As the book closes on another dreadful year, we’ve a chance to reflect on everything that has gone on around the world in the past twelve months and wonder ‘can it really get any worse?’. From Donald Trump’s inauguration, to seemingly endless terror attacks, from the Manchester bombing to Grenfell Tower and natural disasters across the pond. From covfefe to Nambia, retweeting far-right hate preachers and calling the despotic leader of North Korea fat. Russian bots, online trolls, death threats in parliament, royal babies and royal weddings, the Catalan referendum, Californian wildfires, Harvey Weinstein – it’s the end of the world as we know it. Football, too, has seen remarkable changes this year. None more-so than the first player to be transferred for over £100m, while video assisted referees have been trialed across Europe and Manchester City became the first side to win the league by October.
In these uncertain times, it’s always comforting to know that, between August and May, you can sit down at the weekend safe in the knowledge that some kind of football will be on. Even international football. And for 90 minutes, you can forget all the hatred, division and social inequality whilst 30,000 people shout abuse at men wearing different coloured shirts who earn thousands more than them each year. The final gameweek of 2017 kicked off at 3pm on Saturday, and Liverpool were hoping to add to the twelve goals in their last three games against a visiting Leicester City side who, after an excellent start under Claude Puel, had gone three games without a win. The Foxes got off to the perfect start. Vicente Iborra latched onto a loose ball from the Liverpool defence, volleyed a perfect pass into the path of Riyad Mahrez, and the Algerian’s inch perfect centre left Jamie Vardy with the simplest of tap-ins. That early setback sprung the hosts into action, and Mo Salah almost leveled up minutes later. Sadio Mane’s ball into the area found the Egyptian in space, but after wriggling free from Harry Maguire he could only hit his shot past the post. The two Liverpool forwards then reversed roles as Salah’s whipped cross from deep gave Mane a simple finish from close range, but the linesman’s flag was quickly raise to extinguish home celebrations. With the Reds dominant it looked only a matter of time before the equaliser arrived, but Kasper Schmeichel’s smart save from Roberto Firmino’s shot just before the break ensured the visitors went in one to the good.
The Foxes could only hold out for so long, and seven minutes into the second half their backline was carved open by Mane’s backheel, and Salah twisted his way around the Leicester backline before firing past Schmeichel to bring Jurgen Klopp’s men level. Leicester will have felt aggrieved given that they should have had a throw-in during the build up to the goal, but an inability to deal with Liverpool’s top scorer was ultimately their undoing. Once again Salah and Mane swapped roles when the former Roma winger slipped a through ball into the Senegalese pace merchant, but once again his goal was ruled out of offside. With Liverpool’s famously frail backline there to be got at, Leicester began to commit bodies forward looking to edge back in front, but its always a risky business when up against such an exciting counter-attacking team, and Philippe Couthino almost made the Foxes pay when he got on the end of a swift counter attack, but could only shoot straight at Schmeichel. Leicester were finally carved open again in the final fifteen minutes, as another backheeled through ball – this time from James Milner, of all people – put Salah clean through, and he made no mistake with a drilled shot underneath the visitors ‘keeper. Something a little different then from Klopp’s side. The inability to grind out a result has often been to their detriment in recent seasons, but if they can combine this steel with their trademark attacking flair then they’re a very real prospect for a top four finish. The honeymoon period for Puel at Leicester, meanwhile, is beginning to feel like a distant memory.
Another side who’ve struggled badly after an impressive opening few months to the season are Marco Silva’s Watford. Their win against Leicester on Boxing Day, was their first since the end of November, and after sitting comfortably in the top eight after the first quarter of the season the Hornets have found themselves slipping down the table. The visit of Swansea then couldn’t have come at a better time. The Premier League’s bottom side headed to Vicarage Road having won just three times all season, and without an away win since beating Frank De Boer’s Crystal Palace in August. The Swans will have been hoping for the new manager bounce that has been so kind to Everton and West Ham in recent weeks, as Carlos Carvalhal took his place in the dugout for the first time. The Portuguese had endured a tough season at Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship so far this year, but his sacking was seen as harsh in many quarters after guiding the Owls to the playoffs in the previous two seasons. It was the visitors who looked liveliest in the opening stages, with Jordan Ayew taking aim from thirty yards and clipping the crossbar with an outlandish effort. Watford came roaring back at their visitors and when Richarlison was played down the left, his shot from a tight angle could only be parried away by Lukas Fabianski and Andre Carillo was on hand to head in the rebound. As always, Richarlison was the bright spark for the hosts, and he could have doubled their lead with a header, but the connection wasn’t strong enough to beat the Swansea ‘keeper.
