Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao

It wasn’t the most exciting game, or the most uplifting of performances, but it did trick. Having taken the lead through an own goal, Nigeria were pegged back as they shared the spoils with South Africa in Johannesburg, a result that guarantees the Super Eagles’ presence in the African Cup of Nations in Cameroon in next year, a first appearance in the continental competition since winning it in 2013.

So, how did the players fare:

Ikechukwu Ezenwa: The goalkeeper had a rather quiet game between the sticks, not having much to do, and barely having to make a save. He could do nothing when left exposed for the South African goal. 6

Leon Balogun: Another sturdy showing in defence for the Brighton man, who was comfortable with most threats before him, but, like the rest of the defence, probably should have done better before Bafana’s equaliser. 6

William Troost-Ekong: Hardly put a foot wrong defensive-wise, although he was found wanting for the goal. His passing game could also have been much better. 5

Kenneth Omeruo: Looked comfortable enough with threats in front of him, but the fact that South Africans managed to get in behind him with some regularity, particularly in the first half, will be worrying. Probably should have done better with South Africa’s equalising goal. 6

Samuel Kalu: Looked quite at home in what was meant to be an unfamiliar position at wing-back, particularly in the first half. Made Nigeria’s goal with a darting run on the flanks, and prevented one at the other end almost immediately with a brilliant tackle. His set-piece deliveries let him down, though. 7

Jamilu Collins: A wing-back role meant he got forward much more than he did in previous games, but was nowhere to be seen when the Eagles conceded. That may have been a warning shot to him, as his attacking forays reduced after the break. 6

John Ogu: A calm influence in midfield, and provided security, as well as room for his midfield partner to move forward. Had an archetypal game of going by unnoticed. 7

Oghenekaro Etebo: For the first time in a while, showed semblances of his usual self in a Super Eagles game, moving from one of the end of the pitch to the other, although he had little joy in the final third. 6

Alex Iwobi: An underwhelming outing by his current high standards; a tidy affair in the middle, but didn’t quite contribute as much as he would liked up front. Subbed off late on. 6

Ahmed Musa: A decent showing from the skipper, who did his best to make the South African defence uncomfortable, but suffered from a dry supply line behind him. Unlucky to have a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in the second period.

Kelechi Iheanacho: A disappointing day for the forward, who failed to impress in the absence of Odion Ighalo. Fluffed a big chance late in the first half, due to a poor touch, and his substitution was overdue. 5

Substitutes

Isaac Success: Came on for Iheanacho in the final 20 minutes, but did little of note. Will probably feel Musa should have left a goal-scoring chance for him.

Henry Onyekuru: A late substitute for Musa, with little time to do anything noteworthy.

Semilore Ajayi: Little more than a time-eating change for Iwobi in stoppage time.


Fulham fans are already planning a title parade, after the club appointed Claudio Ranieri as manager. Fulham appointed Ranieri as manager after the departure of Slavisa Jokanovic, and with the veteran Italian having won the Premier League title in surprise fashion with Leicester City in 2016, Cottagers fans are very confident of him repeating that feat with the Londoners this term, so much so that they’ve gone forth and made plans for a title parade at the end of the season.

‘I’m dead-certain that, with the appointment of Claudio as manager, the league title will be ours this season, no matter what Manchester City are currently doing at the top’, said a Fulham fan. ‘People will laugh at us for believing because we’ve lost games in a row’, the fan continued, ‘but they did the same at the thought of Leicester being champions two years ago. ‘We haven’t kept any clean sheet this season, but that will be fixed very soon, especially as Claudio will promise the players sandwiches after their first shut-out.’

Another fan also stated how upbeat he was of the team’s league chances. ‘I think, with Claudio coming in, the league is pretty much inevitable’, he said. ‘It’s only a matter of time before Man City start drawing games excessively, then we go on a consistent 1-0 winning spree that will make our defence so good, Paul Merson will wonder why our American centre-back Tim Ream hasn’t been called up to the English national team just yet.’

This feel-good factor is apparently spreading to the players and the rest of the staff as well, with reports circulating that the club’s training ground entrance has been re-designed to bear the message, ‘The home of the 2018/19 champions’, with many players also said to be looking forward to playing the Champions League next season, and owner Shahid Khan has allegedly made plans for members of the Jacksonville Jaguars NFL team, as well as Ashley Greene and Wesley Snipes, to appear at Craven Cottage, on the final home game of the season, where they’ll receive the league trophy.

Meanwhile, Sam Allardyce is rehearsing his speech for BEIN Sports on how British managers continued to get overlooked for British jobs, with phone calls to Alan Pardew, Tim Sherwood and David Moyes having gone to voicemail.

***This news article is absolutely and unequivocally not true. Purely satirical, it should go without saying.


So, confirmed. It seemed inevitable that it would happen. With time issues meaning the LFP were on Real Madrid’s necks over appointing a permanent manager, plus the fact that there aren’t quite big enough managers available right now, Santiago Solari was always likely to have his role at the Bernabeu changed from caretaker to permanent first-team manager, the former Champions League winner having been appointed with a contract that runs until 2021.

The appointment should also bring some form of stability to the squad, probably the first thing they need after a chaotic pre-season and season so far. For a club where a sense of permanence is almost non-existent, a point echoed by the departures of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, then the dismissal of Julen Lopetegui after the Clasico, any sense of constancy is particularly welcome at this time.

