After a week in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer deemed it appropriate to stage his own impromptu stand-up gig in the House of Commons after telling the UK how utterly fucked the future looks, the distraction of domestic football appeared on the horizon with blessed relief. Ahead of the Friday night kick-off however, there was still time for occasional charity footballer Olly Murs to send social media in a tizz after reporting gunfire in the Oxford Street branch of Selfridges. In a bizarre reversal of the wisdom of crowds, the busy shopping street became panicked as hordes of people started running away from…what? Nobody knew. After a quick recce around the area the Met were happy to confirm that there was no evidence of gunshots, though by this point the Daily Mail were reporting pedestrians being mown down by lorries, Little Tommy Robinson was stroking himself furiously in anticipation of another anti-Islamic tirade, and the goblins of the western world took to Twitter to air their deplorable opinions. In the end, then, a complete non-event.
Sky Sports subscribers may have expected another non-event to unfold in East London on Friday evening as another two goblins met for the Friday night kick-off. Claude Puel, kindly given the evening off from guarding Gringotts, faced a David Moyes presumably knackered from spending the day searching for The One Ring. Moyes took his place in the West Ham dugout for the first time at the London Stadium promptly dropping uncapped midfielder Mark Noble in favour of Arthur Masuaku. Passion can only get you so far it would seem. It was vital for the Hammers new manager that his side got off to a steady start, so he would have been less than happy when Leicester took the lead with their first attack after eight minutes. A long ball into the channel found Jamie Vardy, and his cross was slid past Joe Hart by Marc Albrighton. It looked as though a familiar tale was about to unfold, though Angelo Ogbonna was unlucky not to equalise when his header from Manuel Lanzini’s cross was tipped away by Kasper Schmeichel. Leicester though looked dangerous on the break, and Riyadh Mahrez was offered far too much room throughout the first half. During one of the Algerian’s forays forward he looked to have taken too long to release the impressive Demarai Gray, which left the youngster flouncing in anger and unable to catch up with play when Vardy flashed another cross through the six-yard box. The Rumpelstiltskin lookalike again found space behind West Ham’s defence but saw his shot curl wide, and Moyes may have been relieved to see his side go in at the break only one down. In first-half stoppage time it got even better than that. Lanzini’s inswinging corner met the formidable head of Cheikhou Kouyate, and the Senegalese’s header deflected off the shoulder of Danny Simpson and into the roof of the net.
In the second half a sudden surge of noise from the home faithful brought the game to life, with very little on the pitch to shout about. Unfortunately a niggly, stop-start half dampened the atmosphere somewhat, though Hammers’ fans were vociferous when Andre Ayew tumbled over in the area. His marker, Harry Maguire, a man with a face that can say ‘fuck off’ without opening his mouth, dismissed the Ghanaian’s dive, and referee Martin Atkinson agreed. The sight of Gray becoming more and more frustrated at not receiving the ball after finding space will be a slight concern to Puel, though Mahrez’s nonplussed reaction to being substituted won’t have gone down well with the mild-mannered Frenchman either. With the second half low on goalmouth action, Ayew’s off-target overhead kick was the highlight, but in truth the game didn’t really deserve a winner. Ultimately turgid and lacking in fluidity, Moyes’ side are going to have to make the most of the quality that is clearly available to them if they’re to avoid a relegation battle this season.
With a fixture list that looked far from enticing, Gary Megson may have been one of the few people looking forward to Saturday afternoon. The former West Bromwich Albion manager took temporary charge of the Baggies following the sacking of Tony Pulis, and his first assignment was a hiding to nothing at Wembley Stadium. Tottenham Hotspur, fresh from topping their Champions League group ahead of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, will have been licking their currywurst stained lips ahead of the visit from a Baggies side that have scored three and conceded ten in their last five, gaining only one point. It took only four minutes for Megson’s charges to turn the form book on its head, as a languid touch from Dele Alli allowed Jake Livermore to steal the ball in midfield, and his through ball found Salomon Rondon charging into the Spurs area. Despite the attention of Davinson Sanchez, Rondon’s upper body strength prevailed, and his side footed shot trickled into Hugo Lloris’ far post. For the remainder of the first half, the home side were on the attack. Harry Kane saw a shot fly wide and Son Heung-Min cut inside from the left and had his scorching shot turned way by Ben Foster, but despite their dominance, Tottenham couldn’t find a way through.
