The theatrics and pyrotechnics were on show at the Molineux, Wolverhampton Wanderers were back in the Premier League for the first time in some six years; the last time they were here, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger were still very much part of the top-flight furniture, Kylian Mbappe was 13 years old, Blackberry phones were on the in, Huddersfield were in the third tier, while things like Goal-line Technology and Video Assistant Referees were yet-to-be implemented theories. That’s how long it’s been.

Absence has made the heart grow fonder, and, add to that the fact that the Midlands-club have added well in the summer transfer window, and fancy themselves capable of more than mere survival, you could not just excuse the overwhelming sense of anticipation, but rather encourage it as well. The stadium was in full voice, as Everton came to town.

‘The fans must enjoy it’, said manager Nuno Esprito Santo, and the fans did, the boisterous atmosphere at the ground was palpable , as Wolves stepped out to begin a season in which they were the only side from the West Midlands in the top-flight. The kick-off came with roaring cheers, as did every Wolves kick of the ball early on.

But Premier League is never roses and rainbows, it took only 17 minutes for Wolves to be reminded of what they left behind back in 2012. The ruthless cruelty that is the top-flight, any lapse likely to be punished, such as failing to deal with a free-kick in your 18-yard box, what the hosts were guilty of in the 17th minute. When Gylfi Sigurdsson swung in a cross, Wolves’ defence hesitated in the area, their clearance uncertain, and Richarlison nipped in to put Everton in front.

Everton also have expectations of their own, looking to put things right after last season’s debacle. They also have a Portuguese manager, long sought-after Marco Silva finally appointed in the summer, and it was the manager’s new signings in Richarlison, a man who had raised eyebrows for being acquired for 40million pounds, who was off celebrating giving Everton the lead.

There it was, the size of the task that Wolves had to rise up to in this division; they’d talked the talk, now to walk it. But they did find a response, even if a helping hand came their way at first. Everton skipper Phil Jagielka took a heavy touch, then took his studs through Diogo Jota’s ankle, an act which saw receive his marching orders, in the 44th minute. Wolves had a numerical advantage, and from the resulting free-kick, Ruben Neves, near-impeccable in the Championship last season, arrowed one past Jordan Pickford.

Then the noise was back, the electricity in the ground resumed, not since Steven Fletcher in 2012 had this club had a goal-scorer in the big time, Wolves now had lift-off. ‘We thank the crowd, Molineux was incredible- buzzing’, said Santo, who was engulfed in celebration by his coaching staff after Neves’ leveller. ‘It was a good atmosphere’.

If the atmosphere was unquestionable, the performance wasn’t; for all the noise and bounce in the ground, Wolves didn’t create much after halftime, despite their numerical advantage, Jota guilty of taking a touch too many on a few occasions, while the passes weren’t quite coming off, and on 67 minutes, thanks once more to Richarlison, they fell behind again. ‘We over-played some moments…’, admitted Santo, ‘…but it’s natural when we’re growing’.

But the fans wouldn’t leave sullen, as with 10 minutes left, a delightful Neves cross was met by the head of Raul Jimenez, one of the summer signings, to rescue a point. ‘We have character.’ Santo again pointed out. ‘We came back with a result two times, it’s not easy’.

And he shouldn’t expect it to get any easier. There were a few causes for concern; the fluidity was lacking, the defence was suspect, and chance creation was next-to-non-existent. But as Santo said, the side is growing. There will be teething problems, but results like this will make them feel they should overcome that. The optimism can’t fade just yet, Wolves want to belong here.

Elsewhere

  • It was the ideal start for Chelsea at Huddersfield- three goals, three points, a clean sheet for the World’s most expensive goalkeeper. But that in no way means the Blues look ready, they were a few jittery moments at the John Smith’s stadium, but as Maurizio Sarri’s side are still at the getting-used-to-it stage, the win was more than welcome.
  • One side also getting used to it are Arsenal, who were shown a hint of the level they aspire to get to under Unai Emery as they lost to the champions Manchester City. No sense of deflation as of yet, this is another who are always going to face teething problems, even if one of those was almost the most inexplicable of own goals you could see. Almost.
  • It all began on Friday night, only 72 seconds were on the clock when Andre Marriner gave Manchester United a penalty against Leicester. A spotkick goal (yes, we had to) from World Cup winner Paul Pogba, a first career goal for Luke Shaw, suddenly Jose Mourinho’s pre-season grumpiness is forgotten… For now.
  • It’s the first weekend of the season, and Roberto Pereyra has probably already won the Goal of the Month award for August.
  • Mohammed Salah scored, Harry Kane didn’t score in an August game, Wilfred Zaha helped Crystal Palace to victory, Southampton didn’t score…nothing much is new these days.
  • From the probably-not-immortal words of Frank Underwood, ‘Welcome back’.

