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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere:

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

Fixtures

Tottenham v Manchester City

Liverpool v Bournemouth

Manchester United v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Brighton

West Ham v Stoke

Swansea v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Burnley v Leicester

Huddersfield v Watford

Newcastle v Arsenal

Published in International Watch

10 Potential Managerial Changes Next Season

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 15:07

This be the final quarter of the season, mateys; where leagues are won, cups are taken, relegations are suffered, and end of season awards are doled out. But not many things say the end of a season like when a manager leaves his post, either having earlier stated that he would leave when the season ends, or having made the sudden, but inevitable departure, or having been courted by bigger fish.

So what are the potential managerial changes that are foreseeable once the final whistle of the season goes? We have a look at 10…

Paris Saint-Germain

Without a shred of a doubt, it’s the first potential managerial change that many people are foreseeing, and not without reason. After last season’s early UEFA Champions League exit at the hands, alongside only second place in the domestic league, PSG went big in the market, shattering the world transfer record (for Neymar) and the second-world-transfer-record-in-form-of-a-loan (Kylian Mbappe), only to suffer another early exit. They may be coasting to the Ligue 1 title, but after Laurent Blanc was sacked following three consecutive league titles, one league crown and insipid European exits won’t cut it for Unai Emery, especially considering he was hired because of his continental previous with Sevilla. It’s hard to fashion a way to see the Spaniard remaining as manager next season, not least because his contract expires at the end of this campaign, and the French club already contacting Antonio Conte’s representatives. Which brings us nicely to….

Chelsea

It’s little gain pointing out the mood of Conte at Stamford Bridge this term, the Italian has gone from title-winning mastermind to sulky maverick in less than 12 months. Chelsea are currently lingering outside the top four, have won three league games from nine in 2018, and have their fate well out of their own hands, and Conte has spent time questioning the Blues hierarchy on several occasions, from not getting his players, to the board not fully committing to him. All the elements of an inevitable divorce.

Real Madrid

W…W...Wa…Wait!! Before you aim the stones and bring out the clubs, hear ye out. Zinedine Zidane’s success at Real Madrid so far is as much of a mean feat as it is a secret, but there’s no question Los Blancos have floundered this season. They were out of the title race as early as December, they’ve suffered more defeats than the whole of last season already and were bundled out of the Spanish Cup in their own backyard. It’s hard to ignore their resurgence since the start of the year, though, the goals have started to come in (yes, Cristiano Ronaldo) and they made light work of PSG in the Champions League last 16, but it’s in Europe where their only hope lies, and a quarter-final exit at the hands of Juventus might well spell the end for Zizou.

Bayern Munich

Another almost sure-fire change ahead of next season. Bayern have been transformed since Jupp Heynckes returned in September, and are at most two wins away from a sixth successive Bundesliga title, as well as going well in Europe. But despite the smiles on the pitch, and the appeals from chairman Karl Heinz-Rummenigge, Heynckes, 72, still remains intent on stepping down. There have been rumours of Thomas Tuchel (who is by no means done here), as well as Julian Nagelsmann, as potential replacements.

Arsenal

Call it bold, or foolhardy if you like; and perhaps it is. After all, many have had the gusto to predict the time by which Arsene Wenger would have left the Emirates, and all of them have been proved wrong. But the pressure seems unyielding and the discontent louder as each game of the season grows by, and you sense that should the Gunners lift the Europa League, Le Professeur might just finally walk off into the sunset. There have been endless rumours of Italians Max Allegri and Carlo Ancelotti as potential dugout replacements, while Thomas Tuchel’s name has come up in recent days. This might well be Wenger’s final hurrah. Just don’t bet on it yet, though.

Everton

It’s been a season of complete discomfort at the Blue end of Merseyside, despite the wave of optimism that swept it in the summer. After spending big at the start of the season, Everton were primed for a charge against the top six, even with the loss of Romelu Lukaku, while FourFourTwo even talked about them probably being among one of the potential outside challengers for the title. So, surely the fans wouldn’t have expected the Toffees to be spending most of its time trying to stave off relegation trouble, after a torrid start to the season saw Ronald Koeman sacked and Sam Allardyce replacing the Dutchman. Big Sam has just about guaranteed safety already, but there’s little for appreciation or optimism under his stewardship so far, Everton have had at least four games this season where they haven’t managed a shot on target, the performances have been laboured, and they’ve only won once away from Goodison since December. The fans have made no secret of their discontent, surely a side that was the sixth biggest spender in Europe in the summer and winter windows combined ought to play with ambition when away to Watford and West Brom, at the very least. Stranger things than Big Sam staying on next season have happened, but it’s hard to see Big Sam staying on next season.

