Quicker than you can say “no, not that kind of parliamentary sovereignty”, the Premier League returned with another round of fixtures. With the games coming thick and fast, precious points were up for grabs to secure a place in the top four heading into Christmas, as well as a chance for teams at the bottom to edge their way out of the mire.
Two sides with differing ambitions for the season met at Selhurst Park, with the stability instilled by Roy Hodgson now reaping dividends as the Eagles went into the game unbeaten in five. The next stage of Roy the Boy’s plan is to convert solid performances into wins – they’ve won only one in that unbeaten run, with a stoppage time goal against Stoke. Their visitors were Watford who are suffering something of a slump, with two wins and five defeats in their last eight. Keeping clean sheets has been Marco Silva’s main issue, and the Hornets had the second worst defence in the top half ahead of their trip to SE19. An early goal would settle those defensive jitters, and within three minutes they’d got it. Richarlison, already being touted as the signing of the season, gamboled down the left-flank and outfoxed his marker, turning inside and floating an inviting cross to the far post. The unlikely figure of full-back Daryl Janmaat popped up in the area to nod the ball home and give Palace another uphill struggle. Fosu-Mensah struggled with Richarlison throughout the first half, and the Brazilian managed to find himself a yard of space at the byline to fizz a cross past Julian Speroni’s goal – despite completely missing the ball Scott Dann’s presence was enough to put Troy Deeney off, and the Watford striker poked his shot wide. Hodgson’s side were subdued in the first-half, but had half a claim for a penalty when Luka Milivojevic’s free-kick hit an arm in the Watford wall, but Lee Mason wasn’t interested.
Richarlison continued to prove himself a menace in the second half and should have wrapped up the game when a crossfield ball found him bearing down on Speroni’s goal, but the Argentine ‘keeper rushed out to block the shot. In the final five minutes, the game took a dramatic turn. First, Tom Cleverley was sent off for a second yellow after chopping down Jeffrey Schlupp, and two minutes later Wilfred Zaha found space on the edge of the area to take a shot which was parried by Heurleho Gomes straight to Bakary Sako, the substitute could only hit the ball straight back at the Watford ‘keeper, but extraordinarily the shot rebounded off Gomes’ legs, onto Sako’s, and into the net. It looked as though Palace’s habit of salvaging a late point would continue, but worse was to follow for Silva and Watford as, in the second minute of stoppage time, Zaha got to the byline, pulled the ball back into the penalty area, and James McArthur was on hand to poke a shot into the far corner and seal the win. Regardless of his detractors, Hodgson has certainly improved team spirit and morale at Palace, and on this form it seems unlikely they’ll be struggling towards the bottom come the end of the season. For Watford, another late collapse and a timely reminder that Richarlison won’t be able to do it all himself this season.
Elsewhere on Tuesday night, Huddersfield Town hosted Chelsea looking for another big scalp at the John Smith following their win over Manchester United earlier in the season. The chances of that looked slim as Conte’s side poured forward early on, and Pedro was denied an opening goal by a late offside flag. It didn’t take long for the visitors to get on the scoresheet however, as Willian danced his way through the Terriers defence and slid the ball into the path of Tiemoue Bakayoko, and the French enforcer dinked a chip over Jonas Lossl to give Chelsea the lead. Willian was proving difficult to subdue as he laid two more glorious chances on a plate – first N’Golo Kante blasted over from the edge of the area, then Bakayoko could only direct his header wide of the far post. The Brazilian then decided that if you want a job doing properly, do it yourself and, despite his massive afro, he managed to ghost into the Town penalty area and get on the end of Marcos Alonso’s cross to extend the visitors lead.
Any notion of a comeback from David Wagner’s side was extinguished five minutes after half-time – Willian again involved, nudging the ball back to Pedro on the edge of the area for the Spaniard to rifle into the top corner. Hudderfield’s first real chance came shortly after, but Thibaut Courtois was quick off his line to snuff out the danger posed by Tom Ince, and the visitors then proceeded to waste a series of chances to kill the game dead. In stoppage time the John Smith faithful finally had something to cheer when Laurent Depoitre powered a header past Courtois for a Terriers consolation. The other game on Tuesday saw Ashley Barnes score a late winner for Burnley at home to Stoke – Sean Dyche’s team going fourth for twenty-four hours at least, almost unthinkable at the start of the season.
