School’s over, Lads!

Okay, in truth school has been over for quite a while now, it was a case of the couple that were bound to settle scores that school time didn’t quite help deal with (FA Cup final), and those representing the school in external competitions (Champions League final). Then again, here’s the awkward question; why bother with the effects of cups if this is a Premier League report? Well, there’s a reason why the academic system is so flawed. We delivered the mid-term report at the turn of the year, so we get full-term with the season having reached its end. So, who’s going to Mommy with anticipation of a bad summer, who has ‘can do better’ all over them, and who’s the top-class student we didn’t want to see leave.

Arsenal

An unquestionable disappointment, especially since the turn of the year, as the Gunners fell completely fell out of the top four equation as the season wore on. Much (dis)credit lies with their away form, they didn’t get any away point in 2018 until the final day. Attention turned to the Europa League once domestic issues seemed a bridge too far, but their dream ended in the last four. Alexis Sanchez finally left in January, trading places with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also arrived in winter. Oh and Arsene Wenger has stepped down, so there’s that.

Would they have taken this in January: Surely not. They weren’t in the top four at the turn of the year, but were still very much in the mix. Another year without Champions is definitely disappointing.

Top performer: Nacho Monreal earned his call-up to Spain’s World Cup squad, having looked like the only Gunner interested in playing for the whole season. Aubameyang also showed signs of more to come with 10 league goals since arrival at the start of the calendar year.

Should have done better: Petr Cech finally reached the milestone of 200 clean sheets, but didn’t do much to inspire confidence this season, so has been handed the No.1 shirt. Hector Bellerin blew hot and cold, so has been handed the No.2 shirt. Granit Xhaka still looks less than assured, Sead Kolasinac faded after a bright start, Shkodran Mustafi also didn’t inspire much confidence in defence… actually there’s too many of them, why did we start naming individually?

In the dugout: Wenger finally stepped down after 22 years, to commemorative plaques, standing ovations, and emotional banners. After long speculation linking the Gunners with Thomas Tuchel, Carlo Ancelotti and Max Allegri, Unai Emery is the new manager at the Emirates.

Grade: D

 

Bournemouth

It was the same outcome for the Cherries, start badly, don’t panic, pick up form, in February, survive comfortably. A 12th-placed finish is more than satisfactory for Eddie Howe’s side, dangerous question would the fans start to expect more?

Would they have taken this in January: Their season may have petered out a bit in the end, but given they were firmly lodged in the relegation fight at the turn of the year, then YES.

Top performer: Nathan Ake proved to be a quality signing as expected, Lewis Cook played into England’s World Cup standby list, while Josh King’s contributions to the side are more than just his eight goals.

Should have done better: Asmir Begovic should have been an upgrade on Artur Boruc in goal, but surprisingly performed below expectations. Same can be said of Jermain Defoe at the other end, and then there’s Jordan Ibe.

In the dugout: To Bournemouth’s pleasure, there’s little chatter on the Howe-is-bound-to-leave-eventually board.

Grade: B-

 

Brighton

An undisputable success of a first ever Premier League season. 15th place doesn’t quite highlight how impressive their campaign was, Chris Hughton knitting a side greater than the sum of its parts, not that the parts were any bad. Memorable wins at home over Manchester United and Arsenal were icings on a very delightful cake.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely. Survival was always the aim, and it was achieved with room to spare.

Top performers: All of them. Fine, you want names? Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy’s partnership was more than impressive, as were Dale Stephens and Davy Propper. Jose Izquierdo and Glenn Murray were also notable performers, but none comes close to Pascal Gross. Brighton’s German creator-in-chief only cost 3million last summer, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t attract offers in this window.

Should have done better: Errr… in January we went for Anthony Knockaert, so let’s go with that again. Don’t ask. We said the academic system is flawed.

In the dugout: Chris Hughton is definitely not going anywhere.

Grade: B

 

Burnley

Burnley are ranked as the seventh-best team in England; that’s just about the only way to put their phenomenal season. Much was made about how they’d struggle due to the previous season’s away form, but they amassed more points on the road in 2017/18 than they’d previously done overall. They have European football waiting. Again, phenomenal.

Would they have taken this in January: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Yes. They occupied this spot at the start of the year, but wouldn’t have even minded 17th then, let alone 10 places higher.

Top performers: Everyone. From promoted-to-starting-line-up James Tarkowski at the back, Jack Cork in the middle, Jeff Hendrick behind any of the lone forward, Johann Gudmundsson out wide, and any of the regular forwards- Sam Vokes, Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood- it’s been brilliant all round.

Should have done better: The signings weren’t quite good, mostly because they couldn’t quite crack into a settled side. Charlie Taylor, Georges Kevin Nkoudou, and Nakhi Wells stand out in that particular area.

In the dugout: Sean Dyche will surely stay put, with European football on the horizon.

Grade: A+

 

Chelsea

Tumultuous season all-in-all, manager discontent, supposed squad unrest, finishing outside the Champions League spots. Typical title defence campaign for the Blues, as they had to settle for fifth place. FA Cup final seems more of a blow softener than season saviour, and Antonio Conte looks like he’s headed for the door marked ‘Do One’.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely not. There were more than signs of discontent at the club at the turn of the year, but dropping out of the top four is nigh-on unacceptable.

Top performers: Ngolo Kante remains ever-reliable, as Cesar Azpilicueta remains ever-consistent, while Eden Hazard is still the go-to man. Antonio Rudiger had a strong finish to his debut season at the club, while Andreas Christensen’s campaign may have stumbled to the finish line, but the Dane still made significant progress.

Should have done better: Alvaro Morata began life at Stamford Bridge like the ideal replacement for Diego Costa, but ended it with evidence as to why the Chelsea’s number nine shirt might be hexed. Tiemoue Bakayoko didn’t cover himself in glory for much of the campaign, neither did Pedro, or Victor Moses. The less said about Ross Barkley the better.

In the dugout: Literally everyone is waiting for Antonio Conte to be sacked soon.

Grade: D

 

Crystal Palace

It’s no longer news that they began the season with seven straight losses, during which they scored zero goals, then chairman Steve Parish, weeks after preaching about the long-term planning that would come with manager Frank de Boer’s philosophy, sacked the Dutchman in September. In came Roy Hodgson, who didn’t just steady the ship, but eventually sailed it to mid-table.

Would they have taken this in January: Definitely. Things didn’t look as grim in December, as they did two months before, but mere survival was always going to be met with elation. A place off the top half exceeded expectations, even at the start of the season.

Top performer: The likes of Scott Dann, Patrick Van Aanholt and James Tomkins deserve honorary mentions, while loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek played his way to England’s World Cup plane, but there’s no iota of doubt that the brunt of plaudits should go the way of Wilfred Zaha. First stat is nine goals and seven assists from the Ivoirian, the second is the fact that Palace lost all 10 league games they played without him, including those first seven.

Should have done better: None of the men between the sticks merited much praise, hence the acquisition of Vicente Guaita from Getafe. A stat of two league goals is nowhere near good enough from Christian Benteke.

In the dugout: Hodgson stays on, even at 70.

Grade: B-

 

Everton

All the optimism that came with the summer had evaporated by winter, and it didn’t return during spring, if anything it got worse. From the surveys, the booing of players and manager Sam Allardyce, the latter of whom seemed to not notice the fans’ distaste, the Toffees’ season was one long, tedious, journey.

