With over two thirds of the January transfer window gone we are now in the full swing of silly season. While the ink dries on Alexis Sanchez’s new contract with Wagtales Dog-Walkers in Manchester, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has already made an appointment with a Harley Street surgeon to get the splinters removed from his buttocks ahead of his Arsenal debut. Sam Allardyce somehow managed to convince the Everton board to spend TWENTY MILLIONS POUNDS on utility man Theo Walcott, while Brighton and Hove Albion have surrendered in their bid to beat the drop by pinning all their hopes on a striker from the Eredivisie. It’s almost as if Afonso Alves never happened. The most amusing ongoing story from this transfer window has been Chelsea’s desperation to wind the clock back 25 years and bring in a BMUT (that’s a ‘big man up top’). Whether it’s a ploy to force Antonio Conte to resign is up for debate, but Roman Abramovich has sanctioned the price of a Theo Walcott to bring in another striker, with seemingly the only criteria being that he’s a tall lump either born in England or willing to change nationality at the drop of a hat. Conte may well be regretting those texts to Diego Costa right about now. Whether Abramovich can be convinced to pay the premium for a footballer that is also good with his feet remains to be seen, but having so far failed with inquiries for Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and Ashley Barnes, where the reigning champions aim their scattergun next remains to be seen, though Abramovich could do worse than take a look at some of the men that led the line for the Blues in the 90s. Paul Furlong, Tony Cascarino, and Mick Harford will be waiting eagerly by the phone.
Unfortunately for Conte he was unable to call upon a beanpole to stick up front for Chelsea’s trip to Brighton on Saturday lunchtime, so had to make do with £33m international striker Michy Batshuayi. Chris Hughton’s side were hoping for their first victory over Chelsea in 85 years, but more importantly looking for some points to haul them away from the relegation scrap they have suddenly become embroiled in, having coasted through the first half of the season. It quickly became apparent that it would be the Seagulls’ day as Chelsea flew out of the traps from the off, and raced into a two goal lead. When the home side failed to clear Victor Moses’ cross, Eden Hazard didn’t need a second invitation to lash the loose ball into the top corner, and a scintillating passing move between Hazard, Batshuayi and Willian allowed the Brazilian to fire past Mat Ryan from the edge of the box. Having just about recovered from their car crash start, Brighton slowly grew into the game and Ezequiel Schelotto began to cause problems down the right hand side. Having latched onto a ball in the box, the Argentine winger looked to have outwitted his countryman Willy Caballero as the Chelsea ‘keeper stuck out a leg to bring the Brighton man down, but referee Jon Moss waved play on. Clearly rattled by the decision, Schelotto then lost possession minutes later and had his goalkeeper to thank as Ryan pulled off a save from Batshuayi’s shot. Brighton were back on the attack shortly after, and Tomer Hemed came inches away from pulling a goal back for the hosts, only to be denied by a superb Caballero stop. Schelotto was on the floor in the penalty area appealing once more before half-time, having seemingly been tugged back by Tiemoue Bakayoko, but Moss again awarded in favour of the visitors, giving Schelotto a booking in the process.
Brighton continued to push forwards in the second half looking for a way back into the game, and luck continued to desert them when Davy Propper’s crashing header thunked off the post and away to safety. Schelotto was again causing problems for the visitors soon enough, but Cabellero continued to thwart the former Sporting man, turning his toe-poke away from danger. Having matched their opponents, in spite of their early collapse, Hughton’s side could have been forgiven for sensing a potential comeback as they continued to attack Chelsea’s goal, but as the game became stretched the visitors’ quality began to show. With acres of space emerging in front of Brighton’s back line, a quick counter attack gave Hazard the opportunity to compose himself before wrong-footing Ryan and shooting across his body into the bottom corner. The trick was repeated in the final minute, with the home side still pushing forward looking for a goal, with substitute Charly Musonda finding Moses with a long pass, and the Nigerian knocked the ball past Ryan to complete the rout. Despite some hairy moments it turned into a comfortable afternoon’s work for Conte’s team, while Brighton succumb to another hammering that will do nothing for the team’s confidence and moral. Hughton will be hoping new signing Jurgen Locadia is more Ruud van Nistelrooy than Vincent Janssen. The Seagulls need a win.