Results

Wolves 2-2 Everton

Fulham 0-2 Crystal Palace

Huddersfield 0-3 Chelsea

Liverpool 4-0 West Ham

Watford 2-0 Brighton

Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City

Manchester United 2-1 Leicester

Newcastle 1-2 Tottenham

Bournemouth 2-0 Cardiff

Southampton 0-0 Burnley

Published in International Watch

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

Cardiff

Last Season: 2nd (Championship); Top Scorer: Callum Paterson (10) FA Cup: Fourth Round; League Cup: Third Round

This is the season of…

Proving a point. On the face of it, Cardiff should be in the position of minimal pressure, a rather fast-tracked relegation- it has to be said- means they’re just about everyone’s favourites to go down, and also means relegation would be by no means calamitous. But this is a club whose last voyage into the big time ended in tame relegation after a solitary, and they have a manager who’s likely to be written because of his track record in the top-tier. All roads lead to the Bluebirds having a score to settle.

Who’s in…

Cardiff’s transfer raid has been mostly on Championship clubs so far, Bobby Reid (from Bristol City), Josh Murphy (Norwich), Alex Smithies (Queens Park Rangers) and Greg Cunningham (Preston North End) their major additions so far.

Who’s out…

None so far.

The Gaffer (Neil Warnock)…

The former Sheffield United and Leeds United manager was appointed back in 2016/17 to steady the ship Paul Trollope lost control of, but has exceeded expectations in taking them back to the big-time. His record in the top-flight is unenviable, though, something he’ll be keen to put right. Is a qualified referee, but doesn’t practise, and has a long list of spats with people, from officials to players to managers, and even Sean Bean.

Dream season…

Survival is achieved with little fuss, Neil Warnock finally smiles in the big time.

Nightmare season…

2014 reincarnated with another timid Premier League campaign, and Cardiff swap divisions with Swansea at the end of the season.

Key man…

Warnock’s side are likely to primarily set up to be hard to beat, a system in which Sol Bamba will be pivotal.

Needs to step up…

Long gone are Kenneth Zohore’s days of being Cardiff’s transfer laughing stock, but the Dane still needs provide more up front, particularly in this division.

Verdict: A club and a manager with much to prove wouldn’t want for motivation, but there’s a reason why they’re the least-fancied side in this division. 20th

Chelsea

Last Season: 5th; Top Scorer: Eden Hazard (12); FA Cup: Winners; League Cup: Semi-final; UEFA Champions League: Last 16

This is the season of…

Optimism. The second and tumultuous season of the previous title-winning manager has ended with a sacking, a move straight out of the Chelsea brochure, which means the chance to be optimistic is going to creep back to SW6. Antonio Conte will always be held in high regard at the Bridge, but his rein had gotten visibly riotous, and his departure at the end of last season was always inevitable. It’s all change again at the Stamford Bridge dugout, which means a second-season syndrome, but first the initial season of glamour and glory is expected.

Who’s In…

Conte has been unsurprisingly replaced by former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri, who has brought with him midfielder Jorginho. Whatever plane they were arriving on, it seems Robert Green snuck into it, the veteran English goalkeeper has joined on a free.

Who’s out…

No major departure…yet.

The Gaffer (Maurizio Sarri)…

The Italian banker is the name always likely to arrive after the tag ‘hipster’s choice’. The former Empoli may not have trophies to boast, but his work with Napoli in his three seasons at San Paolo is undeniable.

Dream season...

Typical Chelsea under a new manager: the football is gorgeous, the unbeaten run spell-binding, and the league title triumph inevitable.

Nightmare season…

The exception to typical Chelsea under a new manager (2011/12): The campaign is a stop-gap, their title challenge is over by January, and two months later Sarri heads for the door marked ‘Do One’.

Key man…

The question remains as to whether he will stay, but should he remain Eden Hazard would be the main pivot in Sarri’s side.

Needs to step up…

Yes, it’s Alvaro Morata. Or is it Tiemoue Bakayoko? Or Danny Drinkwater? Or Ross Barkl…oh forget it.

Verdict: Uncertainty over the fate of key players means Sarri would do well to recreate the typical Chelsea new gaffer magic. 5th

Crystal Palace

Last Season- 11th; Top Scorer: Luka Milivojevic (10); FA Cup: Third Round; League Cup: Fourth Round

This is the season of…

Uncertainty, perhaps. Last season’s brilliant survival story shot up optimism for this campaign, but the departure of players, and a lack of additions so far makes things a little tentative so far. Right back and midfield slots need significant reinforcements, and barely any has arrived. Lack of transfer activity cost Frank de Boer dear last season. Clock’s running.

Who’s in…

At least the goalkeeping slot has received a long overdue upgrade, Vicente Guaita joining on a free from Spanish side Getafe. Cheikhou Kouyate has been signed from West Ham.

Who’s out…

The departures of Joel Ward and Yohan Cabaye, whose contracts have expired, leaves holes in key position. Lee Chung-Yung and Damien Delaney have also left.

The Gaffer (Roy Hodgson)…

Has done well to rebuild his reputation with the Eagles after his England debacle, leading them to a survival that had initially seemed like a long shot. The veteran manager surely has the nous to take them further, but needs backing in the market.

