In the end it petered out. A game that started so ferociously in Turin and with Tottenham on the verge of early capitulation ended in a rather drawn-out fashion, and with Spurs having delivered another solid statement against an elite European side.

Mauricio Pochettino and his side had already beaten Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in this season’s Champions League, but this was probably a much harder, they were up against a Juventus side that had won 10 games in row, conceded only once in 16 games (none in 2018), and had won 50 of their last 55 home games in all competitions, fortress-like. Spurs knew they had to be wary, but after only two minutes they seemed careless, caught napping from a free-kick, as Miralem Pjanic played in Gonzalo Higuain, whose wonderful shot on the turn sent the home fans into early cacophony. But if 1-0 down after 200 seconds seemed bad, then two down after eight minutes was just as horrible, Ben Davies with a reckless challenge on Federico Bernadeschi, and Higuain’s resulting penalty found the net via the gloves of Hugo Lloris.

Spurs were suddenly in trouble, their impressive form before this game, as well as their group stage performances, seemed long in the memory; but they weren’t about to lie down, as they took charge and put Juve on the back foot, only a wonderful Mehdi Benatia interception prevented Christian Eriksen from playing in Harry Kane. And when Eriksen did find Kane afterwards, the latter’s point-blank headers was beaten away by Gigi Buffon.

Spurs’ attacking forays, mixed with a tinge of desperation, were always likely to leave them vulnerable at the back, and so it proved, although Higuain could only fire a shot just narrowly wide after a Bianconeri break. Spurs had ridden their luck, and would claw themselves back in the game- and the tie- with less than 10 minutes of the first half left; Eriksen caught Giorgio Chiellini in possession, then Dele Alli slipped in Kane, who rounded Buffon and filled an empty net. Now the deficit had been halved, and Spurs had an away goal to boot, but when Serge Aurier recklessly tripped Douglas Costa in the box for a second Juve penalty, all seemed lost. Except it wasn’t. Higuain blasted the kick from 12 yards onto the bar, referee Felix Brych blew his whistle, and half time came.

Pochettino spoke on the need for Spurs to remain calm after the game, and they were calm during, as they had to bide their time in the second period in their search for an equaliser. It came in the 72nd minute, Eriksen’s low free-kick bamboozling Buffon, who didn’t quite get a strong enough hand, and had to watch the ball find its way into the bottom corner. The action seemed to die down after this, Lloris making a couple of saves from Bernadeschi the biggest highlight, and Pochettino made his three changes all inside the final 10 minutes, proof of him being content, at least, with the draw.

The Spurs manager did describe things in the dressing room as a little angry after the game, but Spurs had a mounted a superb fightback here, the first side to score against Juventus in over 21 hours of football, and erased a seemingly unassailable two-goal deficit.

They’ll have undoubted optimism for the second leg in three weeks’ time, not to mention an advantage, however slim.

Elsewhere:

  • Marcelo couldn’t help himself, as he slid towards Zinedine Zidane in the Real Madrid dugout with less than five minutes to play, the left-back whose fall earlier in the game seemed to have alarm bells ringing, health-wise. Those bells were definitely in sync, when, in the 34th minute, Adrien Rabiot got on to a Neymar flick to put Paris Saint-Germain in front. Real did respond before halftime, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a penalty after Toni Kroos had been fouled by Giovani Lo Celso. Ronaldo added his- and Real’s- second with eight minutes left, bundling home after a cross from substitute Marco Asensio, and Asensio was at it again moments after, another cross, another goal, this time from Marcelo as Real ensured they’ll take a 3-1 lead to Paris. As Unai Emery watched on with a grim face, it wasn’t hard to tell that his job is likely to depend on what happens three weeks from now.
  • For the first 28 minutes, Basel proved to be something of a match for Manchester City, then Ilkay Gundogan headed them in front, and for the final 72, it just seemed like torture for the Swiss champions. 0-4 loss at home; they did give a decent account themselves overall, but put it this way: when Taulant Xhaka (brother of Arsenal’s Granit) reached the yellow cards limit after being booked for upending Kevin de Bruyne in the 37th minute, it was clear that that was his last game of this Champions League season.
  • It’s also, barring a Quidditch-like Golden Snitch capture of a second leg, the end of the road for Porto, as they were taken apart on home soil by Liverpool, whose fab three were on song again; Sadio Mane bagging a hatrick, while Roberto Firmino and Mohammed Salah were just as impressive. At some point, their attacking dominance will stop being news.

