Eighteenth With A Bullet. Premier League Week 18 Review.

It’s Christmas Party season and offices across the country will spend the weeks leading up to Christmas festooned with booze-induced shame, from dancing on tables in front of your boss and vomiting all over the receptionist to giving yourself ‘blackface’ to imitate a basketball player. If you think that last example only applies to Antoine Griezmann then you’re massively underestimating the ignorance of the human race. It transpired this weekend that a surprising amount of people, including journalist Paddy Barclay, can’t understand why painting your skin a different colour to create a ‘costume’ of another race isn’t on. Remarkably Griezmann’s Harlem Globetrotters outfit was the second notable case of fancy-dress-gone-wrong this weekend after a fan at the World Darts Championships turned up dressed as Labour MP Diane Abbott – complete with blackface – and a betting company tweeted the picture out. Great banter lads. The war of words then raged on, as lots of people with Union and St Georges Flags in their social media avatars demanded to know what was racist about it and, to a man, referenced the film ‘White Chicks’, seemingly the only occasion ever that someone has applied white face. As it happens that film was godawful, but these Anti-Social Justice Warrior were clinging to the idea that the ‘loony left’ think its fine for black people to white up and not the other way around. From six yards out, they’ve blazed it over the point. “What is he supposed to do if he has to dress as Diane Abbott?” people actually asked. No-one has to dress as Diane Abbott. Forced banter is not yet a thing, though it is a serious threat lurking in the darkness of our future. Griezmann could have attended the party in a Harlem Globetrotters kit and an afro wig. No-one is going to turn round to him and say ‘I have no idea who or what you’re supposed to be’. Sadly it’s a sign of the times that something which hasn’t been a major talking point since the 1970s is rearing its head again. Next thing you know you’ll have someone urinating in your pocket on the terraces again.

From racism to xenophobia as Claude Puel, victim of some astoundingly dismissive comments from British pundits after being given the Leicester City job, headed into the Saturday lunchtime kick-off looking to extend the Foxes winning streak to five on the bounce. Living well is the best revenge. The pre-match stats looked promising – visitors Crystal Palace were yet to register a league goal away from home, and striker Christian Benteke was on a scoreless run of 13 games. Despite those promising early signs, it was the visitors who made all the forward running in the opening stages – Jeff Schlupp looking to put one over on his former club, on to shoot wide after finding space in the area. Roy Hodgson’s side finally made the breakthrough after nineteen minutes – Benteke nodding in from Andros Townsend’s cross and ending a double hoodoo in the process. Leicester looked to hit back immediately, and Benteke almost doubled his tally for the afternoon, glancing a header narrowly past his own goalkeeper’s post from Marc Albrighton’s cross. Palace’s front three of Benteke, Townsend and Wilfred Zaha all looked threatening going forward, and Zaha almost doubled the lead after wriggling his way into the penalty area, only to hit a weak shot straight at Kasper Schmeichel. Five minutes before half-time, however, the Ivory Coast winger was not to be denied, latching on to Benteke’s pass and shifting the ball around Ben Chilwell before thumping the ball into the bottom corner to put the Eagles well in control.

benteke

Leicester looked to come out of their shell in the second half, and Riyad Mahrez brought a fine save from Julian Speroni with a shot from twenty yards. It then looked as though the hosts had found a way back into the game when Vincent Iborra headed Albrighton’s free-kick in, but referee Martin Atkinson spotted a shove from the Spaniard, and the goal was ruled out. Sixty seconds later, Leicester were down to ten men. Birthday boy Wilfred Ndidi, already harshly booked for a mistimed challenge earlier on, received a second yellow for a dreadful dive in the Palace area. Scott Dann was quick to encourage Atkinson to send Ndidi off, which is a bit of a shithouse move, particularly on the poor lad’s birthday. The man advantage began to tell and Palace should have been awarded a penalty of their own when Albrighton went through the back of Benteke – on first viewing it looked like an incredible tackle, but the replay showed the Leicester winger get nowhere near the ball. Still Hodgson’s side poured forward looking to kill the game, and were it not for a fine save by Schmeichel, Benteke would have notched his second of the afternoon from Townsend’s far post cross. The Leicester ‘keeper displaying echoes of his Father’s prowess as he launched himself towards the ball in a star shape and diverted it behind. The visitors finally got a deserved third in stoppage time, breaking two-on-one in the Leicester half, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s calm pass rolled invitingly for Bakary Sako to welly it top bins and seal a wonderful result for Palace. The win took them well out of the bottom three, and with a revitalised Roy Hodgson at the helm, the only way is up. Outside of the top six there aren’t many teams playing more exciting attacking football than the South Londoners. There’s life in the old dog yet.