In the four games under Solari’s caretaker charge, Real Madrid’s record read: won four, scored 15, and conceded one. Whatever the back stories those games have, it’s first key to note that those victories were much-needed, however unconvincing, projected or dismissible they could seem. And if the wins over Melilla in the Spanish Cup, Real Valladolid in the league, and Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League could be readily dismissed, the win at Celta Vigo last Sunday shouldn’t be.

It may be too soon, or foolhardy, to suggest the win was reminiscent of the Zidane era, but unlike in other games this season, especially in the embers of the Lopetegui era, where quality couldn’t do the trick, pure will and commitment did. They were touches of class in Real’s win at Balaidos, Karim Benzema’s opener and Dani Ceballos’ late belter stand out in that regard, as well as an improved display from the erstwhile lacklustre Luka Modric, but there were also moments where sheer resolve and backbone had to do. With Real leading 2-1 with less than 20 minutes to go, they had a makeshift defence of Lucas Vazquez at left-back, and Javi Sanchez at the centre of the defence, yet they pulled through, their sense of the collective meaning being stretched thin at the back hardly mattered.

That does looks to be the biggest positive so far, that the squad looks to be pulling in the same direction. Perhaps it’s a sense that the squad feel they let Lopetegui down, and weren’t blameless in the previous mess (which they weren’t), but, if the Celta victory serves as any case in point, the players look to realise the onus is them as much as it is on the manager, to get going again.

That’s not to say all has suddenly become well in the Spanish capital, far from it. Three of those four wins have come away from the Bernabeu, where the toxicity and fans displeasure still linger, evidence of which lies in the fact that of those four wins, that victory over Valladolid on home soil was the least convincing. Real still have work to do to appease fans, who are not known to be the most forgiven, or, frankly, reasonable, of supporters. They still looked shaky at Celta despite their seemingly new-found sense of togetherness, and we’re only in November, the road till the end of the season is still long, where Solari is going to face his first judgement, and how the Argentine responds to future potential, and rather inevitable, obstacles remains to be seen.

 But there’s a start. Four wins in a row is a start. 15 goals scored and one conceded is a start. Real Madrid are making the climb. There’s still a long way to go, the top of the hill of invincibility still stays beyond reach, but having been shrouded in negativity and, daresay, defeatism for a while this season, any growing sense of progress is encouraging, and welcome. Even if the temptation to get too comfortable in this position must be resisted.

 

*This article was edited to note that Solari was given a three-year contract


 

‘It’s ridiculous, they shouldn’t be in the game.’ We scored a perfectly good goal that was ruled out for offside. The officials cost us two points. They said it was offside, that is a joke. People go on about VAR, they clearly need help. If this is the best, most-watched league in the world then give them all the help they need. It is a joke.

Charlie Austin wasn’t in the mood for clichés on Saturday, no time to mince words, and go on about what a decent performance this was, and how hopefully the display and the point would act as a catalyst for substantial improvements. Nope. Austin rather unloaded his incandescence over the officiating that he perceived to have denied Southampton three massive points, a sense of distaste echoed by his manager.

‘It is not good enough, the performance of the referee’, said Mark Hughes. ‘All we want in a game is the key match-defining moments to be correct. It is a skill, a talent and a referee has to have that or they won’t be at this level. The ref today is a little inexperienced.’ the manager continued. ‘It is unfortunate and a bad mistake. He admitted it on the pitch. I mean for goodness sake, he needed a bit of help. These decisions affect what we are trying to do here.’

For a man who doesn’t need much reason to bellyache at refereeing decisions, this scenario was like handing Hughes a loaded gun of whinges. And they weren’t without reason, Austin’s goal was very much legitimate and should have stood, and that may well have killed the game off in the Saints’ favour, secured a much-needed win, and eased the pressure on their Welsh manager. Yet before Austin’s moment, Watford should have add a stonewall penalty.

Hughes noted that as well, but dismissed it with ‘our goalkeeper could have saved it, but ours was a goal’ (not necessarily in those exact words). He also had a point in the clarity and definitive means of both situations, but just as Watford could have missed the penalty they weren’t given, who’s to say the Hornets wouldn’t have rallied, pulled off a mini-miracle to score three times after Austin’s goal that wasn’t given. Or had Watford been awarded a penalty, would events still transpire that would result in Austin getting to put the ball in the net? After all, hello, chaos theory!

But that’s a debate for another time. Clear and case in point here is the fact that wrong refereeing decisions were made. And they weren’t the only ones of the weekend. In Fulham’s game away to Liverpool, the Londoners looked to have taken the lead at Anfield when Aleksandar Mitrovic headed in a cross, only for the offside flag to cut short their celebrations, and just as Slavisa Jokanovic and his side were reeling from the decision, they would concede straight away at the other end. Replays showed Mitrovic might just have been onside, but, in the space of 14 seconds, instead of going a goal up, the Cottagers would go a goal down, on their way to sixth league defeat on the bounce.

‘Instead of being 1-0 up we are 1-0 down’, said Jokanovic afterwards. In this country you normally cannot show disrespect to a referee but it is a little bit of a problem when they show disrespect to myself, my team and the Fulham supporters. The situation was a little bit complicated but you have to be sure to make this decision.’