Borussia Dortmund

Another side where the ship has steadied but the comfort isn’t quite there. Since the sacking of Peter Bosz, Peter Stoger has come in and kept things together nicely at Dortmund, Die Schwarzgelben haven’t lost in the league under his stewardship and are in a Champions League place. But there have been complaints over the football ever since the former Koln arrived, Dortmund have become harder to beat but hard to watch, and they did get beaten, in the Europa League at the hands of Red Bull Salzburg. Stoger’s exploits will have no doubt interested other sides, and done his stock no harm. Perhaps Dortmund would be glad to have someone take him off their hands.

Olympique Lyon

Exciting. That’s been the word associated with Olympique Lyonnais this campaign, the youthful exuberance of a youthful and exuberant side has been pleasing on the eye. But no doubt there would be bumps in the road, as there have been this season, recently as well. After a late win over PSG in February, Lyon were eight points behind the capital side, and seemed like outsiders for a title race. But the form nosedived after that, no wins in their next five domestic games. They were compensating for their drop in the league with a steady run in the Europa League, but at the last 16 stage they were bundled out by CSKA Moscow, denied a home final in the process, and that seemed like the boiling point. First, Benjamin Marcal didn’t take too well being substituted in that defeat at home to CSKA, a discontent he didn’t hide from coach Bruno Genesio. A verbal confrontation immediately followed, and Marcal has been exiled from the team ever since. Then there was chairman Jean Michel-Aulas denying reports that Genesio had offered his resignation before the Marseille game. A win in that encounter has kept them in the hunt for Champions League next season, and pushed the unease inside the club aside for the moment, but it’s not hard to sense that all is far from well at Lyon. Rumours of Claudio Ranieri being touted as a replacement are of little help to the issue.

West Ham

It’s fair to say that move to the London Stadium hasn’t quite had the desired effect that it was supposed to. After that impressive seventh place finish in 2015/16, better things were expected as the club moved away from the Boleyn Ground. Or perhaps following the impressive campaign of 2015/16, expectations became rather unrealistically high. Nevertheless, much was expected after the Hammers moved to the future, the seemingly next level, but little has been delivered. An underwhelming season last time out and a bad start to this one saw the axe swing on Slaven Bilic, and David Moyes was brought in as a replacement, despite the sneers from the fans. Moyes did start well, rejuvenating a previously forlorn Marko Arnautovic, but form has tailed off. Three defeats in three, with 11 goals conceded, are hardly any cause for optimism, and though most of the fans’ distaste has been spat at the direction of the owners, it’s not hard to foresee another managerial change at the East End.

West Brom

Duh!

Okay fine: Three league wins all season, one win since Alan Pardew replaced Tony Pulis in December, those aren’t the kind of stats West Brom were expecting this campaign. It’s been one mishap to another for the Baggies, from the sacking of the club directors to the oh-so-famous taxi-gate incident involving four of their players. It’s no wild guess to say that a lack of options is what’s keeping Pardew in the job; relegation is just about a certainty now. Pards surely won’t be around after.

Published in International Watch

Nine places, yet a gap of seven points. That’s the reality of ninth to 18th in the Premier League, as this season’s ever-changing, ultra-unstable relegation battle continues. In a season where there was as much of a title race as there has been in the past five Bundesliga, the fight to keep heads above is dominating the headlines (next to Manchester City’s absurd form, that is).

The first relegation spot (bottom of the table) is currently occupied by West Brom, who have had one hell of a season, almost literally. From their win drought which lasted from August to January, the sacking of Tony Pulis and then the dismissal of the club directors, to the taxi-gate incident involving for first-team players, it’s been a campaign to forget. The Baggies are currently seven points from safety, with three wins all season, and would surely start to feel cut adrift from the rest. They go to Watford this weekend, and it’s little gain saying a win is of utmost importance.

In 19th place, Stoke are only a point away from safety, a cause for optimism, but they seem to have garnered a habit of dropping points from positions of advantage, as last weekend’s draw at Leicester shown. There have been improvements under Paul Lambert, and the Potters host Southampton in what would be described as a six-pointer. It’s fair to say it hasn’t gone to plan for Southampton this term, their decision to ditch Claude Puel for Mauricio Pellegrino as a result of the style of play hasn’t quite worked out, both on an aesthetic and substantial basis. The Saints only clawed their way out of the bottom three thanks to Manolo Gabbiadini’s late goal in that draw at Burnley last weekend, though one defeat in their last nine games in all competitions may suggest an improvement.