Watford’s 3pm kick off at home to Huddersfield gave the Hornets the opportunity to record a much needed win, having lost three and drawn one of their last four. The visitors were looking for their first win (and first goal) away from home since the opening day victory at Selhurst Park. It was the Terriers that started brightest at Vicarage Road, and got themselves a deserved (but extremely fortunate) lead in the sixth minute. With the box still crowded following a corner, Collin Quaner received the ball in an offside position and smashed a shot at goal which Elias Kachunga then tapped in from an offside position. No flag, first blood Huddersfield. From the off Watford were clearly struggling to contain David Wagner’s side, and they’d soon scored a second when Quaner’s cross was bundled home by Aaron Mooy. An uphill struggle for Marco Silva became mountainous when Troy Deeney dived into a tackle on Quaner and received his marching orders, though on reflection a red card was harsh. Deeney’s insistence in throwing his significant weight around unfortunately coming back to bite him.

Five minutes into the second half, with Watford floundering, Huddersfield wrapped up the points. A tussle between Quaner and Jose Holebas led to both being floored, but as the Watford defender insisted on holding his face, Laurent Depoitre latched onto the loose ball and rifled it past Gomes for 3-0. A tiny glimmer of hope emerged for the home side on the hour, when Jonathan Hogg received a second yellow for an accidental clash. Roberto Pereyra then tested Jonas Lossl in the Terriers goal for the first time with a curling shot from the edge of the box that the Dane beat away. Watford’s increased pressure finally told as a free-kick from the left bounced around the area and fell to Abdoulaye Doucoure to smash a volley into the bottom corner. Despite there being twenty minutes left to play, Watford were unable to ask their visitors serious questions and when Doucoure took a heavy touch in his own penalty area and tripped the pouncing Depoitre, Mooy was more than happy to bury the resultant spot kick and give Wagner’s side an impressive victory. With 21 points already on the board, the Terriers are halfway to safety – surely only a fool would predict them to go down now?

A floodlight failure at the Bet365 Stadium gave us a rare 4pm kickoff on Saturday, though Mark Hughes may have wished they’d never come back on. Stoke welcomed a resurgent West Ham to the Potteries having secured just one win in seven and looking for their first clean sheet at home since August. Marko Arnautovic made his first return to Stoke since signing for West Ham in the summer, and was duly given the Potters treatment. The hosts very nearly broke the deadlock in the opening exchanges as Ryan Shawcross hit the post with a header, but from the rebound West Ham surged forward on the counter and Manuel Lanzini was brought down by Erik Pieters. A penalty to the visitors, calmly tucked away by Mark Noble. Arnautovic, clearly urged on by the boos from the home fans, then had two good chances to double the Hammers lead, but saw his first saved by Jack Butland before blazing the second over.

arnautovic

The Austrian’s one man mission continued in the second half, driving one shot wide and hitting the crossbar with another, much to the delight of the Bet365 patrons. Shawcross once again was gifted a free header in the penalty area, but glanced the ball over, and that spelled the end of Stoke’s chances of earning anything from the game. In their next attack, Arnautovic combined well with Lanzini, and the Argentinian’s through ball was met with an incisive finish by the ex-Stoke forward. Rather than refuse to celebrate against his former club, the Austrian saluted his goal with gusto, complete with a ‘Hammers’ arm sign. He then found himself substituted and whilst coming off received an ear-bashing from former boss Hughes. What the beleaguered manager could possibly have taken umbrage with is anyone’s guess, but perhaps he’d be better off getting his own house in order before criticising others. At the moment Mark Hughes looks completely lost, devoid of ideas and in control of a squad desperately lacking identity. These outbursts – a regular feature of his management career – only serve to make him look small and petty. The Premier League would be a richer place without him.  David Moyes’ side weren’t finished at 2-0 however, and Diafra Sakho – who had replaced Arnautovic – backheeled a shot from the edge of the six yard box narrowly wide, which brought more boos from the home supporters. What exactly they were booing is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they’d seen an orphan on the concourse. With Stoke pouring forward in the hope of salvaging something from the game, West Ham broke forward with freedom and Lanzini laid the ball on a plate for Sakho to round off an excellent display. Credit where its due, Moyes has certainly turned things around at Upton Park, but how far he can take this team remains to be seen. After the match, Hughes commented “I don’t intend to be involved in a relegation battle.” If the board at Stoke City have any sense you certainly won’t be, mate.

In the other afternoon matches, Chelsea and Arsenal both secured 1-0 wins against Southampton and Newcastle respectively, while Burnley recorded yet another clean sheet, sharing the spoils with Brighton at the Amex Stadium.