Results

Juventus 2-2 Tottenham

Basel 0-4 Manchester City

Real Madrid 3-1 PSG

Porto 0-5 Liverpool

Published in International Watch

SpotkickNG

 

As the most memorable aspect of February rolls around (sit down, Valentine’s Day), spotkick’s trusted pick up their crystal balls and cast their predictions on which teams will remain when 16 gets trimmed to eight in the Champions League:

Ola Fadahunsi 

Man City vs Basel

City have been one of the best sides in Europe this season; the tie with Basel should be a banana peel.

City, duh! 

Juventus vs Tottenham

Spurs made a good statement by topping Madrid in the group stage but Juventus' experience in Europe should see them above the North London side.

Juve to knock out Spurs

Porto vs Liverpool

The oddity here is Liverpool qualifying if history is anything to go by. But I will still stick with the Merseyside Red.

Liverpool for me

Real Madrid vs PSG 

Madrid are going into this tie with little or nothing to lose as many have written them off - thus putting enormous pressure on PSG. I doubt PSG's ability to contain this pressure even with their star-studded side led by Neymar: last year's exit to Barcelona at this stage is a perfect example.

I still think Real will qualify.

Chelsea vs Barcelona

The Blues' strength playing Barca over the years has been how solid they've been at the back but this year’s tie will be different - as Barca's strongest household has been their back line and when you sync that with what Messi and Suarez can offer upfront, Chelsea will bow out in style.

Barcelona to progress

Sevilla vs Manchester United

Consistency has been a problem for the two sides but i think United have more than enough to deal with whatever Sevilla would be throwing at them.

United to go through. 

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Roma

An even tie. Against all odds, Roma made it pass group stage - topping both Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, but if you've been a follower of the UCL for years, you'll know how dangerous Shaktar can be in games like this. As a lover of history, I'll give it to Shakhtar

 

Kunle Ajao

Juventus v Tottenham

Spurs have delivered much better than expected in this season’s competition, after underperforming in the previous campaign. They topped a group that comprised Dortmund and Real Madrid, and their 3-1 win over the latter was mighty impressive. Juve, though, have pedigree in this competition, and have been finalists for two of the last three seasons. They’ve been here and done it before more times than their opponents at this stage. With both sides possessing formidable defences and midfields as well, it might well boil down to which striker, in Harry Kane and Gonzalo Higuain, will have a better day.

Juventus to just about sneak through. 

Basel v Manchester City

There’s no doubt who the overwhelming favourite is for this one, Man City have looked impeccable most times this season. Basel were impressive in qualifying from Group A, beating Manchester United on the way, but have lost Manuel Akanji and Renato Steffen to the Bundesliga. They might spring a surprise, but this looks a hard ask.

Barring a shock, City to go through 

Real Madrid v PSG

The tie of the round, the game that is most likely to determine the future of both managers. For Paris Saint-Germain, it’s finally a chance to prove they can roll with the elite after all the years of spending, especially with last year’s capitulation to Barcelona still in the memory. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have their whole season riding on this.

PSG to make the last eight for me

Porto v Liverpool

This tie seems finely poised, pitting two teams who’ll equally fancy their chances of progress. Liverpool’s front three, despite the departure of Philippe Coutinho, has been one to envy, even if Sadio Mane’s form has dipped recently. Their defence still leaves much to ponder, though, and Porto will look to capitalise on any slackness. But Liverpool’s best form of defending has been attacking, and it has worked so far.

Will be no straightforward task, but Liverpool should progress

Bayern Munich v Besiktas

No prizes for guessing the favourite here, Bayern haven't quite looked the same since Jupp Heynckes took over from Carlo Ancelotti, with only one defeat in all competitions since September. Besiktas do have an experienced, if not ageing, squad which helped finish top of Group G, but that also owed a big part to Cenk Tosun, whose January departure is a big blow.

