Premier League 2018/19: Prologue

Friday, 10 August 2018 10:08

 

What is this really? A list of things to look out for ahead of the new season? A list questions to be answered ahead of the new campaign? A load of nonsense by Spotkick to generate attentio… okay, maybe not that last part.

Hence, we called it a prologue, the 2018-19 Premier League trailer; the thing before the real thing begins: 

 

An actual title race this time?

Yeah, yeah, Manchester City, we get it, you steamrolled to the title with all the records broken, whatever. But that also meant in four years, we haven’t had a real title race. Commendations to Spurs for trying to make something of two of the last four seasons, but still, there’s been little doubt over the state of the league winners going into the final two months for the first time since 2014. City look like favourites for the title again, but Liverpool’s summer spending has many tipping as the likeliest side to challenge the champions. The others, though, pose questions and reasons for doubt. Spurs made no action in the window, Manchester United haven’t had the best preparations, to say the least, Chelsea have new management and a lot of room for improvement, and Arsenal approach a season of the unknown. On paper, it looks like there are only two sides vying for the title, but it’s never played on paper is it? Yet it’s probably too much to ask for a six-team title race.

 

The unknown case of the Gunners

It’s gone from expecting the Gunners to implode in mid-February and wondering whom Arsene Wenger would push his irritation at, to a sense of the unknown at the Emirates. Wenger has departed after 22 years, Unai Emery is the new boss in Red North London, areas of weakness have been supposedly bolstered, and there’s the feel that the fans are stepping into the unknown with a touch of optimism. Suddenly, making a stern prediction on the Gunners seems a tough call. We no longer know what lies behind that Hornsey Road curtain.

 

Will Chelsea become- oh God- likeable?

It’s the supposed constant in West London, Chelsea are the formidable ruthless machine, hiring and firing reputable winners one after the other, thriving in their short-termism, and being hated by everybody else, like having an eternal dislike for Channels Television because they had the gusto to interrupt your cartoons with news programmes back when you were a kid. But could that change? For once in the Roman Abramovich era, the Blues have gone against their archetypal mode, appointing a manager who has nothing in terms of trophies, in Maurizio Sarri. Sarri comes with a mode of playing that will take some getting used to, it took a while for his style garnered fruit with Napoli. That means Abramovich seems settled to adopting a style that’ll require patience and practice, so no sign of short-termism, no hiring of a name laden with silverware. Which could equal, a style of play that could be pleasing on the eye, plus the fact that their system will take some getting used to, as the Community Shield proved, which could mean a few unpleasant results in the early days of the campaign, and a few unlucky outcomes may well generate some empathy. They may well be the new Premier League, gulp, .

 

Jose’s dissatisfaction hanging over Red Manchester

The grumpiest man in Manchester, The Guardian called him, United’s manager hasn’t expressed elation over United before the season begins, his claims over the club’s relative transfer inactivity and the unavailability of some of his players, who had the audacity to represent their country at the World Cup. Eyes have already been set at the Portuguese, who approaches his third season at Old Trafford, the period of calamity in his managerial timeline, and his grumpiness hasn’t taken away the limelight. All signs point towards a ticking time-bomb at the Theatre of Dreams, or is it all a smoke-screen to bait into playing United down as outsiders? The opening game of the season may set the tone.

 

2019: The year of the Reds?

Raise your hand if you’ve seen and been annoyed by this before: this could be Liverpool’s season. Before you snort in derision and walk away, look at the signs; mainly the transfer window. Having bolstered their defence with the acquisition of Virgil van Dijk last January, they seem to have plugged that goalkeeping hole with the acquisition of Alisson Becker from Roma, have added some solidity and security in midfield in the arrivals of Fabinho and Naby Keita, and the signing of Xherdan Shaqiri does their attack no harm. With Daniel Sturridge apparently staying and Adam Lallana fit for the start of this campaign, Liverpool finally boast sufficient squad depth to mount a lasting challenge. Don’t fold under pressure, and it really could be their year. (Spoiler alert: It probably won’t)

 

Neil Warnock, his point to prove, and his fiery atmosphere

Two: number of times Neil Warnock has taken a side into the top-flight.

Zero: number of times he’s achieved survival with them.

Either by suffering relegation or getting discarded halfway, Warnock and the Premier League don’t mix. And after leading Cardiff to their unexpected promotion last term, this may seem like his chance to put things right, so the manager wouldn’t want for motivation ahead of 2018-19. The odds are stacked against the veteran manager and his side, who are favourites to be relegated, which could mean no pressure or so much pressure. Survival may not come, and Warnock may not last long at the helm this term, but expect some feistiness from the Sheffield-born man. His list of spats and finger-pointing is quite something- even Sean Bean can attest to it. Has already made previous with Pep Guardiola and Nuno Esprito Santo last season, surely there’ll be more this time.

 

Battle to be best of the rest

There’s little denying the drawn-out gap between the top six and the rest, like titans watching the gods dining at the pantheon. Last season, Burnley in seventh place were closer to the relegation zone than they were to sixth place, the season before that it was Southampton in eighth that were in that scenario. We’ll always have Leicester’s crazy one-season stand in 2015/16, but the reality is, the top six are quite a cut above the rest. Speaking of Leicester, the Foxes do have a shot at being the best of the rest. Despite the loss of Riyad Mahrez, the summer has been good, highly-rated Championship playmaker James Maddison has joined from Norwich, Ricardo Pereira plugs that hole at right-back, while Jonny Evans is a bargain at 3million. There’s a worry over the future of manager Claude Puel, whom was the subject of fans discontent in the second half of the campaign, and a bad start could the Frenchman be sent packing. Everton also have a right to fancy their chances; a season of amends is likely to be on the cards after last term’s debacle, but they still possess a quality side and finally have their sought-after managerial target in Marco Silva. West Ham shouldn’t be out of the question, problems still lie in East London but the summer has looked promising for the first time in a while. Then there’s the other promoted duo. Wolves and Fulham will probably want to consider themselves as the winners of this transfer window, Wolves managing to lure top-class goalkeeper Rui Patricio to the club, as well as Joao Moutinho, while Fulham snapped up Jean Michel-Seri, once a target of Barcelona’s, as well as World Cup winner Andre Schurrle. Rarely before did newly-promoted sides fancy themselves capable of much more than survival right after coming to the big time.

Published in International Watch

We’ve always heard of looking into the crystal ball and seeing what will be. But how often do you look into the crystal ball and tell what’s not seen? Hardly.

