Not content with groping hopefully through Brexit negotiations in an attempt to secure some semblance of a future for the United Kingdom, it has transpired this week that several notable MPs have been groping hopefully in the past too. Revelations that thirty-six Conservatives have been accused of ‘lurid behaviour’, including six cabinet ministers, come as a surprise to no-one, the indefensible defence secretary Michael Fallon left as red-faced as Sir Alex Ferguson after three bottles of plonk. Undoubtedly over the coming weeks further revelations will reveal the true depth of depravity in our incumbent government (though accusations have also been measured at the opposition, it should be said), though to paraphrase hundreds of meatheads that follow Gary Linekar, let’s stick to football. With Sky Sports having the good grace to deign us a Super Sunday featuring none of West Brom, Burnley or Southampton, and another hotly anticipated international break on the horizon, the weekend’s action was split over two days. With a couple of thigh rubbers featuring four of the big six on Sunday, it was left to the dross of the Premier League to provide entertainment on Saturday.
Speaking of middle-aged entitled white men sweatily grasping for the one thing they desperately crave, Mark Hughes’ latest handshake victim was the recently installed Leicester City boss Claude Puel, as the Frenchman took his revitalised Foxes to Stoke for Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off. In thier last two visits to the bet365, Leicester had fought back from two goals down to pinch a point in consecutive 2-2 draws, but Puel may have been hoping to come away from the Potteries with a win, having seen his side comfortably dispatch Everton in his first game in charge. Early in the first half there was that rarest of sightings as referee Truly Bobby Madley Deeply struggled to digest his Full English, and had to be replaced with Jonathan Moss. The Mackem whistler would have to be at his fittest as the action in the first half tilted back and forth with Leicester zipping forward dangerously in attack, leaving wide open spaces in defence. It was Stoke’s exploitation of the space that almost led to an opening goal, but Maxim Chupo-Moting’s strike was straight at Kasper Schmeichel. At the other end a series of corners for the visitors ended with the ball dropping for Vincent Iborra to lash home and give Leicester the lead. Once again, Demarai Gray looked lively on the wings, and as his low whipped cross met the stooping header of Shinji Okazaki, it looked for all the world as if Leicester would double their lead. Fortunately for the hosts, Jack Butland was equal to it – the Stoke custodian looking to stake his claim for the England #1 jersey in front of the onlooking Gareth Southgate. This flurry of action in the last quarter of an hour in the first half was capped off with Stoke’s equaliser. Xherdan Shaqiri found more holes in the Leicester defence than his native cheese, and the Swiss capitalised to cooly slot past Schmeichel.
Stoke could have taken the lead early in the second half with a bullet header from Ryan Shawcross, but when the ball was lumped into the home penalty area Riyad Mahrez took control, turned inside his marker and thrashed the ball past Butland to restore Leicester’s lead. A vintage moment from the Algerian playmaker, who has flattered to deceive since the Premier League winning campaign. If Puel can get the most out of Mahrez, then Leicester may find some of that dazzling form once again. If Stoke hadn’t accounted for the trickiness of Mahrez, then Leicester were equally as ignorant of the aerial prowess of substitute Peter Crouch. Everyone’s favourite comedy footballer extended his all-time record of headed goals to 39 with the equaliser, and on another day would have secured all three points with another header late on. Schmeichel once again equal to the Stoke attack, and the game ended in another 2-2 draw. Further signs of progress for Puel’s Leicester who look as exciting going forward as they did a couple of seasons ago. They’ve still got the shakiness in defence to contend with, but the Frenchman has clearly revitalised a side that was ailing under Craig Shakespeare. Hughes will have been happy to have received a warm handshake at full-time, but it’ll be points rather than paws he’ll need to keep him warm over the winter months.
If Saturday’s games were to be immortalised in a conceptual menu item at a trendy East-London cafe, it would be a shit sandwich. The delicious, home-baked crusty bread of the early and late kick-offs were supplemented by four dour 3pm kick-offs that were not only low on entertainment, but also ruined everyone’s accumulators. Huddersfield secured another home win, this time against goal-shy West Brom with Rajiv van la Parra netting the winner, while fellow new-boys Brighton heaped the pressure on Paul Clement by securing a single goal victory at Swansea – Glenn Murray with his fourth goal in three games. Burnley continued their excellent form by nicking a late winner at Southampton to keep them in sixth, while a 92nd minute winner from Steve Cook gave ailing Bournemouth a vital win at Newcastle, who had a Dwight Gayle goal incorrectly ruled out for offside.
