Comrade’s Twenty-Sixth. Premier League Week 26 Review.

With the transfer window now closed, the Premier League returned to normal service this weekend, with plenty of managers undoubtedly experiencing that sinking feeling you get when you come home from the shops and realise you’ve forgotten to pick something up. Antonio Conte probably meant to get some stationery so he could draft his letter of resignation for the end of the season, while Jose Mourinho was supposed to get some rat poison in ahead of his post-match bottle of wine with Pep after the forthcoming Manchester derby. Sam Allardyce, meanwhile, really should have topped up on Fray Benton pies – he’s down to his last fifty. But there will also have been coaches pleased with the business done in the winter window, safe in the knowledge it’ll be enough to see them through to the end of the season – that multi-pack of gaffer tape that Claude Puel put to good use on Riyad Mahrez is sure to pay dividends once the Algerian playmaker finally works out how to break free from it.

But once all the checking of receipts and four-month warranties is done, it was time to get back to playing football. In the Saturday lunchtime game Burnley hosted Manchester City looking to add their name to the star-studded list of teams that have taken points from Pep Guardiola’s side so far this season. Sean Dyche’s side were looking to break a winless run of eight games stretching back to their narrow victory over Stoke in December. Fortunately for the Clarets, well over half of the Premier League is utterly hopeless, so their standing in the league has barely suffered during the barren run. January  signing Aaron Lennon was given a start on the right hand side, while Sam Vokes was recalled to the team after pinching a point at St James Park in midweek. For City, Vincent Kompany was given his latest opportunity to prove that the termite infestation in his legs has been dealt with, as new boy Aymeric Laporte dropped to the bench. Much of the pre-match talk surrounded Guardiola’s decision to only name six substitutes, which offered an excellent chance to identify estranged father’s watching on – they’re the ones going beetroot purple and calling it ‘a disgrace’. Despite Guardiola’s insolence, City made a bright start and took the lead after 22 minutes. Kevin De Bruyne’s short corner was laid off for Danilo, and the Brazilian full-back hit a curling drive past Nick Pope in the Burnley goal. Ben Mee came closest to restoring parity in the first half, as he struck a volley that Ederson got down quickly to save, though Guardiola will have been fuming that Sergio Aguero couldn’t connect with a rebound after Pope had beaten away De Bruyne’s strike to double City’s lead.

BURMCI

The league leaders should have been out of sight by the hour mark, as Aguero saw his goalbound shot blocked by Matt Lowton, and Raheem Sterling ballooned a shot over the bar after good work by his Argentinian strike partner. Ederson once again came to City’s rescue at the other end, as Lennon’s shot, destined for the top corner, was touched onto the post by the Brazilian stopper. The visitor’s golden chance to seal the points arrived with twenty minutes left to play, as Kyle Walker rampaged down the right hand side, delivered a low cross into the area and Sterling, completely unmarked and with the goal gaping, managed to sidefoot wide. I’d love to say that my grandmother could have finished it, but sadly she’s been dead for twelve years. Plus, close range finishing was never her strongest skill – it was mainly flatulence and criticism. Sterling’s profligacy would come back to haunt City, as, with two minutes of normal time remaining, Lowton’s long ball fell invitingly towards the feet of Johann Berg Gudmundsson, and the winger side-footed a volley past Ederson to earn Burnley a point. Honours even then, between two sides that have worked the hard yards already this season. This result should have little bearing on their final league positions.

The 3pm kick-offs were a relegation scrap bonanza, with eight of the sides currently in the fight to survive all involved. Brighton, who haven’t won a game since before Christmas, welcomed West Ham’s walking wounded looking for their first ever Premier League double, having whooped the Hammers 3-0 at the London Stadium in October. David Moyes gave a first start to loan signing Joao Mario, while fellow January recruit Jordan Hugill took his place on the bench. Declan Rice and Sam Byram also made the starting line-up, while Brighton included their new loan signing, the returning Leonardo Ulloa, among the substitutes. It was Brighton’s incumbent striker that broke the deadlock after eight minutes, as the Hammers’ defence was carved open and Glenn Murray stole in to slide a shot beyond Adrian and give the Seagulls an early lead. On the half hour mark, West Ham hit back in the surprising form of misfiring striker Javier Hernandez. The 29 year old with the infantile shirt name picked up the ball on the edge of the area, played a one-two and smashed the ball past Mat Ryan to restore parity.