They need help. You have to be sure to make this decision. Key match-defining moments to be correct. Those are the key and pertinent words, which all just about lead to the same thing: VAR. Of the top five leagues in Europe, the Premier League is the only one still to adopt the Video Assistant Referees, and the decision to not implement the technology for this season means every decision with a semblance of controversy, any officiating issue gets the same reaction; why didn’t you get VAR?

That has been on the rife since this season begun, last season in fact, and will continue till such a time when Premier League chooses to espouse the video technology. Premier League referees need help, is the saying; but here’s a rather absurd question, are Premier League referees starting to show that they want help? It’s outlandish to state that a referee does not want to do his job properly, and this is in no way implying that. But perhaps there is laxity in their decision-making? Perhaps the Premier League referees look at the referees in other leagues and think ‘well, they’re getting help, why shouldn’t we?’ The vote as to whether the English top-flight should adopt the technology, which happened last April and went against VAR, involved the Premier League clubs, but took into little account referees, the men who would, after all, be at the forefront of these decisions.

This is not to say VAR is perfect; far from it – this column in itself is quite vocally anti-VAR, and decisions in other leagues have also highlighted its flaws. Bundesliga clubs have branded it a shambles in many cases, with some of their clubs’ Twitter accounts bellowing ‘VAR you kidding me’ on occasion, and in this same concluded weekend, in Barcelona’s La Liga loss to Real Betis, it also showed that VAR, being ultimately subject to human interpretation, will continue to have its itchy moments. But it would still help in cases, eliminate some elements of controversy, and, in the case of the referees, will shift the hands of blame from them to the technology.

It does seem only a matter of time before VAR is implemented in the Premier League, with its domestic cups already implementing them, and the technology already being deployed in the league in September, although that was said to have no communication with any of the games then. It’s only a matter of time before VAR makes it entry in the league, but until then, referees continue to remain in the firing line. Continue to be the subject of player, manager and fan fury. Continue to need help.

Elsewhere

  • Despite the refereeing uproar in the Southampton-Watford and Liverpool-Fulham games, the most baffling decision of the weekend came in its first game at the Cardiff City stadium, where Sol Bamba scored a late winner for the hosts, took off his shirt in celebration, yet wasn’t booked. According to Bamba, he was asked by the referee if he took off his shirt, and he said no, thereby escaping a booking.
Is it just us, or does it look like he took off his shirt here
  • It finished goalless at the King Power stadium, but that was hardly relevant. This was a first game for Leicester since the passing of their chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, with their immediate past three managers around to pay their respects.
  • It was derby delight for Manchester City, who looked a cut and a half above their neighbours Manchester United, in a 3-1 win that didn’t flatter the champions. United are 12 points behind the leaders with 12 games played. For all their recent comebacks, erasing that deficit would be the greatest recovery of all.
  • Glass half-empty: Wolves are winless in four; Arsenal have one win in five. Glass half-full: Arsenal are unbeaten in 16, and demonstrated their resolve to rescue a point in a game where they looked well below-par; Wolves have taken points against Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United.
  • Bottom in October, Newcastle have shot up the table. Two wins and into the comparatively lofty heights of 14th.

Results

Southampton 1-1 Watford

Manchester City 3-1 Manchester United

Crystal Palace 0-1 Tottenham

Leicester 0-0 Burnley

Cardiff 2-1 Brighton

Chelsea 0-0 Everton

Huddersfield 1-1 West Ham

Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Arsenal 1-1 Wolves

Newcastle 2-1 Bournemouth

 


The fans were outraged. A plane had been arranged to voice displeasure over his position. Before that, supporters aimed to rip off the banner which had his face and the message ‘The Chosen One’. David Moyes’ post-match, after Manchester United lost heavily at home to Manchester City in March of 2014, was famous for the manager speaking about United having to get to City’s level. That caused some displeasure, to say the least, among the Old Trafford faithful, over their manager stating that the team have to get to the level of a side whom they finished 11 points above in the previous season.

A month later, fans got their wish, Moyes was axed, but it’s been over four years since that statement, and not only do the Scotsman’s words seem true, they have also been echoed by the current United manager. Jose Mourinho says things that many disagree with, and some disagree with the fact United aren’t at City’s ilk because they don’t spend as much, but one thing that’s not debatable is the fact that United are not at City’s ilk.

In the past five seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and Moyes came in, the position differences between City and United have been six, two, one, three and one place respectively, and in none of those seasons have United been the top Mancunian side in the league. In that time, City have been league champions twice, while the only semblance United had of competing in a title race was last season, when they finished 19 points behind, there you go, Manchester City.

Not only are they seemingly on different planes, they look to be heading in different directions. At the start of the season, talk was of whether City would go on to win the title at a canter and with such a margin like last term; while at United focus was on whether there would be Third Season Syndrome with Mourinho at United. It looked to be heading that way in August, after two defeats from their first three league games, it also looked to be heading that way in September, after a hapless loss at West Ham, but things have steadied so far, just one defeat since that game at the Olympic Stadium, at home to a Juventus side whom they beat in Turin last Wednesday.

Yet despite the positives that that win brought, it still says much of the current times that it was deemed as a famous victory, a monumental achievement rather than a norm. It says so much of how far United have fallen that any rise should be celebrated, any punch high is deemed above their weight.

