The Foreign Secretary this week demonstrated his nous for such an integral role in the British government by waving away concerns over the impact of Brexit on the Irish border by plucking the nonsensical comparison of London boroughs out of the air. “There is no border between Islington, Camden and Westminster. There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people traveling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks.” the space hopper-headed cartoon character plummily argued. Needless to say, Boris Johnson’s comments were met with shock and awe by anyone with a shred of emotional intelligence. That this man, charged with overseeing the continued relationships between Britain and the rest of the world, seems completely oblivious to the sensitive nature of the Irish border is not entirely surprising given his track record of having his head up his arse, but this week’s gaffe was yet another dark foreshadowing of the shitshow that awaits the UK from March 2019. But at least we’ll have taken back control, eh?
The Premier League has found itself subject to an altogether different hard border this season, as the oligopoly of the top six shows no sign of abating. Five of the teams leading the table were in televised action over the weekend, while Saturday’s action opened with two of the sides huffing and puffing their way to the prized position at the top of the ‘other’ league. Burnley headed into the game without a Premier League win since 12th December – a run stretching eleven games. During that time, Sean Dyche’s side hadn’t dropped below 8th position in the league table, which goes some way to demonstrating the dearth in quality in the bottom half of the Premier League. Everton meanwhile have seemingly tossed off their away fixtures for the rest of the season, as Sam Allardyce has switched his attention to picking up the necessary points in the Toffees remaining home games. A risky strategy given that Everton are sat rock bottom of the league in terms of shots, shots on target, and chances created, and one that has understandably stuck in the craw of Everton supporters who travel to watch their team at great cost. Many supporters walked out of the recent fixture at Arsenal after a first half in which Everton found themselves 4-0 down, and those that made the shorter trip to Turf Moor on Saturday were quick to voice their opinions on Allardyce from the first whistle. Those jeers turned to cheers after twenty minutes when Theo Walcott’s cross was nodded on by Seamus Coleman and Cenk Tosun leaped highest to head in his first goal for the Toffees. Having moved to Merseyside with a big repuation and an even bigger price-tag, the talk this week was that the Turkish striker would be heading back to Besiktas after failing to settle, so his maiden strike arrived not a moment too soon. That setback left Burnley with a mountain to climb, and history to rewrite – they’d never won a Premier League game after conceding first – but Ashley Barnes came close to levelling the scores shortly before the break, forcing quick reactions from Jordan Pickford after meeting Matt Lowton’s long through with a header.
The hosts emerged for the second half looking purposeful, and Pickford was awarded a sign of things to come as Aaron Lennon fired a shot at goal, forcing the young ‘keeper to acrobatically turn the ball away for a corner. A little over ten minutes after half-time the inevitable equaliser arrived as Lowton, who gave Cuco Martina a torrid time on Everton’s left-hand side throughout the game, provided a sumptuous pinpoint pass for Barnes to run on to, and with Pickford seemingly hesitant to leave his line, the former Austria Under-21 striker was left with plenty of time to pick his spot an lash a shot into the near post. From then on it was one way traffic, with Lennon in particular looking like a man on a mission to send his former club away with nothing, but Everton held on until ten minutes from time. Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s corner was floated into the mixer and, with Ashley Williams and Michael Keane unable to decide who should be marking him, substitute Chris Wood rose above the Everton defence to head Burnley into the lead. A goal straight from Sam Allardyce’s book of meat and potatoes football. The Toffees finally showed some attacking intent in the final few minutes, but Williams perhaps took the instructions a little too literally as he launched an elbow into the face of Barnes at a Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick. The Wales centre-back trotted off the pitch with the expression of a man not in the slightest bit arsed. The final whistle brought further protests from the away end, with Allardyce bearing the brunt of the barracking. While the purple patch at the beginning of his reign looks to be enough to keep the Toffees out of trouble, that ‘Survival Blueprint’ that did the rounds upon his appointment now appears to lay in tatters. Everton fans – lower your expectations accordingly.