So, with the new Premier League season on its way, Spotkick takes a long gaze into future, and what does see? It won’t say. Rather, it’s here to say what it didn’t see.

Note: This is about what won’t happen in the upcoming Premier League season, but should of our un-predicted events turn out right, we intend to together hug the credit and say we told you so, a bit like Harry Re…shhhh, don’t give anything away!!!

 

August

The season kicks off at Old Trafford on a Friday night, with Manchester United hosting Leicester City. Leicester defender and United target Harry Maguire opens the scoring on the hour, but decides not to celebrate against the side the who’ve been so interested in him. The match ends one-all, Juan Mata with the equaliser for United, but the game’s headline is United gaffer Jose Mourinho having a spat with club physio Richard Ferron, as a result of the latter taking off Alexis Sanchez due to a head injury, ‘if you can’t play through the inconveniences, then you don’t call yourself a professional’, says the Portuguese.

Arsenal begin the season with a home game against Manchester City, but trouble ensues when manager Unai Emery is said to have been missing for a few days, after the Spaniard didn’t show up for the pre-match conference. As a result, Arsenal turn to former boss Arsene Wenger to be in caretaker charge until Emery is found. ‘It feels different this time’, says Le Professeur, during his unveiling in a secret location. Arsenal lose the opening game to the champions, 4-0.

Tottenham begin the season with a trip to Newcastle. With the scores level at 1-1 in stoppage time, Harry Kane heads in what seems to be the winner, but the referee disallows the goal by the virtue of it coming in August. Wolves and Everton steal the headlines on the opening weekend with an eight-all draw. The month comes to a close with Watford sacking Javi Gracia. ‘Javi has been in the job for eight months, an eternity by our standards, and it’s important to uphold our values and policies that have made this club so successful’ says the statement released by the Hornets board. ‘Plus, we were itching to use the line ‘Javi, Gracias’ before anyone on Twitter did’. Harry Redknapp is announced as the new Watford manager.

September

September begins with Newcastle players refusing to travel to the Etihad for their game against Manchester City, ‘we’ve witnessed far too many humiliations’ says a Toon player, ‘so why bother’. Newcastle are finally persuaded to make the trip, and hold a 1-0 lead until 10 minutes left, before conceding six goals in seven minutes.

City’s next game is a trip to Cardiff, where they muster 147 shots, yet get nothing: Cardiff get the only goal of the game, via an Aymeric Laporte own goal. Neil Warnock’s post-match conference is interrupted by the presentation of a gift basket, supposedly from Mourinho.

The month ends with Manchester United playing a goalless draw at West Ham. ‘It was an excellent result’ says Mourinho, ‘if you compare the football heritage, this was a match against a superior side’.

October

Liverpool and Man City kick off November, City finally ending their long-wait for a win at Anfield. Raheem Sterling scores twice for City, but refuses to celebrate against his former club. ‘Spoilt disrespectful brat Sterling dishonours club that pays his wages by not celebrating’, the Daily Mail says. That loss leaves Liverpool with just three wins all-season, and manager Jurgen Klopp points out how the Reds can’t match the top clubs in spending big, then the German is reminded of his side’s summer outlay. ‘People say what they want to say, I know we don’t spend big’, he replies.

Chelsea and Man Utd meet in this month, an Alvaro Morata hatrick helping the Blues to a 4-2 win. ‘Sometimes those with zero trophies can get lucky against the successful ones’, Mourinho says post-match. United end their month with a hard-fought win over Everton, their third in the league, Luke Shaw getting the only goal.

Spurs also hit the headlines this month, Christian Eriksen guilty of simulation in their 3-3 draw at West Ham, but Harry Kane is the one who receives the yellow card.

November

Arsenal continue their uncomfortable start to the season with a 2-3 loss at home to Liverpool. Arsene Wenger is irate when asked if he worries about his future. ‘You can’t keep blaming me for everything’, the Frenchman bellows. ‘The club should be grateful I gave up spending time with my family to help them miss out on the top four. Perhaps you lot should spend time searching for Unai than worry about me’.

Watford’s heavy defeat to Newcastle means they haven’t won any game since September. ‘It’s important to keep things in perspective’, says Harry Redknapp. ‘I’ve had two wins in charge in all competitions, and that’s despite my knee injury’. Redknapp is sacked after. The Hornets appoint Quique Sanchez Flores as manager, then realise they’ve hired once before, and they duly fire him 16 hours after his unveiling. David Moyes is put in charge, after signing an affidavit swearing he’s never managed Watford before now.

The Manchester derby is the headline game of the month, and history is made when City get 100% ball possession for the entirety of the first half. City run out 3-1 winners. Mourinho is sacked, and Michael Carrick is named as manager until the end of the season.

Cardiff, winless since that win over Man City, sack Neil Warnock. Sam Allardyce, midway through another of his lectures on British managers not being given a chance in the UK (to Sky Sports), is announced as Cardiff’s new boss.

December

Liverpool and Everton kick-off the month with the Merseyside, in his pre-match interview Jurgen Klopp complains about how the derby is often overshadowed by other games in the same weekend. Liverpool win 4-1, Mohammed Salah scoring all four of Liverpool’s goals, but referee Michael Oliver hits the headlines by rushing right out of the pitch and the stadium in order to catch the North London derby happening later that day.

At the Emirates, with banners of ‘Find Emery’ colouring the stadium, goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette give Arsenal a 2-0 win over Spurs.

The month is headlined by Man City’s trip to Chelsea, an entertaining goalless draw with a combination total of 14,658 completed passes and 37 shots on target. Another headline act of December is Manchester United’s 5-3 win at Anfield, which makes it four wins in four for United under Carrick.

Bayern Munich get knocked out of the UEFA Champions League group stage, and are drawn with Arsenal in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Wolves go top after their 1-1 draw with Liverpool.

January

Wolves and Leicester meet in mid-January, with Leicester fans intent on Wolves not re-enacting their version of the Foxes’ 2015/16 fairy-tale, banners of ‘don’t let them take our fantasy’ filling the away end. Leicester come out as 3-1 winners, thanks to a brace from Jamie Vardy. Wolves also lose to Manchester City in January, and Spurs, and drop to fourth place.

The transfer windows  re-opens, and Spurs announce six players signing new contracts.

The Premier League accidentally records one of Arsenal’s games in January as a defeat to Stoke, despite the fact that Arsenal’s only loss of the month came at Man City, and the small matter of Stoke being in the Championship.