Would they have taken this in January: Given that they spent most of the first half of the campaign battling to keep their heads above water, they would be more satisfied with eighth place. The issue was more of how they played their way to that position.

Top performer: Idrissa Gueye remains reliable in midfield, Jordan Pickford did little wrong in goal, while seven goals is not bad for Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Should have done better: Everyone else? Fans let Morgan Schneiderlin know what they thought of his performances, same for Ashley Williams. The summer signings barely impressed.

In the dugout: Big Sam has been binned, and Marco Silva appears the favourite to succeed him.

Grade: D

 

Huddersfield

Picture the celebrations at Stamford Bridge after a point for the Terriers secured them survival, and you might just understand its gravity or how much of a surreal journey this is. Some fans are shaking their head in disbelief over promotion in 2017, let alone this.

Would they have taken this in January: You bet.

Top performer: Just like promotion, it was an enormous team effort from the Yorkshire club, so let’s credit manager David Wagner then.

Should have done better: Tom Ince, perhaps. But crediting their success as a team effort means he gets little stick.

In the dugout: There are rumours linking Wagner with Leicester City. Picture the Huddersfield fans covering their hears and humming when they hear such.

Grade: A

 

Leicester City

Ninth place for a team like Leicester should be considered a success, yet there’s still ounces of discontent at the club. From the poor run of form to end the season, the complaints over manager Claude Puel’s training methods, the ripple effect of their 2016 success still has a giant shadow around the King Power.

Would they have taken this in January: Probably, given their second-highest finish in the Premier League era. The fact that seventh place, and Europe, looked to be for the taking means there’s a tinge of disappointment.

Top performer: Jamie Vardy bagged 20 league goals this season, with minimum fuss. Harry Maguire earned a spot in England’s squad to Russia. But the team just doesn’t look the same without Wilfred Ndidi.

Should have done better: Riyad Mahrez continues to go one way and the other, surely it’s time to let him go, Kasper Schmeichel regressed a bit, yet not as much as Wes Morgan. Kelechi Iheanacho ended the season in fine form, but didn’t get a league goal until March.

In the dugout: Rumours of the Foxes dismissing Puel are rife. Call Pellegrino?

Grade: C

 

Liverpool

A more than commendable season for the Reds, a top four finish turned out to be achieved with some comfort, while they thrilled in Europe, emerging as the Champions League's top scorers, before losing the final to Real Madrid in Kiev. Some errors from goalkeeper Loris Karius in the Ukrainian capital aside, not really much to complain about.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely. Top four and getting the knockout phase of the Champions League was the aim, and it was surpassed in truth.

Top performer: Roberto Firmino still bubbles under, Sadio Mane still has the tendency to be inconsistent, but still did little wrong, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was unlucky to get injured and ruled out of the World Cup after such a terrific season, while Andy Robertson is already a fan favourite. But none come close to Mohammed Salah, the man who swept all the awards this season. His 32 league goals is a 38-game record, his 44 in all competitions for Liverpool equals Ian Rush's.

Should have done better: Suddenly this section is hard. Karius improved immensely this term, but isn't without question, and he'll hope to recover from his Kiev gaffes. Joel Matip will consider this season one of utter regression, other than that, no real blemish.

In the dugout: Jurgen Klopp will surely remain, and will hope this entertaining side adds a trophy to their name.

Grade: B+

Published in International Watch

The end of the season: such a routine time, where the expected play themselves out: some teams reveal kits for the new season (yes, you, Everton), Manager XYZ says he’s leaving club XYZ at the close of the campaign, a tearful farewell follows the departure of a long-serving cult hero at a club, and Real Madrid win the Champions League (just typical).

Oh, right, and also, supposed writers run out of gas and opt to take a look at those Premier League players who might well switch clubs at the end of the season (or June 30 in Football-Managerish). It’s the ti…errr.. like I said, out of gas. So, straight to it then. Who are those players you could just about bet on to switch clubs after the season is read its last rites?

Arsenal

It’s likely there’ll be a raft of changes at the Emirates come the end of the season, the biggest one being the departure of Arsene Wenger. After 22 years, the French gaffer will call time on his Arsenal tenure at the end of the campaign, and it’s not unlikely that some players will also depart. Jack Wilshere’s contract runs out at the end of the season, as does the recuperating Santi Cazorla (although there’s an option of a one-year extension for him), while there are rumours linking Hector Bellerin with a move away. And with a new manager coming in, there’s expected to be a squad shake-up. No rest for the Arsenal revolving door in the summer, then.

Bournemouth

With first team opportunities hard to come by lately, Artur Boruc might well move on at the end of his contract in the summer. Harry Arter remains linked with the exit door, the rumours putting West Ham in front of the queue. Marc Pugh and Rhoys Wiggins are also out of contract at the end of the season.

Brighton

There’s always a worry for the Seagulls that bigger guns might come calling for Pascal Gross, who has been involved in 44% of the team’s goals in the Premier League this season. Liam Rosenior and Steve Sidwell will have no contracts once the season ends, and are likely to be moved on. Same might go for Niki Maenpaa and Uwe Hunemeier.

Burnley

There’s the big Burnley conundrum in terms of who’ll be in goal next season. Tom Heaton is arguably the best English goalkeeper in the league, but having been side-lined for most of this season, his deputy in Nick Pope hasn’t done too badly, even managing to force his way into World Cup contention. Both are good for number one spots at club level, and come next term, it’s likely one would move in search of it. Stephen Ward and Dean Marney are out of contract soon, while Scott Arfield has already agreed to join Rangers (no, not the one in Enugu).

Chelsea

It’s not Chelsea if there’s no forthcoming change for a new season once an old one is coming to a close, and this term looks to be no different.  Antonio Conte looks as likely to stay at Stamford Bridge next season as pigs are to fly, Chelsea are reportedly in talks with other managers already, and this- coupled with the fact that Champions League football for the next campaign is unlikely, means changes to the playing staff as well. David Luiz has spent most of this season- injury or otherwise- out of the team, Danny Drinkwater’s time at the club looks to be coming to an end, and it remains to be seen whether Tiemoue Bakayoko would get another season to get into shape, while backup goalkeepers Willy Caballero and Eduardo are out of contract in the summer. The big question is whether Eden Hazard would stick around for a second season with European elite football in three years. One thing’s for certain, though: there’ll be lots of loanees, as always.

Crystal Palace

Palace’s problematic position for the past couple of years has been in goal, with the men between the sticks having rarely convinced. All three are about to be out of contract, though, as Julian Speroni, Wayne Hennessey and Diego Cavalieri are bound to be free agents by the end of the season (although Vicente Guaita is due to join from Getafe). There’s also bound to be a hairy transfer window for the Eagles, with Wilfred Zaha likely to be subject of speculation, while there’s uncertainty surrounding Christian Benteke- even if he has said he intends to stay. Joel Ward, James McArthur, Bakary Sako, Lee Chung-Yong, Damien Delaney, Yohan Cabaye and Martin Kelly are also out of contract soon (I know right, too long).

Everton

There’s bound to be another busy summer for the Toffees, not least in terms of the exit door, likely starting with manager Sam Allardyce himself. The likes of Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen and Cuco Martina are likely to be moved on after just a season, while fans would pay to drive Ashley Williams away. Joel Robles becomes a free agent once the season ends.

Huddersfield

Errr…. Not much to talk about here. Dean Whitehead and Rob Green are soon to become free agents, but (not to sound mean) who’d really miss them? Aaron Mooy might attract clubs in the summer. 