Another side slap bang in the middle of the transfer tittle-tattle this month has been Arsenal. Having seen his best player slope off up north in a bid to win trophies under a more glamorous manager, and also losing Alexis Sanchez….the crisis alert level has been rising quicker than Toby Young in a Conservative government this month for Arsene Wenger. Crystal Palace represented exactly the kind of game Wenger wouldn’t want to have faced after another difficult week in the Gunners hot-seat. The corresponding fixture just after Christmas was Palace’s only defeat since the beginning of November, and serial international tournament flop Roy Hodgson has restored some much needed stability in the Eagles. The omens pre-match looked good for Arsenal, as the Emirates faithful took the bold, but correct, step of retaining the ‘Good Boys’ banner depicting Sanchez and his dogs Atom and Humber. Despite their owner’s mercenary tendancies, let’s not forget that they remain an excellent pair of pups. That rare display of common sense from the rabid Islington masses paid dividends on the pitch as their side tore into Crystal Palace in the kind of first half display that has become something of a collector’s item in recent seasons. Alex Iwobi fired in a warning shot early on for Arsenal that Wayne Hennessey managed to tip over, but from the resulting corner Granit Xhaka picked out Nacho Monreal’s far post run, and the Spanish defender powered in a header to give the Gunners a sixth minute lead. Four minutes later, Monreal turned provider as Palace failed to clear their lines and his low cross was sidefooted in by Iwobi to double the hosts advantage. Understandably shellshocked, and unable to work out if they’d been transmitted into a computer simulation, Hodgson’s side struggled to get a foothold in the game as their opponents rampaged through their defence. Hector Bellerin was the next Arsenal player to take full advantage, carving the Eagles backline open with a through ball that was well read by Hennessey to prevent Alexandre Lacazette from converting, and diverting the Frenchman’s shot out for a corner. The red tide could only be halted briefly, however, and once again Monreal found space at the back post from the corner kick, nodding into the path of his defensive partner Laurent Koscielny to tap in. The hosts three to the good before the queue for a pre-match latte had even dispersed. Palace managed to stem the tide for the following nine minutes, but still struggled to make any impression on the game, and with Arsenal’s confidence soaring it didn’t take long for the net to ripple once again. Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil playing a delicious one-two in the final third before Lacazette latched onto Ozil’s backheel to drill the ball into the bottom corner. With just a quarter of the game gone, it was effectively over. Unsurprisingly Wenger’s side began to cruise towards half-time, and finally Palace were allowed to play. Bakary Sako managing a tame shot straight at Petr Cech to register the visitors first shot on target of the afternoon. Wilfried Zaha finally made his way into the game just before half-time, capitalising on some sloppy passing from the home side, but his deflected shot was turned behind by Cech.
The second half was always going to live up to the home fans expectations after a ruthless opening 45 minutes from Wenger’s side, and the pacy attacks that had carved Palace open during the first period were always unlikely to materialise with a such a comfortable lead in place. Iwobi did manage to spring the Palace offside trap, but shot straight at Hennessey as he closed in on goal. Buoyed by such a long spell without conceding, the visitors slowly came out of their shell and began to mount regular attacks, Cech once again tested as Christian Benteke fired a shot at goal. Eventually the Eagles managed to pull an excellent goal back as Benteke nodded a corner down to Luka Milivojevic who, in one swift movement, trapped the ball on his chest, swiveled and volleyed into the corner. There was still time for Lacazette to bring a decent double save out of Hennessey having wriggled free in the box, but with the game won by half-time Arsenal never looked likely to push for more goals in the second half. Encouraging signs for life after Alexis for Arsenal, though the weight of his loss will be tested further against less brittle opposition. For Crystal Palace this will go down as a bad day at the office, but you’d expect Uncle Roy to address his sides deficiencies going into the next game.