Not that winning against a solid Juventus side shouldn’t be celebrated, beating a hitherto unbeaten side who hadn’t conceded a goal in the Champions League this season until that night is a definite positive. But the sense of inferiority United had going into both games against the Italian champions, shows the fact that the Red Devils will have the underdog tag in big games.

That’s the tag Mourinho seems to have wanted to have with United, the Portuguese has always thrived when seen as the unfancied side, the ‘little horse’ in his words, and that’s the tag United look to be holding so far, not least as they visit the Etihad for the Manchester derby this weekend. The title already seems gone, United already look like outsiders for the top four, so the small fry status is already in play.

Victory at the Etihad is not impossible, neither is it improbable, United have been improving lately, and they did win at the Etihad in April. But this isn’t just about victory. It’s about the fact that the outcome of this game only happens in the moment. The Manchester derby is still a huge game between bitter city rivals, but it is hardly much of a big game involving title rivals.

Elsewhere:

  • Things aren’t going well for Fulham, the Cottagers dropping to the foot of the table after defeat at Huddersfield on Monday night, and it doesn’t look to be getting any better, as they travel to Anfield. It may be a good time to face a Liverpool side who looked awful and commonplace in their Champions League defeat at Red Star Belgrade on Tuesday, but with Fulham not knowing how to defend, advocates of Slavisa Jokanovic will hope the Serb’s future doesn’t hinge on this.
  • After the raving and praise over their start to the season, Wolves have been brought well back down to earth with three defeats in a row. Nuno Esprito Santo’s team visit a high-flying Arsenal side this weekend, so they’ll have to get statement result to get back on their feet.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Wolves

Crystal Palace v Tottenham

Cardiff v Brighton

Chelsea v Everton

Liverpool v Fulham

Manchester City v Manchester United

Huddersfield v West Ham

Leicester v Burnley

Newcastle v Bournemouth

Southampton v Watford


The celebration of the first goal was one of defiance, first from goal-scorer Santi Mina, then teammate Geoffrey Kondogbia, just about highlighting the pressure Valencia have been coming under, and how much importance this game against Young Boys in the Group H of the UEFA Champions League had. ‘We wanted to stay alive in this beautiful championship and the reaction of the players was very good because we came from an unfair defeat’, said Los Che manager Marcelino.

Things have looked unfair for Valencia of late, struggling in games, one win and eight – eight! – draws in the league so far this season, the previous weekend’s result was a defeat at home to Girona, when they did everything other than the find the net, and on the occasion they found the net, the Video Assistant Referee stepped in to deny them.

There was no VAR in midweek, yet it seemed like Valencia’s luck wasn’t going to change for the better, as when Rodrigo was put clean through, the flag went up for offside, and replays showed it was the wrong call. But things got a much better feel minutes later, as Mina put them in front, reacting first after Carlos Soler hit the post with an initial effort. Valencia looked to be in the ascendancy, but in a move that typifies their season so far, they were pegged back, Rory Assale finding the bottom corner to give the Swiss side parity.

However, Los Che wouldn’t let their heads drop, and they found a reward again, Soler with a delightful that was poked home by Mina for his second, four minutes before halftime. ‘He is a player that last season had a great performance’, said Marcelino of Mina. ‘This year he started playing, then he had the bad luck to be injured and has returned with a lot of energy.’ Mina did exude a lot of energy on the night, in his movement, his goals, and even his goal celebrations. ‘I think all the players are hungry and everyone wants to win, but they all suffered more than they should because of what was happening’, added the manager.

There have been quite an amount of relative ‘suffering’ in the Valencia side this season, even their only league of the season was laboured. But here, they got something they’ve barely had all season, a cushion, a margin for error, as a third goal early in the second half, from the excellent Soler, gave them a two-goal lead. Valencia finally had room to breathe, they could finally keep an opponent at arm’s length, and they did, despite some huffing and puffing from the Young Boys side, Valencia were in control, and probably should have added more to the scoreline.

It hardly mattered little when the final whistle went, signalling a first win in the Champions League this season, which gives them a glimmer of hope for qualification for the last 16. It also gets a victory monkey off their backs, with Marcelino quick to note how important it is to keep winning, particularly on the domestic front. Marcelino also admitted uncertainty when asked whether this is a turning point of the season, but he’ll hope so; for the first time in a while, they didn’t seem to be choking on the pitch. For the first time in a while, they won with room to spare. For the first time in a while, luck didn’t desert them.

Valencia have two games left in this group, at Juventus and at home to Manchester United, qualification wouldn’t come easy, if it does come. But that’s not the immediate concern right now, that’s winning at Getafe in the league this coming weekend. Even in the long run, the Champions League campaign might ultimately not matter. If this proves to be a catalyst for a resurgence, it might not save their adventure with the European elite, but that’s hardly Valencia’s big picture here. Their entire season is what’s in play.

  • Smash and Grab for United in Turin

It looked like another defeat at the hands of Juventus for Manchester United, another defeat that was a formality; Cristiano Ronaldo had given the Italian champions the lead, and only some lax finishing prevented the Bianconeri from going out of sight. But United, having ridden their luck, would take full advantage, first a wonderful Juan Mata free-kick drew Jose Mourinho’s side level, then a set-piece from Ashley Young caused mayhem in the Juventus area, and resulted in an Alex Sandro own goal. Within four minutes, United turned a sure-fire defeat into the unlikeliest of wins, and have gone from dropping out of the top two in Group H to taking a significant step towards the last 16.

