When you’re fed up of rolling the same bit of dry old turkey around your gums for the third day in a row, when your blood gravy content is 0.5, when you’ve got trifle coming out of your ears, when you’ve had quite enough trying to explain to your parents that demonising the poor is stupid and wrong, when you have a touch too much brandy and you call your Granddad a tosser, when you end up scrapping with your brother in a heap on the floor because you’re convinced he’s been swiping money from the bank in Monopoly and you then realise you’re both in your thirties, there can be nothing better than the welcome return of football. Boxing day football is one of those quintessentially British things. You’ve spent a whole day with your family, now its time to get out of the house and shout obscenities at people younger, richer, and in a hundred times better physical shape than you are since you worked your way though that tub of Quality Street on Christmas Eve. You fat pig. You make me sick.
There was a strange feeling around the opening fixture of the Boxing Day schedule, as Southampton were given the honour of providing the opposition for Sir Harry of Kaneshire to complete his feat of scoring a record number of goals in the calendar year during the Premier League period. This record, established at the beginning of December, has a long and rich history and Kane was looking to score the one goal that would push him ahead of *checks Wikipedia* Alan Shearer. Mauricio Pellegrino, clearly a big Martin Tyler fan, was desperate to give his commentary hero the iconic moment he craved, and encouraged his defence to act like an introvert on Christmas Day. It didn’t take long an opportunity to fall to Kane, as Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen combined and the Dane’s low cross was poked wide by the Spurs striker. Eric Dier, who clearly hadn’t read the script, then had the audacity to score a goal of his own as he took aim from outside the penalty area, but Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal was equal to the shot. The Wembley crowd didn’t have much longer to wait for the deadlock to be broken, and when Eriksen floated a free-kick in from the left-hand side of the area, Kane was left free to nod into an empty net from two yards out and write his name into a very thin history book. At that point everyone may as well have gone home, since the only thing they all came for had been achieved. As it was, the Saints defence continued to have the afternoon off, and Tottenham continued to pour forwards. Five minutes before half time, Kane had his second. Another slick passing move on the edge of the box between Eriksen and Alli allowed the former MK Dons man to find Heung-Min Son bursting into the area, and the Korean’s ball across the six yard box was tapped home by Kane.
Southampton came out in the second half looking to test Hugo Lloris, and Mario Lemina let fly from long range, only to see his shot cannon off the crossbar. Shane Long then finally got a touch of the ball, racing clear of the Tottenham backline, but shooting straight at Lloris. With those two chances spurned, Spurs then looked to seal the three points, and when Alli found space on the edge of the area and hit a curling daisy cutter into the bottom corner it looked as though the job was done. That third goal sapped any remaining belief in the Saints backline, and they looked in disarray two minutes later as Alli slipped a ball to Son, and the Korean hit a lovely strike across Forster into the far corner for Spurs’ fourth. After surviving ten minutes without conceding, Pellegrino’s side came forward once again and Sofiane Boufal squeezed a shot into Lloris’ near post to put the visitors on the scoresheet. Three minutes later, it was Forster who was picking the ball out of his net again. A defence splitting pass from Son found Kane, who held off the challenge of Maya Yoshida and chipped the ball past the Saints ‘keeper to register another hat-trick – eight for the year. Don’t ask me who has more. There was still time for a second consolation for Southampton, more dodgy keeping from Lloris saw him punch a cross out to the edge of the area and Dusan Tadic looped a shot into the top corner, via the Frenchman’s outstretched hand. A comprehensive victory from Tottenham, then, who looked more like the side of last season that blew teams away week after week. Despite the two goals, Southampton were dreadful, and Pellegrino may be starting to sweat over his place in the Saints dugout if these performances continue. What he could really do with now is a £75m centre-back…
Manchester United hosted Burnley hoping to shake off a disappointing draw at Leicester City before Christmas, when a 95th minute Harry Maguire equaliser snatched two points away from Jose Mourinho’s side. Burnely were looking for another scalp, having taken points away at Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool so far this season. Mourinho named Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his starting line-up for the first time, and would have been hoping to have the game sewn up by half-time to reduce some of the pressure that has fallen on his shoulders in recent weeks. Everything went to plan for about three minutes,when Johann Berg Gudmundsson swung in a free-kick, and after a short game of head tennis the ball fell to Ashley Barnes to lash home and give Sean Dyche’s side a shock lead. Things could soon have got worse for United, as Gudmundsson found space for a cross and Scott Arfield’s improvised volley looped up and bounced off the top and the bar and away to safety. The home side looked sluggish and short on ideas, and it took a long-range drive from Mourinho’s ginger stepson Luke Shaw to register their first shot on target – Nick Pope equal to it. For a twenty minute spell Burnley sat back and soaked up the pressure from United, who lacked inspiration and the final ball to get them back on terms. When the visitors finally did get out of their own half, they won a free-kick twenty five yards out which Steven Defour dispatched into the top corner with consummate ease. A top draw finish from the Belgian midfielder, worthy of winning any game, and one that looked like it might earn the Clarets their first win at Old Trafford in 55 years. It looked as though Marcus Rashford had reduced arrears just before half-time as he delicately brought down a long ball into the box and sent a shot towards goal, but Ben Mee scampered back and cleared the ball off the line.