Watford thought they’d grabbed a second early on in the second half, as Molla Wague headed Tom Cleverley’s corner in, but the goal was ruled out for a push in the box, and the Swans remained in the game. It looked as though their golden chance had arrived when Ayew found Narsingh in the box, but theDutchman’s weak effort left Heurelho Gomes with a comfortable take. The hosts continued to pile forwards looking for a decisive goal, and when Andre Gray was played in one-on-one with Fabianski it looked likely to arrive. The £17m forward however, could only power a shot straight into the ‘keeper’s body, and from the rebound Swansea broke forward. A cross into the Watford area was headed down by Oliver McBurnie and Ayew was on hand to poke the ball home from three yards out. The away fans in raptures at the prospect of a point. As the clock ticked onto ninety minutes, Swansea earned a freekick on the right of the Watford penalty area and as the delivery was headed away Nathan Dyer took aim from 25 yards and powered a shot towards Gomes’ goal. The Brazilian could only fumble it away and Narsingh was on hand to tuck away the rebound and give the Swans a last-gasp, and much needed, victory. The win lifted Carvalhal’s side off the bottom, and within touching distance of 17th place. What a difference a new manager can make.
In the other 3pms, Mark Hughes came a step closer to his P45 as his weakened line-up were roundly thrashed at Stamford Bridge. Three of Chelsea’s five goals coming in the opening 25 minutes. Bournemouth ended Sam Allardyce’s unbeaten start as Everton manager, picking up a much needed three points in a 2-1 home win, while Huddersfield and Burnley, and Newcastle and Brighton both played out bore draws.
In the evening kick-off Manchester United were hoping to shake off their festive malaise after disappointing draws against Leicester and Burnley, as they hosted a Southampton side that haven’t quite got used to life under Mauricio Pellegrino and, if rumours are to be believed, they won’t have a chance to should results not improve. The Argentinian made the bold move of dropping first choice goalkeeper Fraser Forster after conceding five at Tottenham on Boxing Day, and understudy Alex McCarthy came into the team. Shane Long – without a goal since Irish Independence – was entrusted with the role of running around a lot. Unsurprisingly it was the home side that made most of the attacking running early doors, Romelu Lukaku glancing a header just over after Juan Mata had swung in a cross from the right. Saints, perhaps buoyed by the sight of Burnley snatching two goals at Old Trafford, soon chanced their arm going forwards, and after some delightful one-touch passing the ball fell for Steven Davis to have a crack at goal, David De Gea though was quickly down to his left to keep it out. Lukaku was then stretchered off after a clash of heads left the Belgian forward unconscious, though the Southampton backline might have better fancied their chances against a striker with two goals in his last eight. Shortly before half-time McCarthy was called into action when Mata drove in a shot from the edge of the box, but the deputy stopper was down early to deflect it over with his feet.
Saints were back on the attack early in the second half, as Long found himself one-on-one with De Gea, but demonstrated why he’s gone so long without a goal as his weak shot was turned over by the ‘keeper. From the resulting corner Ashley Young appeared to elbow Sofiane Boufal in the guts, and then clattered into Long, but escaped punishment. It was Young who almost broke the deadlock with a free-kick, but once again the chance went begging. With time running out, United thought they might have nicked it as a free-kick from the right caused a ruckus in the Saints penalty area, and when the ball fell to Paul Pogba he prodded in to seemingly give Mourinho’s side an unwarranted victory. The raised flag of the linesman dashed United hopes, and the final whistle brought the curtain down on a frustrating last few games for the Old Trafford faithful. Their seemingly cemented position in second now a thing of the past, as Chelsea’s win saw them leapfrogged.
Sunday’s double header opened with Roy Hodgson becoming the latest manager attempting to craft a masterplan that not only stops Manchester City, but also prevents pundits from accusing him of ruining football. The Crystal Palace manager’s ace card appeared to be recalling Wayne Hennessey in goal, who surely now has gotten over the disappointment of Wales not qualifying for the World Cup. Gabriel Jesus spearheaded the City attack as Sergio Aguero dropped to the bench, but it was the hosts that had the most of the opening stages. An innocuous looking long ball forward had Ederson chasing out of his goal to clear, but when his miskick bounced off Eliquiam Mangala, Christian Benteke looked to be in on goal. Quick thinking from the maligned French centre-back prevented a certain goal, as he stuck out a boot and blocked the Palace forward’s path. Minutes later, Ederson was called into action to do some accurate goalkeeping as Yohan Cabaye’s freekick was headed clear, and Patrick Van Aahnolt hit a looping volley towards goal that the City stopper pushed wide. Jesus finally found sight of goal midway through the first half, but saw his tame shot saved, and was soon hobbling off in tears with a suspected knee injury. Aguero’s appearance from the bench added some much needed vigour to the City attack, and his deflected shot had Hennessey wrongfooted, but bounced back off the post.
