There’s always much anticipation over the final day of each season when the fixture lists are released; the potential for last-day drama and season-changing results has always been one to look forward to. However, there is rarely anything to look forward to on the final days of recent Premier League seasons, just a case of dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s, the expected goodbyes and those who already on the beach.

Despite the early discomfort, Liverpool were always going to beat Middlesbrough on the final day of last season to seal fourth; Hull were always unlikely to beat Manchester United and survive in 2015; Manchester City were not going to have problems against West Ham to win the title in 2014; while only the foolhardy, in the guise of brave, would have gone for Arsenal not to beat Newcastle a year earlier. So, it’s not completely out of touch to say there’s been no real final day drama since Sergio Aguero swung his right foot in the 94th minute against Queens Park Rangers in 2012; that these days the final days of the season are like those meetings where you tap your foot in a fit of impatient boredom, while looking at your watch and waiting it all to end, with a message of ‘see you later’.

Following the midweek’s drama, scrappy goals and dogged defending, there is next-to-nothing to play for in the final round of matches for the Premier League season. Mathematically, there’s still a top four race, with Liverpool only two points ahead of Chelsea. But the Reds would have to lose to nothing-to-play-for Brighton for them to be leapfrogged, and in truth, the Blues are the likelier of both sides to lose, as they travel to Newcastle, where they haven’t won in seven years.

There’s also mathematical room for drama at the bottom end of the table, involving Southampton and Swansea City. But after the Saints’ narrow win in South Wales on Tuesday, Mark Hughes; side are three points above the 17th-placed Swans, with a superior. That means there has to be a 10-goal swing, Southampton would have to lose heavily at home to Manchester City, while, perhaps even more unlikely, Swansea would have to at least score against Stoke.

The definitely-wont-happen scenarios means the final day is set to be for goodbyes. None bigger than Arsene Wenger, who will manage Arsenal for the last time at Huddersfield, after 22 years. For the hosts, it might not be as headline-grabbing as Wenger’s, but they’ll say goodbye to midfielder Dean Whitehead, who’s retiring, and it’s bound to be a party mood, with the Terriers already safe from the relegation trapdoor. Yaya Toure made his 316th, and final, home appearance for Manchester City on Wednesday, and is another player that’ll be waved goodbye this weekend; while Everton’s trip to West Ham might well be Wayne Rooney’s last in the Premier League.

Wenger is unlikely to be the only managerial final act this weekend; Watford may well part ways with Javi Gracia, this might be Antonio Conte’s final league outing as Chelsea boss, Claude Puel is likely to bid Leicester farewell after their match at Spurs, while Everton fans will be hoping that West Ham game is Sam Allardyce’s last. There’ll also be collective goodbyes, with Stoke and West Brom, as well as Swansea (surely), bidding the top-flight goodbye for at least a year.

The expected absence of drama means the farewells will be the talking points of this final weekend, but who knows, maybe a surprise might come our way. Perhaps Brighton snatch an early lead at Anfield to make things interesting; maybe Swansea get wind that Man City are 11-1 up at Southampton with little time left. But the likelihood is that we’d all sit in a lack of anticipation, tapping our feet and looking at the time, until we bid the Prem. another unglamorous exit.

Fixtures

Burnley v Bournemouth

Crystal Palace v West Brom

Newcastle v Chelsea

Manchester United v Watford

Liverpool v Brighton

Huddersfield v Arsenal

Southampton v Manchester City

Swansea v Stoke

Tottenham v Leicester

West Ham v Everton

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

It was quite the spectacle at Anfield on Tuesday night, as Liverpool broke into a five-goal lead in the semi-final first leg, but had to make do with a 5-2 win after conceding two late goals against Roma. But the Italian side's defending was less than impressive and Roy Keane, in typical Roy Keane fashion, hasn't held back his thoughts. 

'They gave up after about an hour and downed tools', said the former Manchester United captain. If I played like some of their defenders did I would consider retiring from football. We can slag Roma off but Liverpool had to take advantage of that'.

Speaking to ITV, Keane believes Roma will improve in the return leg at home, but says Liverpool 'could have scored ten'.

Roma host the Reds in the return leg in Rome, needing three goals to win, the same margin before that miraculous comeback against Barcelona, but Keano doesn't see a way back for the Giallorossi.

Not like you could blame him, no one did against Barca either.