Leicester

Goalkeeper Ben Hamer runs out of contract at the end of the season, as does Robert Huth, who’s been out of the side this season thanks to a combination of injury and Harry Maguire. Riyad Mahrez has reportedly revoked his transfer request, but his case is still tagged under ‘remains to be seen’. Currently out on loan players Leo Ulloa, Islam Slimani, and long-serving Andy King are likely to also move on. As is customary at the time of the season, Claude Puel is reportedly likely to be dismissed.

Liverpool

The big transfer issue for Liverpool, since Philippe Coutinho said bye, has been Emre Can, who runs out of contract in the summer. The injured German is under Juventus’ radar, and there have been reports of a deal being signed with the Italian club. The right-back position looks rather clogged, and one of Nathaniel Clyne, Joe Gomez, and Trent Alexander-Arnold might well move on, something Daniel Sturridge would also be considering. James Milner and Alberto Moreno can also leave on a free at the end.

Manchester City

Who’d wanna leave? Okay, Yaya Toure has confirmed his departure at the end of the season, while loanee Eliaquim Mangala’s contract runs out. Joe Hart would also return from his temporary stint at West Ham, but surely be on the way out again.

Manchester United

Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw. The young left-back has been subject of some finger-pointing by manager Jose Mourinho, and there wouldn’t be a shortage of clubs coming in for English defender, who’s departure from Old Trafford seems inevitable. Michael Carrick retires at the end of the season, Anthony Martial remains linked with the exit door, while Marouane Fellaini’s contract issue remains unresolved. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind are also bound to leave. Have I mentioned Luke Shaw?

Newcastle

Most of the Magpies’ squad is still comprised of their Championship side, even if some of them don’t appear on the pitch. Much depends on whether or not players arrive, although the likes of fringe players in Jesus Gamez, Curtis Good and Massadio Haidara, as well as loanee Tim Krul, are all out of contract at the season’s close.

Southampton

The future of a few players, and perhaps the manager, depends on whether the Saints can avoid the drop (which is likely), while Sofiane Boufal is likely to move after his exile by Mark Hughes. Jeremy Pied and Stuart Taylor are soon to no longer have contracts.

Stoke City

With relegation having been confirmed, clear-outs are not unlikely. Xherdan Shaqiri is unlikely to follow the club to the Championship, same goes for Joe Allen (picture Brendan Rodgers in Glasgow with open arms). Glenn Johnson, Jakob Haugaard, Stephen Ireland and Charlie Adam all run out of contracts soon, but dropping them a tier might make the team reconsider.

Swansea City

Another side whose players’ futures might hinge on whether or not they go down, although Alfie Mawson is likely to have a busy summer no matter what. The likes of Martin Olsson and especially Lukasz Fabianski are bound to move on should relegation be the case, while Ki Sung-Yeung is out of contract and has been linked with AC Milan, while long-serving veterans Leon Britton and Angel Rangel are also soon to be free agents.

Tottenham

It’s the stuff of mini-battles at Tottenham, with the likes of Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld seemingly on the losing side of off-the-pitch tussles with manager Mauricio Pochettino. Both have a fair amount of suitors, and both are likely to be moved on. There are also rumours of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama leaving, while Fernando Llorente might consider the exit door considering the (lack of) playing he has had. Backup goalie Michel Vorm is soon to be out of contract.

Watford

It’s not Watford if you don’t expect change at the end of the season. Manager Javi Gracia only arrived in January (on an 18-month contract), yet there are more than a few suggestions that he might be shown the door once the season reaches its close, especially with their usual end-of-season form. Any potential managerial change is always likely to lead to changes in the playing staff as well, so expect departures as well as arrivals- some Hornets fans might bite your hand off for the opportunity to drive away the inconsistent Etienne Capoue. Miguel Britos is out of contract at the end of the campaign.

West Brom

With relegation now sealed, there’s going to be changes at the Hawthorns, beginning with the managerial post. Ben Foster has declared his intention to stay even in the Championship, but clubs are surely going to come for defender Johnny Evans; Salomon Rondon has done his reputation little harm, and will lure admirers, while the likes of Nacer Chadli and Jay Rodriguez might remain in the top-flight with someone else. Chris Brunt might stick around, but his contract is currently due to expire at the season’s end, same goes for Gareth Barry, James Morrison, Gareth McAuley, Claudio Yacob and Boaz Myhill.

West Ham

If the fans had their way, the changes would begin from the boardroom. They might well settle for the departure of manager David Moyes, whose short-term contract runs out at the end of the season. Same applies for James Collins and Patrice Evra, the latter of whom is unlikely to get any renewal. Expect Robert Snodgrass to depart almost as soon as he returns from his loan at Aston Villa.

Published in International Watch

Rewind back to a fortnight ago. Manchester City, one league defeat to their name all-season, and four in all competitions- two of which were inconsequential, prepared for a weekend game at Everton. A win there would give them the chance to confirm the league title at home to neighbours Manchester United, and though their record at Goodison had been a bit underwhelming, on the evidence of this season, victory there looked a sure-fire certainty. And so it proved; by halftime City were in command, the win already in the bag, now it was United next, but first a Champions League quarter-final first leg across Merseyside awaited.

But a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, after a chaotic 19-minute period, had them staring at European exit. Nevertheless, there was still the chance to win the league in front of United, and by halftime in the Mancunian derby they were two up, in control, and should have been out of sight. Yet, almost inexplicably, they managed to turn a position of complete dominance into utter desperation, this time it was a 16-minute period, and their 2-0 advantage became a 2-3 deficit, that they would never recover from. There was more misery to come in Europe again, as, despite City threatening a comeback with a fast start and a dominant first half, they would suffer another loss to Liverpool. Suddenly, in the space of six days, Pep Guardiola’s men have gone from near-invincible to a pack of cards, the tendency to fold all too common now.

It might well have been different, with the ever-so-common what might have been situations: what would have happened had Pep not set them up to be short-handed at Liverpool and if they didn’t panic in that first half at the back. What would have happened if Raheem Sterling had buried those first half chances against United. What would have happened if Leroy Sane hadn’t been wrongly disallowed by the linesman’s flag in the second leg against Liverpool. But that’s the thing about what might have been situations, they never happened, and because they never happened, in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that City are out of the Champions League, and haven’t won the league yet. They might not even do it this weekend, even with a win, but it’s just as important to find a response to a troubled week, as they face another tough test.

In terms of what might have been, none will be wondering this season than Spurs. What might have been: had they started the season well at Wembley; had they not had that torrid run in November and December; had they not been caught napping by Juventus in the Champions League in March. Yet here they are, unbeaten in 14 league games, 20 domestic outings, but have nothing more than a top four spot and a semi-final place in the FA Cup to show for it. They are well lodged in a top four place, despite their November-December scare, 10 points behind fifth-placed Chelsea, level on points with third-placed Liverpool, but having played a game less; even second place is not unrealistic, only four points separate them from United. A win at Wembley this weekend, and they all but seal their place in the Champions League next season, a win and they keep pace with Manchester United, a win and they retain their advantage over Liverpool.