Palace’s resolve stood firm in the second half as they restricted their visitors to long-range efforts in the opening stages – Ilkay Gundogan shooting wide after a one-two with Aguero, and Fernandinho ballooning one over from 25 yards. When Raheem Sterling’s deep cross found Leroy Sane, however, it looked as though the deadlock was about to be broken. The German struck a volley from an acute angle, but Hennessey stood up tall and parried it away. From the resulting corner, the hosts were able to break clear and Wilfred Zaha’s cross from the right found Andros Townsend at the far post ten yards out, totally unmarked, and with the goal gaping. Unfortunately for the former Spurs man, his finish was high, wide, not very handsome, and likely to turn up on one of those bloopers videos fronted by a D-List celebrity. Joey Essex’s World of Football, something like that. However, just when it looked as though the Eagles had thrown away the opportunity of securing a memorable victory, Zaha burst in the box, Sterling passed wind, and the Palace winger dropped to the floor. Penalty. Replays showed that contact was minimal, and if Zaha escapes retrospective punishment he’ll be a very lucky boy. So, in the 90th minute, the dependable Luka Milivojevic was given the chance to write Palace into the history books…and he hit a weak shot straight down the middle that Ederson saved with his legs. From the clearance, Kevin De Bruyne raced away only to be stopped in his tracks by a heinous two-footed lunge from Jason Puncheon. Not deemed a red card by Jon Moss, but the sight of the Belgian being stretchered off will be a cause for concern for Pep Guardiola. A very good point for Crystal Palace in the end and they rightly earned the plaudits of the watching pundits, despite having fewer shots on goal that the ‘disgraceful’ Newcastle United side in City’s last game. A bitter pill for Pep to swallow, as his side fall at the final hurdle in their quest to secure the longest winning streak in Europe.
The final game of 2017 was the perfect summation of the year itself. Arsenal, all braggadocio, headed to West Brom, absolutely depressing. Alan Pardew, football’s answer to Sean Spicer, was still looking for his first win in the Baggies dugout, but at least the football’s been more entertaining hey, West Brom fans? The fact that Arsenal were wearing red shorts, which made them look like Fleetwood Town, was one of the more notable points of this game goes a long way to showing how dreadful the 90 minutes that unfolded at the Hawthorns was. In a first half light on incident, Hal-Robson Kanu had the hosts best chance when his weak header was comfortably collected by Petr Cech, while Ben Foster in the Baggies goal was only really tested once – a rasping shot by Alex Iwobi beaten away by the former England man.
Things got only marginally better in the second half, but it took until the final twenty minutes for the game to spark into any kind of life. Jay Rodriguez’s shot from the edge of the area finally gave Cech something to think about, but the Arsenal ‘keeper was equal to the shot. After the goalless draws at Selhurst Park and Old Trafford, the sight of Alexis Sanchez’s low free-kick ricocheting off James Mcclean’s heel and trickling into the net was a blessed relief. With just seven minutes of normal time remaining, it looked as though Arsenal had done enough to nick a win. Clearly they hadn’t accounted for the Mike Dean factor. It always seemed unlikely that the Premier League’s box office referee would let the final game of the year pass without incident and so, to spice things up, he awarded West Brom a penalty in the 89th minute after Kieran Gibbs’ cross had bounced off the hand of Calum Chambers. Rodriguez stepped up and drilled the ball home to ensure the points were shared in a game that, if you ask me, no-one deserved anything from.
The final gameweek of 2017 then, and possibly the least entertaining in living memory. With four goalless draws, and only Chelsea’s drubbing of Stoke reserves providing more than three goals in a game. That’s the best league in the world for you. While it mightn’t have been a good weekend for the neutral, it was notable for one quirk – besides the aforementioned Stoke City, no team in the bottom half lost this gameweek (West Ham didn’t play). Barring an apocalyptic collapse from Manchester City, the drama is likely to come from the back-end of the table this year, in one of the tightest relegation battles we’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect to be entertained.
Happy New Year!