It’s also been a busy week for Stoke City. Having given Handshake Hughes the heave-ho, Peter Coates moved quickly to appoint…Paul Lambert? as his replacement. After watching his new side put in a shift at Old Trafford last Monday, and then spending the week warding off bids from Chelsea for his 36 year-old impact striker, its fairly safe to say the former Champions League winner was looking forward to getting his feet under the proverbial table this weekend. The visit of Huddersfield Town offered Lambert the opportunity for a perfect start to life in the Potteries, with David Wagner’s side coming into the match off a five-game run without a win. Stoke, languishing in the relegation zone before kick-off, knew that a win would cut the gap between themselves and the Terriers by a point as the spectre of relegation begins to loom large over the West Yorkshire club. Lambert took his place on the bench, looking like an estranged father who’d just won £250 on a scratch card, and waited for his first week’s work to pay off. It’s often said that a team’s performance is indicative of their manager’s personality, and Stoke’s first half against Huddersfield had Lambert down to a tee. Barring one moment of attacking intent, as a long ball found Xherdan Shaqiri streaming through on goal with Terrier’s keeper Jonas Lossl seemingly in no-man’s land, only for the Swiss to shoot straight at the Dane, the opening 45 minutes of Lambert’s reign was excessively dour.
Stoke pepped up in the second half having realised that Huddersfield were there for the taking, and eight minutes after the break they finally breached the visitors’ defence. Eric Maxim Chupo-Moting’s driven cross looked to have evaded everyone in the Huddersfield penalty area, but Joe Allen arrive late to slide the ball into the bottom corner and send the bet365 stadium into raptures. Shaqiri was close to doubling the lead as he found himself streaking clear of the Terrier’s defence, but once again Lossl was there to thwart the diminutive forward. The walking advertisement for steroids was involved in the Potters second goal, however, as Chupo-Moting’s through-ball was backheeled by Shaqiri into the path of Mame Biram Diouf, and the Senegalese fired a shot off the inside of the post that nestled into the far corner. The perfect start for Lambert, who’s arrival coincides with a favourable run of fixtures for Stoke. If the Scot is able to string a few results together and secure the Potters’ top flight status then those howls of derision upon his appointment may have to be retracted.
In the rest of the Saturday afternoon kick-offs Leicester City struck the final blow on Marco Silva’s time in charge of Watford. A 2-0 defeat at the King Power was enough to convince the Pozzo family to bring their annual contract termination forward, with Spaniard Javi Gracia brought in as 2019’s sacrificial lamb. Manchester United continued to breathe down Manchester City’s necks from a safe distance with a narrow victory away at Burnley, while Everton & West Brom and West Ham & Bournemouth played out a pair of 1-1 draws that could be beneficial for both away teams come the end of the season.