Elsewhere:

  • Oh, nothing to see here, just another day when Manchester City struck six past an opponent, making it 19 goals in four games. This half-a-dozen win over Shakhtar Donetsk does get extra spotlight for Raheem Sterling’s blatant dive that won a penalty for the second goal of the game, but City are firmly top of Group F.
  • Speaking of Group F, it was another late show involving Hoffenheim, with the Germans needing a late equaliser to get a 2-2 draw at Lyon. For Lyon, it was the ultimately tossing of a healthy position, as Les Gones had a two-goal lead and a numerical advantage with 25 minutes to go, yet had to make do with just a point. Bruno Genesio would need no telling how much of an opportunity they passed up, and suddenly it’s become a battle for second place involving three teams.
  • Five goals for Real Madrid at Plzen, two for Karim Benzema, 11 goals scored without reply in three games under Santiago Solari. Yet it’s obvious that Real are still far from getting there.
  • A monumental day in Belgrade for Red Star, the minnows stunning Liverpool to a two-goal win, thanks to a double from Milan Pavkov, to plunge Group C right into chaos. In their two home games in this group, against Napoli and Liverpool, the Serbians haven’t conceded a single goal.
  • Things looked to be going south for Spurs again, a goal down after a minute against PSV at Wembley, whatever slim hopes of qualification they had looked to be fading fast. But two late goals, thanks to Harry Kane, has them breathing again, on a Wembley turf PSV manager Mark van Bommel didn’t sugar-coat its features. ‘It’s shit’, said the former Barcelona midfielder.
  • More misery for Monaco and Thierry Henry, as his Monaco side were battered on home soil by Club Brugge, the Belgians getting a first win in the Champions League proper in 13 years.

Results

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Dortmund

CSKA 1-2 Roma

Manchester City 6-0 Shakhtar Donetsk

Red Star Belgrade 2-0 Liverpool

Inter 1-1 Barcelona

Benfica 1-1 Ajax

Lyon 2-2 Hoffenheim

Juventus 1-2 Manchester United

Monaco 0-4 Club Brugge

Plzen 0-5 Real Madrid

Tottenham 2-1 PSV

Porto 4-1 Lokomotiv Moscow

Valencia 3-1 Young Boys

Napoli 1-1 PSG

Bayern Munich 2-0 AEK Athens

Schalke 2-0 Galatasaray


‘When you put on this shirt, you know you have arrived at the very top; there’s no greater honour’, said a 19-year old Sergio Ramos, when the current Real Madrid skipper joined the club from Sevilla in 2005. Also, Sergio, when you put on the shirt, you know there’s little margin for error, little room for laxity. Too much success is still hardly enough success at the Bernabeu, and no amount of achievements can bring room to rest on your laurels, not even a bit.

Hence, the whistles the Real players received from the Bernabeu faithful on Saturday. That was the first league game under Santiago Solari, the first league game since the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, ergo the first league game, and more importantly, the first home game, since the utterly unacceptable trouncing at Barcelona in the Clasico, which, despite the hard-fought and unconvincing victory over Valladolid, fans haven’t shied away from showing their continued discontent. Which explains a celebration of defiance from Ramos himself, who scored Real’s second, from the penalty spot.

Defiance is one of things Los Blancos need at the moment. Upon his (temporary) appoint, Solari said to have found a group ‘in pain but eager to start and reverse the situation’. And if Saturday’s game offered any semblance of evidence, then the situation is quite a tough one. Not only do the European champions have ground to make up in the league – they are seven points off the top in La Liga – they also have to get the crowd back onside.

The fans don’t seem to ready to get onside at the moment, the wounds of the Clasico are no close to healing, not to talk of the scars going away; so, perhaps a Champions League game against Czech side Viktoria Plzen is the most ideal at the moment. Not because they’re less-fancied opponents. In fact, because they’re less-fancied opponents, this might feel like a no-win situation. Win, and the reaction is ‘well, it’s Plzen’, the result gets sniffed at, and its significance is downplayed, victory will still be seen as baby steps on this road to recovery. Lose, and the repercussions are unthinkable.

Rather, Plzen are the ideal opponents because it’s a game away from home, away from what seems like an angry unforgiving mob of a Bernabeu stadium right now. Playing away might suit Los Blancos at the moment, there might be less pressure, less whistles, the atmosphere is likely to be less toxic, and in truth – no disrespect to Plzen – the Czechs are less-fancied opponents.

Real’s road to redemption is long. They still have quite some penance to make. Victory at Plzen is hardly much of a positive and hardly makes much of an impact in that regard. Yet victory at Plzen is a must.

Elsewhere:

  • Life at Monaco hasn’t begun well for Thierry Henry, who still remains winless as manager of the French principality club, and recent results have seen them drop to 19th place in the league, four points from safety. They are without a European win since April 2017, and will have to break that duck on Tuesday against Club Brugge, to have any hope of progressing from Group A.
  • Hoffenheim are also running out of chances, and time, to stake a claim towards progressing to the last 16. Julian Nagelsmann’s debutants sit bottom of Group F after 2-2 and 3-3 draws and a 2-1 defeat. There has been the drama of late goals in each of Die Krachgauer’s games in this group so far; a relatively boring game would suffice if it comes with a win, as they travel to Lyon on Matchday Four.
  • Tottenham’s Champions League campaign may well be done and dusted. One point from three games, the chances of Spurs progressing in Group B are remote, if not impossible. After a 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture in Eindhoven, they host PSV, aiming to kick-start the unlikeliest of miracles.