BRIWHA

Brighton were back on the front foot in the second half, and retook the lead before the hour. Jose Izquierdo picked up the ball on the right hand corner of the box and released a beautiful arced shot slap bang into the postage stamp of the goal and beyond the despairing reach of Adrian. First class indeed. Fifteen minutes later, Brighton secured the points as Pascal Groß worked himself a yard of space on the edge of the box and fired a shot into the bottom corner to give the Seagulls a two goal cushion. The German playmaker could have had a second, as Adrian palmed away an effort from the outside of his boot at a tight angle, while Solly March should have rubber-stamped the South Cost side’s dominance late on, but could only shoot over when presented with a chance on the rebound. Another worryingly meek collapse from Moyes’ team, though the incompetence below them in the table might just be enough to keep them in the league this year. For Brighton a crucial win that lifts them out of the quagmire, at least temporarily.

Two sides that started the day in the bottom three met at the  Hawthorns, with Daniel Sturridge making his home debut for West Bromwich Albion, wearing the #15 alongside  the hopes of 20,000 Baggies on his back. Alan Pardew’s trademark upswing has appeared to have taken hold in recent weeks, with four points from their last three league games as well as progression through to the FA Cup fifth round secured since the beginning of January. Mauricio Pellegrino meanwhile has been clinging on to his job as Southampton manager with great aplomb, as Saints headed to the West Midlands currently unbeaten in 2018, though three draws from their last three league games has done nothing to help their league position. After a wonderful tribute to Baggies hero Cyrille Regis pre-match, the stage looked set for a galvanised West Brom side to secure the win that would put them in touching distance of safety. Ahmed Hegazi’s fourth minute opener did little to dispel that feeling, towering above a static Saints defence and powering a header past Alex McCarthy from Chris Brunt’s corner. Minutes later Sturridge had the opportunity to mark his home debut with a goal, but despite being played in on goal the Birmingham born forward could only lift his shot over. Saints’ big money January signing was then given an opportunity to open his account as Ryan Bertrand delivered a teasing centre into the Baggies area, but Ben Foster got down quickly to turn Guido Carrillo’s toe-poke behind. From the resulting corner, the ball was laid off to Mario Lemina and the tough-tackling midfielder launched a rocket of a shot into the top corner to level the scores. With five minutes to go to half time and the Baggies rocking,  Pardew will have been hoping for his side to see out the remainder of the half, but just three minutes later Saints took the lead  – Jack Stephens’ looping header from James Ward Prowse’s corner evading the grasp of Foster.

WBASOU

Southampton, still to win a game since November, came out in the second to half looking to kill this one off, and ten minutes after half time they looked to have done exactly that. Sofiane Boufal won a free-kick on the edge of the area and, after an extended dispute over who should take it, allowed Ward-Prowse to step up. The Saints’ academy curled a shot around the wall and into the bottom corner to extend the visitors advantage. West Brom weren’t finished however, and with a little under twenty minutes left to play, Brunt delivered a wicked cross from deep right onto the bonce of Salomon Rondon to haul the Baggies back into the game. Despite an extended period of pressure, Pardew’s side were unable to carve out any further clear cut chances and only a wayward header from Shane Long prevented Saints’ victory  looking more comfortable. Though there’s still plenty left to play for, West Brom now find themselves four points adrift from safety and looking like they might be the first casualties of the drop this season. Southampton, having looked desperate for the past two months, have jumped up to 15th.

In the other Saturday afternoon games, Manchester United swept aside Huddersfield Town at Old Trafford, with Alexis Sanchez scoring on his home debut for Mourinho’s side, despite missing a penalty. Bournemouth’s excellent run of form continued as they came from behind to beat Stoke City at home, and Carlos Carvalhal continued to work his magic in the Swansea dugout, earning a very decent looking point away at Leicester.