Published in International Watch

Stoppage time. Loris Karius holds on to the ball. Ragnar Klavan waits to come on for Roberto Firmino, as an edgy Anfield crowd now tries to roar the team over the finish line. The clock is ticking, and the home side are nervously looking at it, willing it to move. But… hang on. Liverpool are 5-2 up! In stoppage time!!

That seems like the new in these days, when among the things that occupy a brown box with a sticker labelled ‘fragile’, a three-goal lead is now one of them. Roma overturned that sort of deficit against Barcelona in the previous round, where Liverpool faced a second-leg scare against Manchester City with such position of advantage, and Juventus recovered from such a dead and buried position at Real Madrid only to eventually go out. Even in the Europa League, CSKA Moscow gave Arsenal something to worry about before succumbing, while Red Bull Salzburg were 5-2 down on aggregate in the second half of the second leg of their triumph over Lazio. Yes, three-goal advantages are no longer safe, just ask Liverpool themselves.

It was a shaky start to proceedings at Anfield on Tuesday night, and in more ways than one. Assistant referee Stefan Lupp’s flag was haywire, preventing him from properly flagging Firmino for offside, and had to be amended twice; on the pitch Liverpool were a tad uncomfortable, Roma were suffocating the spaces, and unfazed by the famous Anfield atmosphere, Kevin Strootman firing a shot that was easy for Karius, who then had to look in relief as his uncertain touch pushed Aleksandar Kolarov’s effort onto the bar.

But the Reds would always find their stride, they didn’t have the best 10 minutes here in the previous round against Man City, and yet blew them away, and it started to look similar after the first 20 minutes against the Italians, Sadio Mane spurning two chances as the home crowd got on song. One man who doesn’t spurn chances these days, though, is Mohammed Salah, the mercurial Egyptian Liverpool signed from Rome. There were expectations that he wouldn’t celebrate his goal on the night, that’s how certain everyone was that he would find the net, and 10 minutes before the break he did find it, via the crossbar, from his left foot, in the most brilliant of ways. He held his hands up in a mooted celebration, and that gesture would repeat itself on the cusp of halftime, as the PFA Player of the Year got in behind the Roma defence, and cheekily lobbed one over Alisson for his 43rd goal of an extraordinary season.

At 2-0, Roma were still very much in with a shout, but on the pitch they could barely whisper. They might have suffered a 4-1 loss at Barcelona, but that performance still had positives in it. Here, following that opening 20 minutes, they were abject, could barely string passes today, and kept up their ineffectual high line; so when Mane added a third for Liverpool in the 56th minute, they could hardly complain. Five minutes after that Firmino added a fourth, seven minutes after that Firmino added a fifth, from a corner which Roma could have handed to them gift-wrapped and with a Christmas card. That summed up the Giallorossi’s night, and that was the tie.

Or so we thought. With nine minutes left, Edin Dzeko chested down Radja Nainggolan’s pass, and became the first opposition player to score at Anfield in the knockout phase of this season’s Champions League.  5-1; academic? Not if the reaction of the away fans, the away players, and their manager was anything to go by. Suddenly they believed; even at being so far behind, they believed. And that belief doubled when James Milner handled in the Liverpool box, and Diego Perotti slotted home the resulting penalty. 5-2.

Then Anfield got edgy. Then Jurgen Klopp sent on Klavan, with the look of tense discomfort palpable in his face. Roma pushed and pushed. A third goal might even seem like a winner. But it never came. Liverpool held on for a 5-2 win, which is just about the most bewildering place to use the term ‘held on’. Now Roma need exactly what they needed against Barcelona. There’s no guarantee that they would get it this time, no guarantee that Liverpool would look so attackingly forlorn in Rome as Barca did. But it’s remarkable that even after such a dominant day for Liverpool, in the performance and the score-line, somehow, this argument is far from settled.

Elsewhere

  • Toni Kroos said the Champions League releases ‘special powers’ for Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane said he’s like a guiding for this team in Europe, and on evidence of this, who would argue. Even after they spent so much time on the back foot, even after they came under such pressure at the Allianz Arena, you could tell that they wouldn’t budge, that they would always have their way. This time, there was even no need for Cristiano Ronaldo to be on the scoresheet. Just like last season, Bayern Munich find themselves in the same position of bother after the first leg against Los Blancos.
  • In a competition graced over time by the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Clarence Seedorf, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Ryan Giggs, Lionel Messi, even Ronaldo and Zidane, who’d have thought the record for most assists in a single season would be held by James Milner?