With Liverpool struggling and languishing in seventh place, Jurgen Klopp announces he’ll leave the club at the end of the season. Liverpool finish the month with a 6-2 win at West Ham, a match during which Andy Carroll gets injured after stepping out of West Ham’s bus. He’s ruled out for three months.

Watford sack David Moyes after a loss to Brighton, with Alan Pardew named his immediate replacement.

Huddersfield are still searching, astonishingly, for their first win of the season, but chairman Dean Hoyle expresses faith in David Wagner. ‘He’s proved capable of miracles, and I’m confident we can muster 14 wins between now and the end of the campaign’.

February

Everton pull off a shock 2-1 win over Man City, in the same weekend when Man Utd complete the double over Liverpool, the Red Devils remain unbeaten under Michael Carrick, who still possesses some tactical flaws, according to new BT Sport pundit, a certain Jose Mourinho.

Everton are brought back down to earth following their win over City, with a defeat to Cardiff, coached by Sam Allardyce, a 1-0 loss thanks to a goal of the season contender by January signing Omar Niasse. ‘Justice, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder’ says a smug Big Sam afterwards.

Chelsea go top with a win over Spurs, Alvaro Morata bagging his 21st goal of the season in a 3-1 victory.

Arsenal are knocked out of the Europa League by Bayern.

Man Utd win the League Cup, after beating Leicester at Wembley.

March

Watford begin the month with a loss at home to Leicester, and during the International break, with members of the team travelling to Paris, Tom Cleverley and Ben Foster allegedly steal a bicycle from the Tour de France.

Everton bag their first Merseyside derby win since 2010, after a close-fought 3-2 win is decided by a howler from Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Klopp defends Alisson post-match, ‘he feels very disappointed, but Loris… sorry Alisson is a very strong character’.

Man Utd’s unbeaten run under Carrick finally ends, with a derby defeat to Man City. City supposedly play without Kevin de Bruyne, who’s suspended, but their winning goal is created by Oleksandr Zinchenko, who covers himself in a mask, and can’t quite be differed from De Bruyne. After full-time, ‘Zinchenko’ hurries past the press and declines a post-match interview.

April

Huddersfield, despite six wins in eight games, are relegated from the Premier League after a goalless draw with Watford, who are in a precarious situation of their own.

Liverpool climb to fifth place after beating Chelsea at Anfield, a result which sends the Blues out of the title race. Spurs also miss out on the title, after defeat at Man City, and the win means City become the first side to retain the title since 2009.

Cardiff host Chelsea, needing a win to keep their survival hopes alive. After the Bluebirds go 2-0 down in the first half, Allardyce resigns as Cardiff manager at halftime, to keep his record of never having gone down on a technicality. ‘I had to do what’s best for the team’ says Big Sam, ‘now I’ll go on vacation till October’.

Arsenal win at Wolves at the end of October, leapfrogging them into sixth place, but the biggest information concerning the club is the re-appearance of Unai Emery, who confirms that he had been held hostage by Wenger for nine months. Then Wenger goes missing as well.

May

Watford’s relegation is confirmed after a defeat at Chelsea. David Moyes is sacked, and Alan Curbishley is announced as the new manager ahead of the 2019/20 season.

Spurs cement second place, with Chelsea in third, and Man Utd completing the top four, behind champions City. Liverpool finish fifth, Arsenal end up in sixth, and Wolves compliment seventh place with an FA Cup final triumph over Southampton, who finish in 11th.

Relegated trio Cardiff, Huddersfield and Watford, trade divisions with Leeds United- who finished the Championship season unbeaten-, Stoke, and play-off winners Middlesbrough, and their coach Tony Marvolo Pulis.

Arsene Wenger resurfaces, but will not be charged for any crimes, and is appointed the manager of Russian Premier League side Arsenal Tula. ‘Close enough’ says the Frenchman. ‘Now let’s find Gervinho and Sebastian Squillaci, and get this project started’.

Published in 10km offside

Manchester City

Last Season: 1st; Top Scorer: Sergio Aguero (21); FA Cup: Fifth Round; League Cup: Winners; UEFA Champions League: Quarter-final

This is the season of…

Pressure. City ripped up the record books last season in the league; most wins, most away wins, most consecutive, most points, etc., and that also means they’ve set the bar high. Pep Guardiola has said records won’t tumble this term, and it’s hard to disagree, expecting City to reach those heights once again is rather unrealistic. But that’s the pressure they must face now, adding to the fact that all eyes will be on whether than they can retain the title, no team has done that since 2009, and City’s title defences have been underwhelming to put it mildly. Champions League glory is also sought-after, and as league champions, they’ll be the scalp everyone else wants to claim. Last season’s achievements have earned them praise, but it will buy them no room for laxity.

Who’s in…

It’s been a rather quiet market for the champions so far, although the only addition is a big one, long-term target Riyad Mahrez has finally joined from Leicester.

Who’s out…

Other than Yaya Toure- whose departure had been expected since, frankly, 2016- it’s been quiet on the exit front as well. Even Joe Hart hasn’t left.

The Gaffer (Pep Guardiola)…

Finally delivered in the league title- and in some style- in his second season, the aim for the Catalan is the retention of the domestic dominance, as well as European glory.

Dream season…

The league title is retained, and Champions League success is finally achieved. Daresay treble?

Nightmare season…

City’s title defence is timid, like that of the past six champions. An early European exit and cup disappointments make for a trophy-less campaign.

Key man…

Kevin de Bruyne is the main cog in the City wheel, almost like a box-to-box playmaker (it’s not a thing). His goals and outrageous number of assists don’t even measure his impact in the side.

Needs to step up…

Err… this is a tough one. Benjamin Mendy did little wrong last season, partly because he did little- injuries restricted him to a bit-part role. Staying fit for the entire campaign will be the aim for the World Cup winner.

Verdict: Replicating last season’s success is a particularly hard ask, but a successive league title is very much on the cards. 1st

Manchester United

Last Season: 2nd; Top Scorer: Romelu Lukaku (16); FA Cup: Runners-up; League Cup: Quarter-final; UEFA Champions League: Last 16

This is the season of…

Dread? Finishing second last term means Manchester United are not far away from the title as they used to be in recent year;, City won’t repeat their barnstorming season, and the Red Devils have a proven winner in the dugout. But Jose Mourinho enters his third season at the club- the time when things usually go south for him-, and his repeated expression of dissatisfaction in pre-season is helping no nerves connected with United. Begin the season on the wrong foot, and hell may well let loose.