The odds look overwhelmingly on Bayern Munich

Chelsea v Barcelona

This seems like the most ill-timed meeting of them all, Chelsea’s form having dropped massively, and not helped by Antonio Conte’s constant complaints over transfer dealings. Barcelona have lost just once since that supposedly-crushing Super Cup defeat in August. Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied, but Ernesto Valverde’s side are still favourites in this tie, if not the whole competition.

Barcelona to make progress here.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma

Roma were impressive in finishing top of a group that involved Chelsea and Atletico Madrid. But they haven’t been at their best lately in Serie A, and have slipped well out of the title race. Shakhtar are just as impressive a side, and have previous when it comes to the two teams meeting at this stage, they beat the Giallorossi in the last 16 in 2011.

Roma to qualify, just about. 

Sevilla v Manchester United

Sevilla are still searching for that first Champions League quarter-final appearance. They came close in 2008 (losing to Fenerbahce) and last season (eliminated by Leicester), but this looks like the hardest task of all. Jose Mourinho is a master at negotiating ties like this, and only the most courageous would bet against United going through, particularly with this being perhaps their most likely chance of silverware.

Manchester United to progress

 

Shehu Idris

Basel v Manchester City 

Does this actually need a prediction. Better luck next time Basel. A full scale hurricane is coming Basel's way, perhaps they shouldn't even bother showing up for both legs but, in Ed Sheeran's voice, "What do I know?". 

Juventus vs Tottenham

This is like a classic ole battle between an old, experienced and embittered war veteran and a young, greenhorn who's shown that his youthful exuberance can bleed giants to death if allowed. I'm tilting towards the green-necks from North London they should handle the Old Lady pretty easily. 

Porto vs Liverpool

This should be easy for Jürgen Klopp's men, they'll do it on both legs and if by deeds of their typical Liverpool-ism they don't, take this prediction as a tongue-in-cheek bluff. 

Real Madrid vs PSG

We'll plumb this pseudo-big club money sack with over-pampered players who're only there because of the jiggling coins it has in coffer. Real Madrid to progress, yes of course. 

Bayern Munich vs Besiktas

It’s hard for anyone to not see Bayern progressing here 

Chelsea vs Barcelona

Chelsea are but a sorry shadow of their true selves currently, with their coach a 'Noob Saibot' of his usually maniac, football-loving self and against a Barcelona side that haven't lost in the league this season and have Lionel Messi? May God have mercy on them. Barcelona to progress. 

Sevilla vs Manchester United

Sevilla struggled under Eduardo Berrizo, are still struggling under Vincenzo Montella, plus this season has been what they projected it will be. Manchester United will help see to that. United to ease pass them. 

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Roma

Who are these ones? Me, I'm tired ooo. Anyway, Roma to progress.

 

So, according to we at spotkick.com, the potential quarter finalists are:

Barcelona 

Manchester City 

Manchester United 

Roma

Real Madrid 

Juventus 

Bayern Munich 

Liverpool

Keep in mind, keyword, ‘potential’,  there’s not many things as humbling as seeing a seemingly genius and iron-clad prediction go all kinds of wrong.

 

Feel free to disagree with us in the comments section.

Published in International Watch

Manchester United signing of Alexis Sanchez during the winter transfer window is a big blow on Rashford ’s future, saysJamie Redknapp.

The 21-year-old, who busted into limelight in the 2015-16 season last made a top-flight start for the Man U on Boxing Day.

With competition for the wide attacking positions from the likes of Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, Jese Lingard, the arrival of Sanchez from Arsenal in the winter transfer has further pushed Rashford down the pecking order.

Writing for skysports, Redknapp, who believes the Red Devils made a good deal in bringing Sanchez to the Theatre of Dreams believes the Chilean arrival at the club could cause a major blow to Rashford development.

The former Liverpool and Tottenhamm Hotspur player believes Sanchez will always get the nod of Rashford irrespective of the Chilean performance

Redknapp wrote: “I don’t blame Manchester United for bringing in Alexis Sanchez. His wages are expensive, but you would normally have to pay around £70m for a player like that in the current market.

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“They have dodged the transfer fee and signed a winner who will give them fantastic energy and quality.

“On the other side of it, though, I can’t help but feel disappointed about what it does to a player like Marcus Rashford. Some would say great players like come and go and you’ve got to get on with it, but the bottom line is that Rashford has now dropped down the pecking order.”