Results

Liverpool 5-2 Roma

Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid

Published in International Watch

It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if you even know the game at all, yet it leaves you speechless and remembering why you fell in love with it in the first place. Surely something of this sort, even by football’s ludicrous track record, wasn’t plausible. Just over a year ago, Barcelona had pulled off the seemingly impossible, coming back from a 4-0 first leg loss, thanks to three goals in the dying embers of the game, but that looked like a one-time thing, and when, this year, Luis Suarez was strolling off in celebration for the Catalans, his first Champions League goal since that astonishing comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, in the first leg to cap off a 4-1 win, they seemed uncatchable. It meant Roma had to score three times without reply, surely that wouldn’t happen.

Even when they got off to the perfect start, when Edin Dzeko got in behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique to put the ball past Marc-Andre Ter-Stegen and put Roma in front on the night after six minutes, even then it surely wouldn’t happen. But the Giallorossi wouldn’t be deterred by the stature of their opponents, nor the scale of the mountainous task that lay ahead. Even if we lost the first leg, we were confident with the way we had played and it showed tonight’, said skipper Daniele De Rossi. And you couldn’t argue with that statement, on evidence of the performance, Roma pushed Barcelona back, made them create very little, and were rather unlucky to only have had one goal to their name at halftime, Patrick Schick sent a header wide, while Dzeko’s was tipped over by Ter-Stegen.

The second period took the same form as the first, Roma on the front foot, with Barcelona creating next to nothing. But the visitors have been in positions like this more than once this season, where it looks like they’re almost incapable of fashioning out any opportunity, but then spring up with something out of nothing, and perhaps that was why there was little cause for alarm, on both the part of the players, fans and the manager, they have weathered many a storm this season, and not long ago, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat with two late goals in a league game against Sevilla.

But their patience became anxiety midway through the second half, when Pique brought down Dzeko in the box, and was booked for his trouble. Up stepped De Rossi, who had the misfortune of opening the scoring for Barcelona via an own goal in the first leg, and he made no mistake at the right end. Now it was 2-0 on the night, 3-4 on aggregate, Roma needed just one more. Dare they believe? Could they pull this off? On came Cengiz Under in place off Schick, as they sensed memorable night. And with nine minutes left, the moment came. From a corner, Kostas Manolas, another who had an own goal to his name in the first leg, peeled off to the near post, and his header found the bottom corner.

Cue disbelief, from Manolas’ face, to the rest of his teammates, down to his manager Eusebio Di Francesco, and the fans, both sets of them. Now Barcelona had to do something, astonishingly, they hadn’t done all day; attack. On they poured forward, but there would be no saving grace, not from Lionel Messi, who always found them a way to get them out of jail. Not from Luis Suarez, who was frustrated. Not from Pique, who came forward from defence. Nor from Ousmane Dembele, who was thrown on in a fit bearing semblance to desperation.

Barcelona had managed to escape from the claws of defeat on a number of occasions this season, but there would be no feat of escapology here. They had wriggled past Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and Atletico Madrid this season without losing. It would be against Roma that they faltered, that they threw a Hail Mary but there would be no catch. Who writes these scripts?

Thriller at the Bernabeu

'...as Real Madrid close the book on Juventus once more'. Events at the Santiago Bernabeu would render that first leg headline from this writer on this tie rather daft. Juve had a three-goal deficit to overturn, Gazzetta Della Sport's headline before the game was 'Mission Impossible', with the 'possible' in the second part of the second word highlighted, while Marca ran 1429 simulations, with 1405 seeing Real progress. The odd 24 looked on, when by halftime they were two to the good, Mario Mandzukic with two headers. It became three-nil to the Bianconeri on the night, and three-all on aggregate, when Keylor Navas spilled Douglas Costa's cross, and Blaise Matuidi was on hand to poke it in. Then with the game on a knife edge, and extra time seemingly on the cards, Cristiano Ronaldo laid on a header towards Lucas Vazquez. A challenge from Mehdi Benatia later, Real had a penalty, Gigi Buffon was sent off for a push on the ref, and some five minutes were exhausted in an ensuing kerfuffle. Not that it mattered to Ronaldo, who buried the resulting spot kick with aplomb. For the eighth season in row, Los Blancos will be in a Champions League semi, while as Buffon walked off late on, one had to wonder: was that his Zinedine Zidane circa 2006 moment?

