The arid wasteland of January is now a distant memory, and a year jam-packed full of sporting goodness is well underway. The Winter Olympics in South Korea, currently being dominated by Germany, have already given us the unforgettable sight of the North Korean Figure Skating Ultras haunting the dreams of all who regard them, their melodic yet robotic song and metronomic swaying the result of endless days of rehearsing and undoubtedly long nights on the end of a sharp talking to. A little closer to home, the annual toff-off is now into its second week as the Six Nations returns to discover which of the countries in the Northern Hemisphere that has enough public schools to encourage rugby is the best. Any correlation with the sudden spike of plummy accented men defecating into pint glasses has yet to be confirmed. With so much sport to ignore, you could be forgiven for missing another weekend of top-flight football.
In times of crisis such as these, a blood and thunder derby day is just what the doctor ordered, though on this occasion he’s prescribed a placebo in the shape of Tottenham v Arsenal. The revitalised Gunners emerged from their Trojan horse of a transfer window to hump Everton into, well, this week, and the restoration of some North London pride was next on the agenda, having fallen into something of a malaise, as far as derbies are concerned, in recent years. With just one league victory at White Hart Lane in the past decade, Arsene Wenger was hoping his side’s impressive winning streak at Wembley – standing at nine ahead of kick-off – would be enough to give them the edge over a Tottenham side who, as recently as September, were said to be ‘cursed’ by their temporary home. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were both included in attack after their impressive home debuts last week, though hat-trick hero Aaron Ramsey was missing with injury. Lucas Moura was again left on the bench for Tottenham, with Christian Eriksen currently in undroppable form. It was the hosts that had the best of the first half, though clear-cut chances were at a premium – Shkodran Mustafi, still fresh from his nightmare at Swansea ten days ago, came closest to opening the scoring, as he sliced Eriksen’s cross towards his own goal, only for the alert Petr Cech to turn it round the post. The newest member of the Premier League 100 club Harry Kane then headed a cross from his Danish teammate over the bar when well placed in the penalty area, while Hector Bellerin had Arsenal’s best chance, blasting over from the edge of the area.
Having edged the first half it took Spurs just four minutes of the second to break the deadlock, with Ben Davies’ cross met by the considerable forehead of Kane who, having out-jumped the Arsenal back-line planted his header low past Cech to open the scoring. The England striker almost added to his tally minutes later, striking a vicious volley from the edge of the area, but Cech was equal to it. With the Gunners struggling to get a foothold in the match, Tottenham should have been home and dry with twenty to play, as first Eriksen’s free-kick was tipped over, and then Erik Lamela and Kieran Trippier found themselves thwarted by Cech from tight angles. Those missed opportunities left the visitors clinging onto the hope of a point, and Wenger rolled the dice introducing Alexandre Lacazette to partner the subdued Aubameyang. Upon signing in the summer, the former Lyon hit-man had claimed he would make the difference in tight games, and in a way he did at Wembley. First by ballooning a side-foot volley over the bar following Mesut Ozil’s cut-back, and then, having squirmed through the Spurs backline, slicing his shot beyond the far-post when in on goal. That turned out to be the last chance of the game, and perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Arsenal’s top four chances, coming days after Wenger had reasserted his desire to gain Champions League qualification through league position. The win took Spurs seven points clear of Arsenal, and for the time being at least, into fourth, no less than Mauricio Pochettino’s side deserved for a dominant display.
The 3pm kick-offs featured no fewer than eight sides either embroiled in or sitting on the edges of the relegation scrap. Everton, who started the day in eleventh, but six points clear of the bottom three, entertained Crystal Palace in a meeting between two former England managers. The disgraced Sam Allardyce emerged with three points after goals from Gylfi Sigurdsson, Oumar Niasse and Tom Davies secured a 3-1 win over the disgraced Roy Hodgson’s side. Another two managers bound by their past met at the bet365 with Paul Lambert and Chris Hughton, both former Norwich City managers, facing off in a relegation six-pointer between Stoke City and Brighton and Hove Albion. The Seagulls took a first half lead through Colombian Jose Izquierdo, but Xherdan Shaqiri’s second half drive levelled the scores. Stoke perhaps should have taken all three points having been awarded a late penalty, but Mat Ryan was equal to Charlie Adam’s spot-kick, and an incredible last-ditch tackle from Lewis Dunk prevented the midfielder from netting the follow up. Elsewhere the Carlos Carvalhal locomotive continued at full speed as Swansea added Burnley to their list of recent conquests, a third win in five for the Welsh side, and West Ham came out on top against Watford thanks to goals from Javier Hernandez and Marko Arnautovic.