The tastiest looking game of the weekend kicked off on Saturday Evening as Manchester City, all but champions, welcomed Tottenham Hotspur to the Theatre of Crushed Dreams. Pep Guardiola’s side, having already set a new English record for games won in a row, are now looking to close in on the record for Europe’s top five leagues – Bayern Munich currently hold the record with 19, secured under one Pep Guardiola. Tottenham meanwhile have struggled to replicate their form from the previous two seasons, juggling European football with a change of home address has proved taxing for Mauricio Pochettino’s squad, but a chance to take on the form team in Europe would at least give him an idea of how far his side have come in the past two years. It took City only fourteen minutes to stamp their authority on the game, as Ilkay Gundogan was left completely unmarked to head Leroy Sane’s cross past Hugo Lloris. The hosts were then denied a penalty after Danny Rose had appeared to push Eliquiam Mangala at a corner kick, but the one way traffic did not abate. Sergio Aguero was played in one-on-one with Lloris only to see his shot blocked, and Raheem Sterling could only balloon the rebound over the bar. When Spurs finally surged forward with purporse, some quick interplay between Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen gave Harry Kane his first sight of goal, but the striker’s shot curled just wide of Ederson’s far post.

Kane was at the forefront of the action again at the start of the second half, though for less savoury reasons as his rash tackle on Sterling had the home support calling for a red card. As is the norm, the striker was treated with leniency by Craig Pawson and received only a yellow. Slowly but surely the game started to open up, and the visitors experienced a little more joy in the attacking third. Kane once again took aim from distance, but saw his shot saved, before Lloris tipped away Sane’s shot from the edge of the area and once again Sterling hit the rebound over the top. As Spurs poured forward gaps opened up at the back, and City were more than happy to exploit them on the counter. Gundogan found Kevin De Bruyne racing down the left hand side, and the Belgian steadied himself before hitting a rasping shot through Lloris to double the hosts’ advantage. Tottenham’s incompetence turned to frustration, and Alli was lucky to escape with a caution after a late, studs up tackle on De Bruyne. Jan Vertonghen then dropped a clanger diving in on the City playmaker as he ambled into the area to give substitute Gabriel Jesus a chance to add his name to the scoresheet. The Brazilian, who looks to be lacking a little confidence, could only smash against the post and despite reaching the follow up Sterling, for the third time in the game, shot over with the goal gaping. The young winger didn’t have to wait much longer to get his goal, as another defence splitting pass from Gundogan found Sane racing towards the byline, and his low driven cross was touched in at the backpost by Sterling. Suddenly the game tipped from dominance to outright humiliation, with many of Spurs more reliable players suffering off-days – Dembele spent most of the afternoon chasing shadows, and Dier’s miserable day was compounded when Bernardo Silva’s long ball sailed over his head for Sterling to nutmeg Lloris and walk the ball into an empty net. The one bright spot of the day for the visitors came with the last kick of the game, as Eriksen rasped a low shot from outside the area past Ederson, but it was scant consolation for a side that are now facing a serious fight to retain their place in the top four. This defeat left them seventh.

city

Another two of the sides vying for one of those top four places played on Sunday, with Manchester United travelling to West Bromwich Albion before Bournemouth played host to Liverpool. The Baggies were still looking for their first goal under new manager Alan Pardew and their first win since August. Jose Mourinho, having finally managed to get the smell of sour milk out of his jacket, if not his facial expression, was hoping for a straightforward afternoon to keep third-placed Chelsea at bay. A scrappy opening quarter with few chances perfectly outlined why United are floundering in their title challenge this season, seemingly lacking the talent to take a game by the scruff of the neck, but once Romelu Lukaku had nodded Ashley Young’s cross beyond Ben Foster it looked to be plain sailing for Mourinho’s side.  That goal looked to knock the Baggies confidence, and United looked likely to score every time they came forward – Jesse Lingard finally did as Ahmed Hegazi diverted his shot past Foster to double the visitors lead. Pardew’s goalshy side did eventually trouble David De Gea in the Manchester United goal with Jake Livermore’s shot from distance, but it lacked the requisite pace to give the Spaniard custodian too much to worry about.

The second half started much like the first, with United losing the momentum a two-goal cushion had afforded them and struggling to string together anything approaching a dangerous attack. West Brom on the other hand looked far more threatening and Pardew finally had a goal to celebrate when Chris Brunt’s corner was stabbed home by Gareth Barry. It looked for all the world that the Baggies had pulled off a surprising comeback as another corner from Brunt bounced in front of the goal line, but De Gea was able to snatch the ball to safety as Barry and Johnny Evans hovered menacingly. Mourinho’s side managed to cling on as the game descended into a bitty contest in the middle of the park, and ultimately the Portuguese will be content with grinding out a win against a team scrapping for their lives.