Occupying the final relegation spot are Swansea, even if the Welsh side have been resuscitated under Carlos Carvalhal. Since the Portuguese arrived at the end of last year, Swansea have only lost twice in the league, although the latest of those defeats was the 4-1 hammering at Brighton which took them back into the drop zone. It’s another game akin to a six-pointer, as they take on 13th-placed West Ham, who they can actually overtake. West Ham’s form have stalled a bit after their resurgence under David Moyes, and they were heavily beaten at Liverpool last time out, but a win here would take them to 33 points, which, considering the state of things this campaign, would put them on the tethers of survival.

And that’s the word for these sides at the bottom half of the log, the ‘S’ word. Not excluding Crystal Palace (in 17th), Brighton (12), Huddersfield (14), Newcastle (15), who have the toughest tests this weekend, on paper at least. Crystal Palace play host to Manchester United this weekend, still short of Wilfred Zaha, whom they seem unable to play without- the Eagles have also hit a reef, dropping from 12th to 17th in recent weeks. Brighton are in 12th place, three points away from the top half, but only four points above the drop zone. They grabbed that impressive 4-1 win against Swansea a week ago, and will fancy their chances against an Arsenal seemingly in crisis.

For Huddersfield, it’s a trip to Spurs, where they received their first lesson of the season, a 4-0 loss in September which forced them to be a little more cautious (if not too cautious). They have managed two wins on the bounce, though, and won’t be short of confidence. Newcastle, meanwhile, have a trip to Anfield to look forward to, not that many have looked forward to it this term. Only West Brom have managed to win here in any competition this season, keeping the Reds’ Fab Three at bay is no enviable task.

With 10 games to go for all teams this season, it’s definitely crunch time, where two straight wins shoots you up, and two straight losses leaves you in danger of being cut adrift.

Elsewhere

  • Too soon for a guard of honour? Following Manchester City’s 3-0 win at Arsenal on Thursday night, Pep Guardiola’s side only require five more wins to guarantee the title, so who’s a better opponent immediately after that calculation than champions Chelsea. Blues manager Antonio Conte has already urged his side to spend like City this week. Playing like them, however, seems to be a different case.
  • That Burnley are still seventh despite being unless since mid-December is testament to how much of a great start they had. It’s also testament to how horrendous the sides below them have been, especially next opponents Everton. The fees spent on transfers in both windows this season is no secret, yet they’ve spent more time trying to survive than qualify for Europe. Yet they could go level on points with Burnley, proof of how the rest of the league are rather inferior to the top six. But with Everton away this season, a shot on target, let alone a win, would be as welcome as it would be surprising. 

Fixtures

Southampton v Stoke 

Liverpool v Newcastle 

Burnley v Everton 

Leicester v Bournemouth 

Manchester City v Chelsea 

Brighton v Arsenal 

Crystal Palace v Manchester United 

Tottenham v Huddersfield 

Watford v West Brom 

Swansea v West Ham 

Published in International Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Published in International Watch

Well apparently nothing signifies the holidays than Premier League pandemonium, as four days after Arsenal and Liverpool acted out their own chaotic drama, Bournemouth and West Ham followed suit with a similar equally-shared six-goal..err, thriller?

‘We entertained everybody this Boxing Day and I hope people enjoyed the match, but I would have enjoyed it more if we had won’, said Marko Arnautovic afterwards, summing things up rather accurately for both sides, a game which, for all its entertainment and drama, leaves both sides still lodged in the bottom four, separated by a point. Rather similar to the Arsenal v Liverpool game.

And like the game at the Emirates on Friday, the displays at the back weren’t one to be proud of. It took only seven minutes for the goals to start flowing, veteran West Ham defender James Collins dashing unmarked at the near post to head home Aaron Cresswell’s cross. But on the half hour mark Bournemouth would level things up, Ryan Fraser floating a free kick into the West Ham box, which caused a fair bit of scrambling. The ricochet eventually fell to Dan Gosling, whose left foot shot found its way into the net. Again, Arsenal and Liverpool semblances: the first half only told a bit of the story, although Bournemouth’s Simon Francis would consider himself rather lucky to have only seen yellow after his studs met with Cheikhou Kouyate’s face.

The second period was mostly the hosts’, but although they would take the lead through Nathan Ake 12 minutes after the break, they didn’t quite make the most of their superiority, as Eddie Howe admitted, even Arnautovic acknowledged that the Cherries ‘attacked more’. Still, West Ham looked unlikely to find a way through, David Moyes afterwards saying that ‘there were periods in the game I didn’t think we were getting back in it’. But a giant helping hand would come the Hammers’ way, well a helping foot, as Bournemouth goalkeeper Asmir Begovic slipped, allowing Arnautovic to draw the game back level. ‘That moment changes the feeling of the game, psychologically it hurt as we were looking comfortable at that time’, said Howe. And Arnautovic would be at it again as the game ticked towards the end, another moment Begovic would want to forget, failing to hold Javier Hernandez’s effort, and his former Stoke teammate pounced. Suddenly Bournemouth, from comfort zone, were in big trouble, while West Ham were on the verge of a priceless win. ‘It was zero points, then three points’ Arnautovic added.