West Ham hosted Liverpool in the Saturday evening kick-off pitting the likable fall-guy Slaven Bilic against the likable, if slightly irritating, Jurgen Klopp, both of whom find themselves under pressure after failing to live up to pre-season hype in their opening ten games. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has become a totem for Liverpool’s failures so far this season, was brought into midfield, while the Hammers lined up with Andre Ayew and Javier Hernandez up top in a bid to unsettle their visitors famously shaky defence. It almost worked when, in the ninth minute, Ayew hit the post from a tight angle after wriggling free. The home side continued to put the pressure on, and Alberto Moreno was forced to concede a corner twenty minutes in. From the resulting set-piece, Liverpool cleared and broke forward on another one of their devastating counter attacks. Bilic’s decision to leave only one defender back at the set-piece backfired spectacularly, as Sadio Mane raced into the West Ham half and squared the ball for Mo Salah to tuck past Joe Hart. Three minutes later another corner undid West Ham, though this time it was the visitors. The ball in ricocheted off of Mark Noble and though Hart’s reactions were quick enough to prevent an own goal, Joel Matip was on hand to gobble up the rebound and double Liverpool’s lead.
Knowing that defeat could spell the end of his time at the London Stadium, the beleagured Bilic would have been keen to keep things tight heading into the second half, and hoping the introduction of Andy Carroll would encourage one of those now customary brain-farts in the Liverpool backline to give his side a way back into the game. The Hammers only had to wait ten minutes for the deficit to be reduced. Manuel Lanzini, again showing himself to be a class above many of his team-mates, delicately chested a lobbed pass into the area and dinked a half-volley over Simon Mignolet. Game on. For sixty seconds at least, as that’s how long it took for West Ham to recklessly pour forward and allow the visitors to pillage their way up the pitch leaving Hart exposed. The ‘keeper did well to block Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first shot, but the ball fell straight back at the feet of the £35m man, and he gleefully drilled home for his Premier League goal in a Liverpool shirt. Lanzini had another chance to haul the Hammers back into the game, but failed to beat Mignolet, and with a quarter of an hour remaining and the hosts looking beaten, a sloppy pass in the Liverpool half from the disappointing Marko Arnautovic set the visitors off on another rampaging attack, and Mane’s cute chipped ball fell for Salah to drill home a fourth. After suggestions of a club in crisis, it will have been a pleasing week for Klopp, seeing his side pick up three wins and concede only once. On Monday afternoon, Bilic’s time ran out, and West Ham are looking to replace him with David Moyes, which is absolutely fucking mental. Get the house on the Hammers going down if the Scotsman slides into his DM training gear in Stratford.
Sunday’s feast of football began, fittingly at ‘The Home of Football’, if a ten year old stadium that lacks the charm and atmosphere of its predecessor can be called such a thing. Tottenham Hotspur, fresh from handing European champions Real Madrid a right old shoeing in midweek, took on Crystal Palace and Roy Hodgson – a man that, unlike FIFA coach of the year Zinedine Zidane, has never lost a competitive game at Wembley. Palace were hoping to build on last week’s last gasp draw with West Ham, and will have been buoyed to see Spurs lining up with third choice ‘keeper Paulo Gazzaniga in nets, as well as the absence of hamstring victim Dele Alli. The first half offered little of note, though Palace had the best opportunity to open the scoring when Scott Dann met Yohan Cabaye’s corner with a powerful downwards header, but Gazzaniga reacted quickly and turned it away from goal.
Into the second half and it was Roy’s boys on top, Andros Townsend bursting into the Spurs area from deep but seeing Gazzaniga equal to his low drive. Wilfred Zaha was next to spurn an opportunity, when Serge Aurier carelessly gave the ball to Townsend, and the ex-Spurs’ man’s through ball found Zaha in full flow. The winger got halfway round Gazzaniga but lost his composure and scuffed his shot wide. The Spurs keeper was kept busy once again when Luka Milovojevic met another Cabaye corner with a back-post header, only to see it partied away by the in-form ‘keeper. Despite Spurs’ propensity to ‘do a Spurs’, particularly after a big result, there was a sense that Palace’s failure to convert the handful of chances their generous hosts had offered them could come back to bite them and, four minutes after Milovojevic’s header, it did. When Danny Rose’s cross pinballed around the Palace box it fell invitingly for Son Hueng-Min on the edge of the area, and the Korean gleefully lashed the ball past Julain Speroni in the visitors’ goal. Son had a chance to double his tally but shot wide when well placed, though come the final whistle it was irrelevant. Crystal Palace may take heart from a good perfomance, but if playing badly and winning is the mark of champions, then playing well and losing can only be attributed to a side that come the end of the season will be staring ignominious relegation in the face.
