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

Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez is reportedly hell-bent on not returning with his teammates after Saturday’s game away at Manchester City.

Mahrez was subject of a failed deadline day bid from Man City, and hasn’t appeared for Leicester since, although he returned to training this week, and might travel with the team to the Etihad stadium. A source inside the Foxes camp, however, has revealed that Mahrez plans to not return after the game, but instead stay with the Man City squad from then on.

‘Arriving on the training ground, I saw Riyad rather hastily and suspiciously clearing out his entire belongings at the ground’ the source said. ‘I asked him why he had so much luggage, but he said it was simply for the trip to the Etihad, I wanted to ask for more information but he hurriedly left, humming some Man City chants as he was departing’

Leicester manager Claude Puel has refused to comment on this latest development, even though he hinted that he might have spotted Mahrez with a Leroy Sane mask and blueprints of Sane’s house, as well as excessive information on FC Basel, whom Manchester City play in midweek.

His Leicester teammate Danny Simpson, has also aired some suspicions about Mahrez as well. ‘I might have sneaked a look at his music playlist in training today, they seemed to be filled with goodbye songs, and Riyad was muttering something about how he might miss this place’.

**This news piece is obviously, undoubtedly and equivocally not real, goes without saying

Published in International Watch

10 Memorable UEFA Champions League Last 16 Ties

Thursday, 08 February 2018 17:02

Claps hands Tony Stark style circa ending of Iron Man 3 (Just go with it, okay!), it’s February. Yup, the second month of the year, when we enter crunch time in the football season. When managers who haven’t been sacked announce that they’ll leave at the end of the season, and when UEFA Champions League football returns.

The time when, as ITV commentator Clive Tydesley said, ‘the Champions League becomes the European Cup again’, as the knockout football takes centre stage. And there have been some rather tasty ties in the first knockout round over the years, so, with one eye on next week’s resumption, here’s 10 of the classic match-ups in this round:

Porto v Manchester United (2004)

Rather fitting that we begin with the tie in which Tydesley gives his ‘European cup’ quote, as Manchester United, having toped their group with little fuss, met in the last 16, a Porto team that narrowly escaped the group phase, and their up and coming manager Jose Mourinho (the good old days then) had a chance to pit his wits against the mighty Red Devils and Sir Alex Ferguson.

It was no gain saying United were favourites, and midway through the first period Quinton Fortune would give them the lead. But two goals from Fortune’s fellow South African Benni McCarthy, one in the first period, and the other in the second, meant Porto would take a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford in a fortnight, a game where United would be without captain Roy Keane, who was sent off at the Dragao, much to Fergie’s incandescence.

United were still favourites to go through nevertheless, and in the first half of the second leg, Paul Scholes would give them the lead, and the midfielder was unlucky to see the offside wrongly deny him a second. It stayed at 1-0 for most of the game, United as it stood would go through on away goals, until the last minute, when Dmitry Alenichev was fouled just outside the United box. McCarthy’s free-kick was pushed away by Tim Howard, but Costinha was on hand to turn home the equaliser, sparking Mourinho’s famous touchline run at Old Trafford. Porto would go on to win the tournament, and some 14 years later, Mourinho is now the home manager at the Theatre of Dreams.

Chelsea v Barcelona (2005)

Well, Mourinho again. Clive Tydesley again. After his European triumph (or triumphs) with Porto, Jose left for Chelsea, where he got tagged the ‘Special One’. The Blues were top of the Premiership and flying, while Barcelona were also ahead of the rest in La Liga when both sides clashed at the Camp Nou in the first leg. Chelsea took the lead through a Juliano Belletti own goal, an advantage they would take to halftime. But things took a big swing in the second period, when Didier Drogba was sent off for his lunge on Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The hosts pressed home their numerical advantage, as two goals in five from Maxi Lopez and Samuel Eto’o meant they would go into the second leg ahead.

But the Blaugrana would be caught unawares and left shell-shocked after 19 minutes of the return leg, as Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damien Duff all got on the score sheet to give Chelsea a three-goal lead on the night (4-2 on aggregate). Barcelona were left reeling, and in need of a lifeline, which they got after Paulo Ferreira’s handball in the Chelsea box enabled Ronaldinho to score a penalty, one which Petr Cech came close to saving. But Cech could do nothing about what happened just before halftime, as an outrageous Ronaldinho toe-poke from the edge of the box put the scoreline at 3-2, and Barcelona ahead on away goals. Chances would fly at both ends in the second half, Eto’o guilty of missing one, while Joe Cole also fluffed his lines for Chelsea. But the Blues would get back in the aggregate lead with 12 minutes left, John Terry heading home Lampard’s corner to put them within touching distance of the last eight. Barcelona sought another reply, but found none, and for the first time since the competition was renamed, no Spanish side would be in the quarter finals. For Chelsea, it was delight, as Mourinho joined the players’ celebrations after the final whistle, as Clive Tydesley declared that who could stop the Blues from European glory. The answer came in semi-finals, in the form of a familiar face in Liverpool.