But as Arnautovic also said, ‘then one point’, as in rather controversial circumstances parity would be restored. From a lumped ball forward, Ake headed on, and Callum Wilson added the final touch to make it 3-3, only to see the linesman flag go up. After some consultation with the referee, however, the goal was given, despite Wilson seemingly offside, and having used his arm to guide the ball in. ‘I didn’t think it would be given with the length of conversation between the officials’ said Howe. ‘It looks like we might have got away with one there.’ David Moyes, on the other hand, was expectedly not pleased. ‘I don’t know why he wouldn’t go with his linesman’s decision’ said the Scot. ‘He puts his flag up obviously because he believes there’s an offside. The worst part is that it’s a Bournemouth player who puts the ball in the net with the top of his arm. It should have been stopped for that.’

‘The three points were taken from us’ was the view of Arnautovic, although he and his manager agreed that the result was a fair one, Moyes admitting that the game could have gone either way.

But in the end it went neither way. It’s still as-you-were down at the bottom.

 

Two points dropped- again

There was no childish displays and decision-making from Manchester United’s players here, but Jose Mourinho would no doubt have been utterly displeased with the way his side defended in the third minute, as Ashley Barnes was on hand to put Burnley in front. The Clarets had won three previous Boxing Day meetings between these two, and looked on their way to a fourth when Steven Defour’s delightful free kick was too much for even David de Gea, and United trudged into the break two behind. Jose rang the changes at the break, and one of the substitutes was to come to the rescue, as Jesse Lingard scored both early and late in the second period to salvage a point for the Red Devils, he has five goals in five games. Problem is, for the second game in four days, it’s another two points dropped for United. Should Manchester City win at Newcastle, the gap would be 15 points.

Elsewhere

  • It was some much-needed respite for Watford, as they halted their run of four straight defeats by coming from behind to beat Leicester at Vicarage Road, taking them within two points of the Foxes. More importantly it has them looking over their shoulder a little less.
  • For the sixth time in the league this season, Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross finds the bonce of Alvaro Morata and hits the back of the net, Brighton the latest recipient of that formula. Three league wins in four for the Blues, they’re only a point away from second place.
  • It was a welcome return to the goals for Dele Alli, as Spurs ran out 5-2 winners against Southampton. The Saints are only two points from the drop zone, and go to Old Trafford next, Mauricio Pellegrino is definitely not in the most comfortable of situations. This game, though, was about one man. It seemed inevitable, and Harry Kane set his own record of Premier League goals in a calendar year (39), as well the most goals in Europe in 2017 (56), not even Lionel Messi can boast that for this year.

Results

Manchester United 2-2 Burnley

West Brom 0-0 Everton

Huddersfield 1-1 Stoke

Liverpool 5-0 Swansea

Bournemouth 3-3 West Ham

Watford 2-1 Leicester

Chelsea 2-0 Brighton

Tottenham 5-2 Southampton

Wednesday: Newcastle v Manchester City

Thursday: Crystal Palace v Arsenal

Published in International Watch

The old cliché: The worst is over. It hasn’t been the best past few weeks to cherish if you’re connected with Bournemouth, after that seemingly morale-boosting win over Huddersfield in mid-November, the Cherries haven’t won in seven league games and have slipped into the drop zone.

The past few games haven’t been the best, their last three league encounters have been against Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City, with defeats in all, by an aggregate score of 9-0, and in the midst of that run they’ve also been knocked out of the League Cup by Chelsea, completing a quadruple of torrid fixtures, which Eddie Howe will be glad to see the back of.

‘What a run of fixtures we’ve had, but we’re through that now’, says the manager. ‘Playing four top sides consecutively is tough, but we have to focus on the games we have coming up.’ Bournemouth would have considered themselves unlucky to have met in particular Liverpool and Man City in the form they were in, Howe saying after the Liverpool defeat he hopes he doesn’t face them anytime soon. They may be through with that hellish run, but there are still problems in the side, not least in terms of injuries.

When Junior Stanislas limped off in the defeat at the Etihad on Saturday, he became the eighth Bournemouth player currently side-lined with injury, a worrying number for Howe, and rightly so. ‘With the tough runs we had, we couldn’t rotate as much as we’d have liked over this period’ Howe said, and on evidence of the Man City game, the lack of rotation might take its toll, as the Cherries leg were visibly tiring as the game drew to a close, and there hasn’t been the most sufficient of rests.