Tottenham’s victory was quickly followed by their North London neighbours travelling to Eastlands to take on the seemingly invincible Manchester City. In seasons gone by this fixutre has carried the air of a big top of the table clash, latterly one that Arsenal would be beaten heavily in, but given the Gunners’ shortcomings in the past 18 months few were expecting anything other than a home win. All the early running was made by Guardiola’s side, and Aguero could have opened the scoring in the second minute as City broke from an Arsenal corner, but the club’s record goalscorer screwed his shot wide. Raheem Sterling was then inches away from tapping home Leroy Sane’s drilled cross, but the Etihad faithful didn’t have long to wait for an opener. Kevin De Bruyne took aim from distance, and despite bringing a great save from Petr Cech, the ball found its way back to the Belgium who arrowed into the bottom corner. Arsenal did have one great chance to level in the first half, but Aaron Ramsey shot straight at Ederson when well placed.
Five minutes into the second half, City were home and hosed. A long ball found Sterling racing into the Arsenal area and as he turned towards goal Nacho Monreal bundled him over to gift the hosts a penalty. Aguero duly stepped up and knocked the penalty in off the post to double the lead. Despite the game looking lost for the visitors, Arsenal continued to adventure forward, and when Alex Iwobi’s shot was spilled by Ederson Ramsey was first to react, though a more subtle touch than launching himself into the Brazilian ‘keeper would have aided Arsenal’s cause better. The introduction of Alexandre Lacazette – surprisingly benched for the second time in a big game this season – provided Arsene Wenger’s side with a little more guile up front, and the French striker reduced arrears ten minutes after his introduction, taking Ramsey’s pass on the right hand side of the box and thrashing through Ederson’s legs. Gabriel Jesus almost added a third, but his toe poke at the far post was met by a brilliant reaction save from Cech. The Brazilian didn’t have to wait long for his goal, as Fabian Delph lifted a ball into the box to find David Silva a yard offside. The linesman didn’t flag, however, and the Spainard rolled the ball across the six yard box for Jesus to tap in and seal the points for City. Fixtures against their neighbours and the other team from North London will provide sterner tests for Guardiola in December, while their next test comes away at Leicester – the fixture in which their season fell apart last year.
Everton’s doomed Europa League campaign meant their fixture with Watford was moved to a late Sunday slot, with caretaker David Unsworth looking for his first win in the hotseat. Marco Silva’s Watford have faltered a little after their excellent start to the season, but an Everton side suffering a crisis of confidence could provide the perfect tonic. Troy Deeney’s indiscretion against Stoke meant that Andre Gray was recalled to the team, and he would have been pleased to be joined in the starting line up with EDL supporter Will Hughes, making his debut for Watford and also ensuring Gray wasn’t the most despicable player on the pitch. The home side almost took and early lead when Oumar Niasse found space on the right wing (momentarily vacated by Gray and Hughes) and passed the ball into Wayne Rooney. The Evertonian then squared for the onrushing Leighton Baines, but the left-back went for placement over power and hit a soft shot straight at Heurelho Gomes. Watford also had a golden chance to score in the first half, as a counter attack led to Richarlison rounding Jordan Pickford, but the young Brazilian shot into the side-netting.