Werder Bremen v Juventus (2006)

Werder Bremen had made history in the group stages, as they became the first side to lose their first three games and still qualify for the knockout phase, and in this round of 16 tie they struck first, Christian Schulz giving them the lead at home Juventus. But the Old Lady turned things around, and goals from Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet had them leading with eight minutes left. Bremen, though, showed the resolve they demonstrated in their group, and late strikes from Tim Borowski and Johan Micoud gave them a first leg advantage.

That advantage was doubled 13 minutes into the second leg, Micoud again the scorer, as Bremen started to dream of the last eight. Trezeguet grabbed an equaliser in the 65th minute, but Fabio Capello’s side needed one more to go through. It didn’t seem forthcoming, Juve seemed stuck and on the verge of elimination, until Bremen’s goalie Tim Wiese caught a corner in the 88th minute, and his histrionic roll led to the ball slipping out of his hands and into the path of a grateful Emerson, who rolled the ball into an unguarded net, and rolled the Bianconeri into the next round, much to Wiese’s horror.

Real Madrid v Bayern Munich (2007)

It was the resumption of the international rivalry between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, as they were pitted together for the fourth time in seven years. Real had triumphed in two of the previous three, and were in mood to lay off here, Raul giving Los Blancos the lead after just 10 minutes. That lasted only 13 minutes, however, as Lucio’s header pulled Bayern Munich level, but Real would take a 3-1 lead into halftime, Raul adding his second before Ruud van Nistelrooy got on the score sheet himself. Bayern looked in real trouble in the tie, but gave themselves a huge lifeline with two minutes left, Mark van Bommel’s shot handing the Bavarians two away goals in a one-goal loss.

And they took advantage quite literally as the second leg begun, an error from Roberto Carlos led to Roy Makaay scoring the fastest ever Champions League goal, and Real were chasing the game from the off. Bayern added another not long after the hour mark, Lucio repeating his first leg trick to give Los Blancos a mountain to climb. Van Nistelrooy would pull one back from the penalty spot in the 83rd minute, but they would have a goal disallowed after, Sergio Ramos the guilty party, as they bowed out of the competition at this stage for the third year running.

Fenerbahce v Sevilla (2008)

It was uncharted territory for Fenerbahce in 2008, as Sari Kanaryalar, under Brazilian manager Zico, negotiated a group involving Inter Milan, PSV and CSKA Moscow for a berth in the last 16. The Turks had been making an impression in the competition, and against Sevilla, backed by a raucous Sukru Sarakoglu crowd, took a 17th-minute lead through Mateja Kezman. Sevilla had also been impressive themselves, beating Arsenal to top spot in Group H, and levelled just six minutes after through Edu Dracena’s own goal. Fenerbahce went again and retook the lead, Diego Lugano’s thumping header just before the hour mark sending the home crowd to cacophony once again, but once again Sevilla wouldn’t lie down, and Julien Escude dragged them level again, 10 minutes after Lugano’s moment. The hosts, though, ensured they would finish with a first leg advantage, as substitute Semih Senturk grabbed a winner three minutes from time.

The second leg was just as action-packed, and less than 10 minutes had been played when Sevilla scored twice, a brilliant Dani Alves free-kick and a Seydou Keita thunderbolt put them on course for the last eight, then Frederic Kanoute added a third for the hosts, after Deivid pulled one back for Fenerbahce. But Fenerbahce and Deivid weren’t about to throw in the towel, and the Brazilian scored his and his side’s second with 10 minutes left, to force extra-time.

No goals came in the extra half-hour of football, which meant the tie would be decided by penalties. The first kicks of both sides- Kanoute and Wederson- were successful, but next weren’t, as Escude and Edu both missed. Ivica Dragutinovic and Mehmet Aurelio both scored to make it 2-2 in the shootout with three played each, but Sevilla’s next takers would fail, as Enzo Maresca and Alves were both denied by Volkan Demirel, either side of Kezman scoring, to send the Turks into their first ever Champions League quarter-final.