Elsewhere

  • For a moment it seemed plausible, Fernandinho pounced on Virgil van Dijk’s loose ball, then the ball fell to Gabriel Jesus via the boot of Raheem Sterling, and Manchester City were a goal up inside two minutes. One third of the way to the comeback, and for the entire first half, they had Liverpool pinned in their own half, Bernardo Silva hit the post, Leroy Sane was denied by the linesman’s flag, Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands, but it would be only 1-0 on the night at halftime. And there was always the worry for City over Liverpool’s potent attack, and their rather meek defence, and when Ederson’s parry from Sadio Mane’s feet fell to Mohammed Salah, the game was up. A lob over Nicolas Otamendi, and into the top corner, and City’s task became too Herculean. Liverpool still had enough time to rub salt on City wounds, Roberto Firmino pouncing on yet another Otamendi error this week. 5-1 on aggregate, Liverpool coasted through to the last four, and on the evidence of this quarter-final- and the season at large- no one would be keen to face them.

Results

Roma 3 (4)-(4) 0 Barcelona

Roma progress on away goals

Manchester City 1 (1)-(5) 2 Liverpool

Bayern Munich 0 (2)-(1) 1 Sevilla

Real Madrid 1 (4)-(3) 3 Juventus

Published in International Watch

Pardon if the eulogy seems a bit like drooling. 65 minutes gone, Ronaldo moves to the corner at the left end of the Juventus stadium, raises his hands in a gesture that could well say ‘crown me king’ and the entire stadium obliges, with applause rendering from all ends of it. He had just put Real Madrid two up at the home of Juve, the home of the side who rarely knows what it feels like to lose at home (once in 73 games before this), let alone lose so convincingly.

It was Ronaldo who bagged a double in Real’s 4-1 humbling of this same side in last season’s final, the campaign when he began his evolution towards being a pure goal-getting centre-forward, and he’s showing little signs of letting up in that department. Between kick-off and the time Ronaldo added that second goal, aside from substitute Lucas Vazquez, he had touched the ball the least of all players, yet no one would be ready to point out such stat on a man who had 36 goals in 35 games in all competitions prior to this game, and two minutes into it, 37 in 36.

Isco found space on the left, and his low cross was poked home by the Portuguese skipper (thanks in no small part to Karim Benzema, it should be said), the 10th successive UEFA Champions League game that he had scored in, and Los Blancos had the perfect start. It wasn’t just that they had found the net early in Turin, it was that they bossed the opening minutes in Turin, pressing the home side and denying them any room, moving the ball around with authority, and, but for the crossbar, would have gone two up through Toni Kroos.

Juventus knew they had to react and get on the front foot, and after a while, they did manage to, pushing Real back, causing a threat with their quick one-two passes around the edge of the area and the movement of their full-backs, and they did come mighty close when Keylor Navas had to react quickly to deny Gonzalo Higuain. By halftime, it was 1-0, Sergio Ramos had denied Andrea Barzagli what seemed like a certain equaliser, Higuain had made a few runs in behind to create openings, and Paulo Dybala had been booked for simulation.

Juve’s start to the second half was much more comfortable then they did the first, the home fans were founding their voice, and when Ramos got booked for a foul on Dybala, ruling out of the second leg, the crowd started believing they could get past Real, especially when the resulting free-kick was deflected just past Navas’ goal. Then came the 65th minute.

From a long ball forward, some miscommunication between Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, almost unheard of, gave Ronaldo a semblance of a chance; he pulled back to Vazquez, whose shot was saved by Buffon and the danger seemed to have been averted. Except it wasn’t; Daniel Carvajal dinked a cross, and Ronaldo tried an overhead kick, which he brilliantly pulled off, and then came the moments that signified that act of genius. From the crowd applauding, to his manager Zinedine Zidane marvelling at the sight of what he just witnessed, but perhaps the most striking was the ball itself. As it found its way into the bottom corner, with a helpless Buffon watching, the ball decided against bouncing, didn’t even move as it hit the net, it just stayed in that bottom corner, almost like it had been decreed by Ronaldo to stay put. As legendary Real Madrid goal scorers Raul and Emilio Butragueno looked on, they’d be forgiven if they were discussing the man who’s broken all the records they set.

