Twenty-Third and Third. Premier League Week 23 Review.

It’s the second weekend of January, so it’s around the time that everyone’s New Year’s resolutions go out of the window, if they haven’t already. There’s every chance that gym membership was cancelled this weekend, or that two-week streak of sobriety came to an end. Perhaps you’d vowed to learn a new language and spent Sunday morning staring forlornly at the Japanese dictionary you wasted £15 on, or maybe an injection of grease for breakfast saw your diet fall by the wayside. Whatever it is that you’ve failed to follow through on, remember the great and good of the Premier League have no doubt broken their resolutions too. Jose Mourinho, for example, was adamant that 2018 was the year he wouldn’t spend winding up rival managers, while Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley actually publicly stated he would be backing his manager in the transfer market. Even the Arsenal first team promised that they would no longer be the laughing stock of the Premier League. We’re all as useless as each other.

One man hoping to have a better year than the last is David Moyes. The West Ham manager could consider himself fortunate to find himself in charge of Premier League club after the first half of 2017 saw his Sunderland side win just twice on the way to a desperate relegation. It’s testament to the Scotsman’s character that he’s been able to dust himself down, steer the Hammers out of the relegation zone and pick up…three wins in the second half of the year. Still, West Ham headed to Huddersfield on Saturday unbeaten in three, and looking to overtake their opposition in the Premier League table. David Wagner’s side were looking for their first win in a month, having drawn three and lost one over the Christmas period, a run that had seen their lead over the bottom three drop from seven points to four. After a cagey opening quarter to the match, it was West Ham that struck first with a belated Christmas gift from Huddersfield keeper Jonas Lossl. The Dane’s weak pass to Joe Lolley allowed Marko Arnautovic to steal in ahead of the Terriers winger, and Mark Noble latched onto the loose ball to fire past Lossl and put the visitors ahead. Fifteen minutes later, David Wagner’s team were level. A swift passing move found Lolley on the right wing and the Redditch born wideman cut a path through the Hammers defence before curling beyond Adrian and into the far corner.

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Having just about shaded the first half, Wagner will have been content to see his side go in level at the break, but parity was gone in sixty seconds of the second half. A long ball forward from the visitors found Arnautovic on the edge of the box, and the Austrian deftly juggled the ball over his marker before rifling into the net. From that point, Moyes’ side found their groove and launced wave after wave of attacks towards Lossl’s goal. Cheikou Kouyate saw his goalbound header cleared off the line by Aaron Mooy, before releasing Arnautovic, whose lay-off found Manuel Lanzini in space to add to West Ham’s lead. As Huddersfield poured forwards looking for a way back into the game, Lanzini struck the hammer blow. The visitors countered through Arnautovic, and their top scorer’s powerful run was halted only briefly before Lanzini followed up to shoot high into the net and seal the win. Huddersfield’s new £11m man Alex Pritchard did see his late free-kick test Adrian, but West Ham were excellent value for the win – if they can replicate this kind of attacking incision on a weekly basis there’ll be no more talk of a relegation battle. Huddersfield, on the other hand, might well be at the beginning of a spiral towards the scrap at the bottom.

The other standout fixture on Saturday afternoon came, unsurprisingly, at Watford. Supporters of the Hornets had seen 71 goals scored in games involving their team so far this season, the third highest tally in the Premier League behind Manchester City and Liverpool. Marco Silva’s side, still in something of a funk following their excellent start to the season, were hoping to get back to winning ways against Southampton – scorers of only seven goals in eleven games on the road so far this season. Despite securing a place in the fourth road of the FA Cup with a good win at Fulham last weekend, the Saints were looking for their first Premier League victory since putting Everton to the sword in late November, which has seen them plummet down the table from 10th to  17th. It was Silva’s side that had the best of the opening, with Daryl Janmaat stinging Alex McCarthy’s fingertips with a long-range drive. It was Southampton, though, that opened the scoring as Shane Long took advantage of Marvin Zeegalaar’s poor control, raced to the byline and produced a perfect cut-back for James Ward-Prowse to steer into the bottom corner. That goal gave the Saints confidence to push forwards, and Wesley Hoedt almost caught out Heurelho Gomes in the Watford goal with an audacious 35 yard chip, but the backpedaling Brazilian managed to touch the ball over. Just before half-time Southampton looked to strike the fatal blow. A defensive clearance found Long racing down the wing, and his square ball to Dusan Tadic gave the Serbian playmaker plenty of time to lay off for Ward-Prowse to double the visitors lead.