Real Madrid v Liverpool (2009)

Real Madrid had lost in four successive last 16 ties coming into this, they hadn’t had the best season so far, already dismissing Bernd Schuster and hired Juande Ramos, and for some reason, signed Julien Faubert on loan from West Ham (old, but still shockingly gold). Liverpool, meanwhile, had reached at least the semis in three of the last four seasons, and were locked in a title race in the Premier League. The Reds took a deserved 1-0 win in the first leg, thanks to a late header from Yossi Benayoun, and were in the driving as Real came to Anfield for the return.

Back in Merseyside, Liverpool went guns blazing, and by halftime they were two up (three on aggregate), Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard (from the penalty spot) putting them within touching distance of the next round. Gerrard added another with a lovely side-foot finish just a minute after the break, before Andrea Dossena put the gloss on the win. 4-0 on the night, 5-0 on aggregate, yet it was proof of how much more it could have been to recognise that Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas had a very good game.

Milan v Barcelona (2013)

When the draw for this tie was made, it looked a no-brainer, Milan had been less than impressive all season, and had the deficiency of Zenit St. Petersburg to thank for making it this far, while Barcelona had lost just twice all season before this first leg. But the Rossoneri produced a performance worthy of the tales of Catenaccio, defending superbly and took the lead just after halftime through Kevin Prince Boateng, and that lead was doubled late on by Sulley Muntari to give Milan a first leg advantage.

Barcelona knew they had a job on their hands in the second leg, no team had ever lost a first leg by two goals without scoring and qualified. But they got off to the perfect start at the Camp Nou, thanks to none other Lionel Messi, and the deficit was halved after four minutes. Barcelona rode their luck towards the end of the half, as M’baye Niang broke free one-on-one with Victor Valdes, only to hit the post, and right away, straight down the other end, Messi added a second, and the scores were level on aggregate with three-quarters of the tie played. Barcelona began the second period as they did the first, and David Villa made it 3-0 on the night, and 3-2 on aggregate, before Jordi Alba added a fourth in stoppage time to seal the tie. History was made, and a precedent was sent for some four years later.

Sevilla v Leicester (2017)

Leicester had defied football logic to win the Premier League in 2016, and transferred their fairy-tale powers to Europe, to advance to the first knockout phase of this competition last season. Opponents Sevilla were seeking a first quarter-final appearance and dominated the first leg, Pablo Sarabia and Joaquin Correa scoring to put them in control. But the Rojilblancos had missed a penalty much earlier in the game, and late on Jamie Vardy pulled one back for Leicester, an away goal to take back to the King Power.

By the second leg three weeks after, Leicester were lining up with a new manager, Claudio Ranieri had been sacked after the first leg loss, and was replaced by assistant Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes had won their first two domestic games under the new manager, and took the lead here through skipper Wes Morgan. Leicester were now level in the tie, and ahead on away goals, but they would take an outright lead in the second half, through Marc Albrighton. Sevilla, despite being reduced to 10 men after Samir Nasri saw red, had a chance to level on aggregate after Franco Vazquez was fouled in the box by Kasper Schmeichel, but, like the first leg, the penalty was spurned, Steven Nzonzi the guilty party this time, his week effort saved by Schmeichel, and Leicester held on for a heroic win, and a place in the Champions League quarter finals, less than 10 years playing in the English Third Division.

Manchester City v Monaco (2017)

There weren’t many ties as anticipated as this one when the draw was made back in December 2016, as it pitted Manchester City, a side with a manager that prides on attacking football, against Monaco, a youthful storming through the French first division and had amassed 100 goals by February 2017.  It was City who made the early inroads in the tie, and took the lead through Raheem Sterling, but goals from Radamel Falcao and teenage forward Kylian Mbappe ensured Monaco would go into the break in the lead. Falcao missed a penalty at the start of the second half, but made amends with an impudent chip, not long after Sergio Aguero had pulled City level. Aguero would restore parity once more with a well-taken volley, before goals from John Stones and Leroy Sane gave City a 5-3 first leg win.

Prior to the second leg, city manager Pep Guardiola had emphasised Monaco’s attacking prowess, and therefore the need for his side to score at Stade Louis II, and so named an attacking line-up. It didn’t quite work out for the visitors though, and by the half-hour they were deservedly two down, Mbappe and Fabinho with the goals that put Monaco ahead in the tie. City improved in the second half, and with 20 minutes left, Sane pounced on Danijel Subasic’s save from Sterling to make 2-1 to Monaco on the night, but 6-5 to City on aggregate. City were back in the driving seat, but Monaco weren’t done yet, and from Thomas Lemar’s free-kick, Tiemoue Bakayoko got in front of Aleksandar Kolarov to guide in the header. There would be no more goals, as Monaco went through on away goals after a 6-6 aggregate scoreline, on their way to an impressive semi-final achievement.

