With hogmanay hangovers in the air, and the fresh hope of another arbitrary section of time ahead, the brutal festive football schedule came to a close over another elongated week. With the first multi-million pound transfer completed on the opening day of 2018, the tone has been set for the year ahead in which your Dad will say ‘the game’s gone’ at least three times a week. That is if those two fuckheads in the US and North Korea don’t blow this whole hatstand up before he gets the chance. The human race currently seems to be running through some kind of ‘I Love The 80s’ period, rolling out the spectre of a nuclear holocaust last seen in Threads, while the British Prime Minister stands up in parliament to chalk up a victory in some vulnerable children not having to spend their Christmas on the streets. Compassion straight out of the Thatcher playbook. Murdoch and Dacre are running the country from behind their poisoned pens, showing the kind of establishment influence reminiscent of Robert Maxwell. Even in football stadiums, the intellectually challenged are dragging us back to a bygone era, with Jake Livermore receiving vile abuse from the stands during West Brom’s visit to West Ham on Tuesday. With a controversial World Cup in liberal progressive paradise Russia still to come, 2018 may well be the year all of the shit hits one great big fan. But while there’s moonlight and music and love and romance, let’s face the music like a goal-line clearance.
With more than a whiff of over-indulgence in the air, the first Premier League game of 2018 kicked off at the ungodly hour of 12:30 at the Amex. A sort-of south coast derby between Brighton and Bournemouth was a perfect way to blow out the cobwebs. The Seagulls have enjoyed a decent first half of the season in their Premier League debut, and their solidity at home has been the cornerstone for their successful campaign. Just two defeats in ten games, to Manchester City and Liverpool, had seen Chris Hughton’s side pick up 14 points at home, almost 2/3s of their total return. Bournemouth, meanwhile, were looking for a third away win of the season, and Eddie Howe will have been hoping to build on the four points his side had earned over the Christmas period. A 2-1 win at home to Everton last time out was their first win since November, and saw them climb out of the relegation places. It was clear in the early stages that it was the home side that had enjoyed the quieter New Years Eve, probably watching Jools Holland’s Hootenanny before slinking off to bed at 12:01. Within five minutes they had the lead that their abstention deserved. Jose Izquierdo, Brighton’s record signing, was played into the box by Glenn Murray and his cross-cum-shot evaded the whole of the Bournemouth backline before falling to Anthony Knockaert to shoot into an empty net on the angle. Izquierdo, who has shown in flashes what he’s capable of in a blue and white shirt, looked up for this one and took aim from 30 yards minutes later, only to see hit shot drift wide. Bournemouth finally woke up halfway through the first half, and Callum Wilson should have done better when receiving the ball in the area, but could only slice his snap shot wide. With Brighton on top, Hughton would have hoped to see his side extend their advantage ahead of half-time, and when Asmir Begovic found himself in no-man’s land following a corner, Lewis Dunk’s header looked destined for the net. Steve Cook, though, was on had to save his goalkeeper’s blushes and produce the goal-line clearance. Things got even better for Cook minutes later, as he rose highest to meet Jordan Ibe’s corner, and looped a header into Mat Ryan’s goal via the crossbar to bring the scores level.
Brighton came out after the restart all guns blazing, and it didn’t take long for the Seagulls to edge their noses in front again. Izquierdo, a constant menace all afternoon for Bournemouth, broke clear in the box and, seeing Begovic hurtle towards him, played a square pass for Murray who took his time before blasting into the unguarded net. The Colombian winger looked destined to deservedly add his name to the scoresheet soon after as he hared clear of the Bournemouth backline, but a heavy touch gave Begovic time to rush off his line and clear the danger. With his side pinned back for much of the second half, Howe will have been hoping for his players to conjure something from a set-piece, and that’s exactly what they did. Another corner from Ibe sparked a scramble in the Brighton box and, unable to clear their lines, Wilson managed to stick a foot out and divert the ball past Ryan to earn the Cherries a point. Hughton will reflect on two points dropped in a game where his side could easily have scored three or four, but at the very least its another point closer to Premier League survival.
With the New Years fixtures being spread out across the week there were only three 3pm kickoffs on New Years Day. The unlikely figure of Ragnar Klavan was Liverpool’s matchwinner with a 94th minute goal at Turf Moor to overcome Burnley, while Leicester ended their mini-slump to make short work of Huddersfield in a 3-0 win at the King Power. Stoke City’s precarious position in the table worsened as Newcastle snatched a 1-0 win at the bet365, with large swathes of fans turning on Mark Hughes. Rumours abound that Steve McClaren is being prepped to step into the whinging Welshman’s shoes. Heaven help them.