In the Saturday evening kick-off Newcastle United managed to arrange a football match to break up the monotony of being the most laughably run club in the Premier League. After a week in which Mike Ashley’s “source” confirmed that talks with PCP had come to an end regarding the potential takeover of the club there was surely nothing more the Toon Army could have wanted than the opportunity to add three more points to their bid for survival. But it turns out the fixture computer is a son of a bitch, and those weary travelling supporters pitched up at Manchester City fully expecting to watch their team receive a morale sapping hammering at the hands of Pep’s champions elect. City themselves came into the game off the back of a crisis – that’s right, they lost a game of football. Rafa Benitez received an avalanche of criticism after refusing to allow one of the best teams in Europe run riot at St James’ Park just after Christmas, and unsurprisingly he brought a similarly defensive set-up to the Etihad in the hope of frustrating the league leaders. In fact, it was Newcastle that almost took a surprise early lead. A quick free-kick from Jonjo Shelvey found Christian Atsu scampering down the wing, and the Ghanaian’s cross should have been converted by Ciaran Clark at the back post. Newcastle’s #2 couldn’t quite get a clean connection on his header, and eventually the danger dispersed. The visitors weren’t exactly sticking eleven men behind the ball, and in fact looked far more purposeful coming forward than in the two sides’ previous meeting, but when Joselu’s stray pass was intercepted by John Stones, the reason for Benitez’s caution became clear. As the £47.5m centre-back strode clear with the ball, four Newcastle players were taken out of the game and all of a sudden gaps opened up across the pitch. Eventually, Kevin De Bruyne found space on the left-hand side of the box and delivered the ball on a plate for Raheem Sterling, but the former Liverpool man had strayed inches offside before tucking the ball past Karl Darlow. That was one of few chances for City in a first half where Newcastle looked organised and compact, though when Leroy Sane dropped the ball on a plate for David Silva, it looked as though his cut back would be gobbled up by Fernandinho to give the hosts the lead. Darlow managed to block the shot, but was left stranded seconds later when De Bruyne floated in a cross for Sergio Aguero to graze with the tips of his quiff and break the deadlock. De Bruyne almost doubled the lead soon after, flashing a shot at goal from the edge of the area, but Darlow was able to beat the ball away for a corner.
Guardiola’s side continued to dominate possession in the second half, but it took an exceptional passing move, and Sterling darting his way past Javier Manquillo before taking a tumble, for the hosts to extend the lead. Ageuro’s cool finish from the spot looking to take the game away from Newcastle and have away fans fearing the worst. Less than five minutes later, however, the visitors were back in the game. A City attack broke down on the edge of the Newcastle area and Clark surged forward with the ball. After a one-two with Joselu, the Irishman delivered an inch perfect through ball for Jacob Murphy to race onto, with the winger one-on-one with Ederson. Yet to score his first goal in the Premier League, the former Norwich man took his time before dinking the ball over the Brazilian stopper and create mayhem in the away end. City were back on the front foot immediately looking to kill the game once and for all, and it took an outstanding save from Darlow to prevent Sterling adding a third from Sane’s cross. Moments later, Newcastle’s golden chance arrived. Mo Diame surged into the penalty area, using upper body strength to hold off City’s backline, and hit a curling shot that Ederson was unable to gather. The rebound fell to the feet of substitute Ayoze Perez, but the Spaniard could only shoot straight at Ederson again and City managed to scramble clear. With the whiff of a point in their nostrils Benitez’s side continued to push forwards, and it didn’t take long for the hosts to make the most of the space as Sane turned three defenders inside out before squaring for Aguero to complete his hat-trick and take his tally against Newcastle to 14 goals in 12 games. Manchester City’s quality eventually shone through, but there were plenty of positives for Newcastle to take from the game, in a week where any positives have desperately been sought out.
There was just the one game on Sunday this week, with relegation haunted Southampton hoping for a slice of revenge against Tottenham Hotspur following their 5-2 humbling at Wembley on Boxing Day. The pre-match omens looked good for Saints, as the visitors team were struck down with a virus ahead of the game, meaning Christian Eriksen and Hugo Lloris were not well enough to participate. It was the unlikely figure of Eric Dier that almost opened the scoring for Tottenham early in the first half, as Ben Davies’ corner kick fell to the midfielder, but his shot rattled the post and bounced to safety. Saints, no doubt spurred on by the sniffled of their opponents, showed a willingness to attack and after quarter of an hour they reaped their reward. Dusan Tadic found Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left-hand side, and his drilled cross invited an interception from Davinson Sanchez. Unfortunately for the Colombian stopper, the ball bounced off the bottom of his boot and into the bottom corner of Michel Vorm’s goal to give the hosts the lead. Taking a lead for granted is something Southampton fans have learned not to do so far this season, having seen their side drop fourteen points from winning positions so far this season (the second highest behind Bournemouth), so when Harry Kane equalised for Tottenham with a close range header from Davies’ corner a minute later it came as no real surprise. That goal took the Spurs’ marksman to 99 in the Premier League, and also put him out in front as ‘the player whose every goal is significant’.
