‘Twas the night before Christmas, in the Premier League; Man City had built an unassailable lead; Pep has assembled his team with care; Adding defensive solidity to attacking flair; The Cityzens were nestled all snug in their beds; While visions of quadruples danced in their heads. Antonio in his syrup, and Jose’s long face; Had just settled their brains for second and third place; When out on the pitch Burnley caused such a clatter: The greatest surprise since the fall of Sepp Blatter; Away to the champions they flew like a flash; Tore open the Toffees and disposed of the Mags. The stars on the crest of a new team in town; Gave the bluster of mid-day to Huddersfield’s crown; When, what to our wondering eyes should arrive; But managerial changes, and six P45s; With little Claude Puel, so lively and quick; His appointment made hairy-hands Keys feel quite sick; Roy Hodgson’s Eagles recovered from shame; Big Sam on the touchline, his subs change the game: “Now! Wazza, now! Gylfi, now! Idrissa Gueye, “On! Klaasen, on! Morgan, on! Baningime; “Hit it long up the pitch, Put it over the wall! “Now dash away! To the corner! Just keep the ball!” While at Wembley they watch the HurriKane score; When they meet with an obstacle they usually draw; So up to the Arsenal, a top four spot awaits; With the side full of talent —and a few more dead weights; And then in a twinkling, we heard on the Kop; The prancing and pawing of a side coached by Klopp. As they drew at the Emirates, and were Liverpool bound; Down the league came Stoke City with a bound: They were dress’d up like Barça, all talent and verve; but their perm-haired Welsh manager could not keep his nerve; A bundle of teams sat low in the pack; Swansea rock bottom gave Clement the sack; His eyes—how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry; His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry; His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow; But his signings were bobbins so he had to go; The stump of a strike force struggling in the North East; Had Rafa Benitez fuming at least; He had a broad face, and a little round belly; That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly: He was chubby and plump, a right Spanish waiter; And he hoped the takeover was sooner than later; Chris Hughton’s Brighton had stolen his thunder; A hiding from Watford increased the pressure he’s under; Silva spoke not a word, but went straight to his work; Making Paul Merson look like a jerk; And laying his finger aside of his nose; And giving a nod, up the table he rose. He sprung on the counter, to his team gave instructions: ‘RICHARLISON’S OUR WEAPON OF ATTACKING DESTRUCTION’; Then Alan Pardew exclaimed, as he set West Brom alight — ‘Happy Christmas to all, this new team I’ve got’s shite!’
The pre-Christmas round of Premier League fixtures kicked off on Friday night with what promised to be a ding-dong of a game. In their last four meetings Arsenal and Liverpool had shared eighteen goals, and both sides headed into this one in decent form. Jack Wilshere retained his place in the hosts midfield, while the sight of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane all lining up for Liverpool will have filled Arsenal’s backline with dread, particularly considering the four goal gubbing they received at Anfield earlier in the season. Indeed it was the visitors that flew out of the traps, creating a handful of chances in the first twenty minutes. Coutinho flashed a shot wide, Salah then met Coutinho’s far post cross with a header that glanced in front of Petr Cech and drifted agonisingly wide. Firmino was the next to try his luck, connecting with another far post cross from Coutinho only to see his downwards header tipped away by Cech. Finally, in the 26th minute, the deadlock was broken. Salah cut inside from the right wing and his attempted ball into the box bobbled out of Cech’s reach and was met by the leaping Coutinho, allowing the Brazilian to nod the ball over Arsenal’s prostrate ‘keeper to give Jurgen Klopp’s side the lead. Liverpool’s forays forward didn’t abate, and there were further chances to add to their tally before half time. Firmino’s curling shot from the edge of the area looked to have creeped it, but ricocheted off the stantion behind the goal, and when Salah and Mane broke forwards after a mistake in the Arsenal midfield it looked for all the world that a second goal would follow. In the event Salah’s shot was saved and as the ball dropped Mane could only bicycle kick the rebound over.
