As the world burns its comforting to know that, for ten months a year at least, football provides a weekly distraction. Sure, the leader of the free-world is a complete maniac that spent this weekend trying to cover his arse after failing to provide an adequate response to the hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico. Yes, there’s a tubby lunatic on the other side of the world with itchy fingers, a fetish for spectacular pyrotechnics and a bloodthirst that Count Dracula would consider a touch over the top. And fair enough, the monarch of the United Kingdom has lost faith in her Prime Minister which, given the omnishambles taking place currently, shows an abundance of patience on Her Majesty’s part. That’s without delving into the shameful scenes in Spain as police shot Catalonian Independence campaigners with rubber bullets, the ongoing battle against terrorism in Europe, and the fact UKIP have kidnapped an illustrated lion and are forcing it to promote their campaign against anything that’s pure and good. But lads and lasses, there were five televised Premier League games to get your looking gear round this weekend.
Saturday’s action opened at the John Smith Stadium, where a Huddersfield Town side that have so far defied the pundits and recorded 9 points from their opening 6 games took on Tottenham Hotspur who, in Harry Kane, boast the most in-form striker in Europe. Kane has hit six hat-tricks so far in 2017, and despite finding a month to locate his shooting boots, 9 goals in his last 5 appearances is enough to have any defence reaching for the Rescue Remedy.
And so it came to pass as, nine minutes into the game, a Jonas Lössl clearance was headed forward by Kieran Trippier, and with the Huddersfield defence stepping up, Kane strode toward goal and slip the ball into the Dane’s near post. Seven minutes later it looked as though the game might be slipping away from the Terriers, as the ball bobbled around the home side’s box and fell to Ben Davies fire into the bottom corner for 2-0. Huddersfield had claims for a penalty turned down after Davinson Sanchez nudged Tom Ince off the ball, referee Neil Swarbrick deeming the Colombian’s tackle a fair challenge, and shortly after Kane put the result beyond doubt before the half hour, hitting a superb shot from outside the area. Their were further opportunities for Spurs to extend their lead as first Dele Alli trickled a shot against Lössl’s post, and then Kane had a volley disallowed when, on second viewing, he might consider himself unfortunate to be called offside. Despite this, the home supporters were still bouncing and singing in the stands, like that guy at a party that gets really drunk, shits his pants and still insists on throwing shapes in the kitchen. There was still time in the first half for Huddersfield’s Laurent Depoitre to thunder a shot against the bar, but manager David Wagner’s half-time team talk will have been one of damage limitation.
Fortunately for the newly promoted side their benevolent visitors took a foot off the pedal in the second half, happy to play the ball around at a leisurely pace after a midweek trip to Cyprus. Dele Alli did manage to cram in a woeful dive which he was duly booked for, his sheepish reaction in the immediate aftermath akin to a teenage boy who’s mum has just found the search history function on the home computer. There was also time for hell to freeze over and Moussa Sissoko to score his first goal in a Spurs shirt. Yes it was a tap in from six yards out, and yes it took a massive deflection, and yes it was a completely meaningless goal in the wider context – but what more do you expect for £30m? Tottenham up to third then, and showing that they’re still capable of steam-rolling teams, at least away from Wembley. For Huddersfield a humbling defeat, but if they can continue to pick up points from the teams around them they won’t mind taking the occasional spanking from a big boy. Hang on, isn’t that one of the search results in Dele’s internet history?
The round of 3pm kick-offs this weekend were what Donald Trump might call “Great fixtures. Just the best fixtures we’ve ever seen”. Yep, on paper, utter dross. Contrary to expectations, however, there was something of a ding-dong at the Hawthorns. West Brom, always sturdy under the stewardship of Tony Pulis, have quietly been enjoying another solid start to the season. They faced up against a Watford side that are being moulded into something of an Anti-Pulisball outfit by Marco Silva. The Portuguese manager has brought exciting attacking football to a side that were already excitingly suspect in defence, and a 6-0 schooling from Manchester City aside, they’ve equipped themselves well so far this season. It was the Baggies that struck first, Venezuelan powerhouse Salomon Rondon scoring his first Premier League goal of the season having outmuscled the Watford defence. Johnny Evans headed home Matt Phillips’ corner from close range three minutes later, and it began to look as though Heurelho Gomes might be in for a busy afternoon, but Abdoulaye Doucoure pulled one back on the stroke of half-time.
