s well-known, the Confederation of African Football, who have to be nigh-on incompetent, because what else would they be? With just over six months left before the Nations Cup kicks off in Cameroon, CAF have decided to pull the plug on the current champions hosting the tournament.

To be fair, this is a good call; this is a country still very much swamped in chaos, with relations between the country’s military and rebelling separatists still far from peaceful, elections in October were met with violence, and many Cameroonians, particularly the Anglophone section, have fled their homes. But why did they get the Nations Cup in the first place? Why initially put an event that’s going to involve numerous people from other countries in a place where animosity between its own people is still very much rife? The decision surely would have borne shades of Angola 2010, where years after the civil war was officially over, but everyone knew better, the country were going to host a football tournament. It’s hardly still news on what happened to the Togo squad in January of that year.

But, as if knowing that confusion is their wheelhouse, as if recognising that it’s not them if things that seem bewildering don’t get even more so, CAF’s initial statement hardly talked about the issue of violence (hardly or not at all?) as the reason – or one of the reasons – why they finally opted against Cameroon in the last minute. Instead, their statement spewed on about compliance conditions not being met. CAF also noted that there was a gap between the requirements of hosting the tournament and ‘the realities on ground’, translation: Cameroon didn’t meet the requirements. The latter statement begs questions; are the CAF just realising that Cameroon don’t meet those requirements? Didn’t they vet them before giving them the tournament in the first place? If they had been inspecting regularly like they said they had, why did they cut Cameroon slack on hosting the tournament until six months before time? Do this lot look like they know what they’re doing?

It was also quite rich to see their statement on the fact that the Nations Cup couldn’t be exposed to issues that could impact on its success. Yeah, no hindrance tolerated, except them. CAF’s doggedness against taking a step back and evaluating whenever pre-tournament crisis rears its head is one of the reasons why the Nations Cup keeps getting hindered. The obsession on having it biennially, no matter what, is surely one of the reasons for a drop in standards; rushed preparations, inadequate preparations, and anyone who expects better this time, particularly with an increase in teams, must be very optimistic.

It was no surprise to see CAF say they couldn’t ‘afford’ to not let this tournament take place; after all, they weren’t shaken when Togo had their misfortune in 2010, or when there was the risk of Ebola virus in 2015, so why would some failure to meet some requirements bother them, the amount they’d receive from the few sponsors, amount of which they’d pump little back into developing the game, always trumps human concerns. Hence, had Cameroon met some ‘compliance conditions’, it would have still taken place in that country, no matter the risk.

And so, here we are. In the middle of uncertainty junction, a very familiar sight. After deciding that Cameroon were no longer good enough, in a bid to protect the success of AFCON, CAF will welcome bids again and decided who hosts the competition at the end of this year, so we can expect a six-month rush to deliver success from any nation who has the fortune of winning said bid. Well if when all else fails, at least we still have our get-out-of-jail-card, in South Africa.


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