West Brom appeared from their shells at the beginning of the second half, as Matt Phillips tricked his way down the right hand side and fizzed a shot past Lloris’ post, but the inevitable equaliser arrived in the 73rd minute, Alli’s near post cross diverted in by Kane from close range. It’s now forty goals in thirty-nine games for Kane in 2017, but I don’t think he’ll amount to much, Clive. Megson could have been excused for expecting an onslaught from the opposition in the final fifteen minutes, but Tottenham’s only real chance was a Kane header from Kieran Trippier’s cross that cleared Foster’s bar. In fact West Brom could have nicked a win in stoppage time, as Phillips whipped an enticing cross into the box, only for Rondon’s wayward connection to skew the ball wide. Another one of those days for Spurs, who huffed and puffed to little effect. Transferring their European form into domestic fixtures is a must if they’re to secure a place in the top four. For Megson, a satisfactory but brief stint in charge if rumours are to be believed. Alan Pardew is currently the favourite to take on the manager’s job full time, though Megson may want to keep an eye on the vacancy board at the Hawthorns – Pardew will be due his catastrophic streak come the beginning of next season.
One of Pards’ former clubs, Newcastle United, welcomed Enemy of British Football Managers Marco Silva and his Watford side to St James’ Park, looking to end a run of three defeats on the bounce. Benitez once again set out his team in a 4-4-2 formation despite their brittle defensive display at Old Trafford last week. The hosts had the most of the opening stages, and could have taken the lead early on when a low Jacob Murphy cross found Joselu unmarked, but the ball struck the Spaniard’s leg and bounced away to safety. Presumably the former Real Madrid striker will be avoiding going home at Christmas, lest he be pushed from a church tower. Matt Ritchie then fired a long ranger past Heurelho Gomes’ post, but the hosts quickly started to run out of ideas. As the defence pushed further up the pitch in an attempt to put pressure on Watford, gaps started to open up and in the 19th minute Newcastle were punished. A long diagonal ball found Marvin Zeegelaar in acres of space, and his pull back left an unmarked Will Hughes to fire into the bottom corner. The Dutch wing-back, signed from Sporting CP in the summer and making only his second start, terrorised Newcastle throughout the first half, and after getting in behind DeAndre Yedlin a second time, his perfectly weighted cross was volleyed wide by Abdoulaye Doucoure. A second goal did duly arrive for Watford just before half-time when Zeegalaar, left to his own devices by the Newcastle defence, fired in a low cross, and Yedlin diverted the ball into his own net. A two-goal cushion was no more than Watford’s enterprising display deserved, and with very little going on in the final third it looked a long way back for Benitez’s team at half-time.
Whether Benitez addressed the chasm of space in the right full-back position at half-time is unclear, but if he did then Yedlin didn’t take a blind bit of notice. Andre Gray was the latest recipient of the American’s generosity, though shot wide when one-on-one with Rob Elliott. A third goal was always likely however, and another long ball down Watford’s left found Richarlison in space, with centre-back Florian Lejuene coming out wide to meet him. The Brazilian easily swung a ball around Lejuene, leaving Gray with the freedom of St James’ Park to slide the ball in. You’ll struggle to find a more woeful performance from Newcastle under Benitez, and its no exaggeration that Silva’s side could have scored five or six with little argument from their hosts. Joselu was afforded another sight of goal when Murphy slid a cross in for him, but again his connection was weak and Gomes was left with a simple save. The introduction of Mikel Merino and Aleksander Mitrovic woke the Magpies’ front-line up a little, but with the game already gone and Watford’s defence looking extremely solid any route back in was blocked off at the source. Gray should have grabbed his second of the afternoon as he broke Newcastle’s laughable impression of an offside trap, but his shot straight at Elliott lacked any power – though I’m sure if you ask him he’ll blame his rainbow laces. Mitrovic came closest to netting a consolation for the hosts, but Christian Kabasele, excellent all afternoon, blocked the Serb’s goalbound effort. With trips to Chelsea and Arsenal in December, Tuesday’s game at West Brom suddenly resembles something of a must-win for Benitez, while Silva will be relishing the visit of Manchester United to Vicarage Road in high-flying Watford’s next game.
In the remainder of the 3pm games, Crystal Palace earned only their second win of the season after coming from behind to score late against Stoke City. Lewis Dunk’s unfortunate own goal condemned Brighton to a narrow defeat at Old Trafford, and Swansea and Bournemouth played out a stalemate in South Wales.