The second half continued in a similar vein, and it was the visitors looking the more enterprising side in the opening stages. Just seven minutes after the restart, Salah received the ball in the Arsenal half, jinked his was past two defenders and lifted a shot towards goal. Shkodran Mustafi stuck his leg out but could only deflect the ball past the dive of Cech, and Liverpool seemingly had the three points wrapped up. For sixty seconds at least. With Arsenal’s first meaningful attack, Mesut Ozil lifted a ball into the area and Alexis Sanchez rushed in to nod the ball home and bring the hosts back into the match. Liverpool looked visibly rocked, and three minutes later the game was all square. Granit Xhaka picked the ball up thirty yards out and, with little to aim at ahead of him, let fly with a rocket of a shot. Despite the power, Simon Mignolet should arguably have done better than to flap the ball into his own goal, but credit to Xhaka for spotting Liverpool’s weakness and efficiently exploiting it. Suddenly, the visitors swagger and confidence of the first fifty minutes had disappeared, and the Gunners smelled blood. The incredible six minute comeback was completed when Mesut Ozil – recently displaying the kind of form that will have Jose Mourinho purring – drove towards the Liverpool area, exchanged a slick one-two with Alexandre Lacazette, and slipped the return under Mignolet to give Arsenal an incredible lead. With half an hour to go it seemed unlikely that the scoring was complete, and after grabbing a foothold back into the game following their second half meltdown, Klopp’s side evened things up with twenty minutes to go. Another exquisite pass from Coutinho found Firmino lurking on the edge of the box, and the Brazilian smashed a shot at goal that Cech could only wave a weak palm at to allow the ball to bounce over the line. Perhaps the worst attempt at saving a Liverpool striker’s shot since that ginger lad on Michael Owen’s Soccer Skills. The game finished all square, providing an absorbing reminder of how ludicrous and scintillating the Premier League can be.
But if the Friday night game was the equivalent to excitement on Christmas Eve, the Saturday lunchtime kick-off was the day after Boxing Day. The last turkey in the shop, Sam Allardyce, welcomed Chelsea to Goodison Park looking to extend his unbeaten start as Everton boss to five games. Chelsea meanwhile were looking for only their third win in five years on the blue half of Merseyside to keep the pressure on Manchester United in second place. Alvaro Morata and Wayne Rooney were both absent through suspension, so Eden Hazard started as a false nine for the visitors, while youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin took his place as the spearhead in a 4-3-2-1 formation for Allardyce’s side. In a drab game low on excitement it was Chelsea that came closest to breaking the deadlock when Tiemoue Bakayoko saw his shot cleared off the line by Phil Jagielka. Pedro then stung the palms of Jordan Pickford, letting fly from the angle, but with the Toffees playing compact and looking to contain their visitors it looked like something special would be needed to separate the two sides. Pickford was equal to Hazard’s low shot in the second half, and it looked as if the defining moment of the match had arrived when the Belgian’s cross glanced off the head of Ashley Williams, only to bounce off the underside of the bar and away from danger. Another good point for Everton as they adjust to life under the gravy walrus, recording their fourth clean sheet in five games.
With Sky failing to win their war against football fans and losing out on televised fixtures on Christmas Eve there was a bumper 3pm programme, with twelve teams in action. A double from Sergio Aguero helped Manchester City to a routine 4-0 victory at home to Bournemouth, while Brighton edged out Watford at the Amex and Alan Pardew’s reign at West Brom continued to stutter with a 3-1 defeat at Stoke. Southampton and Huddersfield, and Swansea and Crystal Palace all shared the spoils in score draws.