There were five 3pm kick-offs for supporters to get their teeth in to on Saturday, with the best action coming at the Liberty Stadium. Swansea City had looked almost untouchable since Carlos Carvalhal’s appointment, but last weekend’s 4-1 humbling at Brighton went some way to proving that pithy soundbites and Portuguese tarts aren’t all you need to survive a relegation battle. In fairness to Carvalhal, the scoreline was somewhat inflated by his gamble of throwing on every striker registered to the club, and the visit of West Ham wouldn’t have given the Jacks supporters too much undue trepidation. David Moyes’ side – themselves licking their wounds after a 4-1 defeat last weekend – were looking for only their third win on the road this season, and three points that would lift them away from the danger of relegation. There were only eight minutes on the clock when the Swans landed the first blow, as Ki Seung-Yung received the ball 25 yards out, shuffled away from the attentions of his marker, and fired a shot into the bottom corner for his second goal of the season. The Welsh side were clearly in the mood, as wave after wave of attacks were directed towards the West Ham goal, and it took a timely intervention from Declan Rice on the goal-line to keep the deficit to one after a goalmouth scramble. Andre Ayew then tested former teammate Adrian with a shot too hot for the Spanish ‘keeper to handle, and from the resulting corner a completely unchallenged Mike Van Der Hoorn headed in Swansea’s second.
The second half was only three minutes old when the hosts put the game to bed, Andre Ayew again integral as his header was parried, only for Andy King to tap in the rebound. Despite making the points safe, Swansea still had their tails up and a fourth goal wasn’t long in coming. Andre Ayew, a constant thorn in his former team’s side, was tripped in the box by Cheikhou Kouyate, and brother Jordan stepped up to bury the resultant penalty. There was a brief moment of joy for the travelling Hammers when Michail Antonio netted a late consolation after a smart turn in the box, but on the whole it was another miserable afternoon for David Moyes and his team. The concession of another four goals left West Ham with the joint worst defensive record in the league at full time, with 69% of their goals conceded coming away from home. Moyes is another manager who, like Allardyce, has flattered to deceive in his new role, and despite some impressive results during his tenure, the Hammers now find themselves in the thick of a relegation battle.
Elsewhere a Heung-Min Son inspired Tottenham Hotspur brushed Huddersfield Town aside at Wembley, Riyad Mahrez’s 97th minute free-kick earned Leicester City a draw at home to Bournemouth, Southampton and Stoke came away with just a point apiece from the six on offer at St Mary’s and a late Troy Deeney goal hammered what looked to be the final nail in Alan Pardew’s coffin as Watford edged past West Bromwich Albion to all but condemn the Baggies to the Championship, though if reports are to be believed Pardew has somehow managed to swing another week in the job.
In the evening kick off Rafael Benitez returned to Anfield with his Newcastle United side, hoping to continue his unbeaten run as an opposition manager at his former employers. The Spaniard was forced to re-shuffle his pack after Jonjo Shelvey picked up a knee injury during last week’s draw at Bournemouth, and countryman Mikel Merino received a recall to the starting line-up. Matt Ritchie and Ayoze Perez were dropped to the bench, replaced by Christian Atsu and Jacob Murphy as Benitez opted for pace in a flexible 5-4-1 formation in the hope of nicking something on the counter attack. Newcastle were also vying to become only the second team this season to prevent Mo Salah from scoring in both Premier League meetings, a feat so far only achieved by Swansea. The Egyptian netted his 23rd league goal of the season last week against West Ham, taking his total tally for the season to 31 – his previous best was the 19 he scored for Roma last year. Predictably and understandably Newcastle set out their defensive stall early, quickly closing Liverpool down and limiting the space for Salah to run in behind. When the Reds forward did eventually find a gap, his volley from an acute angle was turned away by Martin Dubravka. Dejan Lovren then saw his header saved by the Slovakian ‘keeper, and on the follow up the defender was thwarted by Merino. With the game heading towards the break and Liverpool looking uninspired, a driving run towards the penalty area from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain drew Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune out of position, and Salah took advantage of a rare lapse from the Newcastle backline, running onto Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pass before slipping the ball between Dubravka’s legs. To lose a goal so close to half-time was harsh on an organised Newcastle side, but they could have gone in level after a smart move led to Mohammed Diame looping an effort towards the top corner, only for Loris Karius to pull off a diving save to prevent an equaliser.