Fixtures

Plzen v Real Madrid

Lyon v Hoffenheim

Red Star Belgrade v Liverpool

Atletico Madrid v Dortmund

Tottenham v PSV

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk

Juventus v Manchester United

Monaco v Club Brugge

Inter v Barcelona

Bayern Munich v AEK Athens

Napoli v PSG

Valencia v Young Boys

Schalke v Galatasaray

Benfica v Ajax

Porto v Lokomotiv Moscow

CSKA v Roma


Episode Two: *Puts Music Player on shuffle play*. Not this song…not this song…not this song…

Throwback memories: Come back from school on a weekday. Hurry through the irrelevances like bathing (who cares), eating (meh), and not doing homework, then you put to the television to Channels Television, for some delightful Tom and Jerry. But midway through the probably sixth episode in a row, with suspense building in, the people in charge at Channels cut you off, the ‘pa ram pam pa pa ram’ sound signifies news, so that’s the end of it, and you’ll probably never get to see the end of that episode. So, do you: a) develop eternal hate for Channels TV (yes), or b) blame yourself for not just watching Silverbird Television instead.

But we digress. It’s the second edition of the load of gobbledygook, the awards people deserve and need, but don’t know it yet; yes, that’s how we’ll console ourselves that whatever this is has relevance, and we begin with (no, not this song either…):

Father of the Month

Luis Suarez grabbed a hat-trick in Barcelona’s Clasico demolition of Real Madrid, five days after welcoming his third child, and when congratulated on his treble afterwards, he asked ‘which one?’. Iago Aspas was in hospital to see his wife give birth, spent the night in a couch, then the next day bagged a hat-trick of his own, for Celta Vigo against Eibar. But our winner is the man who showed he’s the kind of dad who’s got your back. After Julen Lopetegui got sacked by Real Madrid, his father, Jose Antonio talked about the injustice his son suffered at the Bernabeu, in terms of the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo, his words being ‘they have stolen 50 goals from my son’. Speaking of his son…

The I-Can’t-Come-and-Kill-Myself Award for Putting things in Perspective

Before Lopetegui received the sack, ahead of the Clasico defeat, the (former) Real Madrid gaffer was asked about life after the Clasico for him. His reply? ‘I expect to keep breathing whatever happens’.

Best Delivery

Soccer Nation on Julen Lopetegui getting canned by Real Madrid.

Seems-about-right Award for Best Timing

Kylian Mbappe, reprimanded by PSG manager Thomas Tuchel for turning up late for training, signs a deal to become brand ambassador for Hublot Watches about 24 hours later. Nice.

The How Could You Miss That of the Month

This is hard to explain.

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

Edinson Cavani’s gobsmacking miss from five yards for Paris St. Germain against Napoli in the Champions League. The offside flag didn’t quite save him from complete scrutiny, though.

The Raymond-Reddington award for Fugitive Not on the Run

Jose Mourinho; the Manchester United manager speaking, after his side’s win against Newcastle, on how there’s a manhunt about him. For a man supposedly under a manhunt, he seemed comfortable knowing the world knew his location at the time.

The Headline That Should Have Been of the month

In the Nigerian Nationwide League One this month, Fortune FC suffered a 4-3 defeat at the hands of Barrier FC. The game went unnoticed, so everyone missed out on the headline ‘BARRIER BEAT FORTUNE’. That was sitting right there.

The Lasema-Response-Unit-becomes-LRU Award for most Redundant title.

Barcelona v Real Madrid is called The Clasico, or EL Clasico, not ‘The El Clasico’, please.

Best Substitution

Not the best substitute to come in, but the best substitution to be made. Nicely done Atletico Clube Goianiense.

The Boyfriend Award for  Thoughtful Gift With Bad Execution

Queens Park Rangers' gesture on wishing Angel Rangel a happy birthday on Twitter was nice, if not routine; except Rangel's birthday wasn't for another month. But you can't beat Romanian Dunarea Calarasi, who made a thoughtful choreo for manager Dan Alexa. As thoughtful as it was awful.

The Hunter-Zolomon award for Creating Time-Remnant

Bruno is a Brighton legend in more ways than one, as the Spaniard managed to watch and play in the Seagulls’ win over West Ham at the same time.

Most absent-minded

Thierry Henry to his translator in his first press conference as Monaco manager.

Stat of the month

At the middle of October, Paco Alcacer had seven Bundesliga in 106 minutes for Dortmund. Absurd. Here’s another: Paul Pogba took longer in his penalty ‘run-up’ for Manchester United against Everton than Usain Bolt takes to run 100metres. But our winner is: Gibraltar have won more competitive games in two months than Germany have in the whole of 2018.

The Federal-Government award for Most Reasonable Defence

Tottenham v Cardiff. October 6, 2018. Spurs win by a an Eric Dier goal to nil, but the talking point comes when Cardiff’s Joe Ralls is sent off for a wild tackle on Harry Kane. Cardiff manager Neil Warnock didn’t see it as worthy of a red card, though, his claim being Ralls didn’t endanger Kane’s life. Indeed. Well Warnock does have a refereeing license.

