On a weekend that Sky Sports optimistically billed ‘Rivalry Weekend’, all twenty Premier League sides were in action ahead of FA Cup Quarter Finals and International fixtures that provide the last break in the season before the final run-in. For a handful of sides, this weekend’s fixtures were crucial to securing the psychological advantage of steering clear from the relegation zone before the two week break, while others were hoping to cement their place in the Top Four.
Manchester United and Liverpool resumed hostilities in the opening game of the weekend, with the hosts Twitter accounting building the game up as ‘The Battle For Second Place’. How the mighty have fallen. Ahead of this one the opinion of pundits and neutrals was that Liverpool came into the game as slight favourites, and the odds bore this out – in the Premier League era, Manchester United had never been placed at such long odds for a home fixture against a team below them in the league. But what do so-called “experts” know? It took Mourinho’s men just fourteen minutes to break the deadlock, as Marcus Rashford raced on to a long ball from Romelu Lukaku, brought it under control with a nod of the head, turned inside Trent Alexander-Arnold and unleashed a curling effort into the bottom corner. It’s been a difficult season for Rashford who, with half an eye on the World Cup, will have been hoping to have cemented his place in Mourinho’s starting line-up, but the opening goal in such a high-profile fixture offered the perfect reminder of the youngster’s raw talent. Ten minutes later, the Whythenshaw wonder had his second, as Lukaku’s through ball to Juan Mata was blocked by Virgil Van Dijk, and the bounce fell kindly for Rashford to slide in his second of the afternoon. They could have had a third before the break, as Mata attempted an acrobatic effort from Rashford’s cross, but with service to Liverpool’s front three sorely lacking, the hosts looked well in control.
Chances started to trickle Liverpool’s way in the second half, though Van Dijk’s header onto the top of the net didn’t offer too much discomfort for David De Gea, but with 25 minutes to play Liverpool were handed a lifeline. Sadio Mane’s cross into the box didn’t look to be causing many problems, but the returning Eric Bailly could only swipe it past his own goalkeeper to set up a grandstand finish. In the event, Liverpool’s usual free-flowing, attacking play failed to materialise, with Mo Salah’s only real chance at goal coming in stoppage time – though his wild volley from a corner only posed danger for the upper tier. The Battle for Second Place won by Mourinho then, though there’s still some way to go before they’re declared victors in the war. A rare off day for Liverpool, who can curse their luck after coming up against an unusually inspired United side.
With Crystal Palace, Stoke and Bournemouth all facing top six sides in televised games across the weekend, there was a chance for one of their fellow strugglers to pop their head above the relegation parapet in a six-pointer at St James Park. Newcastle headed into their game with the third worst home from in the league this season, have won just three of their fourteen fixtures on Tyneside, the only sides below them – bottom club West Bromwich Albion and Saturday’s opponents Southampton. The positive omen for Saints fans was their good form against the Magpies – just one defeat in thirteen years – though admittedly that run only covers nine meetings, and they haven’t been anywhere near as bad as they currently are since their return to the Premier League in 2012. On a misty afternoon in the North East that crumb of comfort took just sixty five seconds to disintegrate – a lob forward from Jonjo Shelvey giving Kenedy time and space to control with his collarbone, turn his marker and neatly pass the ball into the bottom corner, beyond Alex McCarthy. Recovering from that early setback, Saints began to grow into the game, but when Mario Lemina took a wild swipe from James Ward-Prowse’s half-cleared corner, they found themselves in trouble again. Ayoze Perez carried the ball forty yards before picking out the on-rushing Dwight Gayle with a measured pass, and the striker unselfishly squared for Kenedy to tap in his second of the afternoon. A counter-attack goal of breathtaking quality, leaving Southampton with a mountain to climb.
The home side continued to attack in the second half, as Perez’s header just evaded McCathy’s goal, and the points were made safe just before the hour mark. Shelvey, again, was at the heart of Newcastle’s most dangerous pieces of play, and having tried to make room for a shot of his own, the playmaker made do with a perfectly weighted pass for Matt Ritchie to arc a shot around the despairing dive of McCarthy. Martin Dubravka was finally forced into a save late on by Josh Sims, and Wesley Hoedt almost capped a miserable afternoon as his defensive header drifted inches wide of goal, but the travelling Southampton fans could have few complaints after being roundly outplayed by their opponents. Almost job done for Rafa Benitez and his team, but less than 36 hours after the final whistle Southampton announced the sacking of manager Mauricio Pellegrino. Though they’re currently outside the drop-zone, it certainly feels like a case of too little too late, with whoever is charged with keeping them up facing a mammoth task.