Who’s in…

Mourinho has expressed his lack of satisfaction at United’s transfer activity so far: Fred has joined from Shakhtar Donetsk, while teenage full-back Diogo Dalot has arrived from Porto. Oh, right, goalkeeper Lee Grant has joined from Stoke.

Who’s out…

Daley Blind has returned to Ajax after four seasons at Old Trafford.

The Gaffer (Jose Mourinho)

Weird as it may sound, the Portuguese has something to prove this season, things are expected to go awry given this is his third season. His grumpiness hasn’t helped so far, but neither has the relative inactivity in the market.

Dream season…

What Third Season Syndrome? United win a first league title in six years, and make a fist of things on the continental front as well.

Nightmare season…

Third Season Syndrome strikes, United begin the season badly, manager and players fallout, Jose leaves by November, and the Mancunians tumble out of the top four.

Key man…

A productive first season at Old Trafford followed by a productive World Cup means Romelu Lukaku will be in no mood to let up in this new campaign. He does need some help up front, though, and the players around him need to contribute more.

Needs to step up…

Speaking of players around Lukaku who need to contribute more, Alexis Sanchez hasn’t had the best start to an Old Trafford career since joining in January. There’s the sense that he’ll hit his stride soon enough, which will do United’s cause no harm.

Verdict: Unrest seems to be brewing at the United camp, and may cost them another title, but there certainly won’t be calamity at the Theatre of Dreams. 4th

Newcastle United

Last Season: 10th; Top Scorer: Ayoze Perez (10); FA Cup: Fourth Round; League Cup: Second Round

This is the season of…

The usual Newcastle unpredictability. Last season’s tenth-place finish no longer looks the recipe for success it once did. Lack of assurances in the transfer market has left Rafa Benitez unsure ahead of the new campaign, and the air of uncertainty has spread to the fans. Funds are still non-existent, reinforcements still reliant on sales, the optimism that came with last term’s top-half finish is dissipating fast: straight out of the Newcastle playbook.

Who’s in…

Ki Sung-Yeung has joined on a free from relegated Swansea, defender Fabian Schar arrives from Deportivo, and Kenedy re-joins on another loan spell from Chelsea. Yushinori Muto becomes the first Japanese to sign for the Magpies, after joining from Mainz. Salomon Rondon joins on a swap loan deal, which sees...

Who’s out…

...Dwight Gayle move the other way to West Brom. Chancel Mbemba has permanently departed, joining Porto, while Mikel Merino has swapped Newcastle for Sociedad.

The Gaffer (Rafa Benitez)…

Did well to take a limited side to the top-half last term. It’s hard to not get the feeling that he can take the Toon much further if he gets backed in the market.

Dream season…

Mike Ashley finally loosens the purse strings, Benitez leads Newcastle to a very comfortable position, and the brink of seventh place, while delivering domestic cup glory.

Nightmare season…

Benitez walks after deciding he’s had enough, the trajectory becomes downward, as a limited squad is found out, and it’s a third relegation in a decade.

Key man…

Jonjo Shelvey is at the heart of everything good that comes out of the Newcastle side, his range of passing as impressive as his work-rate. Continues to be overlooked for a place in the England squad.

Needs to step up…

Owner Mike Ashley continues to play jump-rope with the club, and as a result Newcastle continue to be short-handed in the transfer market. He got away with it last term, he might not be so lucky again.

Verdict: A lot depends on Benitez not walking out. Should the Spaniard remain, Newcastle won’t be without belief. 10th

Southampton

Last Season: 17th; Top Scorer: Charlie Austin (7); FA Cup: Semi-final; League Cup: Second Round

This is the season of…

Mark Hughes. Sparky came in last March when Southampton were in deep trouble, and managed to stave off relegation, if only just. Now, with a new season incoming, the Welshman has a point to prove. Seen by many as the man who set the foundations for Stoke’s relegation and who simply got lucky to survive with the Saints, Hughes stock is dropping, as is Southampton’s. At least one has to pull the other forward.

Who’s in…

Stuart Armstrong joins from Celtic, Angus Gunn is likely to take the first-choice goalkeeping spot after signing from Manchester City, while Mohammed Elyounoussi joins from Basel, and defender Jannik Vestergaard cost 18million pounds from Borussia Monchengladbach.

Who’s out…

Dusan Tadic has left St. Mary’s, after four years, and joins Ajax. Jordy Clasie moves out on loan again, as does Guido Carrillo, and Hughes’ least-favourite person Sofiane Boufal. Jeremy Pied and Florin Gardos have both been released.

The Gaffer (Mark Hughes)…

Appointed in March, Sparky achieved the target of Premier League survival after an initial wobble. A man whose managerial reputation has taken another hit, his next task is to prevent the Saints battling the drop altogether.

Dream season…

Southampton return to punching above their weight, giving the top seven a good go, as well as finally getting it right in one of the domestic cups.

Nightmare season…

Another underwhelming campaign sees another managerial sacking, and the relegation battle proves too much for the Saints this time.

Key man…

Ryan Bertrand remains Southampton’s most consistent performer. Expressed his disappointment at not being selected in England’s World Cup squad, his leadership will be key to the Saints as much as his playing ability this term.

Needs to step up…

Nathan Redmond was once in the running for a place in the England side, but his performances last season did him no favours in that regard. The ability is undisputed, it’s the willingness and consistency that’s currently being questioned.

Verdict: Saints and Sparky should be motivated to put things right. A top-half place may be above their heads, but a season of relative comfort is by no means fanciful. 12th

Published in International Watch

 

Manchester United are interested in signing 29-year-old West Ham forward Marko Arnautovic, according to Sky Sports.

The Austrian international worked briefly with United boss Jose Mourinho during the 2009-2010 season.

Arnautovic found the back of the net on 11 occasions last season – providing an additional four assists.

It is reported that the Hammers interested in selling the Austrian international and they have placed a £50m price tag on him

Meanwhile, the Red Devils are on the verge of completing the signing of Brazilian midfielder Fred from Shaktar Donetsk

Also, reports from English papers this morning have it that United are in talks with Porto to sign their 19-year-old right back Diogo Dalot

Published in Transfer Rumors

 

 

 

Manchester City

 

By the time of the half-term report, the league was just about done and dusted. Records were already being set, and while an unbeaten season didn’t turn out to be one of them, more records followed. A points tally of 100, 16 away wins, most goals scored in a league season, highest goal difference, it looks like Pep Guardiola’s side were quite good.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Given the league was virtually a given at the turn of the year, a defeat to Wigan in Round Five of the FA Cup, and a quarter-final exit in the Champions League were a bit of dampeners, but, with League Cup success as well, it was a more than satisfactory season.