He explained further: “… Due to his {Sanchez} reputation and the fact he has been bought by the manager, Sanchez will always go ahead of Rashford whether he is playing better or not.

“It’s the hardest thing for a young English player.

“You feel like you are just getting to the top of the pecking order and then suddenly, bang, it’s like a sledgehammer hits you.

“Your club have signed a world star.”

Since making his debut for United in 2016, Rashford has registered 29 goals in 108 appearances for the 20-time league champions – scoring seven of those goals this season.

The 15-time capped English international missed United’s 1-0 loss to Newcastle United at St. James Park earlier today.

 

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

Loris Karius should have done more to prevent the Wanyama ’s stunner and was to be blamed for the first of the two penalties awarded against Liverpool, said Garry Neville.

According to many, the Karius was one of the best players in the Livepool’s 2-2 draw to Spurs on Sunday evening but Neville has argued that the German goalkeeper did cost Liverpool the three points – and that Jurgen Klopp would be worried with his choices in that department.

Though describing the Wanyama’s goal as the ‘most wonderful strike’, the former Manchester United defender argued that Karius could have done more to prevent the shot from scoring.

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“Loris Karius maybe should have done a little bit better,” the former Valencia manager told skysports.

“But as it came to Wanyama I was thinking: ‘No, don’t shoot youre just going to sky it into the Kop.’”

“He hit the most wonderful strike. It was perfect, top corner, and one that he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”

On the first penalty, Neville who also believed John Moss was spot on to have given the second penalty said, “Karius threw himself out at it, and Jurgen Klopp won’t be settled down by goalkeeper, and neither will the goalkeeper.

“It was a penalty for me it looked reckless, and the chat between the linesman and the referee is something that created nervousness amongst officials.”

I could have helped not to write these but never wanted to be the only one who will see them.

But it’s suffice to state one amongst many goalkeepers Neville has been pitching for in recent times, is doing fantastically well on West Ham’s bench.

 

Published in International Watch

There was no hiding the impression that Tottenham put forward on Wednesday, during their 2-0 win over Manchester United. A fast start, and an overwhelming display were on show, and Spurs were barely flattered by the scoreline, and will know they should have added more, as they remained in touch with the top four.

And come Sunday, there’ll be an opportunity to climb into it for Mauricio Pochettino and his team, even third place is possible by the end of this weekend, all they have to do is win at Anfield. A place where Spurs have won just twice in 25 Premier League games, where Liverpool haven’t lost in the league since last April, the Lilywhites will know their work is cut out for them. Their record away to the rest of the top six teams under Pochettino is barely any good as well, with nine points since 2014, a record that has one win in it.

Liverpool have done well to respond to those league (Swansea) and FA Cup (West Brom) setbacks with a comprehensive 3-0 win at Huddersfield, and climbed to third place, above Chelsea on goal difference. That loss to Swansea has been their first in the league since Tottenham hit four past them in October, a result that had left them back in ninth, and now Spurs’ midweek result means even second-placed United are well within their sights.

It’s a clash between two sides of similar styles, with similar levels of momentum, and similar league aspirations, but neither will get any similar level of satisfaction after the final whistle on Sunday.