There were opportunities for West Brom to seal the win in the second half, particularly for James McClean who had one shot saved well by Gomes and blasted another chance over. The Irishman’s profligacy would come back to haunt the Baggies as, in the sixth minute of injury time, Jose Holebas swung a free-kick into the area and Richarlison netted his second injury time goal in successive games. Having been booked for removing his shirt last week, the Brazilian managed to just about fight the urge on a grim afternoon in West Bromwich. The boy’s certainly got willpower, as well as an eye for a goal – at a shade over £11m the twenty year-old is already looking one of the bargains of the season.
The afternoon’s other surprising spectacle took place in the Potteries as Stoke City took on Southampton in a battle of England’s Number Twos – that’s Jack Butland and Fraser Forster, not a reflection on Stoke-on-Trent and Southampton. After positive results against Arsenal and Manchester United at the Bet365, Stoke suffered a four goal stuffing at the hands of champions Chelsea last time out. The Saints have so far stuttered and struggled for goals, with four in their first five games – a figure skewed by a three goal haul at home to West Ham. A fairly staid game burst into life five minutes before half time, as Mame Diouf headed home Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner. Two minutes later Stoke were presented a golden opportunity to double their lead as the returning Virgil Van Dijk tripped Saido Berahino in the area. Berahino stepped up to take the penalty, having yet to register a goal for Stoke since his move from West Brom in January. The Burundi born forward’s wait continues as his kick was a comfortable save for Forster, and Stoke went in at the break with just the single goal lead.
Berahino’s afternoon went from bad to worse when Saints centre-back Maya Yoshida ghosted in at a corner to volley them level, with serious questions to be levelled at Stoke’s defending of the set-piece. Parity was restored for only ten minutes though, when latter day super-sub Peter Crouch tapped in Chupo-Moting’s wayward shot following a goalmouth scramble to give the Potters a hard-fought three points. Hearts were in mouths when Manolo Gabbiadini challenged Butland and the ball ricocheted towards the home goal, only for Kurt Zouma to make the last ditch interception. The win was enough to draw Stoke level on points with their visitors, as Mauricio Pellegrino’s task at Southampton starts to look bigger by the game.
In the other 3 o’clocks, in what is quickly becoming a regulation scoreline, Manchester United added to Roy Hodgson’s south London woes with a 4-0 victory against his Crystal Palace side. Marouane Fellaini the unlikely two-goal hero at Old Trafford. Slaven Bilic was granted another two weeks at the helm of West Ham after an injury-time winner from wantaway striker Diafra Sakho gave the Hammers the narrowest of victories against Swansea, and Bournemouth recorded their first clean sheet of the season at home to Leicester City in a 0-0 draw, both teams still making up the numbers in the bottom four.
The biggest game of the weekend took place at Stamford Bridge in the tea-time kick-off, with champions Chelsea hosting champions elect Manchester City. The Citizens were lining up without top-scorer Sergio Aguero – the Argentinian suffering the most unfortunate incident involving a footballer and a taxi since ex-Chelsea rodent Dennis Wise decked a driver that time.
Top of the table clashes can often be cagey affairs, but this one was end to end from off – not surprising given City’s insistence on sticking five past every team they meet. It was Chelsea that fashioned the first opening, Alvaro Morata heading over from Eden Hazard’s cross, but City quickly made chances of their own – Thibault Courtois forced into a smart save from David Silva’s strike. Chelsea’s cause suffered a serious set-back ten minutes before half-time as Alvaro Morata picked up an ankle knock and had to be replaced. Guardiola’s half-time instructions to move through the gears translated to the pitch and City were soon on top of their hosts. Their dominance finally rewarded with Kevin De Bruyne’s sumptuous strike from the edge of the box. The Belgian once again at the heart of every exciting forward foray from Guardiola’s team. Gabriel Jesus was unfortunate not to add a second, seeing his sidefoot volley cleared off the line by Antonio Rudiger, but its hard to argue against City deserving the three points. This was seen by many as the first real test of their title credentials, and they passed with flying colours. Their first meeting of the season with neighbours Manchester United on the 9th December becomes more of a thigh rubber with each passing week.