The evening kick-off gave Big Sam the chance to reproduce the defensive masterclass that saw Everton keep Chelsea down to just the 25 shots at goal in their stalemate just before Christmas, as he welcome Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United to Goodison Park. Despite defeat at Bournemouth in their last game, Allardyce has enjoyed a decent start to life in the Everton hotseat, though a lack of attacking intent in their last few games has attracted the attention of some of Allardyce’s critics. Their visitors, meanwhile, had endured a very frustrating festive period indeed. Three draws against traditionally mid-table teams was a poor return, despite needing a stoppage time goal from Jesse Lingard to secure the point at home to Burnley, and groans of discontent among the Old Trafford faithful are starting to make themselves heard. The opening stages of the game gave an idea of Allardyce’s tactical set-up, with the hosts putting plenty of men behind the ball and looking to frustrate their opponents. As a scrappy first half unfolded with both sides taking wild shots from long distance and failing to find any kind of creative spark to unlock their opponents defence the game started to resemble an advert for winter breaks in English football rather than a pulsating Premier League showdown.
Manchester United perked up after the break, and as they clicked into second gear Everton began to struggle. Paul Pogba his the game’s first meaningful shot on target, bringing a fine save from Jordan Pickford to keep the scores level. Moments later Juan Mata chanced his arm from 25 yards, and took a lick of paint off one of the Goodison goalposts. With the visitors beginning to assert their dominance the opening goal didn’t look far off, and it duly arrived just before the hour. Pogba slid the ball into Anthony Martial on the edge of the box, and after a quick look at his target the Frenchman produced a wonderfully deft, arcing shot into the top corner to give United the lead. With a game now to chase, Everton stepped forward in the hope of conjuring an equaliser, but Oumar Niasse could only head Mason Holgate’s cross wide when presented with the hosts best chance of the game. Mourinho’s side stormed forward again, and Jesse Lingard almost caught Pickford off guard with a long-range daisy cutter that the Washington-born stopper turned round the post. Three minutes later, United’s standout player of the season had his seventh goal of the season as his mazy dribble into the heart of a stand-offish Everton defence allowed him to hit a spectacular shot into the top corner and secure the points for Mourinho. A sense of relief more than anything for Manchester United who look to have entered a tussle for second place with Chelsea, while the Allardyce honeymoon may have come to an abrupt end.
Four more games took place on Tuesday, one of which gave Southampton the opportunity to build on their creditable draw at Old Trafford last weekend as they welcomed Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace. The Hodgson honeymoon still appears to be in full swing, despite snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against Manchester City last time out. With only two defeats against teams outside of the top six since his appointment – one of those being against Southampton in his first game – the Croydon born septuagenarian has dragged the Eagles off the bottom of the table and looks set to guide them to safety. He’ll have been less than impressed to have Scott Dann and Jason Puncheon both ruled out for the remainder of the season with chronic irony – both players kicked Kevin De Bruyne all over Selhurst Park but, while the Belgian was lining up for the league leaders against Watford, his assailants found themselves looking at a long stretch on the treatment table. Despite their recent struggles in front of goal it was Southampton that started the game the brightest, as Shane Long raced through on goal but fluffed his shot. Pierre Emile Hojberg – the highly rated Danish youngster yet to fulfill his potential at St Mary’s – then stung the palms of Wayne Hennessey with a long range effort. The home faithful sensed a goal might be coming, and after seventeen minutes their suspicions were confirmed. Jeremy Pied’s low cross found Long on the turn, and the Irishman swivelled past his marker and drove a low shot into the bottom corner for his first goal in 325 days.
Palace grew into the game in the second half and restored parity with just over twenty minutes remaining. Andros Townsend chipped a ball towards the head of Christian Benteke, and the Belgian’s knockdown was blasted into the roof of the net by the arriving James McCarthur. With the hosts rattled, Hodgson’s side went looking for a winner and, ten minutes from time, it arrived. Townsend’s square ball found Luka Milivojevic lurking on the edge of the area, and the Serbian made up for his penalty miss at the weekend by curling a precise shot into the bottom corner to secure all three points for Palace. The Eagles move up to 14th in the table, joining the cluster from 10th to 16th, while Saints slipped to 17th, kept out of the relegation zone by Stoke’s abysmal defensive record. Time may be starting to tick for Pellegrino.
In Tuesday’s other games, Tottenham and West Ham warmed up for their Thursday night clash with wins over relegation threatened Swansea and West Brom respectively, while Manchester City put Sunday’s blip behind them to swat Watford aside at the Etihad.
The biggest clash of the New Years fixtures took place on Wednesday night at the Emirates as Arsenal hosted Chelsea looking to continue their recent good run against last season’s Champions. Having beaten them in the 2017 FA Cup final and the Community Shield at the start of the season, the Gunners went into this game having lost just once in their last five meetings at home to Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s side, meanwhile, were looking to extend their good run over Christmas, securing seven points from three games and keeping three clean sheets on the spin. Both sides looked keen to get that vital first goal in the opening stages, and had Alvaro Morata spend a little less time playing charades over Christmas and a little more concentrating on shooting practice Chelsea may well have drawn first blood. The Spaniard latched on to a ball over the top to stream through on goal, but with Petr Cech coming out to meet him, the striker could only sidefoot wide. Arsenal responded with some typically rococo passing, which gave Alexis Sanchez a sight of goal. Thibaut Courtois was quickly down to push the Chilean’s shot against the post, but had his lucky stars to thank as the ball trickled across the goal-line and away to safety. Minutes before half-time, Courtois was tested again as Alexandre Lacazette turned his marker and hit a low snapshot at goal, but the Belgian custodian was equal to it.