A win, also, and they would have beaten all the sides in the top six at Wembley bar one. For all the talk of how much the stadium would be a drawback (and it did start like it), Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal have all tasted defeat here, and not just defeats, deserved defeats which probably should have been by even greater margins, only Chelsea managed to nick a win in August. They will be full of confidence going into this game, thanks to their form and the fact that City look like they’re there for the taking, like they can fold with the littlest form of pressure, and there’s what the league leaders need to avoid, the growing sense of invulnerability, the fear factor perhaps diminishing, the psychological beating of teams perhaps been chiselled away. It’s the sort of reputation that sort have built so far this season, and wouldn’t want to trample so late in it. A win here and they would have won away at Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs in the same season, a rare feat. More importantly, though, a commanding win here, and the sneers are discarded.

Elsewhere:

  • Separated by seven points and five places, Stoke’s chances of catching West Ham, not too dissimilar with their chances of survival, look like they will boil down to their Monday night trip to the London Stadium. They’ve won only once in 10 games under Paul Lambert, and have a knack for not scoring. Get one here early, though, and they might just benefit from a potentially tempestuous atmosphere.
  • In another game with potentially massive consequences at the bottom end of the table, it’s derby day as Brighton travel to Crystal Palace. Chris Hughton’s side are within touching distance, even though they passed up quite an opportunity against Huddersfield last weekend. A win this time, and they would be on the cusp of survival, not to mention the added bonus of keeping their 17th-placed rivals firmly in the mire.
  • Mark Hughes would have had cause for optimism over Southampton’s performance at Arsenal last weekend (who wouldn’t), but as they host Chelsea on Saturday lunch-time, the question isn’t whether they can kick on but rather bag wins, even draws will hardly help their cause anymore. Chelsea’s semi-crisis wasn’t helped by last weekend’s stalemate against West Ham. At least one of these team’s worries will find little relief this weekend.
  • Oh, and there’s every chance Mohammed Salah would continue his scoring spree as Liverpool host Bournemouth. Shame that he’ll miss out on the golden boot, given all of Tottenham’s goals from now till the end of the season are likely to be awarded to Harry Kane.
  • And in what’s basically a Europa League play-off, Burnley play host Leicester City. Who’d have thought that in September?

Fixtures

Tottenham v Manchester City

Liverpool v Bournemouth

Manchester United v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Brighton

West Ham v Stoke

Swansea v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Burnley v Leicester

Huddersfield v Watford

Newcastle v Arsenal

Published in International Watch

It was supposed to be the game that would rekindle memories of Bobby Moore, 25 years on from the death of the World Cup winning captain. Alas, it’s a game whose own memories will be rekindled in the future, for all the wrong reasons. A seeming siege on the directors box, various pitch invasions, alleged assault on stewards amidst a 3-0 home loss emphasised the point, that all is far from well at West Ham United.

‘Every time we lose we and the board get a lot of stick. It seemed today that the fans had had enough’ said club captain Mark Noble afterwards, who was in the spotlight for an altercation with a fan who had stormed onto the pitch after the Hammers fell behind to Burnley. ‘I’m a West Ham fan and I’ve always protected the club. If someone approaches me, I’ll protect myself’.

In terms of protection, the ones who needed it the most were the West Ham owners, as David Gold and David Sullivan had to be escorted out of the stadium in the 86th minute, not long after fans aimed a lot of distaste at the director’s box. ‘They wanted to show their emotion’ added Noble. ‘When fans come to the game with the hump, they know how to show their emotions’. ‘The atmosphere was horrible. We know a lot of it isn’t aimed at the players, but we have to be man enough to play in that atmosphere’.

And the atmosphere at the London stadium has rarely been pleasant ever since the move from the Boleyn Ground in 2016, there’s been enough stadium unrest on that ground that has generated news. The animosity of the supporters, building up to this weekend, has been evident for a while, not least since what was viewed as a disappointing January transfer activity at the club. The Irons came into this game with Burnley on the back successive 4-1 away defeats, but did have a decent first half, both off the pitch and on it. ‘I thought we played well in the first half, had two great chances and probably should have been in front at halftime’ said manager David Moyes. ‘The first goal was always going to be crucial today, whoever got it’.

And it did prove crucial, as after Ashley Barnes put Burnley in front in the 66th minute, it barely took much time before the little kerfuffle between Noble and the West Ham pitch invader, right after a female steward was knocked to the ground. Four minutes later, West Ham went two down, and another pitch invader came on, this time with a corner flag. Then a third, and further incursions, by then the co-chairmen had been taken out of the ground, but not without hearing chants of ‘You’ve destroyed our fucking club’, ‘We’re not West Ham anymore’, and ‘it’s all lies, lies, lies’ among others.

‘We massively have to stick together. If anything now, I’d say to the supporters, I’ll do everything I can for the players…’ said Moyes. With the fans now well on their backs, survival would be a less straightforward. Survival, a term that definitely wasn’t on the team’s minds after the move to this stadium, that’s supposed to signal progress, and the season that preceded it. The future indeed.

Two for Two for Burnley

Once focus veers away from West Ham and their mutiny for a moment, it’ll be worth pointing out that Burnley have now mustered successive wins, having sought a first win of the calendar as late as last week. Now on 43 points, and three points clear of eighth-placed Leicester; while returning striker Chris Wood now has three goals in two games.

Rashford for United on Derby Day

13th minute at Old Trafford. David de Gea goal-kick. Romelu Lukaku beats Dejan Lovren to the ball. Marcus Rashford gets in front of Trent Alexander-Arnold, cuts inside and fires a superb shot past Loris Karius and into the top corner to put Manchester United ahead. 24th minute. De Gea with another goal-kick. Lukaku beats Lovren to the ball again. Rashford, following a little melee in the box, fires an effort which deflects in off Alexander-Arnold. From them on it was a masterpiece in defending from the Red Devils, especially the returning Eric Bailly, his inexplicable own goal aside, as they held on for a precious league win, to keep them firmly in second place. For Liverpool, it’s now eight league games without beating United. It was a subdued performance- to say the least- from their front three; Jurgen Klopp’s men drop to fifth.

Elsewhere:

  • Three goals. Three points. 13th spot. It was a confident showing from Newcastle as they routed relegation rivals Southampton, and the Magpies are now on 32 points. The Saints, meanwhile, stay in 17th place, and a Monday night win for Stoke will see Mauricio Pellegrino’s side drop into the red zone.
  • It was a show of character from Tottenham, as four days after European elimination at the hands of Juventus, Spurs came from behind to notch a 4-1 win at Bournemouth. Injuries to Harry Kane and perhaps Dele Alli might well be an inconvenience, but it was another goal-scoring outing from Son Heung-Min; the Korean has five goals in three games.
  • Speaking of show of character, it was three and easy for Arsenal, who followed up their win in Milan with a romping of Watford at the Emirates. A crowd that needed rallying certainly commended as the Gunners fired on all cylinders, Mesut Ozil in particular, but the most memorable fact would probably be a 200th clean sheet for Petr Cech. The first ever Premier League shot-stopper to reach that figure, the Czech veteran also saved a penalty, for the first time in the Premier League in 15 attempts. There was no such joy for Watford skipper Troy Deeney, victim of Cech’s penalty save, who, back in the reverse fixture in October, accused the Gunners defence of lacking cojones, and on this occasion was to listen to chants of ‘what’s the score’ from the home crowd.