The evening game pitted two of the game’s great thinkers against each other once more. Arsene Wenger, that stately figure of the English game who has done so much to ensure the progression of football in the Premier League and at Arsenal, and Sam Allardyce, who has a PHD in mashed potatoes. The new look Arsenal took to the field to face-off against a decidedly weary looking Everton, with Pierre-Emerick Aubamayeng making his first appearance for the club since his mega-money move from Borussia Dortmund in midweek. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was also given a first start for Arsenal, as Alexandre Lacazette and Mohammed Elneny dropped to the bench. Theo Walcott returned to his former prancing ground for the visitors, while Eliquiam Mangala was hoping he could prove his myriad of doubters wrong after his loan move from Manchester City. Allardyce opted for an unfamiliar, and atypically continental three man defence, and his decision to try some of that foreign muck was quickly proven ill-advised. It took the Gunners just six minutes to breach Everton’s unaccustomed  backline. With a sea of blue shirts sitting deep, Aubameyang pinged a ball out to Mkhitaryan on the flank, and the Armenian’s centre was tapped in by the mystifyingly unmarked Aaron Ramsey. Eight minutes later, Arsenal doubled their lead. Shkodran Mustafi, fresh from Tuesday’s horror show in South Wales, flicked on a corner kick, and Laurent Koscielney arrived with a stooping  header to convert from a yard out. Much like their last home league game against Crystal Palace, Arsenal looked devastating against a defence all too happy to sit back and try and soak up the pressure, but with Everton’s defence looking more like a well-used chamois leather, the Gunners looked certain to score each time they came forward. A third goal for the hosts wasn’t far around the corner, and when Ramsey took aim from 25 yards, Mangala was on hand to give the midfielder’s shot the deflection it needed to deceive Jordan Pickford. Aubameyang almost added his name to the scoresheet soon after, but this time Pickford was able to tighten the angle and keep the shot out. The Gabonese wouldn’t have much longer to wait however, as Mkhitaryan’s slide-rule pass put the striker clean through and, despite looking a yard offside, the linesman’s flag never arrived, and Aubameyang opened his Arsenal account with a cute dink over Pickford. As half-time arrived Everton fans, justifiably refusing to pay through the nose to drown their sorrows at the Emirates bar, wandered into the North London night looking for anything more comforting than their team’s lacklustre performance.

Wenger’s team talk presumably consisted of a fifteen minute loop of the Hamburgler GIF, as Arsenal appeared to take their foot off the gas in the second half, even having the nobility to allow Everton some possession in their half. Walcott, looking like a man who’s ex has just won the lottery, swung a cross into the Arsenal box but Oumar Niasse, preferred to £27m signing Cenk Tosun, could only guide the ball onto the post. The Toffees did eventually get on the scoresheet when substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin nodded Cuco Martina’s cross past the underworked Petr Cech, but even the young striker’s evening went downhill as, while trying to prevent an Arsenal throw-in, Mkhitaryan nipped in to steal the ball from Calvert-Lewin, before guiding a pinpoint pass to the feet of the waiting Ramsey, who duly picked his spot and completed his hat-trick. A second capital capitulation in a matter of weeks for Allardyce’s side who, despite having spent almost £50m in the January window look no superior to the cluster of teams below them in the league. Promising signs of revival for Arsenal and Wenger, however, though with a chasm between themselves and the top four, winning the Europa League is surely the only achievable target left to salvage the season.