Upcoming opponents West Ham may have just about turned a corner in the past few weeks, but they slumped to 17th place following their loss at home to Newcastle, one point and one place above Bournemouth. ‘The games are coming thick and fast now and we need to go to Bournemouth and make sure we pick up some points’, says Hammers defender Winston Reid, the Kiwi defender calling on his teammates to avoid the kind of errors they made on Saturday.

This has all the makings of a six-pointer. On Boxing Day, one of these sides might just unwrap a much-needed gift.

Elsewhere

  • Alan Pardew says he was impressed by the support of the fans even in defeat at Stoke, but he would know the fans can only be positively vocal for so long, their home game against Everton looks like a must-win. Problem is, no side has won against Everton since late November. The Toffees are still unbeaten under Big Sam, and can move up to eighth with a win here.
  • After their impressive start, Watford’s form has slipped in the past few weeks, four defeats in a row and no wins in six. They’re still in the top 10 though, and win here would not only arrest the slide, but take them within two points of opponents Leicester.
  • After that heavy defeat at home to Spurs, travelling to Old Trafford probably isn’t the most immediate game Burnley fans would have wanted. Then again, they did hold Manchester United to a draw there last season, and have already taken points at Chelsea, Liverpool, and even Spurs this term. The hosts need a win to stop their stuttering run becoming a cause of concern.
  • Stoke’s win against West Brom was largely welcome, as it carried them up to 14th. It definitely hasn’t evaporated the pressure away from Mark Hughes, though, and faltering against Huddersfield would highlight the kind of inconsistency the Potters have been showing in the past 18 months. The Terriers on the other hand, could climb into the top half with even a point.

Fixtures

Chelsea v Brighton

Huddersfield v Stoke

Tottenham v Southampton

West Brom v Everton

Bournemouth v West Ham

Manchester United v Burnley

Liverpool v Swansea

Crystal Palace v Arsenal

Newcastle v Manchester City

Watford v Leicester

Published in International Watch

Premier League Mid-Term Report: Part Two

Monday, 25 December 2017 12:44

Manchester City

Ah Yes. The seeming autocrats of the Premier League so far, no one beats them, no one attempts to have the ball against them, no one even dare avoid defeat to them. Top of the league, 17 league wins in a row, 60 goals scored (sixty!!), their goal difference tally is higher than the goals scored section of every other team, 13 points ahead in the league. Then again, Pep, we’re still not convinced. Let’s see you lead Chesterfield to the Quidditch championship.

Would they have taken this in August: Top of the league, won their Champions League group, into the last four of the League Cup, there’s quite literally nothing else on offer. 

Top performer: The squad, manager, back room staff, training pitch, everything about City, even roads in the city (okay quit drooling). David Silva is in prime form, Raheem Sterling looks unstoppable, Ederson is an upgrade in goal, but there’s no substitute for Kevin de Bruyne.

Should do better: Why are you here?

Grade: A+

 

Manchester United

Second on the table, 41 goals scored, 14 conceded, won their Champions League with ease, yet fingers are still being pointed. They have conceded points quite sloppily so far, but much has to do with their city neighbours being in abnormal form.

Would they have taken this in August: Would they indeed? After all the years of mediocrity post-Fergie, sitting pretty in second is much welcome. Again, but for City’s outrageous form, things would be looking a lot better. Their League Cup exit at the hands of Bristol City was a potential trophy gone, that would displease Jose Mourinho.

Top performer: Romelu Lukaku started like a house fire, 10 goals in his first 10 games in all competitions. Since then though he’s managed four, but he’s still having an impressive debut season. David de Gea continues to defy logic and normalcy, but the fluidity in the side is always lacking when Paul Pogba is unavailable. Credit to Nemanja Matic for allowing the Frenchman freedom to roam.

Should do better: Chris Smalling has improved of late, as has Victor Lindelof, but both started poorly. One man who has gone in the opposite direction is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, after the Armenian’s glorious first month of the season, his form has nosedived alarmingly, he even regularly misses out of the entire 18 these days.

Grade: B

 

Newcastle

‘Short blanket’ Magpies just climbed out of the relegation zone, having swung into poor form after their bright start. Rafa Benitez would be one waiting for the January window, although the potential takeover looks likely to be a stumbling block.

Would they have taken this in August: Probably, yes. Given Rafa’s complaints over his squad before the campaign, two points off the drop zone isn’t much cause for alarm. It isn’t one to get tongues wagging either, mind.

Top performer: Jamaal Lascelles has performed admirably when fit, and the skipper is never shy to speak out if things are going awry, loanee-turned-permanent-addition Mikel Merino has been impressive in the side. Perhaps with the way the summer looked, Joselu also leans towards ‘hit’ than ‘miss’.