Manchester City’s procession to the Premier League title continued in the Saturday evening game as Leicester City arrived in the North West as the latest sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. Among Claude Puel’s matchday squad was Riyad Mahrez – missing for the past two games after being denied a move to the Etihad on deadline day and subsequently going off in a monk, the Algerian playmakers inclusion on the bench seemed, if anything, a touch cruel on Puel’s part. Foussani Diabate continued in his supporting role behind Jamie Vardy, but it took just three minutes for City to slice the Foxes open and take the lead. Having lost possession on the edge of the area, the Leicester defence were slow to close down Kevin De Bruyne, and the Belgian’s inch-perfect cross fell to the feet of Raheem Sterling for a chance so easy even he couldn’t miss. Having conceded within three minutes it would have been easy for Leicester to fold but, set up in an unfamiliar 3-2-3-1-1 formation, the Foxes clawed their way back into the game and levelled up in the 24th minute. Nicolas Otamendi’s loose pass was pounced upon by Vardy, and the England striker scampered past two defenders before arrowing a shot into the bottom corner. That was the beginning and end of Leicester goal threat in the first half, but despite De Bruyne and Sterling both being given sights of goal, Kasper Schmeichel’s save and Aleksander Dragovic’s block were enough to keep the score level at the break.
Puel took the bold decision to change his formation for the second half setting his team up in a 4-5-1, and within three minutes it proved to be a mistake. A one-two on the edge of the box between De Bruyne and Sterling gave the Belgian enough space to slide a languid looking cross into the area measured perfectly for the onrushing Sergio Aguero to tap home and restore City’s lead. Leicester were soon the architects of their own downfall once again as Harry Maguire, pressed back onto his own goal line, played a hazardous looking back-pass to Schmeichel, and the Dane’s rushed clearance allowed Fernandinho and De Bruyne to play in Aguero, leaving Leicester’s keeper with little chance from the striker’s fierce shot. Mahrez was then sheepishly introduced from the bench, but by now the game had run away from the Foxes, and a fourth City goal was once again presented on a silver platter by Leicester’s defence. Schmeichel, too clever by half, tried to cooly pass the ball out from the back under pressure, and Aguero intercepted the pass before chipping the keeper. Now he knows how Phillipe Albert made his Dad feel. Not content with his twelfth Manchester City hat-trick, Aguero continued to buzz around the Leicester box looking for opportunities, and another arose as Phil Foden shrugged off the attentions of his marker, slid the ball into Aguero’s path and invited the striker to unleash a rocket of a shot that cannoned in off the underside of the bar, his first goal from outside the area this season. A glorious way to round off an emphatic afternoon and, beyond the talk of financial doping and state-funded success, a privilege to watch a side so comfortable and confident going forward. Too often we’ve seen teams sleep walk to title success, grinding out results and eschewing beautiful football, but Pep Guardiola’s side are, on this form, an absolute joy to watch.
Sunday’s triple header kicked off in Yorkshire with Huddersfield Town taking on Bournemouth. Much discussion on the relegation picture this week had condemned David Wagner’s side to the drop after a run which has seen them lose five and draw three of their last eight games, and win only once at home since Bonfire Night. Conversely, Bournemouth made the long trip north unbeaten since Christmas, with back to back wins against Chelsea and Stoke lifting them to the fringes of the fight for survival. Terence Kongolo dropped to the bench following his robust performance against Manchester United last week, while Swiss full-back Florent Hadergjonaj was recalled to the Huddersfield team, cementing his place as the only player in Premier League history whose name is a result of a narcoleptic registrar. The visitors predictably looked the more comfortable side in the opening exchanges, but it was Wagner’s team that took a surprise lead in the seventh minute. Steve Mounie skipped to the byline before dragging a pass pack into the box for Alex Pritchard to net his first goal for the club since joining from Norwich in January. Unperturbed, the Cherries pushed forward again and levelled the scores eight minutes later. Ryan Fraser’s first time cross landed at the feet of Junior Stanislas, and the former West Ham man, unmarked at the back post, calmly controlled the ball, shifted onto his right and passed a shot into the bottom corner. Despite their visitors exuding confidence, Huddersfield turned the tide back in their favour once more, and regained the lead when Lewis Cook shoved Jonathan Hogg and, from the resulting free-kick, Aaron Mooy arced a cross into the box for Steve Mounie to power home.