PSG v Barcelona (2017)

Of course. Perhaps the greatest ever Champions League last 16 tie, one that’s still fresh in the mind, and will live long in the memory. Both sides had been having under-par campaigns, and were on course to relinquish their domestic titles, but PSG were in a more questionable state, and Barcelona were still regarded as favourites for the European title. On the evidence of the first leg though, it was nothing like that, Le Parisiens had a night to remember on Valentine’s, outplaying, outthinking and outmuscling Barcelona, by halftime goals from Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler had them 2-0 up. They would add two more after the break, Di Maria getting his second, and Edinson Cavani wrapping things up. Surely the tie was over.

There was still a second leg to be played, but Barcelona had a lot of ground to make up, and no team had ever erased a four-goal first leg deficit. But they got off to a flyer, Luis Suarez pouncing on some uncertainty from PSG goalie Kevin Trapp to put Barca ahead on the night, and by halftime they were halfway to the comeback, Layvin Kurzawa’s own goal making it 2-0 on the night. Luis Enrique’s side began the second half as they did the first, and following a Thomas Meunier ‘foul’ on Neymar (yes, this column is still bitter and thinks it wasn’t one), Lionel Messi stepped up to make it 4-3 on aggregate. Barcelona had the wind in their sails, but things would take a different shape soon after, as Cavani made it 3-1 on the night, 5-3 on aggregate, and had Barca needing three more goals. The home crowd were deflated, and only some profligacy from Di Maria and Cavani prevented PSG adding more goals, the tie seemed over. But in the 88th minute, Neymar curled home a free-kick, then Luis Suarez was supposedly fouled by Marquinhos (again, still bitter), and Neymar converted the penalty in stoppage time. Now it was 5-5 on aggregate, but PSG were ahead on away goals, until the last minute, when Neymar’s cross into the box was turned home by Sergi Roberto, sparking mayhem across the pitch, the dugout, stands, commentary boxes and broadcast studios as well. Barcelona had done the impossible and erased a four-goal deficit. It was the kind of turnaround that makes one think their names were already written on the title for 2017, not to be knocked out in the next round by Juventus, although it was the latter that happened. 

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

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the Decepticons waited for quite a while for the return of Sentinel Prime, an Autobot; which was weird in its own, until it was revealed that Megatron- leader of the Decepticons- had colluded with Sentinel before the latter’s disappearance. Once Sentinel returned, the Decepticons had more than levelled the playing field against the Autobots, elevating themselves, and narrowing the distance, as well as quickening the transport (transition) of their ‘brothers’ to earth.

Paul Pogba might not be a truck that dynamically transforms into a kick-ass ‘robot’, he might not have betrayed one side to help the other, and he certainly doesn’t speak in an unavoidable heavy accent, but for weeks his return had been yearned for by Manchester United, manager and fans alike. And judging by how cut off the Red Devils’ midfield has been from their attack over the past month, the players were probably on the prowl for re-entry as well, and when the Frenchman did make his return at home to Newcastle, he was the engine that made things tick, as United scored more than once in a league game for the first time since the end of September. ‘He affects our football. With him we have more creation.’ said Jose Mourinho, and it did look it, his quick feet, his hold up play and his ability to transition the midfield into attack with such quickness took United to another level, and he bagged a goal and an assist to boot.

The assist came in the 37th minute, crossing for Anthony Martial to head home after gliding past Isaac Hayden. But that was an equaliser, as less than 15 minutes in Pogba had watched his side fall behind; a cross from DeAndre Yedlin, and a slip from Victor Lindelof (not winning friends at Old Trafford so far) let in Dwight Gayle, and the forward’s shot went into off the base of the post, and made him the first opponent to score at Old Trafford in the league since Gylfi Sigurdsson for Swansea in April, and the first to do so from open play since Middlesbrough’s Grant Leadbitter over a year ago. Newcastle were enterprising, and Jacob Murphy’s shot rolled wide as they sought. The Magpies didn’t let their heads dropp when Martial’s equaliser was followed five minutes after by Chris Smalling heading the hosts in front, and Hayden had to be denied by David de Gea, while Gayle deflected a shot just wide of United’s goal, both incidents on the verge of half-time.