A trio of Sunday fixtures kicked off in North London at midday, with Arsenal hosting Brighton and Hove Albion. Arsene Wenger proved he could master BATE in the Europa League this week but in Chris Hughton he faced the last manager to bring a newly promoted side to the Emirates and win – Andy Carroll sealing a 1-0 victory for Newcastle back in 2010. Brighton’s victory over Hughton’s former charges last weekend will have provided sweet succour after a tricky opening few weeks to the season, but their trip to N7 would offer a wholly different test. The scale of the job on their hands became apparent when, in the second minute, Alexandre Lacazette thundered a shot against Mat Ryan’s post, and it was a free-kick won by the Frenchman that led to Arsenal’s opener. After an improtu game of pinball in the Brighton penalty area, Nacho Monreal drilled a shot into Ryan’s gaping goal to give the Gunners a deserved lead. Brighton fashioned a few half-chances but never looked to give Petr Cech much to think about in the Arsenal goal and Alex Iwobi’s emphatic finish ten minutes into the second half sealed the points for Wenger’s men. For all the hysterics surrounding the Gunners’ start to the season, they find themselves fifth in the table, level with Chelsea and a point behind Spurs.
Fellow Europa League entrants Everton hosted a Burnley side that have flip-reversed their form from last term, having taken five points from their first three away fixtures this season at Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool no-less. Everton, meanwhile, find themselves playing catch-up after struggling in their tough run against the top six. Oumar Niasse’s heroics against Bournemouth last week earned him a place in the starting line-up, with Wayne Rooney dropping to the bench. In the 21st minute it looked as though further pressure would be heaped on Ronald Koeman, midfielder Jeff Hendrick rounding off a slick passing move and wrong-footing Jordan Pickford to give Burnley a deserved lead. Oumar Niasse should’ve done better when found unmarked by Leighton Baines, but his header wide represented the Merseysiders best chance on a day where they never really got going. Burnley remain unbeaten away from home and find themselves in the heady position of sixth.
The weekend’s action concluded at St James’ Park in a fixture billed as a ‘Premier League Classic’ – everyone conveniently forgetting that its been over twenty years since those famed 4-3 games at Anfield. These days Liverpool are more notorious for their wastefulness in front of goal, while the days of Newcastle relinquishing a two-goal lead are long gone. They’d have to score twice in the first place. Benitez has his side drilled to within an inch of their lives, and the overriding sense was the unstoppable force of Klopp’s speedy attack would spend the afternoon battling with the immovable object of Newcastle’s miserly defence. The Magpies acquitted themselves well in the first twenty minutes, despite not carving any real opportunities – Matt Ritchie and Jamaal Lascelles both testing the grip of Simon Mignolet from distance. Phillipe Coutinho had better luck from far out, and when Jonjo Shelvey allowed the Brazilian to turn onto his right foot, the invitation was accepted with good grace and a 25 yard piledriver into the top corner. That lead prompted the visitors to pile further pressure in search of a second goal, but quickly their familiar defensive frailties came to the fore, and from nowhere Newcastle found an equaliser. A slide-rule ball from Jonjo Shelvey released Joselu and despite Joel Matip’s best efforts the ball bounced off the Spanish forward’s shin and into the Liverpool goal.
The visitors turned up the heat on the home defence in the second half, but despite fashioning openings they lacked the killer touch to find a winner. In fact it was the hosts that nearly nicked it, as substitute Mo Diame found himself with the ball at his feet in the six-yard box following a corner in stoppage time, but his shot was blocked by Albert Moreno and bounced into the hands of a grateful Mignolet. Another frustrating afternoon for Liverpool, who’s attacking deficiencies may scupper their hopes of a top four finish this season. A decent point for Newcastle, however, who may just survive this season on the strength of their defensive organisation alone.
So as the second month of the season turns to the third, the Manchester sides have managed to insert a sliver of a gap between themselves and the chasing pack. Burnley are the suprisde packages of the season so far, down in the most part to their stunning form away from Turf Moor, while it could be a tense couple of weeks in the corridors of Goodison Park as Ronald Koeman tries to explain why his expensively assembled side sit two points above the relegation zone. The international break can come as a welcome break for some sides – a blessed relief from the nightmare this season is turning into for Crystal Palace for example – but for others its an unwelcome break of momentum. Pep, Jose and Mauricio will be chomping at the bit to get back in action, and crossing their fingers that the planet hasn’t been vapourised before they get the chance.