Results

West Ham 0-3 Burnley

Huddersfield 0-0 Swansea

Newcastle 3-0 Southampton

Everton 2-0 Brighton

Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace

Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool

West Bro 1-4 Leicester

Bournemouth 1-4 Tottenham

Arsenal 3-0 Watford

Monday Night Football: Stoke v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

With City having over seven first team players ruled out for the 1-1 draw against Burnley last Saturday, Guardiola named only six players on the substitute bench for the game - and that made Garry Neville to refer to the City boss as a ‘joke.’

Though the City U-23 team had a match on Friday night, the former United defender argued that Guardiola should have featured a youth team player on the bench on Saturday.

Neville claimed the academy manager would have felt he was wasting his time at the club.

And at his pre-match conference for the tie against Leicester City, Guardiola said he chose not to name an academy player as his seventh substitute at the Turf Moor because City Under-23 had a game the previous night and he never wanted to upset their plans.

Guardiola said Neville should know about his decision because he was a manager for “a short time”, a reference to Neville’s four months spell at Valencia.

Guardiola said: “This guy {Neville}, the pundit, he has to know my job is serious, it’s not a joke, never is it a joke.

“It’s so serious, and he should know that because he was a manager for a short time.”

Neville has been at the centre of some funny commentaries recently – the 42-year-old last week also said that Karius was at fault as the Liverpool keeper should have done more to save the Wanyama’s strike in Liverpool 2-2 draw at Anfield last Sunday

But what a clap back from Pep! How that lasts is left to be seen.

Published in International Watch

It’s almost impossible, almost criminal in fact, to mention the FA Cup and not talk about its reputation for delivering shocks. Where else would you find a squad of part-timers and next-to-nobodies go full throttle against a team of superstars and come out on top? That teams don’t read the script has become the script of this competition, hence the prestige with which they revere it.

These days, though, the question is, do shocks really happen? That seems like a rather daft question: after all Lincoln City (from non-league) got to the last eight last season, beating Premier League Burnley on the way, the same season when League One side Millwall triumphed over then-Premier League champions Leicester City, and Championship struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers won at mighty Liverpool. Heck just three weeks ago, League Two’s Newport knocked out Leeds- two leagues above them- and Nottingham Forest were too much for Arsenal. But excuses keep popping up for most of those games, Burnley and Leicester would have been said to be relieved of the burden of an extra leg-tiring and wearing competition as they fought to survive in the Premier League, Liverpool were supposedly left to battle to keep their top four spot intact, while Arsenal’s loss at the City at the City Ground earlier this year, generated more headlines on the lacklustre squad and the future of manager Arsene Wenger than the Forest victory.

And over the years, it has kept happening. For almost a decade, of the three teams that get promoted from the Championship to the Premier League, only two have made it past the Fourth Round of the FA Cup (Hull City in 2016 and Huddersfield last season), both of which got promoted via the play-offs. For the rest, it has seemed like a case of ‘put it aside, we have much bigger business to attend to’. Arsenal have won the competition in three of the past four seasons, but before the run started, Wenger had emphasised the importance of finishing in the top four over lifting the country’s most prestigious, but least financially rewarding, competition. Wenger’s stance was echoed by Paul Lambert, then Aston Villa, who prioritised survival, while in 2014, Sam Allardyce fielded a weakened West Ham XI that was trounced 5-0 at Nottingham Forest.

So it was no surprise to hear David Moyes, current West Ham manager, prioritise league safety over the cup. Speaking about the fate of the Hammers upcoming opponents, Wigan, the Scot found it ‘a strange thing that they won the FA Cup and were relegated five years ago’. If you look back and ask Wigan if they’d rather have won the cup or stayed in the Premier League, I think their people would have rather stayed in the Premier League’. With West Ham facing a crucial home game against Crystal Palace on Tuesday after this, it’s clear what the target is for Moyes.

And who could blame him, or any of the managers treating this competition more of a burden than a chance of glory, with the financial benefits of getting to or staying in the Premier League ludicrously overwhelming. Wigan had their day in the spotlight following that FA Cup triumph over Manchester City at Wembley, but three days later they would lose their Premier League status. The following season they got to the Semis, and lost in the Championship play-offs, and they’ve suffered two further relegations since. Surely the Latics fans would have wondered what might have been if they hadn’t made it that far that season, how their fortunes might have been, if they hadn’t (ironically) won big on May the Fifth of 2013.

With Yeovil Town hosting Manchester United this weekend, alongside games involving Newport and Tottenham and Cardiff against Manchester City, there’s room for shocks. But with City fighting on four fronts (what seems like a ready-to-use excuse should they get knocked out of one), Cardiff having an eye on top-flight promotion, Yeovil battling to survive in League Two and Tottenham seeking to maintain their top four chase in the league, will there really be shocks, or simply, no matter the end result, fixtures to get out of the way?

 

 

Published in International Watch

They say the new season is akin to the first day of school, there’s that student/club that looks renewed, sporting a new, defiant look, while there’s the one who never wanted summer to end, the one who looks the same, and the one who looks roaring to go, among others.

There’s a touch of optimism from even the biggest cynic at the beginning, but the giant dose of reality comes in form of the mid-term, where your slackness and laxity is confirmed (okay this is getting a bit… just get on with it).

So, how well have the Premier League sides done so far, the tops, the nearly there, the nearly there but won’t be there, all the way to the bottom of the barrel. And there will be grades of course, not like they matter in the real world or anything:

 

Arsenal

The ever-growing, or rather never-ending conundrum, it’s been another season of swinging one way and the other, the tone of which was perfectly set with their opening game, that 4-3 win against Leicester. Sixth place, 21 points off the top, definitely doesn’t read well (although that’s more to do with the leaders themselves). One point from the Champions League spot, and into the League Cup semis is a cause for optimism. They haven’t done badly in the UEFA Europa League either.

Would they have taken this in August: Two places and a point off the top four and into the last four of a domestic cup, perhaps. Their home form has been impressive as well, although they’ll look at the manner of some of their five league defeats with disappointment.

Top performer: Hector Bellerin has had some good patches, but not quite consistent enough, whatever Mesut Ozil does will be met by ‘let’s see if he can do it again so soon’, Alexandre Lacazette has eight league goals and hasn’t done too bad. But it might just be Sead Kolasinac. Even though the Bosnian has tailed off a bit lately, he announced himself with that late equaliser against Chelsea in the Community Shield, and has grown to be something of a fans favourite.

Should do better: Aaron Ramsey hasn’t offered consistency this season, while Alexis Sanchez has spent the half-season like someone stopped from leaving. The backline is still a worry, the loss of concentration at the centre of the defence isn’t worthy of praise, and Petr Cech in goal has barely covered himself in glory.

Grade: C

 

Bournemouth

Another season, another stumbling first half, as Eddie Howe put it, it’s ‘only the expectations that have changed’. But the Cherries are in the bottom three at Christmas for the first time since promotion two years ago, looking a bit caught in the middle of continuing being adventurous and trying to evolve in terms of defending. Improvement is imperative.

Would they have taken this in August: Probably not, the fans wouldn’t have predicted a storming season at the start, but they would have been at least expecting to be above the relegation zone. The supporters are a patient bunch, though, and there could be quiet optimism that they’d come out looking good by spring.

Top performer: Nathan Ake started the season in indifferent form but has been showing Bournemouth why they wanted, while goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has been an undoubted upgrade on Artur Boruc.

Should do better: Despite scoring twice as recently as at Crystal Palace, one of which was an absolute howitzer, Jermain Defoe will surely feel like he can do more. Compared to Jordon Ibe, however, he has moved mountains.