Not that the game was over, though. There was still time for Dybala to be sent off for a reckless high-boot challenge, still time for Marcelo to add a third, created by Ronaldo of course, time for Mateo Kovacic to also rattle Buffon’s bar, and time for Ronaldo to miss two chances as he searched for a hatrick. As the clock ticked down Juve poured forward in search of a glimmer of hope, but like in Cardiff, it was both academic and non-forthcoming.

The deed was done, and Ronaldo had left his mark. Doesn’t he always.

Elsewhere

  • Jurgen Klopp couldn’t even channel his usually hyper-active self, as there was probably a bit of disbelief in his eyes. It’s not uncommon that Liverpool would race into a 3-0 lead after 31 minutes at Anfield, particularly with their front three; that they were doing it against Manchester City, top of the Premier League by a landslide, and probably the best team in Europe right now was something else. Mohammed Salah was among the scorers, as usual, and Reds fans will hope his injury that saw him get taken off isn’t lasting one, although he did return to the bench later. More importantly, Liverpool have a foot and a half into their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years.
  • And as for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, why bother to score when the opposition can just do it for you?

Results

Juventus 0-3 Real Madrid

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Sevilla 1-2 Bayern Munich

Barcelona 4-1 Roma

Published in International Watch

And so they meet again. By the end of the second week of April, Real Madrid and Juventus would have met seven times in the past five years, such is the pedigree between this sides in this competition. 14 meetings in 22 years between both sides, trophies have been decided, and prestigious managers and players previously turned up for both teams, quite an illustrious past.

More importantly, by the end of the second week of April, one of Real Madrid or Juventus would be out of the Champions League, would be left stewing and ousted from a competition that has come to define them, and watch as the other sets off to be 180 minutes away from the final. 10 months on from that show-piece in Cardiff, when Real ruthlessly outclassed Juve to a 4-1 win, both sides jostle for a slot in the last four. ‘The Cardiff match was a very important lesson to grow and improve’ said Juve manager Max Allegri. ‘We could have managed the ball better in the second half and we have to be faster and deal with it in a more serene way’.

It’s no question that that loss in the Welsh capital has served as a bit of a lesson for the Old Lady, whose drop off in that game was so obvious and costly. Now it’s about maintaining focus and concentration, a trait that has served them so well in the past. ‘We have to be focused, concentrated and committed because every player on the field in great’ Allegri added. ‘We really need to be in the match psychologically as well’.

And psychologically, what would the game do for Juve? Giorgio Chiellini has said the focus is not on revenge, while goalkeeper and captain Gigi Buffon has talked about how facing Real ‘again doesn’t fill us with joy’. He may have pointed that he was referring to the quality in the side, as well that of the likes of other quarter-finalists in Manchester City and Bayern Munich among others, but you can be forgiven for thinking whether his mind was cast back to the past once again. And the past is always going to be reflected in a game of such teams, whose paths have been crossed often. Aside from that final last season, they met a round earlier in 2015, when Alvaro Morata, sold to Juve by Real, ousted his boyhood club.

They have had group stage meetings as well- Real won one and drew the other in 2013, while Juve did the double over them five years before- but their stories have been in the knockout stages, the extra-time win by Juventus in 2005, where Ronaldo (the other one) got sent off for Real and Marcelo Zalayeta grabbed the winner, Juve’s progress to the final at the hands of Los Blancos two years before, with Buffon saving a Luis Figo penalty, Predrag Mijatovic grabbing the winner for Real in the final in Amsterdam in 1998, and Juve knocking the Spaniards out on their way to glory in 1996. Not that either side seems to be placing too much thought to previous events.

Buffon has talked about how he doesn’t reflect on the previous meetings, while Zinedine Zidane, Real’s manager, who played for both sides, believes it’s ‘a completely different situation’ from last year. It might well be true, but the need from both sides is barely any different. Neither is the reality that one of them will fall at the end.

 

Fixtures

Juventus v Real Madrid

Liverpool v Manchester City

Barcelona v Roma

Sevilla v Bayern Munich

Published in International Watch

‘It’s difficult to find new words. Everyone’s raving about him at the moment and rightly so. I think we’re witnessing the start of greatness’.

Those were the words of former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, well at least the words he could come up with, as the Reds legend became the latest to be verbally extinguished by the brilliance of Mohammed Salah, who bagged four goals at home to Watford on Saturday.