 

Top performer: Kevin de Bruyne would have swept all the individual in any other season were it not for Mohammed Salah, yet were it not for the Belgian himself, David Silva would have been more in the limelight. Raheem Sterling had a stellar campaign, as did Leroy Sane, and basically everyone else.

 

Should have done better: What do you think you’d see here?

 

In the dugout: Pep has signed a two-year contract extension.

 

Grade: A+

 

 

 

Manchester United

 

A season that seemed not-so-satisfactory at the turn of the year became definitely unsatisfactory after an FA Cup final loss and that insipid Champions League loss to Sevilla in March. Beating Manchester City at the Etihad and losing at home to West Brom summed up their inconsistency.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Second place was on in January, so that should be considered a positive, their first top three finish since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final campaign. Those cup exits are causes for disappointment, though.

 

Top performer: Paul Pogba blew hot and cold, but still had a fair amount of positives to look back on, David de Gea was his usual brilliant self, while Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic had stellar debut seasons. Honourable mention should also fall the way of Jesse Lingard.

 

Should have done better: Alexis Sanchez didn’t have the best six months after joining from Arsenal in January, Chris Smalling remains inconsistent and missed out on England’s World Cup squad, while Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford fell down the pecking order.

 

In the dugout: Jose Mourinho remains, and enters that third season.

 

Grade: B-

 

 

 

Newcastle

 

At the turn of the year, they were well-lodged in the relegation battle, Rafa Benitez was clamouring for new signings, and there was a will-it-won’t-it situation over a takeover. The takeover failed, but that’s just about the failure since then, Benitez led the Magpies to 10th place, their highest finish since 2014, with big home wins against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea along the way.

 

Would they have taken this in January. Top half finish, and retaining Benitez? Absolutely.

 

Top performer: Ayoze Perez was one of the season’s underrated players, likewise Mohammed Diame. Matt Ritchie had a more than commendable season, as did Jamaal Lascelles, while winter loan arrival Jan Dubravka was a revelation in goal. But no one really comes close to Jonjo Shelvey, who was rather unlucky not to go the World Cup with England.

 

Should have done better: Mikel Merion began with a bang, but faded badly, Islam Slimani wasn’t the inspiring loan move that everyone expected, while Isaac Hayden can’t be too happy with his campaign.

 

In the dugout: Benitez stays, for now.

 

Grade: B

 

 

 

Southampton

 

An utter let down of a campaign from the Saints. Having flirted with relegation for long, Mauricio Pellegrino was dismissed in March. In came Mark Hughes, and after a grim start, results improved, and the Saints won two of their final four games, including that six-pointer against Swansea, to survive.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Things weren’t looking so good at the start of 2018, but surely the Saints expected better than 17th place.

 

Top performer: Alex McCarthy replaced Fraizer Forster in goal in December, and was a crucial figure in Southampton’s survival, especially in the nervy win against Bournemouth. Dusan Tadic was largely inconsistent, but came good when it mattered the most, Ryan Bertrand and Cedric were the ever-reliable figures, while Shane Long’s game is much more than scoring, and he proved that. Special mention should also go to defenders Jack Stephens and Jan Bednarek.

 

Should have done better: Mario Lemina’s form from February wasn’t great, same applies for Steven Davis, while Nathan Redmond regressed. Then there’s Guido Carrillo.

 

In the dugout: Mark Hughes has penned a new three-year contract after keeping them up.

 

Grade: E

 

 

 

Stoke City

 

Where does one begin? A complete season of chaos and strife. Mark Hughes was binned in January, a decision some debate that should have happened much earlier, and replacement began with a win. The Potters didn’t win again until the final day of the season, after relegation had been confirmed, while Hughes led Southampton to survival. Ouch!

 

Would they have taken this in January: They were firmly lodged in the relegation fight by that time, but Stoke would have felt they have the quality to survive. So, no.

 

Top performer: Jack Butland did his reputation little, while Stoke would have dead and buried much earlier were it not for Xherdan Shaqiri. January signings Badou Ndiaye and Moritz Bauer also merit some credit.

 

Should have done better: Everyone else.

 

In the dugout: Paul Lambert joined the list of departing ‘firefighters’ at the end of the season, and Stoke have appointed Gary Rowett as his replacement.

 

Grade: F

 

 

 

Swansea City

 

Another season with a disappointment of a season, as relegation finally caught up with them. Carlos Carvalhal seemed to have engineered a potential escape, but their torrid run of form to end the season saw them sink, and in the most underwhelming manner.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Perhaps. Having looked dead and buried in December, relegation would have probably been seen as a chance to reflect and rebuild, and win more games. But given they had more than a shout of survival in April, relegation was ultimately disappointing.

 

Top performer: Jordan Ayew didn’t do too badly, even though he suffers his second relegation in three seasons, Alfie Mawson is unlikely to be in the Championship with the Swans, same goes for goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, who kept them in games, and the league, far much longer than they deserved.

 

Should have done better: Andre Ayew returned from West Ham in January, but didn’t find the net. Tammy Abraham’s second half of the season form is just about why he’ll be loaned out by Chelsea again. For those wondering, Wilfred Bony plays here.

 

In the dugout: Carvalhal departed shortly after the season came to an end.

 

Grade: E

 

 

 

Tottenham

 

A season that could have gone both better and worse, European and FA Cup exits were blemishes, but third place, which confirms three consecutive top-three finishes, as well as being the highest ranked London side, is progress. Not that the trophy cynics will agree.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Without a shadow of a doubt, even though Champions League exit to Juventus and FA Cup elimination at the hands of Manchester United would have hurt.

 

Top performer: Harry Kane bagged 30 league goals this term (claiming a few along the way), while Son Heung-Min, Ben Davies and Davinson Sanchez all had productive seasons. But none come close to Christian Eriksen, Spurs’ creator-in-chief.

 

Should have done better: Fernando Llorente suffered the curse of backup striker to ‘Harry Kane’, Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld lost mini-battles with Mauricio Pochettino and are bound to move on, while it is testament to Dele Alli’s lofty standards that a season of double figures is still considered a tad underwhelming. Hugo Lloris won’t be too fond of this season either.

 

In the dugout: Pochettino has signed a new contract until 2023.