The Not-Lauren-at-Eastlands Award for Ludicrous Own Goal

Perhaps this should be the Juninho Bacuna award. Either way, look away now Jayden Bogle.

In Conclusion: This column doesn’t like Channels TV, Arsenal are back back back, and Solari will win three Champions League titles in a row with Real Madrid. Now to anticipate the relegation battles to come in the UEFA Nations League.

Not this song…not this song… Ha, Finally!


This time last season, Alvaro Morata was winning the battle of the strikers. The 11th weekend of the 2017/18 Premier League season saw Chelsea host Manchester United, with the star strikers they had signed in the summer. For United, their forward Romelu Lukaku fired blanks for a fourth successive league game, while for the Blues, Morata headed the only goal of the game, his seventh league strike for the club, and more importantly a big-game decider.

But if that was supposed to spell or act as a springboard for a joyous time in the capital for Spanish striker, it hasn’t turned out that way. Morata only scored four more league goals last season, only seven more in all competitions, not the best reading for a 75million-pound striker. ‘The last year was difficult for me, with injury’, said the forward after Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace this weekend, a game in which he scored twice and was named man of the match. ‘I played not fit, and now I’m good’.

Morata does seem to be looking good lately, actually playing football, not seemingly getting it over with. Actually seeming to enjoy the game, not getting burdened by playing. It didn’t look to be the case towards the end of last season, with the striker looking to have lost all will to play. Perhaps it was a case of getting settled in his first season at the club, but he started well, six league goals in his first six games.

Maybe it was a case of realising that Diego Costa’s shoes were quite big to fill when the going got tough, when pushed turned to shove, when the getting-to-know-you points of the season faded and the hustle and bustle part took over, but for Morata something seemed to go missing. Something seemed to be weighing him down. The unlucky misses graduated to glaring and never-should-have-been misses, and then advanced to the Spaniard not being in positions to get chances anymore, and then becoming second fiddle to Olivier Giroud as the campaign reached its ember stages.

That bad season ended up costing him a spot in Spain’s World Cup squad, the man who led the line in the European Championship in 2016, who seemed to fit perfectly with the Spanish system, was hardly worth a lick two years after. The form and mood rolled into this new campaign, Morata looking off the pace in most games, Giroud might not have provided, but his hold-up and link-up play, particularly with Eden Hazard, was reaping dividends for the club, something Morata wasn’t doing. And even in games in which Morata scored, the celebrations seemed mute, subdued, like it hardly mattered. Like it was just about getting it done with and moving on. Perhaps it was the knowledge of his poor form, but Morata seemed to be on island on the pitch, even when the Blues were having fun under Maurizio Sarri, he didn’t seem to be.

Didn’t; the key word. Because Morata seems to now. If he goal and celebration at Burnley at the end of October showed he was finally playing football, then his goals and celebrations at home to Crystal Palace showed he’s finally enjoying playing football, finally enjoying scoring. ‘Alvaro has improved in the last month in confidence and personality’, said Sarri. ‘He has also improved from the technical point of view, now he’s able to play more with the team. He has physical and technical potential and I think he can improve more.’

Sarri seems to be right on all counts, Morata highlighted his physical and technical improvements in the way he took his goals against the Eagles, while he showed his improvement in confidence when he had time and tried to chip Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey late on, which didn’t come off. Perhaps the most important thing about his goals this weekend, was the fact that they were the goals that decided the match. Morata’s previous goals in the league have just about been inconsequential or would be rendered ultimately inconsequential, but this time he wasn’t just a goal-scorer, but a match-winner as well.

It’s important to not over-elaborate things, though, to keep things in perspective. After all, Morata’s tally was higher than this last season, and in this win over Palace, for the first 23 minutes he only touched the ball three times (thanks for that Football365, by the way). Sarri stated afterwards that Morata has to ‘play for the team and his team-mates’, and those stats of the first 23 minutes don’t make for good reading in that regard.

But Sarri was also keen to mention that Morata is young and ‘can improve very fast’, and improvements are showing. Goals are a striker’s currency, and Morata looks to finally be paying. More importantly, he seems to be having fun doing so.

  • United fail to completely convince, but mount second-half rally again

Sometimes number define everything. Going into stoppage time at Bournemouth’s Vitality stadium, Manchester United were on the cusp of just two wins in nine games, drawing a game they probably should have already been beaten in since the first half. ‘At halftime, I thought I was the luckiest manager in the Premier League, to be at 1-1 in a half in which it should be 5-2 or 6-2 (to Bournemouth)’, said United manager Jose Mourinho as he acknowledged a rather awful first half from the Red Devils.

But Mourinho also rightly highlighted his side’s improvements in the second period, another game in which United improved after a lacklustre first 45 minutes. Marcus Rashford popped up with a late winner, and now the numbers read; three wins in four in the league. The conviction might not be completely there, but the improvements and results are undeniable.