Before the Reds welcomed the Hornets to Anfield, Salah was stuck on 32 goals, one behind Fernando Torres in the record for goals in a debut season with Liverpool; by the end of the game he had gotten to 36, becoming only the third Liverpool player, after Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen, to bag four goals in a league game, and is only three short of the Premier League’s record for goals in a 38-game season (31). ‘I think it’s indescribable', said Reds teammate Joe Gomez, another who seemed rather short of words.

Salah had been kept quiet in Liverpool’s loss at Old Trafford the previous weekend, much like the whole front three, as Manchester United hit them on the direct route, a system that Watford looked to employ, right from kick-off. But the visitors' plan were scuppered after just four minutes, Salah leaving Miguel Britos on his backside, before putting the ball past Ornestis Karnezis and into the net.

That was always bound to signal the start of a long day for Watford, who have only scored once in the road in 2018, and despite their growth in confidence as the half progressed, thanks in no small part to Liverpool’s slackness, when Salah turned home his second from Andrew Robertson’s cross before halftime, it was just about game over.

Salah began the second half in the same menacing vein as he had the first, but this time he took the role of a provider, as his cross was deftly flicked home by Roberto Firmino, the seventh direct goal combination between the pair this season. Salah’s fourth came after Karnezis pushed away Danny Ings' shot into his path, but it was his third that caught the eye, as he managed to find the bottom corner despite a sea of Watford bodies between him and the goal, sparking (perhaps overboard) comparisons with Lionel Messi.

‘Mo is on the way, that’s good. I don’t think that Mo wants- or anybody else wants- to be compared with Lionel Messi’s, said Salah’s manager Jurgen Klopp. ‘He is the one that is doing what he’s doing be it feels like for 20 years or so’. The Messi comparisons does seem a bit too much, but Salah is reaching rather unimaginable heights as each week passes.

Klopp has said he’ll still get better even before the season ends. Talk about putting fear into opponents. 

Elsewhere:

  • ‘He normally doesn’t use his right foot for anything but standing on' said Christian Eriksen of Erik Lamela’s strike in the FA Cup sixth round win at Swansea on Saturday. Lamela scored his side’s second with a peach of an effort, as Spurs produced another Harry Kane-less masterclass to advance to a ‘home’ semi-final. Spurs have a date with Manchester United in April.
  • You could have looked at Alvaro Morata’s face in the 42nd minute at the King Power, and probably seen a writing of relief on it. After failing to score since Boxing Day, the Spaniard was set free by Willian, and slotted past Kasper Schmeichel with the calmness not usually shown by a striker out-of-form. Leicester did rally back in the second period and through Jamie Vardy’s 17th goal of the season, grabbed an equaliser to force extra time. But Schmeichel’s error of judgment allowed Pedro to head in what proved to be Chelsea’s winner. The Blues still have a trophy to aim for this term. Southampton stands in their way towards the final.
  • Manchester United did have quite enough heritage in them this weekend to get past Brighton, but not quite enough personality, as despite Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic grabbing the goals to take them to Wembley, Jose Mourinho accused his players of being scared of the shirt. Not that he mentioned any names of course, except one. One which we’re Shaw you’d know (sorry).
  • The definition of things going against you: you play a side that hasn’t one away since December and you go down to 10 men. Stoke’s loss to Everton leaves them in 19th place, and they go to Arsenal after the International Break. For Everton, meanwhile, it’s four goals in three for January signing Cenk Tosun.
  • Wilfred Zaha plays for Crystal Palace, and Palace win. Duh! 

Results

Premier League:

Huddersfield 0-2 Crystal Palace

Stoke 1-2 Everton

Liverpool 5-0 Watford

Bournemouth 2-1 West Brom

FA Cup:

Leicester 1-2 Chelsea

Manchester United 2-0 Brighton

Wigan 0-2 Southampton

Swansea 0-3 Tottenham

Semi final draw:

Chelsea v Southampton

Tottenham v Manchester United 

Published in International Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two for Two for Burnley

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

Rashford for United on Derby Day

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

Elsewhere:

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

Results

West Ham 0-3 Burnley

Huddersfield 0-0 Swansea

Newcastle 3-0 Southampton

Everton 2-0 Brighton

Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace

Manchester United 2-1 Liverpool

West Bro 1-4 Leicester

Bournemouth 1-4 Tottenham

Arsenal 3-0 Watford

Monday Night Football: Stoke v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

And amidst the fog and mist, it was gone. Paris Saint-Germain’s assault at another Champions League season has suffered another premature exit. Like the previous campaigns,  the exit was early, signalled the French big-spenders as still behind the European elite, and casts the future of their manager right into question. But unlike most of the past seasons, this was less of a valiant effort, and more like a tame surrender.

