Imagine, for a second, waking up from a twenty year coma in this of all weeks. As far as you’re aware Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister, Bill Clinton is in the White House despite calls for his resignation after allegations of lewd behavior, Liam and Noel Gallagher are topping the charts with Oasis, Prince Harry is grieving the loss of his mother in a Parisian car crash, Rolf Harris is presenting Animal Hospital, and the UK is thriving as part of the European Union. Things can only better. Now, it might take you some time to adjust to life in 2017, and if the first news story you’re reading after two decades out of the loop is the leader of the free world was retweeting far-right propaganda, you might quickly ask a nurse if you can go back under. Once you’ve got your head around the idea of Twitter, and seen with your own eyes the President of the United States mouth off at a poor unsuspecting user that happens to share the name of the incumbent Prime Minister, you might be some way to understanding how ludicrous the world is in the 21st century. Lewd behavior in the White House is now broadly fine and definitely not sexual harassment, as far as (some of) America are concerned. Rolf Harris, however, is a paedophile, though we all suspected that one. Liam and Noel are still topping the charts, but as separate artists; also Liam is the good one now. Prince Harry has blossomed from the little ginger lad that looked like James Hewitt to a big ginger lad that looks like James Hewitt. He’s also marrying an actress and UN ambassador, but lots of people are unhappy because she doesn’t fit their idea of a superior race. Oh, and we’re spending billions of pounds to leave the EU and instill potentially life threatening tensions in Ireland. Things can only get better?
Well if you’d manage to stir from your twenty year slumber before Saturday lunchtime you’d have had a jam-packed weekend of action to look forward to. Current champions Chelsea (there’s another one to get your head around) played host to Newcastle United who have found themselves in a massive, no-wins-in-five-games rut. After his 4-4-2 experiment yielded two batterings at the hands of Manchester United and Watford Rafa Benitez tried a new system at Stamford Bridge, switching to a three man defence and deploying Javier Manquillo and Matt Ritchie as wing backs. For the first fifteen minutes it looked to be working, with Chelsea struggling to break through Newcastle’s enhanced backline, the Magpies started brightly and when Jacob Murphy was played in by Dwight Gayle, Thibault Courtois could only bat the ball back to the feet of the Newcastle #9, who had the simple job of stroking the ball into an unguarded net. That suddenly snapped Chelsea out of their early afternoon malaise, and when a clearly offside Alvaro Morata was clattered into by Karl Darlow the warning signs were there for all to see. Minutes later Andreas Christiansen headed against the post, and from the very next attack Cesar Azpilicueta looped a ball into the area, Florian Lejeune could only hook it into the path of Eden Hazard, and the Belgian crashed the equaliser home. Newcastle suddenly looked disjointed and uncomfortable at both ends of the pitch, and having led for only eight minutes, they soon found themselves behind. Another long ball looking for Victor Moses on the right-wing was cut out by Matt Ritchie, but the ersatz wing-back headed the ball straight to Moses’ feet, and his driven cross was nodded in by Morata.
Benitez once again declined to make changes at the break for Newcastle, despite the need to freshen up the midfield clear, and Chelsea unsurprisingly dominated the second half. Another offside was missed by the linesman as Moses was played in, but this time his cross to Morata was blazed over by the Spaniard. Hazard was running rings around the Newcastle defence by this point, and almost got his second of the afternoon as he latched onto a through ball, but could only poke it wide of the onrushing Darlow’s goal. Eventually the hosts pressure told, as Cesc Fabregas played a clever ball inside Ritchie and the former Bournemouth man was forced into a rash challenge on Moses to concede a penalty. Hazard claimed his deserved second goal of the game with an impudent chip from the spot, and the visitors quickly reverted to damage limitation mode. Hazard could have had a hat-trick, but again Darlow was out quickly to thwart him, but in the end the victory was a comfortable one for Antonio Conte’s side. For Newcastle, their home double-header next week could be crucial in the context of their season. A couple of wins will alleviate mounting pressure, but if they fail to pick up at least three points against Leicester and Everton they will be right in the sticky stuff.
A tasty looking tie at Vicarage Road saw Watford play host to a stuttering Tottenham Hotspur, on a run of three defeats and a draw from their last four games, with Elton John watching on in the crowd (a comforting sight for our coma sufferer, given the bewigged ones ubiquity in ’97). Undoubtedly red-top reporters at the game will have been sharpening their pencils in preparation of a pun-off, but you won’t find that kind of low-rent humour here. Tottenham looked eager to break the deadlock early on, and with Kieran Tripper bursting down the wing like a Rocket Man, Marvin Zeegalaar was unable to cut out his cross, and Harry Kane was millimeters from connecting and giving the visitors the lead. It was Watford that opened the scoring however, as Tom Cleverley’s corner found the forehead of the leaping Christian Kabasele, and he buried a header with the Spurs defence Still Standing. Soon after Watford felt they should have received a penalty when Tiny Dancer Richarlison worked his way into the box, only for Ben Davies to bundle him over – nothing given, and with Watford protests still ringing around the ground the visitors broke up the other end. Christian Eriksen’s pinpoint cross found a fellow white shirt, and despite Heurelho Gomes’ warning “Don’t Let Son Bear Down On Me”, his pleas fell on deaf ears and the South Korean levelled the scores.