Despite Bournemouth almost levelling when Mads Jorgensen diverted Callum Wilson’s cross towards his own goal, the momentum began to swing in the home side’s favour in the second half, with Mooy and Tom Ince in particular causing the Cherries problems. Indeed, it was the Australian Mooy who teed up Mounie to score his second of the afternoon with a crisp pass from the left that the Terriers striker arrowed into the bottom corner. That transpired to be Mooy’s last contribution to the game as, minutes later a challenge with Cook left the playmaker in a heap, putting an end to his afternoon and, at first glance, potentially his season. Wagner’s side battled on though and, having taken a leaf out of his mate Jurgen Klopp’s book, continued the high press on their visitors to great effect. With Bournemouth never allowed to settle, the chances of Howe’s team finding a way back into the game diminished by the minute, and the result was secured with a flourish in stoppage time when Dan Gosling brought down Pritchard. Rajiv Van La Parra’s sidefooted spot-kick sealed the win, and took Huddersfield out of the bottom three. Rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
That Huddersfield win meant that Newcastle United dropped into the relegation zone ahead of their meeting with Manchester United. Jose Mourinho headed into the game having never won on Tyneside, though the addition of Alexis Sanchez to a forward line boasting Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial ahead of Paul Pogba certainly couldn’t harm his chances. Mourinho’s old foe Rafa Benitez named on-loan goalkeeper Martin Dubrakva in his starting line-up for the first-time, the Slovakian stopper joined the Magpies from Sparta Prague on deadline day, and took the place of Karl Darlow. Florian Lejeune also returned to the starting line-up after a long injury lay-off, though Islam Slimani wasn’t deemed fit enough to make the matchday squad. Despite Newcastle’s struggles against the top sides so far this season – they’d only taken a point off the top six from seven games – they started the brighter side, and could’ve taken the lead when Jonjo Shelvey smashed a shot at goal following Dwight Gayle’s rebounded free-kick, David De Gea, though, was alert to the danger. Manchester United eased into the game however, with Sanchez looking particularly dangerous, and the Chilean’s reverse ball gave Jesse Lingard space for a shot at goal that Dubravka was down quickly to turn wide. The golden chance of the first half came when Nemanja Matic’s slide-rule pass left Martial one-on-one with Dubravka, put the loanee stood firm to turn the Frenchman’s shot away with an outstretched leg. Chris Smalling was fortunate to get away with a lunge on Dwight Gayle in the corner of the penalty area, though what Craig Pawson saw was unclear, penalising neither player despite the absence of a clean tackle.
Mourinho’s side came out strongest in the second half, and were it not for a foul by Smalling could have taken the lead when Lukaku headed past Dubravka, in the event the hosts were awarded a free-kick. Sanchez was then guilty of taking his time over a chance, having rounded the Newcastle ‘keeper the former Arsenal man delayed his shot, allowing Lejeune the opportunity to race back and block the eventual effort. That hesitation would prove costly when Newcastle were awarded a free-kick for a ludicrous dive from Smalling, and it was Lejeune that rose to meet Shelvey’s delivery, Gayle backheeled the knock-down and Matt Ritchie raced onto it and, the picture of composure, slotted into the bottom corner. Having failed to hold on to leads in their previous two games, the tension at St James Park was palpable, and a period of relentless pressure from Mourinho’s side did nothing to dispel it. A double clearance off the line from DeAndre Yedlin prevented Martial from scoring what looked like a certain equaliser and, just as the Magpies looked to have successfully run the clock down, it took an incredible fingertip save to deny Michael Carrick with the last chance of the game. At the final whistle the stadium erupted, and out of nowhere Newcastle rose to 13th in the table having secured a potentially transformative win. Manchester United, however, will now have to start looking nervously over their shoulders once more.