 

Grade: B-

 

 

 

Watford

 

The poor run of form that began in November saw Marco Silva get sacked in January. Javi Gracia came in, marked his home debut with a demolition of Chelsea, and that was it, as the Hornets campaign petered out for the third season in a row.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Probably. Survival is the ultimate aim, and it was achieved with room to spare. That there’s room for more is what’s keeping the fans not so jubilant.

 

Top performer: Sebastian Prodl didn’t do too badly in defence, same goes for Daryl Janmaat. Abdoulaye Doucoure was the standout player by miles, though.

 

Should have done better: Richarlison’s form really faded in the second half of the season, Troy Deeney will have better campaigns, as will backup forward Andre Gray.

 

In the dugout: Javi Gracia stays on, for now. Perhaps next December?

 

Grade: C

 

 

 

West Brom

 

The almighty disaster of a campaign. From Tony Pulis’ dismissal in November, to the distinct lack of new manager bounce under Alan Pardew, who arrived before the New Year. One win in five months and one stolen Barcelona cab later, Pards was off. Relegation was already in the bag, but credit Darren Moore, who managed to galvanise the squad and gather as many wins as Pulis and Pardew combined, in six games.

 

Would they have taken this in January: No team would take relegation, but the manner in which they underperformed under Pardew was utterly miserable. That Moore ensured they didn’t go down with a whimper was cause for optimism.

 

Top performer: Jonny Evans was involved in the taxi-gate incident, but didn’t too badly on the pitch, same goes for Ben Foster, as well Salomon Rondon, while Jay Rodriguez ended the season in decent form. Ahmed Hegazi, though, was the standout player.

 

Should have done better: Way too long to start mentioning names, so let’s say Grzegorz Krychowiak, Gareth Barry, Matt Phillips, to mention but few.

 

In the dugout: Moore has been given the job on a full-time basis following his impressive audition.

 

Grade: E

 

 

 

West Ham

 

Survival was the objective for David Moyes when he took over in November, and it was achieved with a few games to spare. It still doesn’t quite mask a torrid season; from seeming cluelessness by the board, to fans invasion, the Hammers were proof all that ends well isn’t always well.

 

Would they have taken this in January: Survival? Yes. Everything else? Hardly.

 

Top performer: Marko Arnautovic stood out in attack, while Manuel Lanzini behind him didn’t do too badly either. Joao Mario was fine temporary addition, while Declan Rice and Aaron Cresswell will take positives from this campaign.

 

Should have done better: Joe Hart conceded 49 goals in 19 games, yet blamed Moyes for not going to the World Cup. Cheikhou Kouyate and Mark Noble didn’t give much to cheer about, and for some reason Patrice Evra joined midway through the campaign. He’s still better than Jordan Hugill, mind.

 

In the dugout: Moyes has gone, and has been replaced by former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini.

 

Grade: C-

 

 

 

Published in International Watch

Gattuso talks up the bizzare moment he ate a live snail

Pirlo in his autobiography I Think Therefore I Play revealed that the Milan coach had once eaten a live snail.

And confirming the bizzare revelation of Pirlo who they played together at AC Milan and with the Italian national team in a recent interview, Gattuso said, “I’ve done worse thing than eating a snail alive.”

The 40-year-old former Italian international said he used eating a live snail to relieve himself of tensions.

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“I’ve done worse thing than eating a snail alive,” Gattuso, as quoted by Sun Football.

“The point is, it was not about the snail anyway. I’m saying this because my point is that in that particular moment there was need to do something to break the tension.

“Given that I have no problem doing anything and we were just few hours before the Champions League semi-final against Manchester United and there was a massive pressure on us.”

Eating a live snail only solved the problem of tension for Gattuso, as that could not help him and his team from being thumped 7-2 home and away in the hands of Manchester United.

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 wasn’t so much as being nervy, but rather occupying a convoy of nerves at the St. Mary’s, as Southampton managed to stumble over the finish line against Bournemouth. The win was a narrow as it was vital, the performance as irrelevant afterwards, as it was shaky during; the air punches from Mark Hughes and his assistant at the final whistle, along with the sighs of joy and relief from the players summed it up: Southampton still have life in them.

This South Coast derby had been a must-win for the Saints, after a torrid of form in the league- no wins since February prior to this. There had been close calls, a 3-2 defeat at Arsenal where the Saints spirit and commitment yielded plaudits but no points, a 3-2 defeat at home to Chelsea where their impressive start was replaced by a horrific conclusion as they threw away a two-goal advantage; there had also been insipid displays; from the 3-0 loss in Hughes’ first game, at West Ham, to the 3-0 loss in Mauricio Pellegrino’s last, at Newcastle.

But every battle has a turning point if things are primed to still end well, every war its twist of fate that shows there might just be salvation after all, and perhaps this is the Saints’ Normandy moment, their Battle of Gettysburg situation. Two goals from Dusan Tadic was enough for victory over the Cherries on Saturday…well, two goals at the attacking end, at least. At the other end, there was a combination of brave and gutsy defending, mixed with desperate and nervous defending, as well as a few good saves from goalkeeper Alex McCarthy (one of which was a blinder in stoppage time to keep out Josh King’s deflected effort). The football was hardly mind-blowing, the fans were edgy, and the players had their fair share of tiredness, but they held on nevertheless.

That big win became even bigger considering the state of results of elsewhere. When the Saints were hanging on against Bournemouth, fellow relegation battlers Huddersfield were succumbing to Everton at the John Smith’s stadium. The Terriers had gone into that game with a chance of virtually gaining survival, but a 2-0 loss, where they lacked any sort of invention going forward and didn’t look like scoring even if the entire Toffees squad got hypnotised, now leaves them just three points above Southampton, who are in 18th. That’s the first point to note for David Wagner’s team, the second is that their final three games are against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, two of those away from home. The celebrations at the end of that win against Watford a fortnight ago sent a message, the lack of one at the end of this defeat sent another.

The relegation battle story of this weekend doesn’t end with those two, as before Huddersfield and Southampton took the pitch for their respective games, Stoke City had gone to Anfield and claimed a point. It was an expected backs against the wall game for Paul Lambert’s side, but perhaps the result wasn’t as predicted, the Potters sharing the spoils after an impressive display at the back. The reality is that it’s still no wins in 12 for the Potters, and they’re still 19th having played a game more than their rivals around the drop zone, but this could well be a big point, especially considering one of their final two games is against Swansea.