Elsewhere on Saturday afternoon things continued to get worse for West Brom, having taken the lead against Leicester City they succumbed to a 4-1 home defeat. There were protests against the ownership of West Ham United at the London Stadium as a toxic atmosphere only exacerbated a miserably display from the Hammers, with Burnley taking full advantage and running out 3-0 winners. It was two more fingers to Sam Allardyce’s critics at Goodison Park where Everton beat Brighton 2-0, while Swansea held on for eighty minutes with ten men at Huddersfield to earn a goalless draw after Jordan Ayew’s red card.
Chelsea will have been relieved to break up a run of fixtures that included Manchester United, Manchester City and Barcelona twice with the visit of Crystal Palace, as the memory of Roy Hodgson’s first win in charge of the Eagles over Antonio Conte slowly becomes a distant memory. Palace have quietly been slipping back into trouble in recent weeks, and despite Chelsea’s inconsistent form of late, they wouldn’t have relished a trip to Stamford Bridge when they’re so desperate to pick up points. Though they began the evening in the bottom three, Palace were more than happy to commit men forwards in the opening stages, and Andros Townsend’s hooked volley early on almost caught Thibaut Courtois napping. Chelsea were soon applying pressure to the Palace backline however, and when Willian’s shot was deflected in via the post, Hodgson may have realised it wouldn’t be his team’s day. That lead was doubled seven minutes later, as Palace struggled to contain Chelsea’s attack, and a fine passing move involving Marcos Alonso, Willian and Eden Hazard allowed Davide Zappacosta to fire a shot at goal which was turned in by the unfortunate Martin Kelly. His central defensive partner James Tompkins then intervened to prevent Olivier Giroud firing in a third as the visitors attempted to gain a foothold back in the game.
Palace came out with renewed belief in the second half and, after some robust play from Alexander Sorloth, the Norwegian was unfortunate to see his shot crash back off the post. Chelsea remained a danger in the Palace half, however, and Giroud saw a shot of his own bounce back off the frame of the goal after good work from Alonso. In a back-and-forth half, Sorloth’s hard-luck story added a second chapter minutes later as his legitimate looking goal was ruled out for high foot against Jairo Riedewald, but the Eagles were finally rewarded for their ambitious approach to the game in the last minute of normal time as Patrick Van Aanholt popped up on the left-hand side of the area to fire between Courtois’ legs and register his second goal in a week. Much like his strike against Manchester United, it counted for nothing come full time, and if Hodgson and Palace are to escape the drop they’ll need to start turning these promising performances into points. Playing attractive football won’t keep them up, just ask Tony Pulis.
Sunday’s pair of games saw both North London sides in action, with Arsenal welcoming Watford to the Emirates – in league standings at least, the Hornets might be considered more of a rival than Tottenham for the Gunners this season. Thursday’s win over AC Milan in the Europa League seemingly came from nowhere, given Arsenal’s abysmal form of late, but the visit of a mid-table side who have already been snorkel shopping offered the opportunity to reassert their grasp on sixth place. There have been occasions this season where the Gunners have blown sides away in the opening stages of matches, and it looked as though Watford might become the latest victims when Shkodran Mustafi planted a header into the Watford net from Mesut Ozil’s free-kick after eight minutes. The avalanche of goals heaped on Crystal Palace and Everton earlier in the season didn’t materialise, however, and Petr Cech had to be alert to prevent efforts from Abdoulaye Doucoure and Richarlison sneaking past him.