Grade: D

 

Brighton

Five points clear of the drop zone at Christmas, it’s fair to say the Seagulls’ first ever Premier League season hasn’t been bad. They’ve only lost twice at home all season, against Manchester City and Liverpool, and are sitting pretty(ish) in 12th.

Would they have taken this in August: Clear of the drop zone was the key aim. The distance would have mattered little, that they’re only a point off the top half is a cause for delirium.

Top performer: The defensive pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy have been a hit, despite the latter having mustered three own goals so far, while in goal Mat Ryan has shaken off his shaky start. Glenn Murray has also proven quite reliable up front, but no one is more influential than playmaker Pascal Gross, the German has four goals and five assists so far. At some point he was involved in all of Brighton’s league goals, and whether or not they stay up, you fear for the Seagulls holding on to him come next summer.

Should do better: Huh, this is a tricky one. Brighton have been a truly collective machine so far, it’s quite hard to point out anyone and say they’ve fallen short. Perhaps Anthony Knockaert, he hasn’t quite produced the kind of flair that he showed last term. Then again that was in the Championship, the lack of flair also owes to the gameplan and the Frenchman has more than contributed to the side in terms of hard work, but let’s go with him.

Grade: B

 

Burnley

This season’s fairy-tale side, despite losing key men in the summer, the Clarets lie three points away from fourth spot. Much was made of their shoddy away form last term, but they’ve lost less games away than at home this season, taking points off Liverpool, Tottenham, and Chelsea. Sean Dyche still continues to be ignored by the bigger sides, music to the ears of Burnley.

Would they have taken this is August: Are you kidding? Lost their best defender in the summer, their goalkeeper to injury early on, and a key midfielder earlier this month (Robbie Brady), yet the Clarets have kicked ‘second season syndrome’ in the jaw.

Top performer: The whole team plus Sean Dyche and the fans? Well to point out a few players, James Tarkowski has been rock-solid at the back, Nick Pope has proved a more than valuable deputy for Tom Heaton in goal, Jack Cork looks like a steal from Swansea, even Ashley Barnes and Kevin Long have contributed their fair share.

Should do better: Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

Grade: A+

 

Chelsea

They were in crisis when they lost on the opening day against Burnley, they were defiant at Tottenham the following weekend. They were in crisis when they lost at Crystal Palace in early October, they were defiant when they beat Manchester United in November. That’s been the story of Chelsea season so far, seemingly one defeat away from turmoil, no matter what happens. Antonio Conte had conceded the title a few weeks ago after defeat at West Ham, the champions have even fallen two further points behind (the gap to Manchester City is 16).

Would they have taken this in August: With preparations for the season constantly hampered by Conte clamouring for more players, lying in third place and into the next round of the UEFA Champions League following a rather tough group, as well as League Cup progress, isn’t quite crisis material. Then again, with Chelsea, it’s go big or go home.

Top performer: Andreas Christensen has emerged a top class defender after loan spells in Germany, even managing to keep Gary Cahill out of the side, while Thibaut Courtois still displays class, as does his fellow Belgian Eden Hazard. Cesar Azpilicueta is still their most consistent performer, but the team just doesn’t seem the same without Ngolo Kante.

Should do better: Michy Batshuayi hasn’t really covered himself in glory, although Conte choosing to go with a false nine whenever Alvaro Morata is unavailable is an indication of how much (little) faith he has in the Belgian. Tiemoue Bakayoko started slowly, but has been improving as the weeks go by, while Davide Zappacosta’s deliveries on the wing make his goal against Qarabag in September seem like a giant miscue.

Grade: B-

 

Crystal Palace

The aim in the summer was simple, long-term planning, as after Sam Allardyce announced his departure and subsequent retirement (snigger here), Crystal Palace’s decision to hire Frank de Boer with a plan of tiki-taka football was seen as a bold but commendable move. But after just four league games, Steve Parish and co. saw the Palacelona project as an ill-fated idea, realised Jason Puncheon couldn’t stroke it like Andres Iniesta, and with four league defeats without scoring, De Boer’s tenure at Inter comparatively seemed like a Captain Davy Jones journey, the long-term plan was shoved out. There was no bigger indication of that other than the appointment of 70-year-old Roy Hodgson, but to Roy’s credit, the Eagles have improved of late, and are unbeaten in eight games. That that run can only see them as high as 16th, is testament to how their early season form was. Put it this way, Bakary Sako had no competitor for the club’s Goal of the Month award in September.

Would they have taken this in August: With the aim initially a long term plan, 16th place might be understandable given de Boer’s methods were always going to take time. The fact that De Boer is now a distant memory and the manner in which their season has gone would be the disappointment. But the fans would have bitten your hand off for 16th spot had you offered it to them in October.

Top performer: Ruben Loftus-Cheek has done relatively well in his loan spell from Chelsea, even earning an England call up, but the star is undoubtedly Wilfred Zaha. It doesn’t take a genius to see how much the Eagles improved once the Ivorian international returned from injury.

Should do better: Christian Benteke has finally ended his goal drought, but hasn’t had the best season, Jason Puncheon has under-performed, while goalie Wayne Hennessey still can’t improve. Has anyone seen Connor Wickham?

Grade: D-

 

Everton

Big-money summer, Everton looked like one to watch for this season. But for the first four months, watching them was a sorry sight, the constant personnel and tactical shuffling, and with the side edging towards the bottom three, Ronald Koeman was dismissed in October. Things barely improved under David Unsworth, but the arrival of formerly retired Sam Allardyce has brought about new life, they’re still unbeaten under the veteran manager, and have moved from 17th to ninth.

Would they have taken this in August: Nope, not a chance. For a side that harboured ambitions of pushing the top six sides far, six points from seventh spot is not the best return at Christmas, even worse when you consider the side occupying that spot is Burnley, who sold arguably their best player Michael Keane to the Toffees.

Top performer: Wayne Rooney has bagged 10 league goals this season, and has been a relative hit since his return from Manchester United, but there’s no better performer in an Everton shirt this season than Jordan Pickford. Even in Everton’s darkest times, the goalie still shown, he’s already received an England cap in recognition of his performances, surely would be the first of many. Dominic Calvert-Lewin is also worth a mention.

Should do better: Step forward a few new signings. Keane hasn’t quite hit the heights that was expected in the summer, while Sandro Ramirez and Davy Klaassen haven’t had the best start to their Everton careers, and seem like victims of a change in manager. Kevin Mirallas has also underperformed, once too often.

Grade: D-

 

Huddersfield

It’s still quite hard to imagine the Terriers in the top flight, and that they’re only outside the top half on goal difference is another fairy tale of its own. Six wins already, including that famous one over Manchester United, David Wagner and his side aren’t reading the script.

Would have taken this in August: Some fans are still coming to terms with being in the Premier League, let alone in 11th!

Top performer: Jonas Lossl has been a pair of safe hands in goal, see his performance against West Brom for evidence, while last season’s key men in Aaron Mooy and Christopher Schindler have also been impressive. But perhaps their star of this campaign is Schindler’s defensive partner Matthias ‘Zanka’ Jorgensen, the Dane has been solid at the heart of the defence, his decision to buy drinks for the travelling fans for the game at Southampton only enhances his reputation with the Huddersfield faithful.

Should do better: Tom Ince has struggled for creativity since his move from Derby County.