The real looker of the weekend took place on Saturday evening with a shaven Antonio Conte taking his Chelsea side to Liverpool in hopes of capitalising on the shaky confidence of a team that conceded a three goal lead in Sevilla midweek. Given the attacking quality on display it was unsurprising to see the game open up early, with Premier League top scorer Mo Salah firing over, before Eden Hazard tried one from long range that Simon Mignolet flapped away. The power in a Chelsea midfield containing Ngolo Kante, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko looked to be overwhelming Liverpool as the half went on, and Drinkwater should have done better when played in one-on-one – Mignolet rushing out to narrow the former Leicester man’s angle and divert the ball wide. Davide Zappacosta then popped up on the left-hand side of the box to fizz a shot at goal that Mignolet tipped over. Chelsea didn’t have it all their own way however, and Salah once again was gifted a sight of goal after turning Gary Cahill, but again the Egyptian couldn’t find the target.
Both sides tightened up at the back in the second half, and chances early on were few and far between. Alberto Moreno continued his fine midweek form when diverting Zappacosta’s cross into the path of Alvaro Morata, but the ball bounced harmlessly wide off the striker’s thigh. The home side finally broke the deadlock when Mo Salah was played in by a combination of Phillipe Coutinho, Bakayoko and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the former Chelsea forward rolled the ball past Thibaut Courtois. Salah’s non-celebration after the goal caused much debate, with Gary Lineker receiving bizarre responses on Twitter for suggesting it was in respect of the victims of Friday’s terror attack in Salah’s native Egypt, during which 305 people lost their lives. Claims that a footballer shouldn’t be bringing politics into a game are as moronic as they are callous, while Chelsea fans convinced it was a sign of respect to their club from a player that made 14 appearances are frankly deluded. Either way, Salah has certainly proved the naysayers at his former club wrong so far, with his latest strike taking him into double figures in the league already this season. Gini Wijnaldum then tested Courtois from a corner, though replays showed the ball deflecting off the Dutchman’s hand on its way to goal. With Chelsea seemingly lacking creativity, Willian was brought on for the final ten minutes, and within two minutes of arriving he’d scored the equaliser. Given space to gambol towards the area, the Brazilian produced a delightful chip that looped over Mignolet and nestled into the net. Was it a cross? Was it a shot? Does it ultimately matter? Aren’t we all meat being shoveled towards the grave? Honours even then, from an entertaining game that neither side particularly deserved to lose. Chelsea’s hopes of retaining the league, however, fade week-by-week.
Sunday’s triple header kicked of at St Marys, with Southampton looking to improve on a home record of one win in five against an ailing Everton side. David Unsworth’s dress rehearsal to take charge as permanent manager has started to resemble The Play That Goes Wrong, with a humiliating 5-1 home defeat to Atalanta the latest blot in his copybook. His first job of the afternoon was contend with the recalled Charlie Austin, a striker that, though seemingly always injured, is deadly in front of goal when he plays. Austin certainly looked in the mood during the opening stages, as the Everton backline reverted to the now familiar mode of disarray. The former QPR man had three golden opportunities to open the scoring – skying his first, seeing his second saved well by Jordan Pickford and then rattling the post with a third. You could sense an opening goal wasn’t far off though, and in the 18th minute Dusan Tadic duly opened the scoring with a scuffed finish beyond the onrushing Pickford. It began to look a case of how many Southampton would score when Virgil van Dijk found himself totally unmarked at a corner but headed wide, and just as Unsworth was preparing another of his famous half-time rallying cries, his team levelled. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has a lot to do in order to repay the hefty sum spent on him in the summer, took aim from 25 yards out and produced a breathtaking dipper, hitting the underside of the bar, the post, the underside of the bar again and then nestling into the opposite corner of the net. A stark reminder of the ability in the Icelandic’s feet and a much needed shot in the arm for the Toffees.