The Lukaku/Ibra experiment lasted just 45 minutes, as Jesse Lingard was sent on in the Swede’s place and should have provided an instant response when he met a cross into the area from five yards out and Pope managed to meet it with an outstrectched arm from point blank range to tip it onto the bar. A few minutes later, the substitute got his goal. Ashley Young found space down the right hand side and drove a low cross into the box and, with his back to goal, Lingard applied a backheel flick to divert past Pope and bring the hosts back into the game. For the remainder of the game, United huffed and puffed but couldn’t find the breakthrough, and it looked as though Burnley’s resolute defending would be enough to seal a famous win. Until Juan Mata lifted a ball into the box and as it pinballed between players fell to Lingard to hit a clean strike into the bottom corner and save Mourinho’s blushes. With four points dropped in their last two games, United will now be anxiously looking over their shoulders as the chasing pack close in on second place. Another excellent result for Burnley will be overshadowed by the late equaliser, but a point at Old Trafford is not to be sniffed at.
Another candidate for future England manager, Eddie Howe, welcomed West Ham United to the Vitality Stadium hoping to see an improved performance from his Bouremouth side. The Cherries went into the game looking for their first win since mid-November, having failed to win in their last seven, and conceding eight goals in their last two games. West Ham, meanwhile, looked to have shaken their soft touch image off from the start of the season, and despite defeat against Newcastle at the weekend, David Moyes will have gone into this one confident of getting a result. That confidence would only have grown when, in the seventh minute, Aaron Cresswell’s corner was met by the head of James Collins and the visitors took the lead. Bournemouth hit straight back, and Josh King’s cheese induced nightmares won’t be getting better any time soon as a cross found him unmarked in the penalty area and he managed to put his shot wide from ten yards out. Back down the other end, Andre Ayew found himself in a similar position to King moments earlier, but he too put the chance wide, though to be fair to the Ghanaian, the ball arrived at significantly greater pace than King’s chance. With the game so open it seemed unlikely that there would be only one goal in it come half-time, and when Ryan Fraser’s free-kick into the box was met by a poor header from Collins, Dan Gosling popped up to lash in the equaliser for The Cherries.
Despite the scores being level, Moyes may have felt his side had the better of the first half and no doubt encouraged them to continue pushing forwards in the second 45, but it was the hosts that struck the first decisive blow, twelve minutes after half-time. Dan Gosling’s free-kick managed to evade a cluster of players and Nathan Ake stuck his leg out to divert the ball past Adrian to put Bournemouth just over half an hour away from a crucial result. Heading into the final ten minutes, with the Hammers beginning to tire and look short of idea, the hosts knocked the ball around the defence and laid it back to Asmir Begovic to lump clear. Unbeknownst to them the Bosnian ‘keeper had mistakenly worn the slippers his Mother-in-Law had bought him for Christmas rather than the more orthadox football boot. On a damp pitch, that could only spell disaster and as he went to clear his lines the former Stoke man slipped, allowing Marko Arnautovic to pass the ball into an empty net and bring West Ham level. In the 89th minute, it got even better for Moyes’ boys. Arthur Masuaku found some space down the left, fired in a cross that Begovic could only parry to the feet of Arnautovic, who made no mistake in the six yard box. With the win seemingly in the bag, the Hammers just had the regulation SEVEN minutes of stoppage time to survive, but they couldn’t make it to four without conceding. Another set-piece was launched into the area and Nathan Ake headed towards goal. While it looked to be going in, a touch on the goal-line from an offside Callum Wilson made sure, and the linesman duly flagged. Referee Bobby Madley raced over to speak to his assistant, and bafflingly gave the goal – the assumption being that Wilson hadn’t touched the ball – though he was awarded the goal. A bizarre finish to an absorbing game, with two teams throwing everything at the wall. In the end, a draw does neither any favours.