Should do better: Aleksandar Mitrovic looks a more capable player in his position than those appearing regularly, but his attitude is still a giant hitch. Read that sentence again, although this time put ‘Jonjo Shelvey’ where appropriate.

Grade: C-

Southampton

Claude Puel is sacked for the torrid style of play despite finishing eighth and reaching a cup final. Mauricio Pellegrino is appointed with the prospect of better football. December, and the Saints in 13th, eight points behind Puel’s Leicester, who won at the St. Mary’s with some good football. The Saints lack of goals this term shows the blame shouldn’t have laid solely on Puel last season, though Charlie Austin is finding his feet with five goals in six.

Would they have taken this August: Probably not. The Saints were expecting to be among the best of the lot, and with constant attacking and goal-scoring football. They haven’t quite managed either, although there are worse positions to be in.

Top performer: Mario Lemina has been a top signing from Southampton, while Nathan Redmond continues to spark in non-existent attack. Austin also deserves a mention for his recent form.

Should do better: Plenty. Fraizer Forster’s form for the past 18 months has been alarming, and although he might have improved a bit in the few weeks, he still concedes soft goals, and seems to be an easy target. Dusan Tadic and Steven Davis have gone awfully quiet, while Manolo Gabbiadini’s early form at the start of the year seems like a flash in the pan. Oh, and let Virgil van Dijk go already.

Grade: D

 

Stoke

So rumours that Stoke would struggle again this year weren’t so daft after all. The Potters lie three points away from the drop zone in 14th, and though they won recently against West Brom, there is still a sizeable amount of pressure on Mark Hughes.

Would they have taken this in August: Maybe, the squad looked shorn of quality as the season began, and though Hughes dismissed talk of them set for a struggle as rubbish, it seemed inevitable.

Top performer: Eric Choupo-Moting has performed in patches for the team, but is among the better performers. Xherdan Shaqiri is still their hub of creativity.

Should do better: Everyone else? Kevin Wimmer has been a disappointing signing, Jese scored on his debut but has done little since, Darren Fletcher’s form is a bit of enigma, and Joe Allen has also dropped glaringly. Saido Berahino hasn’t scored in two years.

Grade: D

 

Swansea

Terrible defence, the league’s worst attack, no invention to come back and win games from behind, Swansea have acted by ridding themselves of Paul Clement. The witless display that was on show in player/caretaker manager Leon Britton’s first game means the Swans have a lot of work on to avoid the drop. Bottom at Christmas, and rightfully so.

Would they have taken this in August: Who would have taken being bottom of the table at Christmas? There was quiet optimi…okay no real cause for alarm at the start of the season, even as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente left, the arrivals of Renato Sanches and Wilfred Bony were interesting arrivals. That seems to be the most interesting thing about them so far.

Top performer: Tammy Abraham. Goes without saying.

Should do better: From the rest of the squad down to chairman Huw Jenkins and owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levien.

Grade: E

 

Tottenham

Seen as arguably the best team in the land at the start of the season, there were worries over Wembley, and for the first two months of the campaign they seemed justified, as Spurs won away but couldn’t buy a ‘home’ win. It’s been quite the opposite lately, Mauricio Pochettino’s men haven’t lost at home since August, but haven’t won in five away games.

Would they have taken this in August: Perhaps. This was seen as a season of transition for Spurs. Fifth place and a point off the top four isn’t that bad, 21 points from the top isn’t good. Neither was the manner of their League Cup exit against West Ham, although they did impressively top a Champions League that included Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, beating the European champions on the way.

Top performer: Davinson Sanchez might have dropped a bit, but the Colombian has been an excellent buy from Ajax. Christian Eriksen and Kieran Trippier have been impressive, same for Harry Winks. No one has scored more goals in a calendar year in the history of the Premier League than Harry Kane.

Should do better: Erik Lamela has returned from a long lay-off and should set his sights on improving as the weeks go by. Moussa Sissoko is still a curious case, and Dele Alli’s form has dropped considerably.

Grade: B-

 

Watford

Impressive start, and seemed like Dark Horses for a European place. Their form has tailed off a bit, but they still lie in the top 10. And eyes are still poking over manager Marco Silva.

Would they have taken this in August: No doubt. They might have been hoping for more considering how the season had been going, but should have no real complaints.

Top performer: Richarlison is such a watchable lad, the 20-year-old has had his fair share of glaring misses, but in general has been a big hit, as was Nathaniel Chalobah before he got injured. Defender Christian Kabasele has also been impressive, but none more than the ever-present Abdoulaye Doucoure, the French manager is enjoying a fine campaign, and even has six league goals to his name.