The second half was as grey and drab as the South Coast weather as both teams struggled to find any real rhythm and perhaps looked on a point apiece as a decent enough result. Spurs, clearly nowhere near full fitness, managed to carve out one real opportunity in the second half as Jack Stephen’s last-second block prevented Erik Lamela squeezing a shot on goal from close range, while Southampton substitute Michael Obafemi almost secured a dream debut as he connected with Dusan Tadic’s cross. Unfortunately for the 17 year old the connection was a poor one and the ball drifted out to safety. All in all a good point for Mauricio Pellegrino to keep pace with Saints’ relegation rivals.
The final game of the weekend pitted Carlos Carvalhal’s ever-improving Swansea against Liverpool – vanquishers of Manchester City and new holders of the league’s longest unbeaten run with fourteen. The last time these two sides met, Liverpool ran out comprehensive 5-0 winners, but much has changed in the three weeks since Carvalhal’s appointment. That defeat left the Swans rooted to the bottom of the league on 13 points, five adrift of safety. Four points from three games since the Portuguese arrived had at least narrowed the gap to 17th down to four, but the marked improvement in Swansea’s performances has given the Liberty Stadium faithful the faintest whiff of survival hope. Even so, Liverpool would offer a stern test, particularly with £75m man Virgil Van Dijk making his Premier League debut at the heart of the Reds defence. From the off it was the visitors that looked to take the game by the scruff of the neck, with Swansea deploying a compact defensive line in the hopes of shackling the Liverpool frontline of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. Mane did manage to wriggle clear of the attentions of Swansea’s centre-backs in the 8th minute, but Lukas Fabianski was quick off his line to smother the ball before the Reds striker had the opportunity to get his shot away. Van Dijk then almost repeated his FA Cup heroics as he met Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner with a towering header, but the ball drifted wide of the far post. Jurgen Klopp’s side looked a little sluggish compared to their performance against Manchester City, and Swansea slowly grew into the game as they sensed an upset might be on the cards, though Salah will have been disappointed to blaze over when Can’s lobbed pass presented him with a good opportunity. With the game drifting towards half-time, the hosts took a sensational lead. Ki Sung-Yueng’s corner was only partially cleared by Van Dijk, and after seeing the ball bounce off Federico Fernandez, Alfie Mawson swivelled and struck a low shot into the bottom corner.
While Carvalhal may have expected an onslaught from the visitors in the second half, the Swans were rarely troubled, despite struggling to get the ball past the halfway line. Salah saw a free-kick tipped over by Fabianski, but it quickly became clear that Liverpool had started to run out of ideas. Can and Joel Matip both fired shots well over from distance, and when they did find space in the area, substitute Danny Ings could only hit a tame shot at the Swansea keeper. The visitors best chance of the match came in the fourth minute of stoppage time, as a delightful chipped cross from Van Dijk found Firmino in space at the back post, but the Brazilian could only divert the ball onto the woodwork from close range. It’s often said that a few slices of luck are needed to avoid relegation, and that’s miss from Firmino might have massive ramifications for Swansea’s top-flight status come the end of the season. A fantastic result for Carvalhal, and the team that looked dead and buried just a month ago have now dragged themselves back into the reckoning for survivial.
While the title race may have been sewn up back in November, the relegation picture becomes murkier by the week. Just six points now separate Watford in 10th and Swansea in 20th, and you could make a claim for any three of the teams in this Royal Rumble of a relegation scrap to be the unfortunate ones come May. The next few weeks are vital.