Grade: B+

 

Leicester

A thrilling start saw them lose at Arsenal, but one win in their first eight games saw Craig Shakespeare given the boot, notwithstanding the magnitude of sides they had to face in that time. The appointment of Claude Puel wasn’t met with welcome mats by many, but the Foxes have improved ever since, they’ve only lost twice under the Frenchman, and lie in eighth place.

Would they have taken this in August: Top half and only five points from a European place, no doubt. Only penalties stopped from making the semis of the League Cup

Top performer: Kasper Schmeichel still oozes assurance and consistency, while Riyad Mahrez has found his feet after a slow start to the season. Harry Maguire has been an outstanding signing from Hull, and Wilfred Ndidi, red card for simulation aside, has done his growing reputation no harm, but Jamie Vardy is still the main man. Demarai Gray also deserves credit.

Should do better: The Foxes haven’t really had terrible performers so far, but for 25 million, surely more was expected from Kelechi Iheanacho.

Grade: B

 

Liverpool

For all the malaise that seems to follow Liverpool this season, they have only lost twice all-campaign, only Manchester City have lost fewer (okay none). The manner of those defeats though, is the cause for discomfort, that ever-fidgety backline has also been the chief reason for eight draws already this season, no side in the top half has more. Still, top four at this stage is no mean feat.

Would they have taken this in August: Top four and winners of their Champions League group, definitely. The hapless League Cup exit at the hands of Leicester is one to forget though.

Top performer: Members of the front four, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino have been impressive, as has Joe Gomez and a rejuvenated Alberto Moreno, but none comes close to matching Mohammed Salah. The Egyptian has been outstanding for both club and country, helping his nation to a first World Cup in 28 years, and has 21 goals for Liverpool this season. From the wing! In December!

Should do better: Surprise, surprise, the defence. Sadio Mane’s form has also nosedived lately. Save some finger pointing for Simon Mignolet in goal as well.

 

Grade: B

 

 

 

Published in International Watch

‘Amazing isn’t it? That’s what you work hard for on the training ground and luckily enough it paid off’ said Ashley Barnes after his late goal had helped Burnley see off Stoke, taking the Clarets to sixth place. That victory was their fourth in five games and ninth all season, and they’re only outside the top four on goal difference.

Yes. Burnley, who lost key forward and their best defender in the summer without a replacement, lost their goalkeeper and captain early in the season, and recently lost a key midfielder for the entire season in Robbie Brady are only a hair’s breadth of a Champions League spot. After the kind of summer they had, sixth from bottom would be commendable, not to talk of this. Yet Sean Dyche wasn’t quite thrilled with the team’s performance on Tuesday. ‘We were a bit below par, especially in the first half’ said the manager. ‘So we had to dig in there and do all the ugly details and finally found a moment of true quality’.

That Dyche wasn’t so pleased with the showing speaks a lot for their progress this season, they already have double the number of away points they had last season, only the champions Chelsea and the leaders Manchester City have travelled better, and they even have a better home record than the champions. Eight clean sheets, with a not-so stable backline (Charlie Taylor only made his debut in this game), it doesn’t look like a flash in the pan.

‘We’ve all earned the right to enjoy it’ Dyche added. ‘And I do because we really had to find a different way to win it tonight and work to grind it out.’ They’ve ground out two wins in the space of four days, a show of resilience if anything. Then again, Dyche isn’t one to get carried away, and says the enjoyment ‘will be parked on Thursday’ as the focus switches to the ‘next game’, as it always does.

The next game is against Brighton. Win that and they could well be in the top four. Before turning their attentions to the next game. And the next. And the next.

Elsewhere:

  • It was hard to picture any sort of resistance that Swansea would come up with against Manchester City, particularly when they went behind. David Silva continued his scoring run, bagging a double, Sergio Aguero maintained his impressive away spree this season. It was a 15th league win in a row, a new record. Their goal difference column is still higher than the goals scored by the rest. We’re not even surprised anymore.
  • Looks like the days of West Ham laying the welcome mat for opponents at the London Stadium before proceeding to serve them with a few goals are coming to an end, as a vociferous crowd was on to watch another solid performance earn the hosts a point against Arsenal. They could have had more, Marko Arnautovic saw his header (correctly) chalked off for offside in the first half, while Javier Hernandez hit the woodwork late on. They have had two clean sheets in a row, and although they’re still in the bottom three, optimism is creeping back into the East London camp.
  • Late in the game, crawling towards stoppage time, Watford hold a lead against Crystal Palace. Then Tom Cleverley lunges into a tackle, receives his marching orders, and by the third minute of added time, Watford have gone from one-nil up to 2-1 down. Another game where the Hornets suffered a narrow defeat. Another game where they had a man sent off. The loss of Richarlison to injury is no means to party either.
  • For Southampton, it seemed rather odd as they watched Leicester under Claude Puel produce some positive football, and bagging four goals, the kind of football the Saints wanted when they ridded themselves of Puel in the summer. Leicester have won four in a row, five in eight since Puel arrived, scoring 14 times. They’re eight points and three places above their opponents.

Results

Swansea 0-4 Manchester City

Burnley 1-0 Stoke

West Ham 0-0 Arsenal

Huddersfield 1-3 Chelsea

Crystal Palace 2-1 Watford

Manchester United 1-0 Bournemouth

Tottenham 2-0 Brighton

Liverpool 0-0 West Brom

Southampton 1-4 Leicester

Newcastle 0-1 Everton

Published in International Watch

On a day where Everton had all but sealed the deal to appoint Sam Allardyce as their new manager, a man they overlooked, Sean Dyche, steered his team to another win, one that sees them move up to sixth place.

The win at Bournemouth is their fourth in five games, and even the odd game out was the narrow and controversial defeat at home to Arsenal on Sunday. They’ve conceded just twice in that run, while their away victory at the Vitality stadium is their fourth this season, three more than the whole of the last campaign.

It was a deserved win as well, a positive first half where Chris Wood headed an attempt at the post, and saw another effort saved by Asmir Begovic ended with the Clarets going a goal up, Wood tucking home from close range eight minutes from halftime after Robbie Brady’s effort deflected off Steve Cook’s feet and into his path.

But Brady would steal the spotlight 20 minutes after the break, cutting inside Andrew Surman, before unleashing a beauty of a shot into the top corner from 20 yards. Burnley were the dominant side here, and you couldn’t begrudge the away fans when they were singing ‘we’re all going on a European tour’, as, despite Josh King pulling one back for the hosts, the result takes them to sixth place, four points behind fourth place, while Bournemouth conceded for the first time in November, as Eddie Howe got a sour present for his 40th birthday.

Tipped by many to go down following the losses of key men at both ends in Andre Gray and Michael Keane, as well as the potentials of ‘second season syndrome’, Dyche has taken his team to unfancied heights, his team will start the final month of 2017 in a Europa League spot. Still, the bigger sides continue to ignore him, as Everton have shown in appointing Allardyce, a 64-year-old who had previously lamented the limited opportunities given to young British managers.

Burnley wouldn’t mind Sam’s double-standards, they’ll gladly keep their man.

Young at the Double at Vicarage

Jose Mourinho looked stupefied, turning like he was almost trying to tell someone ‘did you see that?’. Ashley Young was wheeling away in celebration after scoring his second, a sublime free-kick that left Watford goalie Heurelho Gomes motionless. Five minutes ago, he had fired in a driven shot to beat Gomes at his nearpost, then Anthony Martial added another for Manchester United after Young’s second. Troy Deeney and Abdoulaye Doucoure would cut the gap to 2-3, but Jesse Lingard capped off a wonderful display with United’s fourth. Mourinho said United should have been ‘smoking cigars’ at three up, but ultimately it’s the win that counts. It did dispel two baseless press theories over the Red Devils though; that they’re boring and can’t attack.