Ten minutes after half time Liverpool scored a decisive second. Having struggled to find a rhythm all game, the Reds suddenly clicked, and a devastating one-touch passing move carved the visitors open, before Sadio Mane’s emphatic finish. With the game all but over as a contest the action petered out, though Newcastle did push further forward it was a frustrating evening for their attacking players, and Liverpool could have added a third in stoppage time as Salah found himself one-on-one with Dubravka. Lascalles managed to halt the forward, though the legality of his challenge was questionable. Benitez will have been relieved to see Graham Scott wave away the home sides protestations – had a free-kick been awarded his captain would surely have faced a three-match suspension – though Jurgen Klopp was a little less sanguine, with the Reds manager playing up to his larger than life persona by ranting from the sidelines about a decision in the final seconds of a comfortable home win. Liverpool moved into second with the win, their top four credentials only further enhanced by grinding out a win against stubborn opposition. For Newcastle only a third defeat in eleven, all three to the top two sides in the country, will cause little concern. Focus will now switch to a crunch match against Southampton next weekend before a 21 day break – lose that, and it might start looking uncomfortable for the Magpies.
Sunday’s early game saw Arsenal travel to Brighton at the end of another difficult week for Arsene Wenger. Outplayed and soundly beaten by Manchester City twice in the space of four days further underlined the reality of the Gunners’ current standing among the top sides in the country, unable to lay a glove on their more illustrious opposition over the course of 180 minutes. Though lining up against a side that were playing Championship football this time last year might, on paper, have given Wenger confidence that his players could get a stuttering season back on track, Chris Hughton’s side boast the eighth best home record in the league this season, with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City the only sides to have taken maximum points from their trips to the Amex. The Seagulls had the whiff of an upset in their nostrils from the off, and it only took seven minutes for them to take the lead. Pascal Groß’ corner was nodded back across goal by Shane Duffy, and the Irishman’s central defensive partner Lewis Dunk was on-hand to lash the ball in and give Brighton the lead. Abysmal defending from Arsenal, with Petr Cech appearing completely bamboozled by a fairly straightforward set piece routine from the hosts. Dale Stephens then saw his long range effort comfortably held by Cech, before the Arsenal ‘keeper gallantly blocked Anthony Knockaert’s effort, after the French winger had exchanged passes with Groß. With the visitors looking shaken and Brighton harrying their every touch, it was no surprise that the second of the afternoon arrived via a blue and white shirt. Another straightforward attack, as Groß picked out Glenn Murray with a pinpoint cross, and the striker’s downwards header squirmed under Cech to double Brighton’s lead. Two minutes before the break Arsenal grabbed themselves a lifeline, Granit Xhaka’s driven ball into the box being diverted past Mat Ryan by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Arsenal ramped up the tempo in the second half, having dominated the possession in the first without causing Brighton too many problems, but wasteful efforts in front of goal, particularly from Henrikh Mkhitaryan with a tame effort from long distance, alleviated the pressure on the hosts goal. Aubameyang came closest to snatching an equaliser for the Gunners, but Gaetan Bong was in the right place to snuff out the danger as the Gabonese striker met Mesut Ozil’s cross. The game then petered out somewhat, with Arsenal lacking the offensive guile to penetrate Brighton’s excellent backline, and Wenger was left to contemplate a fourth successive defeat on the road. In current form, they might be lucky to cling onto sixth place, with Burnley somehow closing the gap despite their winless run. Brighton, meanwhile, look home and hosed, sitting seven points above the bottom three and two wins away from that magical 40 point mark. Once again Chris Hughton has quietly gone about his job with minimal fuss, and having finally brought Brighton to the top table it’s looking more and more likely they’ll have a place set for them next season.