The two Sunday games brought a little from column A (desperate relegation six-pointer) and a little from column b (free-flowing football in the race for top four) as Crystal Palace played host to Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur visited Liverpool. With deadline day signing Islam Slimani sidelined with a thigh injury, Dwight Gayle was recalled to lead the line for Rafa Benitez’s side as Wednesday’s scapegoat Joselu was dropped from the matchday squad. Roy Hodgson named new striker Alexander Sorloth on the bench, but the Dane may well be introduced to the first team sooner than expected after witnessing Christian Benteke’s performance in this game. It was  the burly Belgian that spurned the first chance of the afternoon, having been played clean through by Wilfred Zaha but unable to pull the trigger before Newcastle ‘keeper Karl Darlow could spread his body and block the Palace striker’s shot. In what was an open first half, Newcastle struck the first blow in the 22nd minute. Kenedy, having already registered an assist on his debut, drove a low corner into the Palace area and, with Ayoze Perez’s flick evading everyone, Mo Diame was on hand at the back post to divert the ball in and give the visitors the lead. Both sides could and should have added to the scoresheet before the break – Paul Dummett’s block from Zaha’s effort after good work down the wing by Timothy Fosu-Mensah maintained the Geordies’ lead, and it could have been extended had Martin Kelly not thrown himself in the way of Kenedy’s shot, before Perez’s placement-before-power effort was turned wide by Wayne Hennessey.

CRYNEW

Hodgson’s side stepped up a gear in the second half and after surviving a two-on-one scare when Kenedy broke away from a corner only to play a poor pass behind the run of Perez, the Eagles bombarded their visitors goal. Ten minutes after half-time, Palace were gifted a soft penalty as Ciaran Clark was penalised for tugging on Benteke’s shirt, and despite getting a hand to it, Darlow was unable to keep Luka Milivojevic’s spot-kick out. James McCarthur then spurned a chance to give the Eagles the lead, carving open an opportunity with a mazy run but spooning his shot over. With Newcastle’s defence at sixes and sevens, and Darlow in particular working himself into a flap, Benteke should have earned all three points  for Hodgson’s side with his header from Zaha’s cross, but Clark was able to clear off the line and partially redeem himself for conceding the penalty. The Magpies held on for  a point, but will once again curse themselves for spurning opportunities to seal the game before conceding an equaliser. While every point counts in this tight scrap at the bottom, Benitez’s side could easily have had four more from their last two games. Whether they’ll regret those lapses come the end of the season remains to be seen.

The thigh-rubber of the gameweek kicked off late Sunday afternoon, with Liverpool hoping to avenge their Wembley schooling at the hands of Harry Kane and Tottenham earlier in the season. Having lost at Swansea almost a fortnight ago, as well as being dumped out of the FA Cup by West Brom, Liverpool’s inconsistency has remained a point of contention and that scintillating victory over Manchester City has quickly become a distant memory. Tottenham’s dominance over Manchester United in midweek went some way to showing that they’re still in the hunt for a top four place, though a defeat at Anfield would see them fall five points behind their opponents. A nervy looking Spurs fell behind less than three minutes into the game, as Eric Dier’s inexplicable backpass fell into the path of Mo Salah, and Liverpool’s top scorer needed no invitation to bury the ball into the far corner, wrong-footing Hugo Lloris in the process. The first half action was end-to-end, but produced few clear cut chances – Virgil Van Dijk heading straight at Lloris from close range, and Mousa Dembele rolling a daisy cutter into the grateful grasp of Loris Karius at the other end.

LIVTOT

Tottenham managed to find a foothold in the game during the second half, but still struggled to convert their dominance into an equaliser – Karius exhibiting a rare slice of initiative by blocking Hueng-Min Son’s shot when the Korean was given a sniff of goal. Dele Alli was then booked after taking a laughable fall in the box, though as revelations on social media would later show, a lack of acting skill doesn’t necessarily hamper one’s chances of finding fame on camera. Tottenham’s second-half dominance finally told with ten minutes to go, as Karius pushed Christian Eriksen’s cross into the path of Victor Wanyama, and the Kenyan destroyer launched a vicious first time shot into the top corner of Liverpool’s goal to even things up. Two minutes later, Tottenham had the chance to take the lead – Alli’s pass managed to trickle through to Kane, and this time Karius mistimed his dive and took the striker’s legs away to concede a penalty. Fortunately for the onlooking Kop, Kane’s usual nerves of steel faltered and his dreadful spot-kick ended up lodged in Karius’ throat. As the game ticked into stoppage time it looked as though Kane would be left to pay for his rare moment of profligacy, as Salah twisted and turned his way past three Spurs defenders before lifting the ball over Lloris to give Liverpool a late, late lead. Martin Tyler, with a twinkle in his eye, proclaimed  that ‘Harry Kane will have to take it on the chin’. Fortunately there’s plenty of room on there. Alas, with beads of sweat pouring from the temples of the assembled match reporters, their fingertips now red raw from redrafting copy four times in the space of ten minutes, they were forced into another rewrite in the fourth minute of stoppage time. With the ball bouncing around the Liverpool penalty area, Van Dijk inexplicably thrust a knee into Erik Lamela’s back and the midfielder duly dropped to the floor like a sack of spuds – a second penalty for the visitors in the space of ten minute. This time, Kane took aim for the bottom corner and earned Tottenham the point their second half endeavor deserved, adding his name to the Premier League 100 club in the process. With exhilaration and schadenfreude  in equal measure, the race for the top four looks like providing an entertaining sideshow in the season’s run-in.