Elsewhere

  • It was an emotional moment 10 minutes after halftime at the Cardiff City stadium, as Demarai Gray put Leicester in front, in the Foxes’ first game since the tragic passing of chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Off came the shirt and the message ‘For Khun Vichai’, as the squad gathered. Then after the celebrations, came the caution, as Gray was booked for removing his shirt. This is by no means an indictment on referee Lee Probert, who had no choice but to enforce the rules, but isn’t it time the rules were reviewed?
  • If this game at home to Liverpool was supposed to show how behind Arsenal still are in terms of development and matching the rest of the top six, then it failed to do that. The Gunners produced a performance that stymied Liverpool, and there was no sense of deflation when they went behind almost against the run of play, no sense of ‘not this again’ that has pervaded the club in recent past. Their equaliser and point was deserved, so was the applause from the Emirates faithful at fulltime. Arsenal are still far being title challengers, and might not even make the top four this season, but the signs of progress are almost impossible to ignore.
  • It was a first win of the season for Newcastle, at the 11th time of asking, Ayoze Perez’s goal seeing the Toon past Watford to halt a run of five straight home defeats. More importantly, Rafa Benitez’s side are out of the drop zone, until Fulham and Huddersfield meet, that is.
  • Manchester City weren’t at full tilt, yet put six past Southampton. Just like they weren’t at full tilt when they put five past Burnley some weeks ago. Just usual, champion stuff.

Results

Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool

Cardiff 0-1 Leicester

Manchester City 6-1 Southampton

Wolves 2-3 Tottenham

Chelsea 3-1 Crystal Palace

Everton 3-1 Brighton

West Ham 4-2 Burnley

Newcastle 1-0 Watford

Bournemouth 1-2 Manchester United

Monday Night Football: Huddersfield v Fulham


Two defeats in 10 league games. Two defeats in 15 in all competitions. You can forgive an Arsenal fan for expecting a higher number in the loss column at this stage of this season back in August. Then, the Gunners began the season with back-to-back defeats, a hapless loss at home to Manchester City and a narrow defeat at Chelsea; the uncertainty that met pre-season was getting replaced with dread just two games into the Unai Emery era.

But the Gunners have rallied since then, unbeaten in the next 13 games to date. In fact they have won all but one of those games, a 2-2 draw at Crystal Palace last weekend, amassing 11 successive wins. The North Londoners haven’t completely convinced in those games, but have managed to get the result, as well as showed signs of things clicking into gear.

One point of note that has caught the eye is the fact that Emery’s side haven’t beaten any side in the Premier League’s current top six, the two games they’ve played against sides in that bracket were the defeats to City and Chelsea. Simply put, the Gunners have beaten the sides below them, and lost to the ones above them, showing that we should neither get carried away, nor fail to see the feel-good atmosphere building at the Emirates.

That feel-good atmosphere is likely to face its biggest test since the opening day of the season, with Liverpool coming to the capital this weekend. Liverpool haven’t show total conviction themselves so far, Jurgen Klopp’s team getting a few hairy wins, but the Reds remain unbeaten in the league and are second, only behind champions City on goal difference. Their fearsome front three haven’t quite clicked into gear so far this season, but look to be on the way, with Sadio Mane bagging a brace and Mohammed Salah getting a goal and two assists last weekend, and, along with Roberto Firmino, are likely to be the biggest test the Gunners defence will face so far.

That backline has been one of the areas which have served as cases in point for sceptics to sniff at Arsenal’s run of form. Emery has seen his side keep just two clean sheets in ten league games so far, owing as much to defensive soft-centeredness as it does to the team acclimatising to the ‘playing from the back’ philosophy. The Gunners have also not started games in the best way this term, they haven’t led at halftime in any league game so far this season.

Those are traits they’d hope to not show this weekend, with a ruthless Liverpool team coming to visit, who, unlike most of the teams Arsenal have faced so far, will hardly offer up any room to recover in games, or make-up for or get away with slapdash defending. But the Gunners are seen as underdogs going into this game, a lack of pressure, unlike the past, that could well play into their hands.

Arsenal have been making progress. No matter how little or flawed, no matter how unconvincing or the sniffs of ‘yeah, but…’- they’ve been making progress. Defeat at home to Liverpool might not even dampen that progress, but it will show how much progress still needs to be made. A win, and suddenly that progress becomes a statement.

Elsewhere:                                                                                                   

  • The last time Southampton went to Manchester City, they suffered a late defeat, and the Saints’ Nathan Redmond was told by opposition manager Pep Guardiola that he didn’t do as much as he could, didn’t do as much as he did in his previous game at the Etihad. In the 34 league games since then, Redmond has scored once, 3.5% of the Saints goals since – which is 28 by the way. The Saints have failed to score in 14 of those 34 games in that time, and haven’t scored in five in the league this season. Doesn’t make for good reading as they visit the champions.
  • Slavisa Jokanovic may have been backed by Shahid Khan lately, but the Serbian knows results have to come much sooner for him to stay in the Fulham job. The Cottagers have conceded 28 goals this season, haven’t kept a single clean sheet so far, and have slipped into the relegation zone in the past couple of weeks. They visit Huddersfield on Monday night, the Terriers themselves in no better mood, as they remain winless in the league. Cliché it; it’s a six-pointer.

Fixtures

Manchester City v Southampton

Chelsea v Crystal Palace

Cardiff v Leicester

Wolves v Tottenham

Bournemouth v Manchester United

Arsenal v Liverpool

Newcastle v Watford

Huddersfield v Fulham

Everton v Brighton

West Ham v Burnley

 

 


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