The game came to life in the second-half, with Watford opening the scoring within 60 seconds of the restart. Gray’s ball found Richarlison who again tricked his way past Pickford, but this time his smart finish with the outside of the boot hit the roof of the net. Everton charged forward looking for an equaliser, and as Niasse stretched to reach a cross, his kneecap unceremoniously met the temple of Gomes. Watford’s ‘keeper was quickly substituted, and Greek stopper Orestis Karnezis came on to make his debut. Five minutes later the game looked won for the visitors when Christian Kabasele headed in from a corner to double their lead. The faith of the home supporters has clearly been tested beyond reach this season as many were filtering out when, three minutes later, their side were given a lifeline. A long ball forward prompted Karnezis to come sprinting from his goal-line and, much like his goal against Arsenal, Niasse tackled the ball into the net. With shakiness present in the Watford defence, Unsworth turned to his young guns on the bench, with Ademola Lookman already involved in Niasse’s goal, Dominic Calvert-Lewin was then introduced for Rooney and took only four minutes to make a mark on the game. From a corner, Calvert-Lewin met the ball at the back post and headed back across goal to equalise. The momentum by this point was all with Everton, and as the game ticked over 90 minutes Unsworth’s third substiture, Aaron Lennon, was brought down in the box by Jose Holebas. The Greek defender was unlucky to concede, given that he’d clearly slipped on the surface, but his fall impeded Lennon and the penalty was rightly given. Baines chose placement again and tucked the penalty into the bottom corner, inches from the reach of Karnezis. With twelve minutes of injury time announced, following Gomes’ lengthy treatement, Watford continued to chase the game, and when Richarlison was brought down by Pickford in the area it looked as though they’d been handed a reprieve. Tom Cleverley stepped up, but dragged his kick wide of the post to deny the visitors a point. The much-needed win lifted Everton out of the relegation zone, while Marco Silva will have much to think about after watching his side surrender another lead away from home. The good work early in the season is slowly being undone by a lack of nerve when under pressure.
The final game of the weekend saw jealous ex-boyfriend Jose Mourinho take his charges to Stamford Bridge to take on the surly Antonio Conte and his Chelsea side. Last week’s late win against Tottenham was one in the eye for those who suggested Mourinho can’t win the big games, but the Portugese would certainly have had last season’s 4-0 drubbing in the corresponding fixture in the back of his mind heading into this game. Conte surprisingly dropped David Luiz altogether, bringing in Andreas Christiansen into defence, while Tiemoue Bakayoko marked the occasion by pouring a blue Slush Puppy all over his barnet. Chelsea almost took the lead in spectacular fashion when Marcos Alonso’s cross was met by a screaming volley from the gurning Phil Jones, however Alvaro Morata was adjudged to have pushed the defender as the ball came in. Romelu Lukaku, six games without a goal heading into this fixture, will have been keen to show his old club what they’d been missing, and his shot from the edge of the D represented Manchester United’s best chance of the first half. Countryman Thibault Courtois was equal to it, however. Eden Hazard then tested David De Gea from long range, and his parried shot fell to Cesc Fabregas, who could only head wide under pressure from Eric Bailly.
It was that combination again that carved open the United defence early in the second half, Fabregas crossing for Hazard who, from point blank range, could only fire a shot straight at De Gea. The deadlock was finally broken when another two of Chelsea’s Spaniards combined. A pinpoint cross from Cesar Azpilicueta found the unmarked Morata, and his powerful header arced over De Gea and into the net. Mourinho’s side huffed and puffed in the second half and, aided by the introduction of Marouane Fellaini, had their best spell in the final ten minutes of the game. Marcus Rashford saw his shot from the edge of the area evade Courtois’ post, while Fellaini latched onto a loose ball in the area to fire a snap shot at goal that the Belgian stopper was once again equal to. The award of a free-kick to Manchester United in the dying moments looked to be their last chance to nick a draw, but Rashford’s effort was deflected over by the Chelsea wall. Another tight game between the top sides, and another result that benefits Pep Guardiola the most, as the chasing pack continue to take points from one another.
Manchester City now hold an eight point lead at the top of the table – the largest lead built by this point in Premier League history as Manchester United and Tottenham sit level on points, with Chelsea one behind. The rest of the top seven feature the usual suspects, as Liverpool, Arsenal and…Burnley have all hold a four point advantage over those sides in midtable. Newcastle, having sat in sixth a fortnight ago, slip into the bottom half, with fellow promoted sides Brighton and Huddersfield leapfrogging them into 8th and 10th respectively. Bournemouth’s win at St James Park leaves Crystal Palace six points adrift of safety at the bottom, and West Ham’s woeful performance has them dropping into the bottom three. It’ll be a long two weeks before we reconvene, by which time its likely David Moyes will have had his chance to instill whatever the hell it is that saw Sunderland finish rock bottom and took a title-winning Manchester United into seventh position. Still, at least British managers are getting jobs, eh?