The standout fixture of the afternoon saw the rejuvenated West Ham welcome a Newcastle side in complete disarray. The Magpies had gone nine games without a win coming into this game, while the Hammers were in buoyant mood following wins over Stoke and Chelsea in recent weeks. With Jonjo Shelvey missing through suspension, and Mikel Merino and Isaac Hayden both suffering from knocks, Rafael Benitez was forced to bring forgotten man Henri Saivet into the fold – the Senegalese hadn’t started a Premier League game since Benitez was appointed. Unsurprisingly, Saivet was in the thick of the action early on. His lethargic pass was intercepted by Marko Arnautovic, and the in-form Austrian sprinted towards go and drove the ball home to give the Hammers a sixth minute lead. Remarkably, four minutes later, Newcastle were awarded a free-kick twenty yards from goal, and Saivet stepped up to hit a curling, dipping shot past Adrian and into the bottom corner to level the scores. Suddenly the early jitters in the black and white ranks looked to disappear, and Newcastle poured forward looking for a second. First Dwight Gayle saw his shot hit the right hand post, before an onrushing Matt Ritchie launched a shot at goal, only to see his effort come back out on the left-hand post. Another chance for Gayle went begging as his strike flew over, and with the visitors in complete control half-time was a welcome arrival for David Moyes’ side.
Rather than cede their momentum, however, Newcastle returned from the break straight back onto the front foot, and eight minutes into the second half Christian Atsu scampered down the left wing, popped the ball inside his marker and laid on an inch perfect square ball for the much maligned Mo Diame to sidefoot home. While the lanky midfielder could have been forgiven for going apeshit given the recent criticism of his performances, his respect for the fans of his former club led to a muted celebration. Almost from the kick-off, Newcastle shot themselves in the foot. Michal Antonio surged towards the penalty area and Ciaran Clark’s mistimed challenge led to a penalty award. The replay showed that the tackle was committed outside the area, but Andre Ayew was given the opportunity to restore parity almost immediately. The Ghanaian was clearly full of Christmas spirit as he telegraphed a weak effort at a perfect height for Rob Elliott in the Newcastle goal, and the Ireland ‘keeper palmed the penalty away. That setback spurred West Ham to up their attacking efforts and, just past the hour, found themselves caught on the break. Gayle’s ball from deep found Atsu streaming through on goal, but with Hammers’ defenders retreating in numbers, the winger played a quick one-two with Joselu and slid the ball under the on-rushing Adrian to give Newcastle a two-goal cushion. Moyes’ side were still not done, and with Andy Carroll thrown on in place of Antonio, the onslaught on Newcastle’s defence continued. With twenty minutes remaining, the hosts finally found their way through. Carroll met Aaron Cresswell’s corner with a towering header, and Elliott could only palm the ball into the path of Ayew, who thrashed his shot into the roof of the next to set-up a grandstand finish. Despite the contested six minutes of stoppage time, Moyes’ side were unable to find a way through and Newcastle finally recorded their first Premier League win since October. With Manchester City coming up next, the Toon Army might not want to get used to the winning feeling just yet.
The dinner-time kick off gave Sean Dyche another chance to test his credentials against one of the top six as Tottenham Hotspur made their way to Turf Moor. A late Chris Wood goal had earned Burnley a draw at Wembley back in August, and at the start of play the Clarets found themselves sitting a point ahead of their opponents in the table. For Tottenham, striker Harry Kane was looking to match Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year, which has suddenly become a record, sitting on 33 ahead of this one. It was his England teammate Dele Alli involved in the first flashpoint of the match – a reckless lunge on Burnley full-back Charlie Taylor earning the midfielder a yellow card, when the home faithful may have expected more. Alli was at the forefront of the match a few minutes later as Kevin Long stuck out a leg and the Spurs man went over to earn a penalty. Kane duly stepped up and smashed the ball home to give the visitors the lead. One down, two to go. The Tottenham marksman should probably have grabbed a second when he found space in the Burnley area but could only skew his shot wide. Burnley’s usually reliable defence then took an absence of leave as Spurs broke quickly from a corner, and as Moussa Sissoko bore down on Nick Pope a second goal looked inevitable. The dynamic midfielder could only shoot straight at the Burnley custodian however, and Pope was equal to Sissoko’s second effort from the rebound.