With half-time arriving and the match somehow goalless, both sides continued to play at high tempo in the second half, producing the kind of spectacle that has been scarce over the hectic festive schedule. Eden Hazard managed to escape the attention of Arsenal’s backline early in the second half but, after being forced wide, could only drive his low shot into the feet of Cech. Tiemoue Bakayoko’s cross from the rebound saw Morata’s header turned past the post. Another intricate passing move from Arsenal found Lacazette with a clear sight of goal, but again Courtois was equal to the Frenchman’s effort. Finally, a triangle of passes on the edge of the box left Jack Wilshere with some space and the formerly forgotten man of Ashburton Grove lashed his shot high into the next. With the floodgates opened it seemed unlikely the score would stay at 1-0, but the source of Chelsea’s equaliser was more fortune than force. As Hector Bellerin went toe-to-toe with Hazard in the penalty area, the Chelsea playmaker collapsed in a heap and referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot. After the late gift given to West Brom in their last game, this was another bitter pill for the Gunners to swallow. Hazard made no mistake from the spot, and the visitors were level. With six minutes of the ninety to play, things got worse for Arsene Wenger. Davide Zappacosta found himself with acres of space on the right wing, and his whipped cross found Marcos Alonso arriving to tap home and give Chelsea the lead. A defeat for the hosts would have been cruel given their performance, and so it was just as well that Bellerin popped up in stoppage time to smash a half-cleared cross into the top corner and secure a point for Arsenal. A pulsating, end-to-end game complete with controversy and quality. At last.
The final fixture of this elongated gameweek saw Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham in action for the second time in 48 hours as the Hammers headed to Wembley for another London derby. A mixed bag over Christmas saw West Ham arrive in North London with four points from their last three games, having dragged themselves away from the bottom three in the weeks leading up to the fixture crunch. Tottenham, meanwhile, headed into the game looking to extend their winning run to four, having bounced back from their thrashing at the hands of Manchester City with comprehensive wins over Burnley, Southampton and Swansea. Unsurprisingly it was the hosts that started the game strongest, and perhaps should have taken the lead when Heung-Min Son slipped but still manage to find Harry Kane with a cross, and despite the acute angle the England forward was able to test Adrian before Declan Rice cleared West Ham’s lines to remove any danger. From the resultant corner, Adrian flapped at the ball before grabbing Cheikou Kouyate’s head, and Davinson Sanchez’s shot was blocked. Spurs’ strong start swiftly morphed into total dominance as they pinned the visitors back in their own half, though when Kane finally did find the net he was stood a yard offside and the flag was raised. Moments later, 2017’s top scorer took aim from outside the area with a bending shot, but Adrian was equal to it. To the home fans’ utter disbelief the sides went in level at half-time, but not before Adrian pulled off a spectacular save from Christian Eriken’s deflected shot, shifting his weight at the last second to tip over the Dane’s drive.
After a first 45 minutes in which the Hammers failed to register a shot, Tottenham once again came out on the front foot, though a more compact defensive system employed by David Moyes meant the clear cut chances of the first half failed to arrive. Kane found himself one-on-one with Adrian for a split-second after being played in by Son, but Pablo Zabaleta showed lighting quick reactions to put in a sliding block and snuff out the danger. With twenty minutes to go, and Spurs running out of ideas, West Ham finally found themselves in their opponents half with Pedro Obiang on the ball, and the Spaniard made the most of the rare opportunity, making some space for himself and wellying an unstoppable shot into the top corner to give the visitors a scarcely believable lead. From the restart Spurs went back onto the attack, but Eriken’s drive lacked the requisite accuracy to cause Adrain any trouble. Heading into the final ten mintues, Tottenham continued to push and finally got their reward. Son picked up the ball thirty yards out, took aim, and smashed a swerving shot out of Adrian’s reach and into the top corner. While Spurs may have been expected to pile further pressure on the Hammers goal, it was actually Andre Ayew who had the best chance to snatch a win – Hugo Lloris quickly out to meet him after the West Ham forward had found space in the Tottenham penalty area. Another one of those frustrating evenings for Spurs, who’s top four ambitions are going to take a serious grilling for the remainder of the season.
With the FA Cup Third Round taking place this weekend, the Premier League gets a week off, and those struggling teams at the bottom get a bit of respite – unless they get knocked out by a lower league team of course (we’re looking at you Swansea, Stoke and Southampton). For many its been a fruitful if exhausting couple of weeks, as Crystal Palace, West Ham and Newcastle climb away from danger, while Liverpool and Chelsea have strengthened their position in the top four. There’s still a long way to go, but those in the bottom four are surely beginning to sweat on their Premier League survival. To be continued…