Dream season…

The additions come in, and the Eagles, led by Hodgson, challenge for a place in Europe.

Nightmare season…

Additions don’t come, Wilfried Zaha leaves, and having flirted with relegation for a few seasons, Palace finally bite the bullet.

Key man…

Where they would be without Zaha, no one knows. Keeping him is just as important as making new signings, perhaps more.

Needs to step up…

Three goals in 10 months is not a good reading, Christian Benteke needs to regain his form should he stay.

Verdict: Survival, and comfort, isn’t beyond, but a lot rests on Zaha and whether or not the squad sees significant additions. 15th

Everton

Last Season: 8th; Top Scorer: Wayne Rooney (10); FA Cup: Third Round; League Cup: Fourth Round; UEFA Europa League: Group Stage

This is the season of…

Making amends. Last season was a mess, in every way, at Goodison Park- disappointing eighth-place finish, early exit from the cups and from Europe as well, and Sam Allardyce. Long sought-after Marco Silva is the new man, and he’s tasked with cleaning up. The expectations are lower this term, but improvements are a must.

Who’s in…

Richarlison has been reunited with Silva, Everton parting with 40million pounds to get the Brazilian, while Lucas Digne has joined from Barcelona.

Who’s out…

Wayne Rooney’s return to Goodison lasted just one season- a fairly productive one, it has to be said- and the former England captain has moved to Major League Soccer. Davy Klaassen’s hellish time at the club has also come to an end, the Dutchman joining Werder Bremen, while Ramiro Funes Mori has swapped Goodison for Villarreal. Joel Robles has been released.

The Gaffer (Marco Silva)…

After the advances of last autumn, Everton finally have their man. The Portuguese has had two commendable stints with Premier League clubs, but the reality is both ended in disappointment, hence a sense of needing to put things right should be prevalent here.

Dream season…

Glass ceiling shatters: Everton find their way into the top six, and win a domestic cup to boot.

Nightmare season…

Another tame outside the top seven finish is matched by more disappointing cup runs, and they lose to whoever Allardyce takes charge of.

Key man…

Gylfi Sigurdsson had no pre-season last year, joining the club late in the window, and his first season at Goodison was a tad underwhelming. The Icelandic international is just about the only No.10 now left, and may well flourish under Silva.

Needs to step up…

This time last summer, Everton thought they had bagged a bargain in Michael Keane. Performances proved them wrong. The defender played his way out of the England setup last season, he needs to play his way back in.

Verdict: The top six becomes harder to break into with each season, but expectations at Goodison have lowered, minimal action in the market means cohesion is more likely, and the Toffees boast a strong squad. 7th

Published in International Watch

Chelsea have made Jordan Pickford an alternative should Thibaut Courtois join Real Madrid.

Reports in England have it that talks between Chelsea and Courtois over a new deal has broken down, as the Belgian international is ready to run down his remaining one year contract at Stamford Bridge.

With a move to Santiago Bernabeu on the desk for the shot stopper, Chelsea, according to Sky news have identified Everton and England number one Jordan Pickford as a possible replacement for Courtois.

Pickford, who only signed for Everton last season, in a deal worth around £30m was phenomenon for England en-route to their fourth place finished at the World Cup.

Skysports reported, that though, Everton and Chelsea have not yet opened any formal discussion over Pickford, the Toffees are likely to rebuff any approach for their man.

 

Chelsea are reported to have identified the likes of Jack Butland, Kasper Schmeichel, Peter Cech and Gianluigi Donnarumma as other possible replacements. 

Published in Transfer Rumors

The blues are looking for a replacement after it has been said that first choice goalkeeper, Thibault Cortouis has agreed to move to Spanish giant Real Madrid in a move said to be around €35m.

According to Italian Daily, Tuttosport, Chelsea are looking at the possibility of bringing AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to the Stamford Bridge – a deal, that will see Alvaro Morata move the other way round.

Chelsea new manger Sarri has identified Juventus forward Gonzalo Higuain as his top striker for the new season, and it has been reported that Chelsea are in talks to sign to sign the Argentine forward, which in turn will facilitate Morata’s move away from the club.

Morata, only moved to Chelsea last season, but found life in the English league difficult – scoring just 11 goals in 31 appearances, and in turn, failed to make the cut of the team that represented Spain at the World Cup.

The 25-year old had previously played in the Italian league – from 2014 to 2016 with Juventus, and moving back to league won’t be much of a problem for him.

 

 

Published in Transfer Rumors

The future of the Belgian international has been up for much discourse with a move to either Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Eden Hazard, who starred for his Belgium with three goals, in their verge to sealing the World Cup third place, yesterday, appeared to confirm his future his far away from Chelsea.

The 27-year-old was quoted by Goal to have said, “After six wonderful years at Chelsea it might be time to discover something different.”

Confirming rumours of Hazard plying his trade elsewhere next season is Brian Laudrup, who said the Belgian Captain told him of his intent to move to Real Madrid.