Watford v Southampton - Premier League

After receiving a rocket (man) up the arse at half-time, Watford came out in the second half on the front foot, and began to pin their opponents back. Just before the hour mark, Janmaat again rifled a shot at goal, rattling the crossbar, before Andre Gray leaped on the rebound to nod past McCarthy and bring Watford back into the game. The next half an hour brought plenty of huffing and puffing but little tangible reward, until the 90th minute when a ball lifted into the box was headed on by the impressive Troy Deeney, and Abdoulaye Doucoure – with more than a suggestion of hands – converted to earn a point for the hosts. Not an ideal result for either side, but another scintillating game at Vicarage Road.

In the other 3 o’clock kickoffs, Alan Pardew secured his first win as West Bromwich Albion manager with a 2-0 victory in the Albion derby, as Brighton were put to the sword, while fellow relegation battlers Newcastle and Swansea played out a 1-1 draw at St James Park. Burnley’s impressive away from deserted them at Selhurst Park as a Bakary Sako goal was enough to seal a win for Crystal Palace, and Leicester City survived a second-half onslaught from Chelsea to take a point in a goalless draw at Stamford Bridge.

The evening kick-off gave Everton fans their first look at new signing Cenk Tosun as Sam Allardyce took his side to Wembley to take on Tottenham Hotspur. Once again Harry Kane came into the game chasing records and landmark goals, safe in the knowledge that he could reach twenty for the season and become Spurs’ all-time Premier League top scorer with a brace. Unsurprisingly it was Tottenham on the front foot in the opening stages, and Son Heung-Min almost opened the scoring with a glancing header from Christian Eriksen’s free-kick, but his connection was too strong and Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal saw it over. It didn’t take long for Kane to receive his first chance of the evening and when Mousa Dembele played him in, you wouldn’t have bet against the England marksman to open the scoring. His low shot, however, was straight at Pickford. Everton did have the ball in the back of the net during one brief foray forward, but Wayne Rooney was adjudged offside as he nodded past Hugo Lloris from close range. That scare was enough to jolt Spurs into action, and just over halfway through the first-half, Serge Aurier surged forward and drilled a cross into the six yard box that Son tapped in with ease.

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Heading into the second half, and with the chances of their defence being tested looking slim, Tottenham pushed forward to put the game to bed. It only took a couple of minutes after the restart for the hosts to register their second of the game, as Son flashed a low ball into the box that deceived Pickford and gave Kane a simple tap in to bring him level with Teddy Sheringham on 97 Premier League goals for Spurs. Ten minutes later the record was broken, and the game was put beyond doubt. Another low ball into the box, this time from Eric Dier in a deep position on the right, allowed Kane to loop a scuffed shot over Pickford for his second and Tottenham’s third. That goal also brought Kane onto twenty for the season, becoming only the third player to score twenty Premier League goals for four successive seasons. Stats. Unfortunately for Everton and Allardyce, Spurs showed no sign of letting up, and Son could have had a hat-trick as he smacked one shot against the post and hit another straight at Pickford after cutting inside from the left – Dele Alli’s follow up landed straight in the hands of the relieved Everton ‘keeper. The icing on the cake came with just under ten minutes to play, as a sumptuous passing move involving Aurier and Son led to Alli backheeling the ball into the path of Eriksen, and the Dane curling a delicious shot into the bottom corner. Something of a stroll in the park for Tottenham, though a nightmare of an evening for Everton fans. Their side looking bereft of confidence and seemingly in the middle of a dead cat bounce. Their current predicament no better surmised than the statistic that, in three of their last five games they’ve failed to record a shot on target. Before Allardyce’s appointment you’d have to go back 222 games to find three in which the same rule applies. Dreadful.