With nerves understandably jangling in the early stages of the second half, a palpable sense of relief arrived just past the hour as Henrikh Mkhitaryan slipped in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the Arsenal striker rounded Orestis Karnezis to double the hosts lead. Watford were then presented with a chance to get back into the game as Ainsley Maitland-Niles bundled Roberto Pereyra over in the box, and Troy Deeney stepped up to take the resultant penalty. With vitriol raining down from the stands after Deeney’s uncomplimentary comments earlier in the season regarding the size of Arsenal’s reproductive organs, the Hornets striker cut an uncomfortable figure, and his penalty kick betrayed his loss of nerve. With Petr Cech still awaiting his first penalty save as an Arsenal goalkeeper, he couldn’t have asked for a more straightforward stop – Deeney’s weak penalty lacking direction along with power, and Arsenal cleared comfortably. The icing on the afternoon arrived with fifteen minutes to play, with Aubameyang returning the favour of his former Borussia Dortmund teammate and teeing Mkhitaryan up to arrow Arsenal’s third in. An uncharacteristically comfortable afternoon for Arsene Wenger’s side, with Cech’s penalty save earning the Czech keeper his 200th Premier League clean sheet after a chequered spell of form in recent months. Check and check.
The late game on Sunday took Tottenham to Dean Court where Bournemouth have been enjoying a prolonged spell of joy in front of goal. Eddie Howe’s team had scored two or more goals in their last six home games, and hadn’t lost at the Vitality since Liverpool’s visit in December. Coincidentally, that same weekend was the last time Tottenham lost on the road, though it was the hosts doing all the early running in this game. Lewis Cook’s slide rule pass set Lys Mousset away, and the French striker’s square ball should have been buried by Junior Stanislas, but his dink over Hugo Lloris bounced off the top of the bar. Stanislas was able to atone for his profligacy minutes later however, when former Spurs’ man Adam Smith swung a ball into the box and Stanislas had time to drive a shot into the bottom corner. The afternoon went from bad to worse for Tottenham when Harry Kane met Christian Eriksen’s shot to poke past Asmir Begovic before colliding with the ‘keeper. The goal was ruled out for offside and Kane limped off, the striker having caught his foot in the turf and rolled his ankle. Despite being shorn of their top scorer, Spurs managed to level before half-time as Dele Alli bundled in Serge Aurier’s cross to even up the scores.
The sides exchanged chances in the opening stages of the second half, with Simon Francis bringing a diving save from Hugo Lloris before Eriksen saw his long-ranger deflected away by Begovic. Tottenham’s quality slowly started to shine through as the half went on, and they finally broke Bournemouth’s resistance just past the hour. Alli this time the provider, as his cross was met by an unorthodox Heung-Min Son volley which bounced off the turf and over Begovic’s head. As the game wore on Bournemouth began to commit men forwards in the hope of salvaging a point, but when Lewis Cook lost possession from a free-kick, a through ball for Son left the Korean in thirty yards of space and he had all the time necessary to take the ball round Begovic and secure the win for the visitors. There was still time for a fouth from Tottenham, as Kieran Trippier’s cross was beaten away by Begovic, but the bounce of the ball fell kindly for Aurier to head in and add some polish to the scoreline. In truth it was never a 4-1 game, but Bournemouth’s trademark naivety reared its ugly head once again as they left themselves open at the back and Spurs picked them off at will.
The final game of the weekend had champions-in-waiting Manchester City visiting Stoke, with the Potters hoping to avoid the avalanche of goals from the reverse fixture. After a promising start, Paul Lambert’s reign as Stoke boss has yet to provide the boost required to lift them away from trouble, and he’s unlikely to have pinpointed this one as a chance to pick up a much needed win. It took just ten minutes for Pep Guardiola’s team to take the lead, with the returning Raheem Sterling getting in behind Stoke’s defence and producing a handsome looking cross for David Silva to sidefoot home. Stoke almost found themselves the receipient of a tremendous piece of luck when Danilio’s touch on a long ball sent it hurtling towards goal, but Ederson was switched on to the danger and backpedalled in time to touch it over the bar in Stoke’s one real opportunity of the first half.
City’s early goal in the opening 45 was matched in the second period, with just five minutes on the clock when Gabriel Jesus lobbed a pass over the Stoke defence and Silva hooked his second of the game past the onrushing Jack Butland. Sterling should have capped his return with a goal, having danced around three defenders, but was thwarted by the feet of Butland, and Kurt Zouma then used his pace to recover the ball from the England winger when he’d been played through on goal. In truth, City declared at 2-0, and comfortably saw the game out – Stoke toothless once again, and running out of time.
So with all but eight teams embarking on a two week break, a West Brom in the death throes are joined in the bottom three by Stoke City and Crystal Palace, with newly managerless Southampton sitting just a point ahead of the bottom three, and West Ham emerging as the surprise addition to the relegation battle. Prepare yourselves for squeaky bum time.