The former Bayern Munich player believed the move will be a good one for both Hazard and Real Madrid.

Laudrup, as quoted by Marca, “I spoke to Hazard a few days ago, he is preparing for a move to Madrid.

“It is a good move for both him and for Real. Again in Russia, he proved how good he is.”

With the Los Blancos being linked with a move for PSG duo of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe aftermath Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus, Laudrup added that the Spanish giant might seal a deal for either of the two.

“I think it is possible that Mbappe or Neymar sign for Real. But I cannot talk about that,” he added.

Published in Transfer Rumors

 

School’s over, Lads!

Okay, in truth school has been over for quite a while now, it was a case of the couple that were bound to settle scores that school time didn’t quite help deal with (FA Cup final), and those representing the school in external competitions (Champions League final). Then again, here’s the awkward question; why bother with the effects of cups if this is a Premier League report? Well, there’s a reason why the academic system is so flawed. We delivered the mid-term report at the turn of the year, so we get full-term with the season having reached its end. So, who’s going to Mommy with anticipation of a bad summer, who has ‘can do better’ all over them, and who’s the top-class student we didn’t want to see leave.

Arsenal

An unquestionable disappointment, especially since the turn of the year, as the Gunners fell completely fell out of the top four equation as the season wore on. Much (dis)credit lies with their away form, they didn’t get any away point in 2018 until the final day. Attention turned to the Europa League once domestic issues seemed a bridge too far, but their dream ended in the last four. Alexis Sanchez finally left in January, trading places with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also arrived in winter. Oh and Arsene Wenger has stepped down, so there’s that.

Would they have taken this in January: Surely not. They weren’t in the top four at the turn of the year, but were still very much in the mix. Another year without Champions is definitely disappointing.

Top performer: Nacho Monreal earned his call-up to Spain’s World Cup squad, having looked like the only Gunner interested in playing for the whole season. Aubameyang also showed signs of more to come with 10 league goals since arrival at the start of the calendar year.

Should have done better: Petr Cech finally reached the milestone of 200 clean sheets, but didn’t do much to inspire confidence this season, so has been handed the No.1 shirt. Hector Bellerin blew hot and cold, so has been handed the No.2 shirt. Granit Xhaka still looks less than assured, Sead Kolasinac faded after a bright start, Shkodran Mustafi also didn’t inspire much confidence in defence… actually there’s too many of them, why did we start naming individually?

In the dugout: Wenger finally stepped down after 22 years, to commemorative plaques, standing ovations, and emotional banners. After long speculation linking the Gunners with Thomas Tuchel, Carlo Ancelotti and Max Allegri, Unai Emery is the new manager at the Emirates.

Grade: D

 

Bournemouth

It was the same outcome for the Cherries, start badly, don’t panic, pick up form, in February, survive comfortably. A 12th-placed finish is more than satisfactory for Eddie Howe’s side, dangerous question would the fans start to expect more?

Would they have taken this in January: Their season may have petered out a bit in the end, but given they were firmly lodged in the relegation fight at the turn of the year, then YES.

Top performer: Nathan Ake proved to be a quality signing as expected, Lewis Cook played into England’s World Cup standby list, while Josh King’s contributions to the side are more than just his eight goals.

Should have done better: Asmir Begovic should have been an upgrade on Artur Boruc in goal, but surprisingly performed below expectations. Same can be said of Jermain Defoe at the other end, and then there’s Jordan Ibe.

In the dugout: To Bournemouth’s pleasure, there’s little chatter on the Howe-is-bound-to-leave-eventually board.

Grade: B-

 

Brighton

An undisputable success of a first ever Premier League season. 15th place doesn’t quite highlight how impressive their campaign was, Chris Hughton knitting a side greater than the sum of its parts, not that the parts were any bad. Memorable wins at home over Manchester United and Arsenal were icings on a very delightful cake.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely. Survival was always the aim, and it was achieved with room to spare.

Top performers: All of them. Fine, you want names? Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy’s partnership was more than impressive, as were Dale Stephens and Davy Propper. Jose Izquierdo and Glenn Murray were also notable performers, but none comes close to Pascal Gross. Brighton’s German creator-in-chief only cost 3million last summer, it would be a surprise if he doesn’t attract offers in this window.

Should have done better: Errr… in January we went for Anthony Knockaert, so let’s go with that again. Don’t ask. We said the academic system is flawed.

In the dugout: Chris Hughton is definitely not going anywhere.

Grade: B

 

Burnley

Burnley are ranked as the seventh-best team in England; that’s just about the only way to put their phenomenal season. Much was made about how they’d struggle due to the previous season’s away form, but they amassed more points on the road in 2017/18 than they’d previously done overall. They have European football waiting. Again, phenomenal.

Would they have taken this in January: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Yes. They occupied this spot at the start of the year, but wouldn’t have even minded 17th then, let alone 10 places higher.