Elsewhere

  • Crisis? Perhaps. One league win in 2018 so far, out of the League Cup, and dismantled at home by Bournemouth, the ‘C’ word appears to be hovering above West London, on the verge of touch down. Antonio Conte and his Blues team (for how long will that continue to be the case?) will be hoping that opponents Watford don’t get the new manager bounce, in Javi Gracia’s first league game at Vicarage Road.
  • Southampton still haven’t hit the panic button and decided to dismiss Mauricio Pellegrino yet, despite the poor run of form, the Saints have no league wins in 12. They haven’t lost in three, however, performances are improving somewhat, and the Saints hierarchy will hope their faith in Pellegrino, alongside the winter arrival of Guido Carrillo, can spark a revival, although their patience might snap should they suffer defeat here and move to the foot of the table. Hosts West Brom have scored only four goals at home since Alan Pardew took charge, all from set pieces. Talk about finding it hard to move on following a break-up. They’ll more than take it, mind, if a bunch of set-piece goals takes off the bottom of the league.
  • After the hapless display at Wembley in midweek, Manchester United will no doubt be keen to get back on track, especially following manager Jose Mourinho’s criticism post-match. They’ve only lost once at Old Trafford this season, which was to league leaders Manchester City in December. Huddersfield, visitors to the Theatre of Dreams, have lost eight of their last 11 away, conceding two or more in them. The Terriers are not unlikely to find themselves in the red zone at the end of this one.
  • Beset by injuries, bothered by transfer fracas once again, West Ham’s smiles over the past months look to be abating. The Hammers travel to Brighton next, a win takes them to the top half, as well keeps the focus mostly on the pitch. For the East Londoners, and their shoddy PR, that’ll be welcome.
  • It’s a homecoming for Theo Walcott, as he and his new side, Everton, travel to the Emirates. Walcott has begun life at Goodison in fine fettle, scoring twice and setting up one in three games, and might relish causing Arsenal’s troubled backline (as Swansea showed) some problems. The Gunners have some new signings of their own on show, Henrikh Mkhitaryan might make his first league start for the club, although Arsene Wenger says illness could delay Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang making his debut. The history books rarely favour the Toffees in this one, they’ve lost eight out of 10 games against Arsenal in the month of February, and have never won at the Emirates. Expect the Sam Allardyce special away to a top six club.

Fixtures

Liverpool v Tottenham

Arsenal v Everton

Bournemouth v Stoke

Crystal Palace v Newcastle

Manchester United v Huddersfield

West Brom v Southampton

Leicester v Swansea

Brighton v West Ham

Burnley v Manchester City

Watford v Chelsea

Published in International Watch

So in the end, Valar Morghulis, as they say in High Valyrian, all men must die, and Manchester City were reminded of what fatalism in a domestic game feels like, after 284 days. And in some ways, it was fitting, that a City team renowned for their ability to blow teams away would see their unbeaten run come to an end in a thrilling attacking contest at Anfield, against a Liverpool also with a reputation for scattergun forward play.

‘The whole world was watching it and if somebody didn’t like football until now then probably they would say, ‘that’s why you watch it all the time’, said Jurgen Klopp, and he more than had a point. At the final whistle former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish was applauding in near-incredulity, almost like he hadn’t quite witnessed such a spectacle before.

A spectacle which, in truth, didn’t take long to get going. Eight minutes and 33 seconds were on the clock when Reds goalie Loris Karius sent a clearance up field, two aerial contests after, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain weaved into space untouched and his well-struck shot rolled past Ederson and into the bottom corner. In Liverpool’s first league game since Philippe Coutinho left for Barcelona, the man who was likely to be on the bench had the Brazilian been around was sliding on his knees at the Kop end. ‘It’s so nice to see how much he adapted’, said Klopp afterwards of the summer signing from Arsenal. ‘He is on good way and enjoys it.’

It was only nine minutes, and City were also going to get into the game at some point, but Liverpool were the better side for the most of the half, and when Kevin de Bruyne’s weak shot midway through was held by Karius, it was the first shot the German had to face. The next one, though, he would have been disappointed with, as with five minutes of the half left, Kyle Walker’s diagonal ball was controlled by Leroy Sane, as Joe Gomez miscalculated, and the winger’s effort beat Karius at his near-post.

As half time was reached, you wouldn’t begrudge the Liverpool fans wondering why Klopp had resorted to playing Karius ahead of Simon Mignolet for this game. But Karius hasn’t lost any of his 10 games this term, and a few after heaving a sigh of relief that Nicolas Otamendi’s header could only hit his bar, he watched as Georginio Wijnaldum robbed De Bruyne of possession in the middle and freed Oxlade-Chamberlain, the latter playing in Roberto Firmino, whose strength was too much John Stones, and finish too immaculate to not be admired, as Liverpool regained their lead on the hour mark.

The noise from Firmino’s goal had barely died down when Sadio Mane hit the post, following a Fernandinho stray pass. Seconds later, Mane was in again, this time Otamendi the sloppy City man, and this time the finish was emphatic, Liverpool were 3-1 up, from the man whose red card threw this reverse fixture in September into so much debate, and Anfield was a cacophony of noise. ‘It was outstanding from the first second, from the minute of applause…’ said Klopp of the atmosphere. ‘…if the atmosphere would not have been good in a game like that then something would have been really wrong.’