Elsewhere:

  • Another game, another winless outcome. Spurs are sliding down fast. They’ve gone from third at the start of the month to seventh at the end of it. Little wonder Mauricio Pochettino slammed his side’s attitude.
  • 95 minutes. Manchester City were being held at home to Southampton. They had won 11 in a row in the league so far, and that streak looked like coming to an end. Then Kevin de Bruyne laid the ball off to Raheem Sterling. A right-footed curler, a touchline mayhem, and a final whistle later, City maintain their eight-point gap.
  • It was almost like Erik Pieters had Mohammed Salah in his Fantasy Premier League side as he gave that ill-advised back pass, and the Egyptian found the net with ease. That was Salah’s 11th goal of the season, as he had taken his 10th, just moments earlier, with aplomb. The travelling Liverpool fans then began with ‘how Shit can you be?  We’re keeping a clean sheet ‘. If evidence of Stoke’s misses in this game is taken into account (yes Mame Biram Diouf, you)  then very. 
  • And Everton marked the impending appointment of Allardyce with a demolition of West Ham and former manager David Moyes, Wayne Rooney bagging a treble, with his third a thing of beauty. But no, it’s not better than David Beckham’s.

Results

Bournemouth 1-2 Burnley

Chelsea 1-0 Swansea

Leicester 2-1 Tottenham

Arsenal 5-0 Huddersfield

Stoke 0-3 Liverpool

Manchester City 2-1 Southampton

Watford 2-4 Manchester United

Everton 4-0 West Ham

West Brom 2-2 Newcastle

Brighton 0-0 Crystal Palace

 

Published in International Watch

 

We’ve been here before. Not just once. These days there always seems to be a post-mortem once Arsenal are done with an away trip to the Premier League ‘big boys’, and this was no different. Four goals conceded, no shots on target, looking at sea throughout the encounter. Yet the most immediate, and perhaps most accurate, conclusion was that it should have been a lot worse. Although it would be ridiculously unfair to overlook how scintillating and irresistible Liverpool were, the biggest talking point would always be Arsene Wenger’s side’s capitulation, not for the first time in recent years under the Frenchman’s stewardship. There had been an 8-2 shellacking to Manchester United in 2011, a 6-0 humbling at Chelsea in 2014, the same year in which they were thumped at Anfield as well, by a difference of four goals. But could this be the most damaging? With players still seeking the exit door, it might be. Want-away men Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez- making his first appearance of the season- were shown no reasons why it was worth hanging around, although they hardly made a case for themselves either, while another player with an uncertain future, Mesut Ozil’s most notable act of the match was being on the brink of tears after the final whistle.

The return of Sanchez, which had been arguably the headline in the build-up to the game all week, was seen as a boost to the Gunners, but Wenger left fans scratching their heads with his decision to drop record-buy Alexander Lacazette on the bench. Jurgen Klopp made his own bizarre decision for the hosts, choosing to leave out Simon Mignolet and put Loris Karius in goal- the German’s first league appearance since December- citing that he was simply giving the Belgian a ‘rest’, but on the looks of it, he could have even given Mignolet a rest by putting him in the game. Liverpool began the game well on top, and only a combination of not-so good finishing from their winger Mohammed Salah and a good save from opposing goalkeeper Petr Cech prevented them from going in front inside 10 minutes. But Cech could do nothing on 17 minutes, when Joe Gomez’s inch-perfect cross was met by Roberto Firmino to give the hosts a merited lead. Cech could have done nothing, but the Arsenal defence should have done something. Instead, despite the return of skipper Laurent Koscielny, they stood almost in unison to watch Firmino leap to glance home the opener. Five minutes before the break, it was two, a swift Liverpool counter-attack ended with Sadio Mane scoring a very Sadio Mane goal, his third strike in as many league games. Before then, the game had seen Salah denied by Cech once again, then the linesman’s flag, and a rather comical back-heel by Gunners midfielder Granit Xhaka in front of his own goal which gave away a corner. The visitors had to improve after the break, and for about 10 minutes after the restart it looked like they did, until they won a corner on 57 minutes. Then events transpired, Salah robbed a sloppy Hector Bellerin around the halfway line, and the Egyptian ran half the length of the pitch before finishing with deadly assurance. All that was left was for Daniel Sturridge to come on and score his first goal of the season within two minutes of his entrance, crowning the Reds’ perfect day.

The traveling fans- well those that remained- watched in horror; this is not the first time in recent years they had been subjected to such humiliating conditions. And you wouldn’t begrudge them wondering whether this wouldn’t be the last.

 

Football’s Irksome Rule Strikes Again

97th minute at the Goldsands stadium, Manchester City are being held away at Bournemouth, much to their angst. Then Raheem Sterling scores the latest of late winners and runs into the clutch of the away fans. Such a nice and heart-warming moment, until Sterling returns to the pitch and is shown a second yellow card for over-elaborate celebrations by referee Mike Dean. The irritating rule remains, and in this case it begs two questions. First, the most obvious and recurring one, why are players not allowed to celebrate with the fans who chant their names and pay their wages? Second, why was Sterling the only one cautioned when clearly a herd of City players followed him into the crowd? The Englishman will be suspended for the game against his former club Liverpool, after the International break; the unsavoury end overshadowed a decent game, which had an absolute howitzer from Bournemouth’s Charlie Daniels to open the scoring. The Cherries are still waiting for their first point of the season, although the headlines of this game were the dismissal of Sterling, some fans unrest, and a quite interesting conversation between Sergio Aguero and a Matchday steward.

 

Elsewhere:

Leicester City proved to be the biggest test so far, but Manchester United still passed it. They had to wait for the breakthrough, and even missed a penalty, as it looked like being a throwback to one of many games at Old Trafford last season, but eventually the Red Devils found a way past the Foxes. Jose Mourinho’s side are three for three so far; they’ve scored 10 times, and have conceded 10 goals less.

Spurs still can’t get any joy at Wembley. It looked like they would manage to steal three points in a hard-fought and frustrating afternoon against Burnley, until the Clarets’ new boy Chris Wood struck gold for the visitors in the 92nd minute. Another sickening late collapse for the Lilywhites, who need to sort out that national stadium itch. And soon; with Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund still to come there.

In the battle of the unrests, Newcastle saw off West Ham with three unreplied goals on Saturday afternoon. It was a more than welcome relief for Rafa Benitez and the Toon, while West Ham are supposedly going to review manager Slaven Bilic’s position during the week, the Hammers lie bottom, pointless and with the worst defence in the league.

Speaking of zero points, Crystal Palace are also in that category, having suffered another home loss, this time to Swansea. The Eagles are yet to even score a league goal under new gaffer Frank de Boer; that philosophy will take a while.

 

Results

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

Manchester United 2-0 Leicester

West Brom 1-1 Stoke

Chelsea 2-0 Everton

Bournemouth 1-2 Man City

Newcastle 3-0 West Ham

Watford 0-0 Brighton

Tottenham 1-1 Burnley

Crystal Palace 0-2 Swansea

Huddersfield 0-0 Southampton

Published in International Watch

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