Should do better: From underrated forward to senseless front man, Troy Deeney and his mas cojones haven’t had the best campaign. He’s currently serving a four-game ban, having missed three over suspension earlier. Save some displeasure for Etienne Capoue as well.

Grade: B

 

West Brom

First two games, two 1-0 wins, it looked to be going rather nicely. Yeah, about that. Those are the only wins for the Baggies in the league so far this term, they haven’t won in 17 games. Tony Pulis has been dismissed, and Alan Pardew has come, yet the improvements haven’t. Second from bottom, West Brom are in need of some resuscitation.

Would they have taken this in August: Before the season began, surely not. After those first two games, absolutely not.

Top performer: Tough call, it’s been quite a collective mess at the Hawthorns. Gareth Barry set a new record of Premier League appearances this season, so that’s something. Goalkeeper Ben Foster and defender Ahmed Hegazi are probably the least disappointing of the lot.

Should do better: The lot.

Grade: F

 

West Ham

Following their rather eye-catching summer additions, much was expected of the Hammers this term, well better than last season at least. By November, though, Slaven Bilic had been dismissed, and replaced to the distaste of more than a few, David Moyes, who wasn’t a proponent of the ‘West Ham way’ (I don’t know what that is either). Things have considerably improved in the past few weeks, but the Hammers are still battling to stay up.

Would they have taken this in August: Not a chance. Even with how bad last season was, the Hammers didn’t expect to sink this low.

Top performer: Adrian has been doing well since usurping Joe Hart as the first choice goalie, even in his ageing state Pablo Zabaleta still gives his all, while Michail Antonio and Arthur Masuaku aren’t doing badly. West Ham, though, are hardly the same side without Manuel Lanzini.

Should do better. Hart was supposedly the headline arrival. Four months later, he’s struggling to maintain a starting spot. Andre Ayew still continues to swing one way and the other in extremities, Aaron Cresswell’s hasn’t been the same since injury in 2016.

P.S: Put Marko Arnautovic somewhere in-between? The Austrian announced himself by attempting to reshape Southampton defender Jack Stephens’ jaw in August and quickly developed into the boo boy. But his performances of late have been impressive, three goals in his last four games, including that one against former club Stoke.

Grade: D-

 

 

Published in International Watch

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

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

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

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

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

Gunners Get Firing in NLD

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

Pulis sees Nowhere to Hide

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

Elsewhere:

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

Results

Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham

Manchester United 4-1 Newcastle

Liverpool 3-0 Southampton

Leicester 0-2 Manchester City

Bournemouth 4-0 Huddersfield

Watford 2-0 West Ham

West Brom 0-4 Chelsea

Crystal Palace 2-2 Everton

Burnley 2-0 Swansea

Monday Night Football: Brighton v Stoke 

Published in International Watch

A decade ago Arsenal probably wouldn’t have envisaged such a situation. The North London derby of autumn 2007 saw the Gunners leave White Hart Lane with three goals, three points and a top class performance as they maintained their early-season form, and nudging Spurs manager Martin Jol another step toward his inevitable sacking. That was the seventh season in a row where they hadn’t tasted defeat in the league to the Lilywhites, the laughing stock of the capital, always stuck in limbo as they bid relive the glory days of the ‘60s.

Well 10 years later, it may not quite be the glory days that Spurs fans had always dreamt about, but they look quite a cut above their North London rivals at this point, two- admittedly far-fetched and ultimately futile- title challenges in the past two seasons, finally finishing above their neighbours for the first time in 22 years last term, by 11 points as well, one could say the balance of power between those two has shifted.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger doesn’t agree though, considering more of an open debate than a forgone conclusion. ‘I think the question about the balance of power in North London is one we have to answer and the only way to answer is on the pitch.’ said the Frenchman. But Wenger did admit that the Gunners have ground to make up ‘with the top teams’, as Arsenal lie four points off their upcoming visitors, and 12 behind leaders Manchester City. Not that he considers his side as underdogs, though, and why would he, the Gunners have won five out of five league games at home this season, scoring fourteen times and keeping three clean sheets, so it bodes well for their clash against Spurs at the Emirates.

‘We have no fear’, says Wenger. ‘We are focused on nullifying their strengths and expressing ours. Tottenham are a good side but we have the quality’.

In a game of such magnitude, it’s hardly down to just quality, a touch of brashness and the willingness to scrap are also requirements, something Arsenal don’t show on frequent occasions against the big guns.

They might need to get down in the mud to dig out a positive result in this one, that fearlessness Wenger boasts of would surely come in handy.