In the other 3pm kick-offs, Chelsea recorded a regulation 2-0 win at home to Brighton, Watford came from behind to beat Leicester and secure their first win in six, Huddersfield and Stoke shared the spoils at the John Smith, while West Brom played out another goalless draw – their fourth of the season – against Everton.
The late kick off on Boxing Day saw managerless Swansea travel to Anfield hoping for a football miracle. While they may have pulled off a surprise victory here last season, they were facing an irrepressible Liverpool side who’d scored twelve in their previous three games. Caretaker manager Leon Britton will have been hoping to see his side keep it tight for the first ten minutes and ride the inevitable offensive storm, though that plan hit the skids after the first six. Some trademark delicious interplay between Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino on the edge of the area ended with Philippe Coutinho taking aim from the edge of the D and producing an unstoppable effort that flew past Lukas Fabianski in the Swans goal. Remarkably, the visitors might have found themselves level when Jordan Ayew rose above the Liverpool defence, but his header towards goal was tame enough that even Simon Mignolet could save it. That was a rare moment of relief on a difficult evening for Swansea’s backline, though for much of the first half they did reduce their opponents to shots from distance – Andrew Robertson launching one just over from the edge of the box, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain failed to find the target from a little closer in. The best chance in the remainder of the half fell to Firmino as he found space in the area, sidestepped his marker, but blasted his shot wide.
Britton would have assured his players that at 1-0 down they were still in the game and, whilst they had ridden their luck, their hosts defence is famously permeable. Ayew looked to test that theory early on in the second period, but again could only provide Mignolet with the lightest of tests from long range. The good news for Swans fans was that their team lasted more than six minutes into the second half without conceding. The bad news was that they only lasted seven. Coutinho’s free-kick on the left was perfectly aimed and weighted and landed flush on Firmino’s boot for the Brazilian to volley in Liverpool’s second. Britton’s side managed to hold off the tide for 13 more minutes, but when Robertson drifted into the area and saw his dinked cross headed away by Alfie Mawson, Trent Alexander-Arnold was on hand to poke home his first Premier League goal for Liverpool, and the floodgates began to swing by their hinges. Sixty seconds later, the Reds had their fourth as Salah surged into the area and laid the ball on a plate for Firmino to tap in. By that point it looked as though the score could be anything, but the Swans managed to keep it down to just one more – Alexander-Arnold’s cross deflected off a Swansea defender, and in an almost carbon copy of the first goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain latched onto the rebound and drove the ball home for his first goal at Anfield as a Liverpool player. Another pleasing evening for Jurgen Klopp, as his side extend their unbeaten run to eleven, with seventeen goals in their last four games. Forty-eight hours after this game, Huw Jenkins and the Swansea board appointed former Sheffield Wednesday manager Carlos Carvahal as their new permanent manager. He’s got one hell of a job on his hands if he’s going to guide the South Wales side to safety.
Sky managed to get their greasy hands all over the Christmas schedule this year, meaning gameweek 20 stretched to the day after and the day after the day after Boxing Day. Newcastle United, fresh from ending their woeful run of nine games without a win at West Ham, hosted Manchester City. The watching public bayed for blood and were fully expecting it. To counter the opposition’s attacking riches, Rafa Benitez set up his side in a 3-4-2-1 formation, with the returning Paul Dummett given a centre-back berth in his first appearance since the opening day. Manchester City meanwhile were hoping to extend their winning sequence to 19 games, and will have come into this one feeling buoyant, given that they had gone 19 games unbeaten against their hosts. The tone for the game was set early doors as Newcastle camped in their own half, sitting deep, ceding possession and allowing City the run of the play. When, after eight minutes, Vincent Kompany was forced off with injury, Pep Guardiola decided to introduce another striker in Gabriel Jesus in the hope of breaking down Newcastle’s stout defence. The visitors had plenty of chances, most of them from long-range, but Sergio Aguero fired a warning shot as his connected with Kevin De Bruyne’s long pass and hit the outside of the post. The Argentinian was in the thick of it again minutes later, as he saw his close range header brilliantly tipped over by Rob Elliott. The hosts managed to keep it goalless until just after the half hour mark – a delicious one-two between De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling saw the winger scuff his finish underneath Elliott to give City the lead. Suddenly, Newcastle sparked into action and in their first real foray forward should have leveled the scores. DeAndre Yedlin’s cross was missed by Kyle Walker, leaving Rolando Aarons unmarked. The academy product waited to release his shot, and attempted a cute chip that left Ederson flailing but lacked the requisite power, allowing Nicolas Otamendi time to get back and head the ball off the line. City could have had a second before half-time, but Jesus shot wide from Sterling’s pull-back as gaps began to open up in the home defence.