Dyche’s team spent much of the match looking even blunter up front than usual, and in the second half Tottenham looked like the only side that would add to the score. Hueng-Min Son should’ve added his name to the scoresheet when Serge Aurier surged into the area and pulled the ball back, but the Korean could only blast over. Spurs were soon rewarded for their dominance however, as Sissoko’s lofted ball forwards fell straight into the path of Kane, who duly rifled the ball in for his and Tottenham’s second of the game. Two down, one to go. The wait for the third was only ten minutes, as some slick interplay on the edge of the home penalty area saw the ball laid off to Kane who gleefully completed his hat-trick and drew level with Alan Shearer’s calendar goals tally. Burnley outplayed and outclassed, but no one result can detract from the excellent season they’ve had so far.
And finally – a bonus game at 7.45pm on Saturday evening, with broadcasters hoping to carve out a new TV slot ahead of next season and the perfect opportunity to pilot it. Leicester City, recovering from a difficult week in which they were soundly beaten at home by Crystal Palace, and then exited the League Cup on penalties, hosted a Manchester United side licking their wounds for their own cup defeat – a shock loss at Bristol City ending Jose Mourinho’s interest in Thai energy drinks for this season at least. Paul Pogba returned to the side after serving a three game suspension, while Victor Lindelof replaced the injured Antonio Valencia at right-back. It was the man in front of him in the thick of the action early on – Jesse Lingard’s long ranger testing Kasper Schmeichel. Looking to kill the game off early, Manchester United poured forward, but when Harry Maguire cut out Nemanja Matic’s pass, Leicester were able to quickly counter. Daniel Amartey launched a long quarterback ball towards Riyad Mahrez, and the Algerian playmaker patiently waited before slipping Jamie Vardy in to tuck the ball past David De Gea. Undeterred, United poured forward once again, and when Anthony Martial’s cross was touched back by Lingard, Juan Mata was on hand to deliver a clever, stunted finish to deceive Schmeichel and level the scores.
After withstanding the majority of pressure in the first half, Leicester came out swinging in the second, and could have stolen the lead when Mahrez dashed down the right flank, taking three defenders with him, and found an unmarked Vincente Iborra in the penalty area, but the Spanish anchorman could only shoot straight at his compatriot in the United goal. From the rebound, the Reds poured forward, but Martial could only blaze his chance over after Mata played him in. A free-kick just to the right of the D gave the visitors another chance to take aim at Schmeichel’s goal, and Mata needed no encouragement to dink a shot into the top right corner and re-establish the lead for Mourinho’s team. Leicester responded by pouring forwards, but inevitably left space at the back for their visitors to exploit – Lingard inexplicably hitting the post after rounding Schmeichel. Still the hosts attacked, and with the midfield becoming stretched Daniel Amartey recieved two yellow cards in quick succession to become the second Leicester holding midfielder dismissed in as many games. Marcus Rashford then had a chance to make the points safe as he raced through on goal, but Schmeichel was again quick off his line and managed to bounced the ball off the striker for a goal kick. With seconds ticking away, Leicester threw everything forwards, and in the fifth minute of stoppage time Marc Albrighton’s cross evaded everyone but Harry Maguire, who managed to poke the ball in with an outstretched foot to earn a point for the hosts. Mourinho was understandably livid post-match, but Leicester must be commended for their spirit to come back in the face of adversity.
The Christmas carnage has begun, and dropped points for Manchester United and Chelsea mean that Manchester City hold a 13 point lead at the top of the table on Christmas Day – the largest in the Premier League era. Newcastle scrabbled their way out of the bottom three following an excellent win at West Ham, while Bournemouth drop in. So go ahead, enjoy your turkey and your presents and your pagan festival, because you’ve only got two sleeps til we do it all over again.