Much of the action on Wednesday night surrounded the teams in the top six and their struggling counterparts – David Moyes continued his mini-revival at West Ham by earning a point in a stalemate with Arsenal. Liverpool were also held to a surprise goalless draw by West Bromwich Albion – that’s two points and no goals from three games in the Alan Pardew era for the Baggies. Manchester United edged a win over Bournemouth thanks to what felt like a rare Romelu Lukaku goal, while Tottenham ran out comfortable 2-0 winners at home to Brighton. The Allardyce effect at Everton secured a second win since the disgraced former England manager took over – Wayne Rooney scoring the only goal of the game against a desperate Newcastle.
One game that lurked on the fixture schedule unfancied and unnoticed was Claude Puel’s return to St Mary’s with his Leicester City side taking on Southampton. The Frenchman was unceremoniously booted from the Saints dugout at the end of last season after taking them to eighth in the league and to the League Cup final. His successor, Mauricio Pellegrino, is starting to find his feet but hasn’t quite managed the consistency Puel, Koeman and Pochettino managed before him. For Puel, four wins and two draws in seven games is a superb return, lifting the Foxes from lower mid-table to join the chasing pack outside the top six. The visitors made a confident start, and in the eleventh minute Riyad Mahrez was given space to roam towards the Southampton penalty area, take aim and fire a shot into the bottom corner of Fraser Forster’s goal. Southampton looked shellshocked, and a molehill became a mountain twenty minutes later as Harry Maguire’s blast from the edge of the area bounced off Forster and fell to Shinji Okazaki to double Leicester’s advantage. Six minutes later, and it may as well have been game over. Marc Albrighton was given space to get to the byline and his dragged ball across the area found Andy King three yards out and totally unmarked to tap in. The main criticism of Puel from Saints fans was that his football was too conservative. At half-time they were invited to eschew the traditional pie and eat their words instead.
Saints did mount something of a fightback in the second half, and Maya Yoshida’s towering header from a corner pulled one back for Pellegrino’s team. They could have had a second, as Charlie Austin met a left-wing cross from close range, but Kasper Schmeichel smothered the ball to maintain Leicester’s cushion. With Southampton pouring forward and looking for a way back into the game they were always susceptible to the counter, and a long ball found Albrighton scampering up the flank. His cross was met by an unmarked Okazaki, who claimed his second of the game. This defensive display from Southampton was surely a blip, or rather said more about the incisiveness that Puel has introduced at Leicester since his arrival – how the Saints would like some of that now.
Finally, the Premier League Champions in waiting headed to Swansea City who, though buoyed by Saturday’s victory over West Brom, wouldn’t have been expecting to receive too much from a side that have only dropped two points so far this season. Manchester City, having been introduced to Cleopatra’s beauty regime by Jose Mourinho on Sunday, headed to South Wales with Sergio Aguero recalled to a rotated team. It was the Argentinan striker that had the visitors first chance, wriggling his way into the Swansea area, but he could only direct his shot into the side netting. Lukas Fabianski then had to be at his best to deny Fernandinho after the Brazilian had struck a low volley towards the bottom corner, only to see the Swans stopper divert it away. Despite these chances, the home side were acquitting themselves well, and even had an opportunity to open the scoring when Tammy Abraham was given a sight of goal, but the youngster could only roll a daisy cutter into the grateful arms of Ederson. Finally the deadlock was broken just before the hour mark, and once again it was David Silva on the end of Bernardo Silva’s cross. The Spaniard drifted into the penalty area and produced his third unorthodox finish in as many games, stabbing the ball in with the outside of his left foot. From then on it looked as though the floodgates would open, and Kevin De Bruyne added a second as his freekick missed everyone and glanced into the far post – the run of Aguero outfoxing Fabianski and the Swans defence.
On another night Pep Guardiola’s side may have run rampant over their benevolent hosts, but with a clash against Tottenham on the horizon the travelling fans had to make do with two further second half goals. Silva claimed his second of the game after a delicious one-two with Raheem Sterling left the Spaniard one-on-one with Fabianski, and the midfield general dinked the ball home. Aguero finally claimed his obligatory goal with five minutes to go with a trademark finish – powering his way into the box and then hitting a pinpoint strike into the far corner. With the league title looking sewn up, the real question now must be – can ANYONE in the Premier League beat this team? It remains to be seen.