Unsworth will have been hoping his side could build on their equaliser, but within fifteen minutes of the restart the game was over. Two lookalikey goals from Charlie Austin, the first a brutal header off the underside of the bar from Ryan Bertrand’s cross, the second more deft, heading across Pickford’s body and into the far post, put Southampton in charge of the game, and from there they never looked back. Everton’s misery was compounded by a lovely late strike from Steven Davis that caught Pickford flat-footed, and the Saints ran out comfortable winners. That win lifts Mauricio Pellegrino’s side up to tenth, while Everton look in all sorts of trouble. After the match Unsworth implored the top brass at Goodison to make a permanent appointment sooner rather than later, though the chances of the man in the dugout being given the nod are getting slimmer by the game.
Half an hour after kick-off on the south coast, Arsenal’s visit to Burnley got underway. Having recorded an impressive win over Spurs last weekend, Wenger’s side then conspired to lose in Europe to a team bottom of the Bundesliga with only two points all season. So a trip to Turf Moor and the surprise package of the season may not have been what the doctor ordered. Mesut Ozil missed the game through illness, potentially conjunctivitis in different postcodes, but Arsenal soldiered on regardless. Burnley’s biggest flaw this season has been their lack of goals, but when Johann Berg Gudmundsson let fly from the right hand corner of the area it was only the width of Petr Cech’s post that denied an opener for the hosts. Cech was then called into action, palming Robbie Brady’s free-kick to safety, and the sides went in goalless at half-time. Burnley ‘keeper Nick Pope having spent most of the half a spectator.
Having failed to register a meaningful shot on goal in the first period, the second forty-five found Arsenal huffing and puffing but failing to make Pope work, which given it was a Sunday game was very considerate. Alexandre Lacazette came closest for the Gunners, shooting wide when well placed, and as the game ticked into stoppage time it looked as though a draw would be a decent result for all parties. Then, in an incredible mirror of the last two meetings between these sides, Arsenal were awarded a soft penalty in the 92nd minute. The impressive James Tarkowski was adjudged to have pushed Aaron Ramsey, though the Welshman made the most of the contact, and Alexis Sanchez stepped up and buried the penalty to take all three points for Wenger’s side. For the third time in thirteen months Dyche has seen his team denied a point against Arsenal in stoppage time, but there was no shame in an admirable defeat for the Clarets.
The final game of the weekend pitted runaway leaders Manchester City against underdogs Huddersfield Town, though if you’d caught any of the media commentary on this match you’d have been forgiven for thinking the third round of the FA Cup had come early. Pre, mid and post-match David Wagner’s side were portrayed as minnows against Pep Guardiola’s giants, as though they were preparing for another week at the Post Office once this game was finished. As it happened, City only just shaded a tight first half, and clear cut chances were hard to come by. When Sergio Aguero did finally wriggle free of the Huddersfield defence, his first touch let him down and the home side were able to clear their lines. The Argentinian managed to spring the offside trap a second time minutes later, only to find Jonas Lossl equal to his shot. Though they lacked a little adventure, the Terriers were putting up great resistance in the face of their esteemed visitors, and remarkably went in at the break ahead. Rajiv Van La Parra’s corner was flicked on by Christopher Schindler and the ball bounced off Nicolas Otamendi’s shoulder and into the net.
Wagner will have been hoping to see more of his side steely defending in the second half, but within two minutes of the restart their lead was snatched away. Raheem Sterling peeled away from his marker but was hauled down, and Aguero stepped up to roll the resulting penalty into the corner. From then on, Lossl’s goal was under siege, and City spent the majority of the second period camped out in Huddersfield’s half. Aguero had another opportunity from close range that was saved well by the Danish ‘keeper, before Leroy Sane struck a wonderful free-kick against the frame of the goal. It looked as if the Terriers’ might escape the game with a point, until a through ball found substitute Gabriel Jesus, and despite Lossl being equal to the Brazilian’s shot, Sterling found himself in the right place at the right time to deflect the rebounding ball over the goalkeeper and into the net. To add insult to injury, Van La Parra was then sent off after the final whistle for an altercation with Sane, the German receiving a yellow for his part in the fracas. Another one of those classic ‘Champions’ performances’ from Manchester City, though Guardiola was quick to claim in his post-match interview that his side will be beaten in the league at some point this season. If you say so, Pep.
After all that, a bit of a tame weekend of Premier League action. West Brom and Watford emerged the real winners of this weekend, both posting excellent away performances, while Spurs lost ground on the top two and Liverpool dropped out of the top four. Luckily for them there’s a ridiculous amount of football to be played in December and the Premier League table may be looking a lot different when we see in the New Year, by which time Olly Murs will probably be locked up for inciting terror.