Swansea would also face Southampton before the season runs out, and this weekend, despite their second half performance, they fell to defeat at Chelsea. A frustrating evening for Carlos Carvalhal leaves his side just a point above the drop zone. That home game against Southampton in the penultimate will be vital.

West Ham, meanwhile, are only two points off Swansea, and by extension three from Southampton. They also have a rather terrible goal difference, not aided by their loss at home to Manchester City, which made them the worst defence in the league so far this season. Brighton, who drew at Burnley, may be two points further forward, but aren’t quite safe yet, especially as they end the season with a home game against Manchester United, as well as trips to Liverpool and Manchester City.

This long slog looks like playing out right to the wire.

Five-star Eagles

One team that’s probably safe are Crystal Palace, who, amidst the battles going on elsewhere, were putting five past Leicester City on Saturday. There was a first goal at home for Christian Benteke in just about a year, while the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and (of course) Wilfred Zaha came to the party, which was almost literal at the end of it. Palace haven’t lost against a side currently in the bottom half since September, Palace have the best goal difference in the bottom half, Palace are three points off the top ten. This was the same side that were goalless and pointless in October.

Elsewhere

  • It was a brilliant reception for Arsene Wenger as he walked on to Old Trafford for the final time, before receiving an award from Sir Alex Ferguson, and even (yes, really) sharing a smile with Jose Mourinho. At the end of it, there was no smile on his face, as his youthful side came close to grabbing a point at Old Trafford, but his last league game at the Theatre of Dreams succumbed to Fergie Time; how fitting. Arsenal still haven’t managed an away point in 2018; how worrying.
  • That West Ham loss to Man City, means City are now seven points away from a century of Premier League points in a season, as well as two goals away from the Premier League record of 103 in a season (by Chelsea in 2009/10). They have more goals in the first half of games, than West Ham have over 90 minutes.
  • Having looked doomed all season, suddenly West Brom won’t go down. Their win at Newcastle means they’re not mathematically relegated, yet. It also means they are unbeaten in four games under Darren Moore. They’ve won two games in that time, Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew combined for three league wins in nine months.
  • On the Chelsea win at Swansea, it’s finally 50 up in the Prem. for Cesc Fabregas at last. More pressingly, should Chelsea win all their remaining three games, they might finish in the top four.
  • And Mohammed Salah scored for Liv… oh, hang on. He didn’t (!). He even missed a sitter in Liverpool’s goalless draw with Stoke (what!!!).

Results

Southampton 2-1 Bournemouth

Burnley 0-0 Brighton

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

Crystal Palace 5-0 Leicester

West Ham 1-4 Manchester City

Newcastle 0-1 West Brom

Huddersfield 0-2 Everton

Swansea 0-1 Chelsea

Liverpool 0-0 Stoke

Monday Night Football: Tottenham v Watford

Published in International Watch

And the end of the road isn’t so far now. It was barely a week ago that Arsene Wenger announced that this season would be his last at the club, and from the next campaign, for the first time in 22 years, the answer to the question ‘who’s Arsenal’s manager?’ wouldn’t be the Frenchman. As expected, the inevitable praises and reminiscing over his time at the club have been pouring in. From journalists, fellow managers, current and former players, both for and against. Not least of them a tweet from ex-Manchester United man Gary Neville, who mentioned facing Arsenal in the Wenger era and the difficulty that posed.

And so, in a way, it’s quite fitting that one of Le Professeur’s final games before he walks off to the sunset would be at Old Trafford, and, as destiny would have it, against Jose Mourinho. The old adversary will be the last manager Wenger faces in the Old Trafford dugout before calling time on his, however sour the latter of part seems to have been, illustrious adventure with the Gunners, a ground that has held a few unforgettable memories for the 68-year-old.

It was at Old Trafford that Wenger suffered that infamous 8-2 defeat in August of 2011; at Old Trafford that he watched United become champions in 2009, seven years after he and his Arsenal team were also confirmed kings of the land at the Theatre of Dreams. It was at the same stadium he stood in the stands, arms aloft in a fit of ‘it’s just me’ almost a decade ago; where that famous pizza-gate incident happened in 2005, where his team were trampled 6-1 in 2000, and where Arsenal won to take momentum on their way to title triumph in 1998.

The Arsenal v United games, especially between the late ‘90s and 2005, were as pivotal as they were fiercely-contested. From the touchline squabble between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, the dressing room and pitch tussles between players (yes, this is you, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira), to the silverware on offer, it was the quite the series. But even after everything changed, the players, even the stadium, even when Fergie himself retired, there was still a constant in the fixture. Now that constant is about to change.

There isn’t much, in terms of the league, riding on this game; United can’t be champions and can’t dropout of the top four, while Arsenal, with the top four a bridge too far, are more interested in their Europa League affairs, where they have a second leg at Atletico waiting four days after this game. So the focus is likely to be on Wenger. How would the home fans welcome the Frenchman? What would the exchange between he and Mourinho be like? Would he finally win away at a Mourinho team before bowing out? With the likelihood of a reshuffled side as a result of their European commitments, that last part might seem unlikely, but this is a fixture that hasn’t wanted for twists and turns, one of this weekend’s being Alexis Sanchez hosting his former club.

And with that point it is worth noting that there will be more plot twists and drama in this fixture for years to come, the trend has already been set. But when the final whistle goes on Sunday, when Wenger walks down that path for the last time and into the tunnel, one of the men who have helped set the tone for this glamorous story between these rivals will be bidding it goodbye. Before that, though, he still has another chapter to star in.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s gone from ‘win or bust’ stage to ‘win-but-even-that-might-not-be-enough-because-you-left-it-late’ stage for Stoke, as the Potters know the water is hastily running dry as they seek to swim to the other side of the dotted line. Paul Lambert’s side will just about need to win the rest of their remaining fixtures to have a chance of survival. First, a trip to Anfield, where they haven’t won in 54 top-flight fixtures, and are bound to be up against probably the deadliest front three in Europe right now. Good luck with that one.
  • Speaking of last chance saloon, Southampton are in a not-so dissimilar situation. The past few weeks have been plaudits-not-points for the Saints, who are running out of time and games. The upcoming South Coast derby is a definite must-win, perhaps it’s time for some more attacking displays.
  • It’s shades of Southampton again for Claude Puel: the results are drying up, the boos are ringing, complaints have come about his training sessions, and the board are considering replacing him in the summer. He and Leicester need three points at Crystal Palace, or, with games against Tottenham and Arsenal to come, their season might just peter out, and someone might just be ringing Mauricio Pellegrino.
  • And Burnley can cement a European place with as much as a point at home to Brighton. Nine months on, and it’s still incredible.