But in the second period, their performance, almost inevitably, dropped, and United would create daylight between both sides, Pogba tapping home from Marcus Rashford. All that was left was for Pogba to leave to a standing ovation, for Romelu Lukaku to end his goal drought, and then the biggest cheer came when Zlatan Ibrahimovic to make his return from a long time out. The lion had returned, but the day belonged to Pogba, who needed just an hour to emphasise how much he’d been missed.

Sentinel’s plan for the Decepticons failed eventually, however, Megatron ultimately proving to be his downfall. For Mourinho and United, the hope is that Pogba’s re-appearance becomes the spark to upstage the Autobots from across the City.

Gunners Get Firing in NLD

It was an Arsenal masterclass on Saturday, as they dispatched Spurs with ease in the North London derby. Both goals might have seemed contentious, but they were either-way decisions and the win was thoroughly deserved, and a certain Mesut Ozil provided a gem of a performance. In truth, the win flattered Spurs, who had to get on the front foot after conceding twice in five minutes, but they hardly threatened and had Hugo Lloris to thank at the other end for keeping the score-line down. Christian Eriksen looked like those Danish exploits had taken a bit out of him, Harry Kane and Moussa Dembele looked clearly unfit, while Moussa Sissoko looked… like Moussa Sissoko. The discussion has shifted from a shift in the balance of power in North London, to Spurs’ failures away to the top six. Four wins in 87 games away to the rest of the top six. That’s cause for discomfort, if not concern.

Pulis sees Nowhere to Hide

It was another defeat for West Brom and Tony Pulis, a meek surrender at home to the champions did little to alleviate the pressure the manager is under. On the ground where Chelsea laboured to a title-clinching winning in May, there was no such difficulty this time around, class acts from Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata ensured it’s four league wins in a row for Antonio Conte and his side.

Elsewhere:

  • Chelsea have won four in a row, Liverpool three, United have scored four times in five league games, yet they’re all still well behind the top; all because Manchester City keep steamrollering past every side they face. 1-0 up at Leicester on Saturday, two centimetres and 15 seconds changed everything. Harry Maguire hit the post for the Foxes midway through the second half, and less than 20 seconds after, Kevin de Bruyne smashed in a peach at the other end, almost re-asserting City’s status as a side built for crushing opposition hopes. 10 league wins in a row, they’ve already beaten three of last season’s top five.
  • It was a new era for West Ham, but it was an old feeling for the Hammers; and as a matter of fact for their latest manager David Moyes as well. A two-nil loss away to Watford was completely deserved, it’ll surely take some time before the new rein gets going (if it ever does). They’re still in the bottom three.

Results

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham

Manchester United 4-1 Newcastle

Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

Leicester 0-2 Manchester City

Bournemouth 4-0 Huddersfield

Watford 2-0 West Ham

West Brom 0-4 Chelsea

Crystal Palace 2-2 Everton

Burnley 2-0 Swansea

Monday Night Football: Brighton v Stoke 

Published in International Watch

‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’. That famous supposed words that Sir Alex Ferguson told his players when Manchester United were 3-0 down at White Hart Lane at halftime in 2001. United rallied after the break, storming to a remarkable 5-3 win, and continued their seemingly eternal run of not losing to Spurs in the league.

16 years on, things seem rather different. Spurs have finished above United in three of the previous four campaigns, and the last four meetings between both sides have been shared equally in terms of wins, and the Lilywhites even lead the aggregate score in those quad of games (5-3), admittedly a statistic of little relevance. But the biggest relevance concerning their next meeting with United is that they travel to the Theatre of Dreams, not without pressure, but rather with the home side’s exigency for three league points.

United followed up their away point at Anfield a fortnight ago- where Jose Mourinho more than defended his side’s cautious tactics- with a defeat at new boys Huddersfield last week- where Mourinho criticised his players’ attitude. The League Cup win at Swansea was undoubtedly a welcome result, but it’s unlikely to look a bit more than a side attraction, and come lunchtime on Saturday, a win against Mauricio Pochettino’s team is imperative.

The plus side is, The Red Devils are still impeccable at home this season, four league wins, six in all competitions, all without conceding; and Spurs haven’t scored here in their last three visits. The downside, is Spurs’ remarkable record away from home, four out of four in the league this season, six away league wins on the bounce, scoring 25 times, and they have won at Old Trafford twice in 15 months (2012 and 2013) at one point.