At half-time the Sky pundits were aghast at Newcastle’s insistence on trying to keep the score down. Gary Neville, handily forgetting both Manchester United’s bus-parking at Anfield earlier in the season as well as the time his Valencia team went to the Nou Camp to have a go, and returned with a 7-0 walloping. Newcastle began the second-half as they’d ended the first, looking far more interested in scoring, and sending more than one body forward for any given attack. The space that afforded City in midfield allowed De Bruyne to launch a shot from long range that cannoned off the post – Aguero tapping home the rebound only to see it chalked off for offside. The high-press from Benitez’s side in the last quarter of the game gave them their best spell as substitute Christian Atsu gave Walker problems down the left and Dwight Gayle offered pace down the middle after replacing Joselu. Managing to work his way in on goal, Gayle’s decision making came under scrutiny as he went down under minimal contact from Otamendi when taking a shot may have been the better option. The Newcastle forward did have a chance to make amends when Atsu found space and chipped a cross into the City area, but Gayle could only glance his header agonisingly wide. City managed to hold out for the victory, giving Newcastle their fifth consecutive home defeat, their worst run since 1953. Despite that, Benitez and his team will take heart from a performance and gameplan that kept a newly promoted side in the game against a team that now sit 15 points clear at the top of the league.
The final match of a gameweek more distended than your post-Christmas belly saw Crystal Palace play host to Arsenal in a game the Eagles ran out comfortable 3-0 winners last season. That result came in the middle of the Gunners annual meltdown, and the side Arsene Wenger took to Selhurst Park this time round have a little more grit than they did earlier in the year. Their remarkable comeback against Liverpool was testament to that. In a scrappy opening quarter both sides had to make do with half-chances – Granit Xhaka attempting to recreate his goal against Liverpool but ballooning over, while Yohan Cabaye took aim from distance but saw his effort zip past the post. The breakthrough came from the visitors in the 25th minute when Julian Speroni could only palm Alexandre Lacazette’s curling shot to the feet of Shkodran Mustafi, and the German tapped the rebound in. Suddenly Arsenal found their verve and began to put serious pressure on the Palace defence – Mesut Ozil unlucky not to double the lead after latching onto Alexis Sanchez’s threaded pass. Roy Hodgson’s team showed plenty of attacking intent, but struggled to find a finish in the first half – Wilfred Zaha curling one wide just before the break.
The Eagles came out flying in the second half, clearly sensing some generous Christmas spirit was available at the hands of their hosts, and their hunch was soon confirmed. Zaha sidestepped his way to the byline and pulled the ball back into the penalty area for Andros Townsend to smash home the equaliser. Palace were quickly looking for more, and Zaha’s through-ball for Jeff Schlupp deserved a better finish than the full back could offer it. Sensing a change of tactic was needed, Arsenal began pumping long balls towards the hosts penalty area, and the dividends were almost immediate. Sanchez nodded a long pass back into Lacazette’s pass, and though the Frenchman was able to find room for his shot, he did manage to lay the ball off for the retreating Chilean the drill a shot past Speroni at the near post. Four minutes later, the tactic worked again. A ball launched downfield was taken on the thigh by Sanchez, and his low shot was too powerful for the Palace ‘keeper. Arsenal suddenly very much in control. Wenger’s team could have had a fourth when Hector Bellerin tried to catch Speroni out with a volley from an acute angle, but the veteran stopper was equal to it. Palace did put their visitors under further pressure in the final few minutes, and got their reward when James Tompkins headed in Townsend’s corner, but it was too little too late, and the Gunners made the short trip back up north with all three points.
So with top spot sewn up, and bottom spot looking likely to fall to Swansea, the rest of the Premier League continue to fight it out for those all important places come the end of the season. The race for the top four is beginning to look like it might be a close one, while everyone from Brighton in 12th place down will be eager to gather up points and pull themselves away from trouble. With two games in the space of five days for most of the league, things could look very different this time next week.