Sunday saw Arsenal emerge from their hole after another ‘difficult’ week in the recent history of the club. Knocked out of the FA Cup by Nottingham Forest after fielding a weakened team, and looking increasingly likely to lose their best player in Alexis Sanchez, Arsene Wenger would have welcomed the blessed relief of Premier League football as they headed to the south coast to take on struggling Bournemouth. Eddie Howe’s side came into the game sitting a point above the drop zone, but unbeaten in three. In a scrappy opening half it was the visitors that looked most likely to open the scoring, with youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles smashing a shot against the crossbar from just inside the penalty area. Danny Welbeck, deployed behind Alexandre Lacazette in the absence of Mesut Ozil, then raced ahead of the Bournemouth backline but Asmir Begovic was quick off his line to snuff out any danger. Petr Cech at the other end was then called upon to pull off a smart save when Ryan Fraser found room for a shot, and the Czech stopper was equal to the effort.

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Wenger’s side eventually found the breakthrough their first half dominance deserved seven minutes into the second half as Alex Iwobi’s defence-splitting pass found Hector Bellerin, and the full-back plundered a shot towards goal that Begovic could only palm into the net. Bournemouth though, fully aware of the present fragility around their opponents, began to put more pressure on Cech’s goal, and eventually it told. A wicked cross from the right hand side by Fraser fell floated invitingly into the path of Callum Wilson, and the striker managed to pip Cech to the ball to bring the scores level. With the scent of three points in their noses, the Cherries continued to pour forwards, and three minutes from time they pinched a winner. A long ball into the area found Wilson, and though the forward couldn’t get it under control, the ball bounced invitingly for the onrushing Jordan Ibe to smash a shot first time under Cech and seal the win. The weekly bout of soul-searching began in the away end, with any aspirations of finishing in the top four this season looking to have been kaiboshed by a run that has seen one win in five. The heat from the Wenger Out brigade has just been turned up a notch.

Sunday’s main event – and one of those fixtures that neutrals have been relishing for some weeks – took us to Anfield as Liverpool looked to end Manchester City’s unbeaten run at the twenty-third attempt. The reverse fixture had seen Pep Guardiola’s side dole out an unceremonious spanking to the Reds back in September, but there was a sense that this might be City’s most difficult remaining fixture this season. Liverpool have, in the most part, looked imperious going forwards this season and, provided their defence could avoid any spectacular brain farts, they’d certainly be giving City a game. Both teams burst out of the blocks, looking to attack at every opportunity, perhaps in the knowledge that one goal wouldn’t be enough to win this game. It took just nine minutes for the scoresheet to be troubled, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain embarked on a driving run through midfield and then arrowed a low shot past the despairing reach of Ederson to give Jurgen Klopp’s side the lead. City responded the only way they know how, and began to put pressure on that shaky Liverpool backline. Kevin De Bruyne’s zipped ball flashing across the six yard box but unable to find the toe of Sergio Aguero. Both sides continued to have chances throughout the half – De Bruyne hitting a low shot straight at Loris Karius at one end before Mohammed Salah twisted and turned in the area before firing at Ederson. Five minutes before half time, the league leaders found their equaliser. Kyle Walker’s crossfield pass was launched towards Leroy Sane, and an exquisite first touch from the German took his marker Joe Gomez out of the game. Slaloming past Joel Matip, Sane smashed a shot into Karius’ near post corner to bring City level. The inquest after the goal suggested the Liverpool ‘keeper should have done better, but nothing can be taken away from the skill and power exhibited by the young winger.