Top performers: Everyone. From promoted-to-starting-line-up James Tarkowski at the back, Jack Cork in the middle, Jeff Hendrick behind any of the lone forward, Johann Gudmundsson out wide, and any of the regular forwards- Sam Vokes, Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood- it’s been brilliant all round.

Should have done better: The signings weren’t quite good, mostly because they couldn’t quite crack into a settled side. Charlie Taylor, Georges Kevin Nkoudou, and Nakhi Wells stand out in that particular area.

In the dugout: Sean Dyche will surely stay put, with European football on the horizon.

Grade: A+

 

Chelsea

Tumultuous season all-in-all, manager discontent, supposed squad unrest, finishing outside the Champions League spots. Typical title defence campaign for the Blues, as they had to settle for fifth place. FA Cup final seems more of a blow softener than season saviour, and Antonio Conte looks like he’s headed for the door marked ‘Do One’.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely not. There were more than signs of discontent at the club at the turn of the year, but dropping out of the top four is nigh-on unacceptable.

Top performers: Ngolo Kante remains ever-reliable, as Cesar Azpilicueta remains ever-consistent, while Eden Hazard is still the go-to man. Antonio Rudiger had a strong finish to his debut season at the club, while Andreas Christensen’s campaign may have stumbled to the finish line, but the Dane still made significant progress.

Should have done better: Alvaro Morata began life at Stamford Bridge like the ideal replacement for Diego Costa, but ended it with evidence as to why the Chelsea’s number nine shirt might be hexed. Tiemoue Bakayoko didn’t cover himself in glory for much of the campaign, neither did Pedro, or Victor Moses. The less said about Ross Barkley the better.

In the dugout: Literally everyone is waiting for Antonio Conte to be sacked soon.

Grade: D

 

Crystal Palace

It’s no longer news that they began the season with seven straight losses, during which they scored zero goals, then chairman Steve Parish, weeks after preaching about the long-term planning that would come with manager Frank de Boer’s philosophy, sacked the Dutchman in September. In came Roy Hodgson, who didn’t just steady the ship, but eventually sailed it to mid-table.

Would they have taken this in January: Definitely. Things didn’t look as grim in December, as they did two months before, but mere survival was always going to be met with elation. A place off the top half exceeded expectations, even at the start of the season.

Top performer: The likes of Scott Dann, Patrick Van Aanholt and James Tomkins deserve honorary mentions, while loanee Ruben Loftus-Cheek played his way to England’s World Cup plane, but there’s no iota of doubt that the brunt of plaudits should go the way of Wilfred Zaha. First stat is nine goals and seven assists from the Ivoirian, the second is the fact that Palace lost all 10 league games they played without him, including those first seven.

Should have done better: None of the men between the sticks merited much praise, hence the acquisition of Vicente Guaita from Getafe. A stat of two league goals is nowhere near good enough from Christian Benteke.

In the dugout: Hodgson stays on, even at 70.

Grade: B-

 

Everton

All the optimism that came with the summer had evaporated by winter, and it didn’t return during spring, if anything it got worse. From the surveys, the booing of players and manager Sam Allardyce, the latter of whom seemed to not notice the fans’ distaste, the Toffees’ season was one long, tedious, journey.

Would they have taken this in January: Given that they spent most of the first half of the campaign battling to keep their heads above water, they would be more satisfied with eighth place. The issue was more of how they played their way to that position.

Top performer: Idrissa Gueye remains reliable in midfield, Jordan Pickford did little wrong in goal, while seven goals is not bad for Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Should have done better: Everyone else? Fans let Morgan Schneiderlin know what they thought of his performances, same for Ashley Williams. The summer signings barely impressed.

In the dugout: Big Sam has been binned, and Marco Silva appears the favourite to succeed him.

Grade: D

 

Huddersfield

Picture the celebrations at Stamford Bridge after a point for the Terriers secured them survival, and you might just understand its gravity or how much of a surreal journey this is. Some fans are shaking their head in disbelief over promotion in 2017, let alone this.

Would they have taken this in January: You bet.

Top performer: Just like promotion, it was an enormous team effort from the Yorkshire club, so let’s credit manager David Wagner then.

Should have done better: Tom Ince, perhaps. But crediting their success as a team effort means he gets little stick.

In the dugout: There are rumours linking Wagner with Leicester City. Picture the Huddersfield fans covering their hears and humming when they hear such.

Grade: A

 

Leicester City

Ninth place for a team like Leicester should be considered a success, yet there’s still ounces of discontent at the club. From the poor run of form to end the season, the complaints over manager Claude Puel’s training methods, the ripple effect of their 2016 success still has a giant shadow around the King Power.

Would they have taken this in January: Probably, given their second-highest finish in the Premier League era. The fact that seventh place, and Europe, looked to be for the taking means there’s a tinge of disappointment.

Top performer: Jamie Vardy bagged 20 league goals this season, with minimum fuss. Harry Maguire earned a spot in England’s squad to Russia. But the team just doesn’t look the same without Wilfred Ndidi.