The Super Sunday slot this week was reserved for another top six clash, as Manchester City welcomed Chelsea to the Etihad. Having thoroughly outplayed them at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, and with Antonio Conte’s side experiencing something of a wobble of late, there were more than a few suggestions that the champions could be on the receiving end of an almighty humbling. As it was, Conte set his side up to defend deep and make life difficult for City, a game plan that paid dividends in a first half that ended goalless despite the dominance of Guardiola’s men. It’s rare that Chelsea will concede three-quarters of the possession in a half of football, but aside from a Leroy Sane effort cleared off the line by Cesar Azpilicueta, City struggled to carve open any real clear cut chances, while the visitors ended the half having failed to register a shot on goal.
It took mere seconds of the second half for City to break the deadlock, as David Silva’s cross was met by the onrushing Bernado Silva to tap in, with Chelsea’s defence seemingly still in the dressing room. Any hope that the goal might open the game up a little more was confounded, as Chelsea struggled to wrestle possession from a City side happy to knock the ball around and sit on their one goal lead. When Chelsea did manage to see the ball, they opted to lump it forward to no-one in particular. In a season of quiet afternoons, even this will have felt like a day off for Ederson. If this match represented the passing of the baton from champion to champion, then Chelsea’s was a very meek surrender. The defeat left the Blues outside the top four, and five points adrift of Tottenham.
The final match of the weekend offered another one of those intriguing bottom v top encounters that have thrown up so many surprises already this season. Crystal Palace who, up until recently had looked to have escaped the scrap at the bottom, faced a Jekyll and Hyde Manchester United side – narrow winners against Chelsea last time out, but heading into the game off the back of an away defeat to Newcastle. Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba continued in midfield together for Jose Mourinho’s team, while social media irritant Jesse Lingard was preferred to Anthony Martial in the front three. Palace’s gameplan from the beginning was clear – not least due to the presence of striking partnership Alexander Sorloth and Christian Benteke, 6’3 and 6’2 respectively. The opening ten minutes were dominated by the hosts’ aerial bombardment of the United penalty area, though it took some quick thinking from Wayne Hennessey to prevent Alexis Sanchez from converting Lingard’s high ball into the Palace box. In the tenth minute, having reverted to playing the ball on the floor, Palace took the lead. Benteke’s lay-off was met by an exquisite looping effort from Andros Townsend in the D, which nestled into David De Gea’s top corner. United looked less and less like the top four side in the match as the half wore on, and it took a smart save from De Gea to prevent Sorloth extending the Eagles’ lead.
Mourinho, clearly unimpressed with McTominay’s performance, hooked his young midfielder for Marcus Rashford at half-time, but three minutes after the break things got worse for the visitors. Jeff Schlupp’s ball into the channel caught the United backline napping, and Patrick Van Aanholt, given a free run at goal, lashed a shot inside De Gea’s near post to put Palace in full control of the game. The lead was halved seven minutes later when Chris Smalling headed Antonio Valencia’s cross into the bottom corner, but Palace had chances to make the game safe, with the impressive Aaron Wan-Bissaka forcing De Gea to tip his cross-cum-shot over the bar. The inevitable onslaught from Manchester United commenced, and it took a Benteke clearance off the line to prevent Nemanja Matic from equalising. With a little under 15 minutes to play, however, Mourinho’s men finally broke Palace’s resolve. Sanchez’s deflected effort from the edge of the area bounced off the crossbar, but fell kindly for Romelu Lukaku to make room for a shot before slipping the ball into the bottom corner. The Eagles might have found themselves back in front almost immediately were it not for De Gea pulling off a stupendous save from Benteke’s header straight from the kick-off. United continued to pile on the pressure however, and in stoppage time the ball dropped to Matic 25 yards out, and the Serbian looped a half-volley past Hennessey to secure all three points. A massive psychological blow for Roy Hodgson and his team, who remain in the bottom three ahead of Saturday’s trip to Stamford Bridge. United, meanwhile, return to second.
So the relegation picture begins to become a little clearer – with West Brom now all but down, it’s looking like two from seven – the momentum that Swansea have gathered should probably see them safe. With FA Cup quarter-finals and an international break disrupting the month, results next weekend could provide some much needed respite for those teams down at the bottom. Meanwhile, the gap between the top six and the chasing pack has been cut to five points by Burnley – Arsene Wenger will be looking nervously over his shoulder in the coming weeks.