The game became scrappy in the second half, and only really came to life when Davinson Sanchez decided that Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. In truth, his arm across Richarlison looked more a use of upper body strength than an elbow, but Martin Atkinson was unimpressed and gave the Colombian his marching orders. With only ten men, Spurs had to Sacrifice their attacking intentions, and Abdoulaye Doucoure almost gave Watford the lead when his rasping shot hit the inside of Hugo Lloris’ post and bounced away to safety. The hosts also had a decent shout for a penalty dismissed when Richarlison’s cross hit the hand of Eric Dier, but eventually the game ended in a stalemate. Tottenham will be hoping for a couple of wins in the coming weeks before they Step Into Christmas, while Watford did their credentials no harm with a battling performance.
The other standout game on Saturday afternoon took place on the south coast, with impressive new boys Brighton and Hove Albion hosting goal-mad Liverpool. The hosts headed into the game having lost only once in their last seven, a narrow defeat at Old Trafford, while Liverpool came into the game having only scored fewer than three goals in one of their last five. Chris Hughton knew his side would have to be at their resolute best in order to contain their visitors, while the sight of Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum lining up in the Liverpool back three will have left him with no illusions of his opposing number’s game plan. It took Jurgen Klopp’s side half an hour to open the scoring, but when Can headed in Phillipe Coutinho’s corner, the Seagulls quickly took leave of their senses. Seventeen second from the restart they were two down, as the visitors stole possession and Coutinho was fed down the left hand side, his pinpoint cross was converted by Roberto Firmino and the Amex faithful knew they were in for a long afternoon.
Glenn Murray had an excellent opportunity to halve the deficit soon after half-time, but after his shot was turned away by Simon Mignolet Liverpool countered with frightening pace, and Mo Salah’s lay-off was buried by Firmino. Seemingly game over, but a soft penalty awarded for a push by Can gave Murray the chance to redeem for his earlier miss, and he gratefully dispatched the spot-kick. Brighton attempted to push for another, but Klopp’s makeshift defence held firm, and in the 87th minute Coutinho drilled a low free-kick under the Brighton wall and into the bottom corner to wrap the game up. There was still time for another, as two minutes later another Coutinho cross was diverted into his own net by Lewis Dunk. The feckless centre-half has now scored for Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool this season – some going for a player that was plying his trade in League One four years ago. Brighton fans will have been expecting this kind of gubbing to come along at some point, but will hope their side can get back on track in the coming weeks, with a six-pointer at Huddersfield next weekend firmly in their sights.
In the rest of the 3pm kick-offs, Sam Allardyce began his Everton tenure with a comfortable home victory over Huddersfield, Demarai Gray bundled in the only goal of the game as Leicester overcame Burnley, Swansea’s misery continued as Wilfried Bony’s first goal since rejoining was wiped out by Xherdan Shaqiri and Mame Diouf, while Alan Pardew oversaw a goalless draw against former side Crystal Palace in his first match in charge at West Brom.
The most hotly anticipated game of the weekend kicked off on Saturday evening, as Arsenal and Manchester United faced off at the Emirates (our patient could be forgiven for thinking this fixture is still a title decider, but it really really isn’t). Arsenal entered the game in extremely charitable mood, and quickly found themselves 2-0 down. Antonio Valencia, left completely unmarked on the edge of the area after five Arsenal players surrounded Paul Pogba, was played in by the Frenchman and gratefully drilled the ball between Petr Cech’s legs to give United the lead. Shkrodan Mustafi was then overcome by the season of goodwill and dallied on the ball, allowing Romelu Lukaku to dispossess him, and after a slick one-two between Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, the young winger smashed the ball in. Cue cringeworthy celebration. Mourinho’s side may have been expected to come into this with a defensive gameplan, but having landed two early blows they continued to stream forward in search of blood. Arsenal, having finally regained their composure, sensed that the openness of the game might play into their hands, and perhaps should have pulled one back when Alexandre Lacazette steamed into a goalmouth scramble. The final 25 minutes of the first-half then descended into some kind of postmodern display of attacking ineptitude from the hosts. Lacazette managed to nick the ball of Smalling but despite getting halfway round David De Gea, he could only beat the ball into the ‘keeper’s body – Granit Xhaka rifling wide from the rebound. De Gea then got across his goal well to divert long range efforts from Hector Bellerin and Alexis Sanchez, and in first half stoppage time it looked for all the world that the visitors net would ripple. Sanchez floated a free-kick into the box, and Lukaku’s botched attempt at an acrobatic clearance bounced off his considerable thigh and headed for the bottom corner. De Gea, though, was not in the mood to be beaten and pulled off an acrobatic save to maintain his clean sheet. Half-time then, and Manchester United leading 2-0 with two shots on target to Arsenal’s seven.