And the game was going to get even better for the Reds, as Salah’s pass for Mane was cleared by Ederson and back to the Egyptian, who wasn’t one to miss, even if it was from almost 40 yards out. The home crowd and visiting manager Pep Guardiola were both in disbelief, although of different sorts, the hitherto invincible City were being shredded, but the drama was far from over. It all seemed like nothing more than a consolation when substitute Bernardo Silva, who replaced the ever-booed Raheem Sterling, rammed one into the net to make it 4-2 with six minutes left, but when Ilkay Gundogan poked another back for City at the beginning of stoppage time, there were more than a few worries from the Anfield faithful, they had seen this a few times after all.

Suddenly City sensed an escape route, they could still leave here with their unbeaten run incredibly intact. And there were hearts in mouth in the last minute, when Sergio Aguero rippled the net with a header, but it was the wrong side of it, and the flag was up for offside anyway, and the 15th successive game in which City have failed to win at Anfield seemed perhaps the most significant, for the first time in 30 league games, 35 domestic outings, Guardiola and his men tasted defeat.

Ultimately, the result is likely to matter little in terms of the league table, the gap can only be cut to as low as 12 points, and City still look champions in waiting. But here, they were brought back down to earth, and reminded that they are mortal after all.

Cherries shot in the arm is a shot in the foot for Gunners

On the same day where City’s defeat meant the pure record of the Arsenal of old (2003/04, as if everyone didn’t know that) would remain, the current Arsenal continue their, stutter as they threw away a lead at Bournemouth, conceding twice in some 250 seconds to lose to the Cherries, the first goal of which didn’t put Hector Bellerin, scorer of Arsenal’s solitary strike, Shkodran Mustafi or ‘keeper Petr Cech in any good light. That Arsenal are eight points behind the top four, and out of the FA Cup in the same week, and with only seven away wins since the start of 2017 is one thing. That Bournemouth didn’t even have to raise their game to beat them was another.

Elsewhere:

  • At the 20 futile attempts, West Brom finally won a game, as the Baggies grabbed three much-need points against Brighton. Alan Pardew’s men are still bottom bar one, but that overdue victory might set the tone for something more.
  • In the week where two English cup games saw the presence of the Video Assistant Referees, a big case was made for it in the league, as Southampton were denied a priceless victory by the hand of Abdoulaye Doucoure. Mauricio Pellegrino still remains in 17th place with his side, and still under significant pressure.
  • Another game for Everton, another with no shot on target. For the second league game in a row, they haven’t tested the opposition, and they’ve lost four games on the bounce now, Sam Allardyce needs some respite. But that’s not to take away any gloss from opponents Spurs, who were in swashbuckling mode at Wembley. For all the talk of the stadium being a drawback, they’ve only lost once here all season.
  • Doomed in November, suddenly looking closer to the top half, albeit without being clear of the drop, Crystal Palace and West Ham have made quite the upward movements since they changed managers (not with each other of course, that’d be weird).

Results

Huddersfield 1-4 West Ham

West Brom 2-0 Brighton

Crystal Palace 1-0 Burnley

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City

Newcastle 1-1 Swansea

Tottenham 4-0 Everton

Chelsea 0-0 Leicester

Watford 2-2 Southampton

Bournemouth 2-1 Arsenal

Monday Night Football: Manchester United v Stoke

Published in International Watch

'Liverpool made City ordinary' - Schmeichel

Sunday, 14 January 2018 21:27

The Reds ended Manchester City's 30- game unbeaten league run with a 4-3 win at Anfield on Sunday and that prompted the United legend to claim Liverpool made City looked "ordinary."

 
First half goal from Oxlade Chamberlain and three goals within nine minutes in the second half from Firmino, Mane and Salah respectively was enough to see off the City side, who had only dropped just four points in 22 games prior to the meeting.
 
Peter Schmeichel, who was a guest analyst for the Liverpool-Man city game on Supersports said Klopp should be proud of his players after the game claiming they made City looked "ordinary."
 
"They did fantastically well and they made man city looked ordinary," the former Man U goalkeeper said.
 
"That's something you (Klopp) should take great pride on."
 
The former Danish International lamented the three goals Liverpool conceded in the game, and said things were not looking to change soon.
 