With the game finely balanced at the break you’d have been hard-pushed to pick a winner, but Liverpool came out all guns blazing in the second half. Nicolas Otamendi almost sneaked a header in from De Bruyne’s corner, but clipped the crossbar, and suddenly the hosts began to lay siege to the visitors goal. Salah saw his volley turned away by Ederson, and Oxlade-Chamberlain had a near post show parried away for a corner as Liverpool’s frontline began to overpower Guardiola’s defence. Then came the ten minute spell that decided the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain, impressive all match, looked to find Roberto Firmino with a through ball that, at first glance, appeared to offer an easy clearance for John Stones. The City defender dawdled, however, and Firmino pounced, edging the young centre-back off the ball before lobbing Ederson to restore the hosts’ lead. Seconds after the restart, Sadio Mane almost made it three with a spectacular shot from the edge of the box that cracked off of Ederson’s post. A minute later, the Senegalese striker had his goal. Liverpool burst forward again with Salah, and his square ball found Mane on the edge of the box with the split-seconds needed to take aim and welly an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Thriker. With City visibly rattled, it looked like every time they came forward Liverpool would score, as Otamendi and Stones struggled to compose themselves in the face of the hosts attacks. When one stray pass forward left Ederson with a simple looking clearance downfield, it appeared that the visitors might be able to stem their opponents momentum. The Brazilian, however, made a hash of the clearance, kicking it straight to the feet of Salah who took control of the ball and sailed a chip over the prone ‘keeper to give Liverpool a barely believable lead. Still Manchester City poured forward with the belief that they could find a way back into the game and as the game drifted into the final ten minutes they found a second goal. Ilkay Gundogan’s blocked shot fell kindly for Bernardo Silva to rifle into the bottom corner and, if nothing else, spark nerves in the Kop. With the clock ticking past 90 minutes, the last unbeaten team in England got another – Aguero’s chipped ball in finding Gundogan with space to chest the ball down and poke past Karius amid some shocking defending. Suddenly there was a goal in it and two minutes to go. City’s last chance, a De Bruyne free-kick whipped into the box, was headed wide by an offside Aguero, and Klopp’s side held on to end Guardiola’s hopes of becoming Invincible. An absolutely pulsating game, and one that will earn Liverpool and Klopp plenty of admirers.

The weekend’s action came to a close at Old Trafford, as Stoke City began life after Mark Hughes having announced the appointment of Paul Lambert as his permanent replacement. Caretaker manager Eddie Niedzwiecki took charge of the Potters for the evening, hoping upon hope to secure Stoke’s second win in eight league games. Manchester United, meanwhile, would have looked on at the unfolding action across Saturday and Sunday in the knowledge that a win against the relegation battlers would give them a three point cushion in second place, as well as reduce their neighbours’ lead at the top to 12 points. It didn’t take long for Jose Mourinho’s side to rubberstamp their intentions on the game, as Paul Pogba found Antonio Valencia on the corner of the box, and the captain shifted inside before launching a spectacular curling shot into the top corner. If United thought they were in for a comfortable evening, however, Stoke City had other ideas. Their best spell of the game saw Xherdan Shaqiri test David De Gea with an overhead kick, Eric Maxim Chupo-Moting hit one on target, and Stephen Ireland scupper a golden chance with the goal at his mercy. It also took a goal-line clearance to prevent Shaqiri’s acrobatic volley flying in. The visitors would soon rue those missed chances, when Pogba’s lay-off was met by a peach of a shot from Anthony Martial that flew into the top corner to extend the hosts lead. Shaqiri did manage to dig a shot out from the edge of the box on the stroke of half-time, but once again De Gea was equal to it.

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Stoke’s attacking impetus began to fade in the second half, and Juan Mata went on a one-man mission to add his name to the scoresheet. After narrowly shooting past the far post, and stinging Jack Butland’s palms from the edge of the area, Mata pounced on a loose ball in the six yard box to back-heel in, only to see the linesman’s flag raised. The hosts did eventually add a third as Romelu Lukaku brought the ball down in the area, shuffled past the attentions of two defenders, and slotted into the bottom corner. Despite the comprehensive defeat, there were plenty of signs that this Stoke side have more to offer than recent perfomances suggest, but Paul Lambert – hardly the most inspired choice of manager – has plenty on his hands if he’s going to secure survival. Next week’s game at home to Huddersfield presents the perfect opportunity for a positive start.

Manchester City beaten then, and the merest sign of vulnerability from Guardiola’s side. They certainly don’t like it up ‘em. However, barring an incredible turn of events, the title is still surely destined for the blue half of Manchester, as a run of fixtures that includes Newcastle, West Brom and Burnley offers City the opportunity to get back to winning ways over the course of the next few weeks. In the battle at the bottom, six points now separate Watford in tenth and Stoke in eighteenth, while West Brom and Swansea brought themselves back in touch with positive results. Still everything to play for with fifteen games to go.

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