The Gunners came out blazing again in the second half and soon had a way back into the game. Another floated ball into the box from Sanchez saw Aaron Ramsey spring the offside trap and a moment of inspired unselfishness or an extremely terrible first touch laid the ball off for Lacazette to smash in from close range. Arsenal’s dedication to attack left them susceptible on the counter, and Lingard should have restored United’s cushion when through on goal, but Cech managed to deflect his shot onto the post, and Martial’s follow up was blocked on the line by Nacho Monreal. De Gea then pulled off an incredible double save, first getting down low to push Lacazette’s shot away, and then denying Sanchez on the follow up with a flick of his boot. With the hosts piling pressure on United’s backline something soon had to give, and Mourinho’s side soon broke forward 3-on-2. Lingard played the ball out to Pogba and the £89m man drove a cross into the box for Lingard to tap in his second of the game. That knocked the stuffing out of the home side, though when Pogba was dismissed for what looked like a stamp on Bellerin, they may have fancied their chances against ten men. Ultimately they couldn’t find a way through, and a scrappy finish saw controversy reign, with Mourinho calling for Laurent Koscielny’s dismissal as the centre-back dragged Lukaku down, while a clear penalty for Arsenal was missed by Andre Marriner when Matteo Darmian clipped Danny Welbeck’s heels. An absolutely breathless match, and easily the best so far this season. A quick look at the final match stats will have given Proper Football gremlins a hard on, as Arsenal’s 75% possession and 33 shots on goal weren’t enough to avoid defeat, and gave further evidence to claims that statistics are a load of bollocks. Exception that proves the rule, lads.
The early game on Sunday gave us an uninspiring 1-1 draw at the Vitality, as Ryan Fraser’s first half strike for Bournemouth was cancelled out by Charlie Austin’s equaliser for Southampton. Despite Sky trying their utmost to build this up as a local derby, Saints supporters are far more bothered about the fortunes of Portsmouth than the Cherries and the three yellow cards displayed by Jon Moss – one incorrectly given for a dive – were indicative of a match lacking the intensity of a rivalry.
The final game of the weekend had viewers licking their lips in anticipation of a new record Premier League victory, as Manchester City hosted hapless West Ham. Ahead of the game Coral were offering shorter odds on City running out 8-0 winners than the Hammers nicking a 1-0, but as the first half progressed they may have found their palms becoming increasingly clammy as an out of sorts City struggled to break their visitors down. West Ham came close to opening the scoring when Cheikou Kouyate flicked Manuel Lanzini’s cross on, but Michail Antonio couldn’t quite add the finishing touch. Adrian, in for the ineligible Joe Hart, then tipped David Silva’s deflected shot over as City had their only bright spot of the first half, but the Hammers were soon up the other end with Lanzini testing Ederson with a fierce drive from the edge of the box. Incredibly, on the stroke of half-time, David Moyes’ team took the lead. Again Lanzini was at the heart of it, and his cross was headed in by Angelo Ogbonna, who had evaded the attention of City’s backline.
Pep Guardiola took evasive action at half-time, introducing Gabriel Jesus into the game and after Adrian had saved well from a Kevin De Bruyne free kick, the Brazilian dragged City onto level terms. His driving run into the area gave him space to slide the ball across the six yard box, and Nicolas Otamendi tapped in from close range. From then on, Guardiola’s side slowly cranked through the gears, and Adrian had to be at his best to deny two scorching efforts from Leroy Sane. Silva then tried his luck from distance, but to no avail, and West Ham had a glorious chance to retake the lead on the break, but Antonio took his shot too early, and Ederson was able to beat the ball away. Heading into the final ten minutes it seemed inevitable City would find a winner, and De Bruyne’s sumptuous ball into the box was met with a delicate acrobatic volley from Silva to give the hosts the lead. Remarkably there was still one more chance for the Hammers to grab a point in stoppage time, but Diafra Sakho could only shoot wide as he met Marko Arnautovic’s cross. A much better performance from Moyes’ team, but good performances alone won’t keep them up. Had they been a little more clinical, West Ham could have caused City some serious problems. Guardiola, meanwhile, will turn his attention to next Sunday’s Manchester Derby. Three points there and his side will be eleven points clear. They think it’s all over…