He conceded that the 19-time English Champion were good enough to win the league but had doubt on their defence.
 
"The defending is awful. The goals they conceded and you can talk about it forever you know it's poor goal keeping....
 
"The defenders in front of him they aren't good enough if we talk winning the championship but this is what Liverpool as a football club should be aiming for.
 
"They are that bigger club that should be aiming for winning the premier league but with that defence they are not going to do it," Schmeichel added.
 
The win against Man City, saw Liverpool moved up to third in the league - three points above fifth-place team Tottenham - but 15 points behind table toppers, Manchester City.
 
Published in International Watch

How do you solve a problem like Manchester City? Go cavalier, they tear you to shreds. Sit back and tighten the spaces, they wear you down and nick a deflating late winner. Try to press them high, they bypass you in direct fashion. You could even Crystal Palace your way to things, defend well, trouble them at the other end, prevent them from scoring and even win a late penalty, but they’ll manage to stay unbeaten anyway.

33 times teams have come up against them on the domestic front since April, none have left with a win. 22 league games so far this season, 20 wins, only Everton and Palace have prevented them from doing so; and they played the entire second half of the Everton game with 10 men (albeit the numbers got evened up late on), while Palace had been thrashed 5-0 back in September. But it’s another 5-0 thrashing that’s still subject of debate.

When City hit a handful of goals past Liverpool at the start of last September, there was something of an asterisk to that win, many considering that the game only went to that extent as a result of Sadio Mane’s red card, and they had a point, up until then Liverpool were more than making a good go of things, even if they were 1-0 down before the dismissal.

‘(The defeat) was not a nice day in the season, to be honest’ said Reds manager Jurgen Klopp. ‘So to try and draw another picture, I think that would make sense and will be one part of our motivation, but if that's the only one then we don't have a chance anyway’. It's Anfield, that's another thing that we should show. I'm really looking forward to the game, to be honest’.

And perhaps the fact that it’s Anfield is Liverpool strongest omen for this game. City haven’t won in the red part of Merseyside in almost 15 years, and have lost their last four here. The Reds are also in good form themselves, they haven’t lost since October, moving from ninth to fourth place in that time.

‘They are playing at Anfield - I’m not expecting a team that will wait for what is happening - I’m pretty sure he will try and make his own game and I think it will be a good game.’ Said Klopp’s opposite number for Saturday Pep Guardiola, who has just set a Premier League record for four consecutive Manager of the Month awards.

This game will be Liverpool’s first in the league since Philippe Coutinho completed his move to Barcelona, so Liverpool have the chance to sort of kill two birds with one stone, prove that there’s more than enough life after the Brazilian, and that City are beatable.

‘Of course we can beat them’ said Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. ‘They haven’t lost in the league this season, but they are human’. It hasn’t really looked like it so far.

Elsewhere

  • Just one defeat in 12 games, yet it’s testament to how horrific their early-season form was that Crystal Palace are only two points off the drop zone. In truth, it’s miraculous that they’ve managed to climb out of it at all. Burnley, meanwhile, are the surprise package of the season, but they haven’t won in over a month. They did win at Selhurst Park last season, in fact they’ve won the last three meetings between both sides- the last of which ultimately gave Roy Hodgson the Palace job. A fourth in a row would do nicely for Sean Dyche and his team.
  • It’s the makings of a six-pointer at St. James Park, as Newcastle, winless at home in the league since late October, host Swansea, who got that morale-boosting late win at Watford last time out, but are still bottom of the league. The Swans need the new manager bounce to continue if they are to pull close to safety.

Speaking of safety, Mauricio Pellegrino is not so much walking on thin ice at Southampton as he running on it with raging flames right behind him. Only goal difference separates the Saints from the drop zone. Opponents Watford have their own slide to arrest.

  • Still down at the bottom end, West Brom host Brighton in a game that has all the makings of a nil-nil draw. Definitely a result the Baggies would not be hoping for. That they haven’t won since August is no longer news.

Fixtures

Liverpool v Manchester City

Manchester United v Stoke

Newcastle v Swansea

Chelsea v Leicester

Watford v Southampton

Tottenham v Everton

West Brom v Brighton

Crystal Palace v Burnley

Huddersfield v West Ham

Bournemouth v Arsenal

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

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