Should have done better: Riyad Mahrez continues to go one way and the other, surely it’s time to let him go, Kasper Schmeichel regressed a bit, yet not as much as Wes Morgan. Kelechi Iheanacho ended the season in fine form, but didn’t get a league goal until March.

In the dugout: Rumours of the Foxes dismissing Puel are rife. Call Pellegrino?

Grade: C

 

Liverpool

A more than commendable season for the Reds, a top four finish turned out to be achieved with some comfort, while they thrilled in Europe, emerging as the Champions League's top scorers, before losing the final to Real Madrid in Kiev. Some errors from goalkeeper Loris Karius in the Ukrainian capital aside, not really much to complain about.

Would they have taken this in January: Absolutely. Top four and getting the knockout phase of the Champions League was the aim, and it was surpassed in truth.

Top performer: Roberto Firmino still bubbles under, Sadio Mane still has the tendency to be inconsistent, but still did little wrong, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was unlucky to get injured and ruled out of the World Cup after such a terrific season, while Andy Robertson is already a fan favourite. But none come close to Mohammed Salah, the man who swept all the awards this season. His 32 league goals is a 38-game record, his 44 in all competitions for Liverpool equals Ian Rush's.

Should have done better: Suddenly this section is hard. Karius improved immensely this term, but isn't without question, and he'll hope to recover from his Kiev gaffes. Joel Matip will consider this season one of utter regression, other than that, no real blemish.

In the dugout: Jurgen Klopp will surely remain, and will hope this entertaining side adds a trophy to their name.

Grade: B+

Published in International Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixtures

Burnley v Bournemouth

Crystal Palace v West Brom

Newcastle v Chelsea

Manchester United v Watford

Liverpool v Brighton

Huddersfield v Arsenal

Southampton v Manchester City

Swansea v Stoke

Tottenham v Leicester

West Ham v Everton

Published in International Watch

The end of the season: such a routine time, where the expected play themselves out: some teams reveal kits for the new season (yes, you, Everton), Manager XYZ says he’s leaving club XYZ at the close of the campaign, a tearful farewell follows the departure of a long-serving cult hero at a club, and Real Madrid win the Champions League (just typical).

Oh, right, and also, supposed writers run out of gas and opt to take a look at those Premier League players who might well switch clubs at the end of the season (or June 30 in Football-Managerish). It’s the ti…errr.. like I said, out of gas. So, straight to it then. Who are those players you could just about bet on to switch clubs after the season is read its last rites?

Arsenal

It’s likely there’ll be a raft of changes at the Emirates come the end of the season, the biggest one being the departure of Arsene Wenger. After 22 years, the French gaffer will call time on his Arsenal tenure at the end of the campaign, and it’s not unlikely that some players will also depart. Jack Wilshere’s contract runs out at the end of the season, as does the recuperating Santi Cazorla (although there’s an option of a one-year extension for him), while there are rumours linking Hector Bellerin with a move away. And with a new manager coming in, there’s expected to be a squad shake-up. No rest for the Arsenal revolving door in the summer, then.

Bournemouth

With first team opportunities hard to come by lately, Artur Boruc might well move on at the end of his contract in the summer. Harry Arter remains linked with the exit door, the rumours putting West Ham in front of the queue. Marc Pugh and Rhoys Wiggins are also out of contract at the end of the season.

Brighton

There’s always a worry for the Seagulls that bigger guns might come calling for Pascal Gross, who has been involved in 44% of the team’s goals in the Premier League this season. Liam Rosenior and Steve Sidwell will have no contracts once the season ends, and are likely to be moved on. Same might go for Niki Maenpaa and Uwe Hunemeier.

Burnley

There’s the big Burnley conundrum in terms of who’ll be in goal next season. Tom Heaton is arguably the best English goalkeeper in the league, but having been side-lined for most of this season, his deputy in Nick Pope hasn’t done too badly, even managing to force his way into World Cup contention. Both are good for number one spots at club level, and come next term, it’s likely one would move in search of it. Stephen Ward and Dean Marney are out of contract soon, while Scott Arfield has already agreed to join Rangers (no, not the one in Enugu).

Chelsea

It’s not Chelsea if there’s no forthcoming change for a new season once an old one is coming to a close, and this term looks to be no different.  Antonio Conte looks as likely to stay at Stamford Bridge next season as pigs are to fly, Chelsea are reportedly in talks with other managers already, and this- coupled with the fact that Champions League football for the next campaign is unlikely, means changes to the playing staff as well. David Luiz has spent most of this season- injury or otherwise- out of the team, Danny Drinkwater’s time at the club looks to be coming to an end, and it remains to be seen whether Tiemoue Bakayoko would get another season to get into shape, while backup goalkeepers Willy Caballero and Eduardo are out of contract in the summer. The big question is whether Eden Hazard would stick around for a second season with European elite football in three years. One thing’s for certain, though: there’ll be lots of loanees, as always.