Elsewhere:

  • Second place. Closest challengers to leaders City. Best defence in the league, yet this weekend’s game against Newcastle has the looks of a must-win for Jose Mourinho and Manchester United. The good news is Paul Pogba is back in the squad, so is Zlatan Ibrahimović, although the latter is extremely unlikely to feature. A win for the Red Devils, and Newcastle will have lost four in a row, the promising start to the season would start looking a distant memory.
  • Virgil van Dijk is going to Anfield. Although it’s probably not the way the Dutchman would have anticipated at the start of the summer. Despite the endless bouts of speculation linking him to a move to Merseyside and undeniable interest from the Reds, no move materialised. Now Van Dijk will lead out Southampton as they play visitors to Jurgen Klopp’s side, whose opposite number Mauricio Pellegrino would be more worried about Liverpool’s three wins in a row and 10 goals scored. Well, if Pellegrino was the kind of guy who worries, that is.
  • The last time Chelsea played at the Hawthorns, Michy Batshuayi bagged a late winner, Antonio Conte leapt into the arms of his assistants, and Batshuayi tried his hand some photography as the Blues celebrated winning the league title. That was just six months ago, but discomfort isn’t something that dilly-dallies in terms of flying to the Chelsea camp, their win against Manchester United before the International Break was a welcome result with the pressure rising on Conte. Well Antonio, it could be worse, you could be your next opposition manager. Tony Pulis isn’t particularly having a time to cherish in the Midlands at the moment, no wins since August, and the fans unrest over his style of football won’t go away. The Baggies supporters would happily take a ‘shit’ win here, though.
  • And there’s a new era beginning for West Ham. More than a few eyes will be watching to see the Hammers’ first game under David Moyes, away at Watford, who could easily have under a new manager themselves, had the Hornets not rejected Everton’s approach for Marco Silva.  More pressingly, though, they come into this on the back of three defeats in a row.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Tottenham

Crystal Palace v Everton

Watford v West Ham

West Brom v Chelsea

Manchester United v Newcastle

Burnley v Swansea

Brighton v Stoke

Liverpool v Southampton

Bournemouth v Huddersfield

Leicester v Manchester City

Published in International Watch

There aren’t many West Ham managerial appointments that have been met with sneers from the fans, David Blackmore, Editor of Blowing Bubbles, implied when questioned over the Hammers’ decision to hire David Moyes- on a six-month contract- after showing Slaven Bilic the door.

Blackmore wouldn’t be surprised to know that the decision was met with sneers from all over, not just with Hammers fans, a man whose last three jobs have been lasting 10 months at Manchester United, lasting half-seasons at Real Sociedad and more recently, watching from the dugout as Sunderland suffered an underwhelming relegation. It’s not just a case of one could forgive the sniggers, but more like encouraging and even participating in them, after rumours of Carlo Ancelotti (maybe a little over the top) and Julian Nagelsmann even before Bilic’s axing, the job eventually found its way to the Scotsman who enveloped Sunderland last season with his cloud of negativism, seems alien to working with new players, and wasn’t even considered for the vacant national team gig in his homeland. What were West Ham thinking?

Then again, one shouldn’t be quick to discard the experienced Scot. As he pointed out in his first West Ham press conference earlier today, he started some 20 years ago at Preston North End, where his impressive stint caught the eye of Bill Kenwright who snapped him up for an Everton side developing a knack for constantly flirting with relegation, and he led the Moyes to a top-four finish, and seven successive top-eight finishes, before his ill-fated stint at Old Trafford. Since he’s left Goodison Park, the Toffees have only finished in the top ten twice. And Moyes did enjoy his time at Sociedad, to his own admission, despite leaving them close to the relegation zone, with Sunderland the only job he considers as a wrong turn in his managerial drive, even calling his move to the North East ‘a terrible decision’.

But those nightmares at the Stadium of Light, where (ironically) he spent a handful of time after defeats in a darkened room, is likely to be the motivation for the Scot, as he says he’s ‘hungry to get things right now’, and he believes he has a ‘point to prove’, which has already shown a different proposition to the laxity he publicly displayed with his press conferences at Sunderland and when the pressure grew at United.

At Sunderland he publicly pointed the limitedness of his squad, who seem to be proving him right with their own labours in the Championship; here he’s spoken about the players not playing to the standards they should, which means he’s unlikely to revert to the squad-is-just-as-culpable claims as last term.

With an impressive track record at Everton of dragging a decent group of players to get constantly close to the big guns, a hunger to prove his worth once more and, unlike Sunderland, a rather settled board, he might just prove to be a shrewd tactician once again other than a washed-up has-been.

Blackmore and the Hammers might just replace those sniggers with satisfactory smiles come May.

Published in International Watch

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