Fixtures

Manchester United v Arsenal

Tottenham v Watford

Swansea v Chelsea

Liverpool v Stoke

Southampton v Bournemouth

Huddersfield v Everton

Burnley v Brighton

West Ham v Manchester City

Newcastle v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Leicester

Published in International Watch

For the second season in a row, there’s no springtime doom and gloom at Newcastle. No talk of fans rallying with banners demanding a club that tries, no claim of the players letting down the fans, and no sign of a squad underachieving. Tyneside feels alive and buoyant, smiles are on faces fans, and the team is overachieving by sitting in the top half.

‘It’s very good what is happening in this club, in this city. We are where we deserve to be, I think’, said Mohammed Diame, who put in a man of the match of performance as Newcastle came from behind to beat Arsenal. Yes, Newcastle beat Arsenal. After 10 defeats in a row, spanning six years, and no wins against the Gunners in eight years, the Magpies grabbed a completely deserved win, their fourth in a row, as well their fourth successive home win. ‘With the last four results, we’ve won four games in a row now, and confidence is high’, said defender Paul Dummett.

And there was no shortage of confidence, even when Arsenal took the lead. It had been 13 years since the Toon celebrated a home win over Arsenal, Nolberto Solano bagging the solo goal back in the winter of 2005. Then Alan Shearer and Michael Owen were the headline men up front, Rafa Benitez was managing at Liverpool, with Glenn Roeder in charge. Normally Newcastle heads would have dropped, conceding the first goal against a bogey team and that familiar feeling would start to creep in, of those 10 games in a row that they lost to the Gunners, only in one of them did they score equalisers- yet they were hit 7-3 in that one- so perhaps a shot in morale would have been expected the moment Alexandre Lacazette latched on to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pass, and became the first player to score against Martin Dubravka at the St. James Park this season.

But dropping heads isn’t quite a feature of the new Toon, not what has made punch above their weight, made them win four games on the bounce. This may have been a shuffled Arsenal side, but there’s no discrediting Newcastle’s resolve. ‘People were talking about the changes they made but you could see the quality which they had, especially in the first half’, said Benitez. For quality, Benitez would have been delighted to see that that was the word surrounding his side’s equaliser. From Jonjo Shelvey’s superb pass, to Deandre Yedlin’s one-time cross, and Ayoze Perez’s one-touch finish, the goal that gave Newcastle parity involved eight of their 11 players, with nine passes.

It was a third goal in as many games for an in-form Perez, who bagged winners against Huddersfield, and at Leicester lately, but it’s the Spaniard’s work ethic that has been his most brilliant characteristic, and that has also been the watchwords for the rest of the squad. That work ethic, not so similar with Newcastle’s Premier League teams in recent past, always accused of a lack of trying and giving up too easily in the past. Not this side. ‘Everyone was pulling in the same direction…’ said Benitez, while Dummett pointed out ‘the organisation between the back four and midfield’ as key. But perhaps bigger proof of their hard work and focus is Diame pointing out that the team would enjoy this ‘for a few days, then get back to work’. There’s no room for resting on laurels, no room for slacking off, as they showed in the second half, with Islam Slimani and Perez combining to play in Ritchie, who- just like he did against Manchester United here- grabbed the winner.

With 41 points, Newcastle are one point behind ninth-placed Everton, whom they face next. ‘We’ll go to Everton hoping to beat them and take over them’ Dummett added. A win at Goodison Park next weekend takes them to ninth place; only twice in the past 11 Premier League seasons have they finished higher. Not that Benitez is one to get carried away, it’s still a case of one step at a time. The first step was always survival, and with 41 points that has been achieved, just ask Dummett. ‘Yes, definitely’.

City kings of the land, inevitably

You could excuse the nerves from the Manchester City fans and manager when Tottenham halved their advantage. City had been on top and took a deserved- yet fortuitous- two-goal lead, until Christian Eriksen pulled a goal back for Spurs (insert Harry Kane joke here). There was semblance to City’s implosion at home to Manchester United the previous weekend, and Spurs sensed it, the fans roaring them on while the players forced City to cede the ball, both at the end of the first half, and the start of the second. But City didn’t give up control or their lead this time, and with less than 20 minutes left, Raheem Sterling- guilty of a few misses in the derby and here as well- put the game to bed. City have won at Chelsea, Arsenal, United and Spurs this season; more importantly they got to within touching distance of the title. A West Brom win at Old Trafford would suffice.

Not that Pep Guardiola was watching, though. The City boss was presumably on the golf course when United took on West Brom, laboured at home to the bottom club, and, courtesy of a Jay Rodriguez header, suffered a second home league defeat of the season to hand City the title. Which means United had delayed City’s coronation at the Etihad on derby day, only to gift them the title by losing to a side that had won only twice in the league all season. Sums up this week of football. This also means City have won the league at the joint-fastest time ever (with five games to spare, just like United in 2000-01), and in seven years they’ve won three league titles, half the number of times United manager Jose Mourinho pointed out that he has won eight career championships in his post-match conference.

Elsewhere:

  • That defeat at St. James means Arsenal are yet to record an away point in 2018, the only side in the top four divisions in the country awaiting their first spoil on the road. Incredible.
  • Now it’s five wins in a row for Burnley. Not only did Sean Dyche’s side put some considerable daylight between them and recent opponents Leicester, they are now only two points behind sixth-placed Arsenal.
  • Mohammed Salah scored. Next!!
  • The jubilation was uncontainable, from the pitch to the dugout and the fans, when the goal went in and at the final whistle. It looked like Huddersfield-Watford would peter out to a goalless draw, until Tom Ince popped up for the Terriers in the 91st minute, his fifth goal against Watford. More Importantly, it has them on 35 points, on the brink of survival.
  • And in the crisis Clasico, Southampton managed to toss a two-goal lead at home to Chelsea, and grab defeat from the cusp of victory.
  • Oh, and welcome back to the big time Wolverhampton Wanderers

Results:

Newcastle 2-1 Arsenal

Tottenham 1-3 Manchester City

Southampton 2-3 Chelsea

Manchester United 0-1 West Brom

Huddersfield 1-0 Watford

Swansea 1-1 Everton

Crystal Palace 3-2 Brighton

Liverpool 3-0 Bournemouth

Burnley 2-1 Leicester

Monday Night Football: West Ham v Stoke

Published in International Watch

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