Crystal Palace

Palace’s problematic position for the past couple of years has been in goal, with the men between the sticks having rarely convinced. All three are about to be out of contract, though, as Julian Speroni, Wayne Hennessey and Diego Cavalieri are bound to be free agents by the end of the season (although Vicente Guaita is due to join from Getafe). There’s also bound to be a hairy transfer window for the Eagles, with Wilfred Zaha likely to be subject of speculation, while there’s uncertainty surrounding Christian Benteke- even if he has said he intends to stay. Joel Ward, James McArthur, Bakary Sako, Lee Chung-Yong, Damien Delaney, Yohan Cabaye and Martin Kelly are also out of contract soon (I know right, too long).

Everton

There’s bound to be another busy summer for the Toffees, not least in terms of the exit door, likely starting with manager Sam Allardyce himself. The likes of Sandro Ramirez, Davy Klaassen and Cuco Martina are likely to be moved on after just a season, while fans would pay to drive Ashley Williams away. Joel Robles becomes a free agent once the season ends.

Huddersfield

Errr…. Not much to talk about here. Dean Whitehead and Rob Green are soon to become free agents, but (not to sound mean) who’d really miss them? Aaron Mooy might attract clubs in the summer. 

Leicester

Goalkeeper Ben Hamer runs out of contract at the end of the season, as does Robert Huth, who’s been out of the side this season thanks to a combination of injury and Harry Maguire. Riyad Mahrez has reportedly revoked his transfer request, but his case is still tagged under ‘remains to be seen’. Currently out on loan players Leo Ulloa, Islam Slimani, and long-serving Andy King are likely to also move on. As is customary at the time of the season, Claude Puel is reportedly likely to be dismissed.

Liverpool

The big transfer issue for Liverpool, since Philippe Coutinho said bye, has been Emre Can, who runs out of contract in the summer. The injured German is under Juventus’ radar, and there have been reports of a deal being signed with the Italian club. The right-back position looks rather clogged, and one of Nathaniel Clyne, Joe Gomez, and Trent Alexander-Arnold might well move on, something Daniel Sturridge would also be considering. James Milner and Alberto Moreno can also leave on a free at the end.

Manchester City

Who’d wanna leave? Okay, Yaya Toure has confirmed his departure at the end of the season, while loanee Eliaquim Mangala’s contract runs out. Joe Hart would also return from his temporary stint at West Ham, but surely be on the way out again.

Manchester United

Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw, Luke Shaw. The young left-back has been subject of some finger-pointing by manager Jose Mourinho, and there wouldn’t be a shortage of clubs coming in for English defender, who’s departure from Old Trafford seems inevitable. Michael Carrick retires at the end of the season, Anthony Martial remains linked with the exit door, while Marouane Fellaini’s contract issue remains unresolved. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind are also bound to leave. Have I mentioned Luke Shaw?

Newcastle

Most of the Magpies’ squad is still comprised of their Championship side, even if some of them don’t appear on the pitch. Much depends on whether or not players arrive, although the likes of fringe players in Jesus Gamez, Curtis Good and Massadio Haidara, as well as loanee Tim Krul, are all out of contract at the season’s close.

Southampton

The future of a few players, and perhaps the manager, depends on whether the Saints can avoid the drop (which is likely), while Sofiane Boufal is likely to move after his exile by Mark Hughes. Jeremy Pied and Stuart Taylor are soon to no longer have contracts.

Stoke City

With relegation having been confirmed, clear-outs are not unlikely. Xherdan Shaqiri is unlikely to follow the club to the Championship, same goes for Joe Allen (picture Brendan Rodgers in Glasgow with open arms). Glenn Johnson, Jakob Haugaard, Stephen Ireland and Charlie Adam all run out of contracts soon, but dropping them a tier might make the team reconsider.

Swansea City

Another side whose players’ futures might hinge on whether or not they go down, although Alfie Mawson is likely to have a busy summer no matter what. The likes of Martin Olsson and especially Lukasz Fabianski are bound to move on should relegation be the case, while Ki Sung-Yeung is out of contract and has been linked with AC Milan, while long-serving veterans Leon Britton and Angel Rangel are also soon to be free agents.

Tottenham

It’s the stuff of mini-battles at Tottenham, with the likes of Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld seemingly on the losing side of off-the-pitch tussles with manager Mauricio Pochettino. Both have a fair amount of suitors, and both are likely to be moved on. There are also rumours of Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama leaving, while Fernando Llorente might consider the exit door considering the (lack of) playing he has had. Backup goalie Michel Vorm is soon to be out of contract.

Watford

It’s not Watford if you don’t expect change at the end of the season. Manager Javi Gracia only arrived in January (on an 18-month contract), yet there are more than a few suggestions that he might be shown the door once the season reaches its close, especially with their usual end-of-season form. Any potential managerial change is always likely to lead to changes in the playing staff as well, so expect departures as well as arrivals- some Hornets fans might bite your hand off for the opportunity to drive away the inconsistent Etienne Capoue. Miguel Britos is out of contract at the end of the campaign.