Last season’s incredible exit at the hands of Barcelona at this stage, as jaw-dropping and eye-widening as it was, still witnessed a fair amount of fight from Le Parisiens, their first leg win was an indication of how good they could now be. This term, however, against Real Madrid, it was a bit of a let-down. French paper L’Equipe’s headline on Wednesday morning translated as ‘All that, for that?’. For all the money spent, the transfer records shattered, the acquisition of arguably a Ballon D’Or winner in the waiting, and the world’s most sought-after teenager, the thrashing of Bayern Munich in September, this was the best they could produce? 

For the most part of the first leg, PSG were the better side, but a rather bizarre substitution midway through the second half seemingly cost them, leaving them with a 3-1 deficit to overturn in Paris. There were messages to the crowd, and messages from the crowd ahead of the return fixture, PSG were going to be without their star man in Neymar, but they still had a top quality side, Angel Di Maria was Neymar’s replacement, Giovani Lo Celso was dropped for Thiago Motta, and skipper Thiago Silva came back into the side for Presnel Kimpembe, all changes from the first leg.

They did try to put Real in the back foot in the first period, but the best they could muster was a few good-looking Di Maria crosses that were dealt with by Raphael Varane. Unai Emery and his side were perhaps lucky not to have conceded in the opening 35 minutes, Alphonse Areola denying Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema on separate occasions, even if at the other end Keylor Navas was called upon to foil Kylian Mbappe and Di Maria.

Goalless it finished in the first half, PSG still needed two, and demonstrated their urgency early in the second half, when Thiago Silva appealed to the fans to ease on the flares, which caused referee Felix Brych to abruptly halt proceedings. PSG knew the work they had to do up front, but if they had forgotten that there was also work to do at the back, they were reminded when Cristiano Ronaldo flashed a header wide. It wasn’t a warning they seemed to take note of, though, as when Dani Alves played them into trouble in the 57th minute, Marco Asensio found Lucas Vazquez. A cross, a Ronaldo header and a knee slide followed, the Portuguese captain’s 12th Champions League goal of the season had broken the deadlock.

Now PSG needed three goals to just about force extra time, but they were making little inroads, and only the post prevented Asensio from putting them further behind. Still, for a side with such quality and having scored 104 goals this season, three might not such a hard ask, if only Marco Verratti didn’t go and get himself sent off for dissent, which was exactly what he did.

Now Mission Impossible looked like Mission as Good as Dead, but they would pull a goal back, Edinson Cavani deflecting home after Casemiro had deflected Javier Pastore’s header. Now it was only two more that was needed, on came Julian Draxler, but to little effect.

With 11 minutes left, Vazquez crossed into the box, Adrien Rabiot made a poor clearance, Casemiro’s follow up shot hit Marquinhos, wrong footed Areola, and bounced in. Real Madrid were through; with some ease. Los Blancos showed themselves to be at the kind of level that PSG strive to be. As Emery shook hands with opposite number Zinedine Zidane, he surely feared his time at the French Capital has been numbered.

Elsewhere:

  • 1-0 up on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, with the opposition needing to score twice and you well in control. Then suddenly, it all went South for Spurs, quickly too. First Stephane Lichtsteiner found the head of Sami Khedira, whose header was turned home by Gonzalo Higuain. Then Higuain turned provider, as Paulo Dybala raced past the Spurs defence and finished past Hugo Lloris with aplomb. All that was left for Juve to defend a lead, a job they do so well, as one they did here. Tottenham have claimed scalps over Dortmund and Real Madrid this season, but this is where their European journey ends.
  • It was a case of salvaging some pride for Basel, and that they did, as after fallen behind to Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus opener, goals from Mohamed Elyounoussi and Michael Lang secured a 2-1 win. A well-reshuffled City side suffered their first loss at home this season, not that it mattered much in context, but is still likely to bring some dressing room ire from Pep.

Results:

PSG 1(2)-(5)2 Real Madrid 

Manchester City 1(5)-(2)2 Basel

Tottenham 1(3)-(4)2 Juventus 

Liverpool 0(5)-(0)0 Porto

Published in International Watch

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