Liverpool may still be haunted by their last visit to the Vitality Stadium. A stoppage time goal from Nathan Ake sealed an incredible 4-3 victory for Bournemouth last season, despite Liverpool leading 2-0 and 3-1. This time round Eddie Howe’s side are struggling and looking low on confidence while Jurgen Klopp has moulded one of the most exciting forward lines in Europe, though the Reds’ defence always looks suspect. It took just twenty minutes for one of Klopp’s ‘Fab Four’ to get on the scoresheet – Philippe Coutinho waltzing around the Bournemouth defence before driving a low shot past Asmir Begovic. The game looked to be following last season’s narrative as a two goal lead was quickly secured, though it looked as though the ball had gone out of play before Roberto Firmino hooked it back into the area for Dejan Lovren to launch into a diving header for Liverpool’s second. As the old saying goes ‘you’ll always get a chance against Liverpool, particularly if Ragnar Klavan is playing’, and so it transpired, as Jermain Defoe raced clear of the visitors’ backline before smashing his shot against the inside of the post. Having continued his run, it begs the question why did he not follow it up? But then it’s easy to question an England international when your entire experience of competitive football is a five minute cameo in a Primary Schools six-a-side game when you were ten. For the record, I conceded two penalties.  That chance proved to be Bournemouth’s last to halve the deficit, as Mo Salah waltzed his way into the penalty area, turning Charlie Daniels inside out before tucking the ball into the far corner.

salah

Klopp’s side continued to pour forward in the second half, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain breaking clear into the area and powering a shot on the angle onto the post. Defoe was presented with his second opportunity of the afternoon but could only shoot straight at Simon Mignolet, and Firmino added a final flourish for the Reds, heading Coutinho’s chipped ball past Begovic to put the gloss on an emphatic attacking performance. It’s afternoons like these that make Liverpool look a serious prospect for finishing in the top four, if only they can cut out the kind of hammerings received at Manchester City and Tottenham earlier in the season they might establish themselves as serious challengers to Chelsea and Manchester United.

The final game of the weekend saw the return of Monday Night Football, as Everton took on Swansea City on a misty Merseyside evening. The Swans found themselves bottom of the league ahead of kick-off, having endured a miserable first half of the season, while the appointment of Sam Allardyce has quickly transformed the Toffees from relegation battlers to top seven candidates in little over a fortnight. Given their struggles in front of goal so far this term it would have been encouraging for Swansea’s supporters to see their side looking adventurous going forwards in the early stages of the match – Jordan Ayew registering the first shot on goal, but bringing a comfortable save from Jordan Pickford. Lukas Fabianski was soon having his gloves warmed up at the other end, as Dominic Calvert-Lewin hit one from distance, but straight at the Swans ‘keeper. Tom Carroll almost gave the visitors the lead with a free-kick struck from thirty yards that almost creeped into the bottom corner, but again Pickford was equal to it. The travelling Jacks didn’t have to wait much longer to celebrate, however, as a corner dropped to Leroy Fer six yards out, and the Dutchman prodded the ball in to give Swansea a surprise lead. The end-to-end nature was always likely to play into the hands of the hosts, and in first half stoppage time Aaron Lennon surged into the penalty area only to have his heels clipped by Roque Mesa. Wayne Rooney stepped up to take the kick, but saw Fabianski push his low shot onto the post, before Calvert-Lewin pounced on the rebound to tuck home and equalise.

rooney

Everton came out with more purpose in the second half, and Gylfi Sigurddson in particular looked keen to score against his old club. His first sight of goal, five minutes after half time, brought a good save from his former teammate Fabianski, but fifteen minutes later the Polish stopper had no answer to Sigurdsson’s 25 yard blockbuster. With the Toffees in the ascendency, the game only looked to be heading one way and, as the adage goes, when you’re down at the bottom your luck is out – Martin Olsson’s challenge on Jonjoe Kenny gifting Everton a second penalty despite the contact taking place outside the box. This time Rooney made no mistake, hitting his penalty high into the net to secure the three points for Allardyce’s side. That’s ten points from a possible twelve since Big Sam arrived, and three goals for Rooney to go with his hat-trick against West Ham. The former England captain now has ten for the season – rumours of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

We’re now heading into the hectic Christmas period, with some sides facing the prospect of four games in ten days. With 12 points up for grabs it’s a crucial period for those sides hoping to lift themselves away from the bottom three or mount a serious challenge for the top four. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

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