It was another bottom-six versus top-six tie that rounded off Sunday’s action, with Southampton welcoming a Liverpool side that looked more than a little familiar. With Virgil Van Dijk, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane in the starting line-up and Adam Lallana and Dejan Lovren on the bench, the visitors boasted three former Saints players in their matchday squad. What Southampton might give for a couple of those names in their struggle to beat the drop. Saints latest acquisition Guido Carrillo was charged with firing Southampton to an unlikely victory, but before he was able to make any kind of contribution his side were a goal down. A mistake from Wesley Hoedt gave Mo Salah a free run at goal, and the Egyptian’s square ball was slotted in by Roberto Firmino. To Southampton’s credit, they rallied after the goal and could have equalised when Oriel Romeu’s long ball was controlled by Pierre-Emile Hojberg, but the Dane couldn’t beat Loris Karius from close range. James Ward-Prowse was next to test the vulnerable ‘keeper’s mettle, meeting Dusan Tadic’s cross with a firm header at the far post, but Karius again was equal to it, tipping the effort over the bar. Saints’ attacking endeavour wasn’t matched by their defence, however, and after silky footwork from Salah, Firmino was able to backheel through to the Egyptian, who had the simple task of sliding under Alex McCarthy to double the Reds lead.
Southampton never really looked like finding a way back into the game in the second half, and were it not for some wasteful work in front of goal from their visitors, the margin of victory would have been justifiably greater. More sloppy play from the Saints backline allowed Mane a run towards goal, and the Senegalese played in Firmino only for McCarthy to save with his feet – Salah uncharacteristically blasted the rebound wide. Both Mane and Lallana then missed the target with a sight at goal and a chance to pour salt into their former side’s wounds, though the destination of the three points had been all but decided by half-time. On this showing, Southampton will struggle to lift themselves out of the bottom three, having seen rivals Newcastle and Huddersfield haul themselves clear earlier in the afternoon. Even the possibility of a new manager bounce may have passed them by at this stage of the season.
Monday night’s game gave Chelsea the opportunity to atone for their recent back-to-back defeats against Premier League strugglers as they welcomed Premier Leagues strugglers West Bromwich Albion to Stamford Bridge. Having seen Swansea, Huddersfield and Newcastle win over the weekend, the Baggies came into the game with a yawning seven point gap between themselves and safety, knowing that even an unlikely win against the reigning champions wouldn’t move them from the bottom of the table. Olivier Giroud made his first start up front for Antonio Conte’s side since his £18m move from Arsenal, while Emerson Palmieri once again started on the bench. Any hopes of West Brom’s January signing sparking a surprise result disappeared in the fourth minute as Daniel Sturridge rolled his ankle and was forced to hobble off, though the Baggies weren’t backwards in coming forwards during the opening exchanges, as they bombarded the Chelsea area with high balls in the hopes of unsettling their hosts’ defence. It was Chelsea that came closest to opening the deadlock in the early knockings of the game, however, with Ben Foster forced to scramble across goal to keep out Davide Zappacosta’s effort, after the full-back had ghosted in at the back post to meet Cesar Azpilicueta’s deep cross. Giroud was then afforded a glorious opportunity to open his Chelsea account, presented with a chance from ten yards out, but the target-man tamely sidefooted a shot into the feet of Foster and West Brom were able to clear. Five minutes later, and the opener arrived. Eden Hazard drove towards the Baggies box, played a quick one-two with Giroud and fired into the bottom corner, with the visitors unable to lay a glove on the Belgian. Giroud was rewarded for his assist by spending the rest of the half being battered around by West Brom’s centre-backs, leaving the field with a bandaged head and a sore ankle at half time thanks to the attention of Ahmed Hegazi.
West Brom came out of the traps in the second half looking to level the scores and had Salomon Rondon not snatched at his shot after outmuscling Andreas Christiansen, they may have found an equaliser. Thibaut Courtois’ belt-and-braces save afforded the Baggies a corner, but Jonny Evans could only direct a header narrowly over the bar. Much like the first half, that early spell of pressure was as good as it got for Pardew’s side, and Chelsea doubled their lead just past the hour. Cesc Fabregas’ attempted backheel to substitute Alvaro Morata was deflected into the path of Victor Moses, and the wing-back calmly sidefooted past the onrushing Foster. Eight minutes later the game was put to bed, Eden Hazard twisting and turning on the edge of the box before firing a snapshot at goal that left Foster rooted to the spot. Another inspired performance from Chelsea’s main man who, while not having a vintage season, has been Conte’s most consistent bright spot in a tricky campaign. The meek surrender from West Brom has all the hallmarks of a side who know they’re done for. The long and short of it is that they require six wins from their final eleven games – they’ve only managed three from twenty seven so far this season. If the infamous Pardew Bounce is going to arrive, it needs to be sooner rather than later.