The final game of the weekend saw Javi Gracia take charge of his first home game as Watford manger, having replaced Marco Silva a fortnight ago. Watford had been busy in the January window, and Gerard Deulofeu took his place in the starting line-up following his loan arrival from Barcelona. Didier Ndong and Dodi Lukebakio were named among the substitutes, as were Chelsea’s two new acquisitions – Olivier Giroud and Emerson Palmieri. It became apparent from the early exchanges that one side were far more up for the game than the other, though it was Watford, a side in terrible form, that made all of the early running without seriously threatening Thibaut Courtois’ goal. Deulofeu’s first opportunity to impress in a yellow shirt arrived in the opening quarter of the game, but he could only thrash a shot into the side netting. With Chelsea lacking in adventure, their task was made all the more difficult by two clumsy challenges from Tiemoue Bakayoko, which saw the French midfielder sent off having been booked for both. From that moment the momentum swung fully in the home side’s favour, though Richarlison’s shot from distance gave Courtois a comfortable first save. The Belgian custodian proved less comfortable three minutes before the break as he raced out needlessly to meet Deulofeu, who was heading for the byline and being tracked by Davide Zappacosta, and gave the winger the perfect opportunity to go down in the area and earn Watford a penalty. Troy Deeney, never one to pass up such a golden opportunity, buried the spot kick.

WATCHE

Watford’s dominance continued into the second half, the team clearly buoyed by the arrival of Gracia, and David Luiz was fortunate to see Richarlison’s effort curl wide having been caught in possession by his fellow countryman. Abdoulaye Doucoure, enjoying a fantastic season and once again the driving force behind Watford’s attacking play, then stung the palms of Courtois with a drive from distance. It was well over the hour mark before Chelsea finally forced Orestis Karnezis into a save, though Cesc Fabregas’ pea-roller never looked like seriously testing the Greek stopper. Then, with less than ten minutes to go, a moment of inspiration from Eden Hazard dragged Chelsea level. Cutting inside from the left, the playmaker shifted the ball onto his right before unleashing a rangy curling effort into the bottom corner, punishing Watford’s wastefulness in front of goal. Fortunately for the Hornets, their benevolent visitors crumbled minutes after retaining a hold in the game. Daryl Janmaat played a one-two with Doucoure on the edge of the box before dancing past three Chelsea defences to slide the ball past Courtois and reinstate Watford’s lead. Four minutes later the points were sealed, as Deulofeu, proving himself an excellent bit of business by Gracia, strode towards the Chelsea area unchallenged and passed the ball into the bottom corner via a deflection from Gary Cahill’s studs. Chelsea seemingly falling apart, and still not finished with as Robert Pereyra struck a wonderful outswinging shot from a tight angle inside the far post to put the icing on an impressive Watford performance. For a while it looked as though all their work early in the season would be undone with a dreadful run of results, but on the strength of this performance it seems unlikely they’ll be in the relegation reckoning come May. For Chelsea, two comprehensive defeats against sides in the bottom half will prompt an inquest, and Antonio Conte may well be pushed before he can jump. Has anyone got Guus Hiddink’s number?

 

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