The onus is on Mourinho and his side to play some front foot football, but the manager would take any kind of win on Saturday, even the squad knows that’s more important. ‘It’s a massive game against Spurs and we need to win’ said Ander Herrera.

16 years ago, it would have been a near-formality. There’s a reason for United to be wary now. After all lads, ‘it’s Tottenham’.

Elsewhere:

  • Two new(ish) eras begin at the King Power stadium as Leicester play host to Everton. For the hosts, it’s the first league game under Claude Puel, and the focus is likely to be about the style of play as much as the result. For Everton, meanwhile, former defender David Unsworth has made no secret of wanting the job on a fulltime basis. His rein began with a midweek loss in the League Cup, his audition surely begins now.
  • All right, Sky Sports. Do your thing. It’s the meeting of old friends and similar styles as Jurgen Klopp goes head-to-head with his former right-hand man David Wagner, and Liverpool host Huddersfield. Amidst the bromance that’s bound to be between both gaffers, there’s still business to be done, Liverpool- still reeling from their thrashing at Wembley- are only a point and two places above the Terriers, who have already claimed a major scalp in beating Manchester United last weekend.
  • Watford are a side with impressive bounce back ability, and after a rather unlucky defeat at Chelsea last time out, don’t bet against Marco Silva and his Hornets recovering with an immediate home win. Should that be the case, however, it’ll be an increasing cause for concern for opposite manager Mark Hughes, whose Stoke side have stalled after a bright start to the season.

 

Fixtures

Manchester United v Tottenham

West Brom v Manchester City

Liverpool v Huddersfield

Bournemouth v Chelsea

Leicester v Everton

Brighton v Southampton

Burnley v Newcastle

Crystal Palace v West Ham

Watford v Stoke

Arsenal v Swansea

Published in International Watch

 

Seven league goals in seven league games, 11 in 10 in all competitions, 16 in 13 for club and country, yet somehow some are still to be fully convinced by Romelu Lukaku. For all the Belgian’s fine start to his Manchester United career- picking up where he left off from last season with Everton, he’s still without the odd criticism. The most prominent of them all, is his said-inability to score against the big sides, deeming him a flat-track bully.

Flat-track bully? Think again. Lukaku did indeed manage to score only four times against the top six, one of which was a penalty, but you could excuse the Belgian over the fact that former club Everton set out against those big sides mostly with the aim of avoiding defeat, and in the end offer very little up front, leaving Lukaku isolated. So four goals should perhaps even be credit-worthy, especially when you consider that one of those was an enviable solo effort at Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.

But the criticism towards isn’t more about his goals against clubs of those magnitude than it is about the impact of his goals against clubs of those magnitude. In those four games in which he scored, only in one of those did he end up on the winning, and even that was a 4-0 win, so his goals were responsible for a solitary point against the top six last season.

So, when he and his new team travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool on Saturday noon, there’ll be quite a few (cynical) eyes on whether or not he can deliver the goods, whether or not he can deliver market-defining goods (forgive the reference); with no one trying to remember that he has registered four goals against the Reds in the past.

Whatever the performance is on Saturday, there’s no denying Lukaku has made a fine start to his Old Trafford career. If he can be a game-changer in the big clashes, however, is a question that might be offered an answer come 2pm on Saturday.

Elsewhere:

Three months into the season, and Crystal Palace still haven’t found the net in the Premier League. Now they are without forward Christian Benteke, and host the champions come Saturday. Chelsea themselves are likely to be without front man Alvaro Morata, who’s in line to make a quick recovery after his injury against Manchester City before the International Break, but probably won’t play until at least the midweek game against Roma in the Champions League. Perhaps it’s the best time to be without their star striker.

Leicester and West Brom. Two teams who have spent the past few weeks with more plaudits than points, which itself is not much. Neither side have won since the second weekend of the season. There’s only so much applause one can get without end product.

Okay. Okay. They’ve had a few hiccups in the past few games, but Spurs have to start winning at Wembley. Their impeccable away form doesn’t only suggest how good they are, but also how much their ‘home’ record so far has held them back. Bournemouth are the next side to visit the ‘home of football’. Spurs can’t afford for the Cherries to be the next side to leave unscathed.

Fixtures

Liverpool v Manchester United

Manchester City v Stoke

Crystal Palace v Chelsea

Watford v Arsenal

Brighton v Everton

Swansea v Huddersfield

Tottenham v Bournemouth

Burnley v West Ham

Southampton v Newcastle

Leicester v West Brom

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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