West Brom

With relegation now sealed, there’s going to be changes at the Hawthorns, beginning with the managerial post. Ben Foster has declared his intention to stay even in the Championship, but clubs are surely going to come for defender Johnny Evans; Salomon Rondon has done his reputation little harm, and will lure admirers, while the likes of Nacer Chadli and Jay Rodriguez might remain in the top-flight with someone else. Chris Brunt might stick around, but his contract is currently due to expire at the season’s end, same goes for Gareth Barry, James Morrison, Gareth McAuley, Claudio Yacob and Boaz Myhill.

West Ham

If the fans had their way, the changes would begin from the boardroom. They might well settle for the departure of manager David Moyes, whose short-term contract runs out at the end of the season. Same applies for James Collins and Patrice Evra, the latter of whom is unlikely to get any renewal. Expect Robert Snodgrass to depart almost as soon as he returns from his loan at Aston Villa.

Published in International Watch

Priceless. Those were the looks of the Huddersfield celebrations at Stamford Bridge after a draw in West London confirmed that the Terriers would continue in the top flight for another season; a division they were hardly supposed to come to in the first place. When that improbable fairy-tale was completed at Wembley in May last year, the assumption from everyone was that Huddersfield would go down. The Premier League was a room of unpredictability and surprises, yet the only seeming certainty was that David Wagner’s side would go down; and even the Terriers fans accepted it: the journey here had been surreal, but surviving was too much to ask, it was a case of enjoying the ride. But now, it has become one of enjoying the ride, and staying for yet another adventure.

Ahead of Tuesday’s game at Stamford Bridge, Huddersfield simply needed a point to guarantee survival, after they sweated one off Manchester City at the champions coronation party just three days earlier. They had battled, suffered and defended so valiantly at the Etihad, and were likely to do so again here. Chelsea had aspirations of their own, their Sunday victory over Liverpool had them back in the top four hunt, and weren’t going to be as relaxed as City if things were still deadlocked late on, but Town defender Chris Lowe had said on Sunday that nothing was impossible.

As expected, Chelsea would dominate proceedings, with the visitors more than happy to cede possession, and they were definitely happy at the break, a goalless score-line at halftime meant they were halfway through confirming survival, and things were about to get better. The visitors had barely had a sniff of Chelsea’s goal, when, five minutes into the second period, Lowe caught Willian in possession and Aaron Mooy lumped a long ball towards Laurent Depoitre. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero was second best to the ball, and despite an initial block from the Argentine, Depoitre was not going to falter in front of a gaping goal.

Wagner tried to keep his cool, but couldn’t quite, while the away fans lost theirs, going berserk. Huddersfield had needed one point, as it stood they had three, and now had to concede twice to be denied safety. One goal came, Christopher Schindler’s clearance rebounded off Marcos Alonso and past a wrong-footed Jonas Lossl. But tried as Chelsea may, there would be no second strike. Huddersfield’s most commendable achievement away to City wasn’t that they prevented them from scoring, but that they prevented them from even creating goal-scoring chances, and here was no different. There were mostly goalmouth scrambles- one of which led to Lossl tipping an Andreas Christensen header onto the post, and crosses across the face of goal, but no real chances created, Huddersfield putting their bodies on the line to defend, and more than intent to boot the ball upfield whenever the chance came.

All that was left was for them to win a free-kick in the final minute of stoppage time, hear the final whistle and begin the party, their fairy-tale story in the big-time isn’t ending just yet. When they lost at home to Everton a week earlier, it all looked like doom, their final three games against Man City, Chelsea, and Arsenal, yet two points in the first two of those games means the third of those is likely to be a party. A party of euphoria, and most of all, disbelief.

Elsewhere

  • That result also means Chelsea’s hard-fought win against Liverpool is rendered all-for-nothing. They now need the Reds to lose at home to Brighton on the final day, while they win at Newcastle, something they haven’t done in four outings. Too early for an Antonio Conte parting song?
  • In the relegation Superbowl, Southampton scrapped their way to a 1-0 win at Swansea, to live the Swans on the edge of the drop. They need to beat Stoke, then hope the Saints lose to Man City, as well as a huge goal-difference swing (10 goals) to survive. Tootles.
  • Speaking of City- Manchester, not Swansea- they now hold the record for most points, goals and wins in a single Premier League season. Victory on the final day gives them a century of points.
  • Points… Something Arsenal still don’t have away from home in 2018.
  • It was nervy, it was hard-fought. It was lucky, it was –at times- tedious. But more importantly, it was a win for Spurs against Newcastle, to seal top-four spot, for the third year running. But as they keep (sort of) asking: Mauricio Pochettino, is progress really progress until you win beat Northampton to win the League Cup?

Results

Chelsea 1-1 Huddersfield

Manchester City 3-1 Brighton

Swansea 0-1 Southampton

Tottenham 1-0 Newcastle

Leicester 3-1 Arsenal

Thursday Night Football (much to the continuing displeasure of the Guardian’s Jacob Steinberg): West Ham v Manchester United

Published in International Watch

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