In the three weeks since the last full programme of Premier League action, Jamie Carragher has ruined his punditry career; Southampton have sacked a manager, hired a manager, and progressed to the FA Cup Semi-Finals; the second phase of the England pre-World Cup cycle is in full swing as a narrow victory over the Netherlands and a draw against Italy have somehow raised expectations; Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of anti-semitism; the second phase of the Labour Party pre-election cycle is in full swing as half the party rebel against the leader; Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway became a TV Dinner for one; and it transpired that Facebook is a vehicle for evil after all, as if a timeline full of racist propaganda written in comic sans alongside a picture of a Minion and posted by all of your elderly relatives and ex-classmates wasn’t enough to have convinced you of that in the first place. Data leaks, campaign overspending and brewing coups have been the watchwords in the past few weeks, and for once Manchester United weren’t involved at all.
Thankfully football was back to take our minds off all that unpleasantness as, for another weekend, we were able to switch off our brains, head to a match, and temporarily forget the inevitable downfall of society for a couple of hours. The weekend’s action opened with a potential humdinger, with relegation threatened Crystal Palace hosting Champions League chasing Liverpool in one of those games that gave us a classic in recent memory, and as such must be included in all televised fixtures until the end of time. The 3-3 draw towards the end of the 2013/14 season that all but ended Liverpool’s title hopes (AKA ‘Crystanbul’) is fading away in the rear view mirror, but with Jurgen Klopp’s side boasting the highest goals per game ratio in the league, and games at Selhurst Park averaging 2.7 goals per game this season, the forecast suggested a high probability of net-bulging. Palace came into the game having won just once in their last nine, though that was last time out against Huddersfield, while Liverpool were hoping to get back to winning ways away from home after their defeat at Old Trafford. It was the home side that made most of the running in the early stages of the game, with Liverpool looking hesitant in defence and Wilfried Zaha buzzing between the lines. The Ivorian international almost gave Roy Hodgson’s side an early lead when Yohan Cabaye picked him out with a long ball, and Loris Karius was forced into some quick thinking to block the subsequent volley. The visitors didn’t learn their lesson from that early warning sign however, and minutes later another long ball forward was flicked into Zaha’s path by Christian Benteke, and on this occasion Karius’ timing let him down, as the German ‘keeper bundled into the Palace winger and conceded a penalty. Luka Milivojevic stepped up to score his eighth goal of the season from the ninth penalty awarded to Crystal Palace this year, putting them out in front as the side to have earned the most spot-kicks. That goal sparked Liverpool into life, and they might have fashioned a decent chance through Sadio Mane on the right hand side of the penalty area had the Senegalese not decided to dive after minimal contact from James McArthur. Mane was rightly booked for simulation, and his afternoon got no better a few minutes later when his headed goal was ruled out for offside.
The visitors came out on the front foot after half-time, and it took just four minutes of the second half to level the scores. James Milner’s drilled cross from the left played into the stride of Mane for the Liverpool forward to tuck past Wayne Hennessey. Having finally pulled themselves level, Klopp’s team then looked determined to pass momentum back to their hosts as first Milner, then Virgil Van Dijk dithered in possession and allowed Palace to attack Karius’ goal. Fortunately for the Reds, former striker Christian Benteke wasted both chances, shooting wide and over when well placed. The pressure from the home side continued however, and when Mane went to ground under close attention from Andros Townsend, his instinct to pick the ball up before the referee’s whistle could have cost Liverpool dearly. As it was, the striker escaped without a second yellow, and Patrick Van Aanholt’s free-kick was well beaten away by Karius. With the clock ticking into the final five minutes, the visitors finally pieced together an opening as Alex Oxlade-Chamerlain’s overhit cross was turned back into the area by Andrew Robertson, and Mo Salah was quickest to react to snaffle up his first and only chance of the afternoon. Another late goal conceded by Hodgson’s side, who’ve thrown away too many points from winning positions this season, but may just survive thanks to the incompetency of the sides below them. Liverpool on the other hand strengthened their position in the top four, and now look odds on for a Champions League place next season.
It was an unusually bumper 3pm schedule thanks to the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, as six Premier League games took place on Saturday afternoon. The biggest game of the weekend, insofar as permutations come the end of the season are concerned, took place at the London Stadium, as the West Ham Stewards took on the West Ham Supporters. Oh, and David Moyes’ team hosted Southampton, too. Last time out there were DISGRACEFUL scenes in Stratford, with one man having the temerity to wave a corner flag around on the pitch while his team got hammered by Burnley. A trip to Miami, and potentially Sea World, helped the unhappy Hammers blow away the cobwebs, while Saints arrived under new management after Mauricio Pellegrino’s unceremonious sacking following a limp display at Newcastle in their last league game. Mark Hughes emerged as the South Coast side’s messiah-in-waiting, and popular opinion has swayed towards the Welshman sealing Southampton’s survival with a proper gentleman’s handshake. Showing that its not just his socal etiquette that’s outdated, Hughes set up his side in a lesser-spotted 4-4-2 formation with Charlie Austin making a long-awaited return to partner Manolo Gabbiadini upfront, with £19m January signing Guido Carrillo dropping to the bench. With the home supporters able to quash their discontent for the opening thirteen minutes, their honorable patience was rewarded with an early goal. Mario Lemina, one of the few Saints players to have impressed this season, dallied on the ball after West Ham half-cleared a corner, and the robust Cheikou Kouyate robbed him of possession and set off towards the Saints goal. After a lung-busting run, Kouyate squared for Joao Mario, and the Inter loanee fired high past Alex McCarthy. After folding so easily at St James’ Park, the visiting supporters will have been hoping that Hughes could inject a little more steel into their ailing team, but judging by their attempt to defend West Ham’s next attack, it looked more likely he’d spent the last two weeks doing a sudoku book. The Hammers, galvanised by the early goal and the rousing atmosphere from the stands, poured forwards four minutes later, and this time Mario turned provider with a pinpoint cross onto the bonce of Marko Arnautovic. Though McCarthy kept the Austrian’s first header out, the bleached headed bombshell was not to be denied, following up with a tap in to double the hosts lead. If that was game and set, the match was confirmed on the stroke of half-time. Once again, West Ham were allowed to maraud down the flanks and this time Arthur Masuaku, back after serving a suspension for spitting, delivered a gorgeous cross from deep that found the foot of Arnautovic like a homing missile, leaving the forward the simplest of side-foot volleys to claim his second of the game and all but end the match as a contest.
The pace of the match slowed dramatically in the second half, with the Hammers taking their foot of the pedal and Southampton struggling to string together any kind of cohesive attack, and in a half lacking in incident Aaron Cresswell’s outrageous flying volley from the edge of the area that grazed the crossbar was the solitary talking point. There was plenty to dissect post-match however, namely where on Earth that West Ham performance came from, but also how terminal is the situation now for Southampton? While they have a game in hand on Palace in 17th, and trail by just two points, Saints’ run-in is unenviable to say the least. Trips to Arsenal, Leicester and Everton and the visits of Chelsea and Manchester City are hardly a walk in the park, and on the basis of their last two league games, they’re going to struggle to pick up anything in the final few weeks of the season.
In the other relegation six-pointer this weekend, Newcastle United went looking for their third home win on the bounce against Huddersfield Town, with the Terriers just looking for their first goal in March. One point from two vital fixtures against Swansea and Crystal Palace has greatly receded their chances of avoiding relegation, but a 1-0 victory in the reverse fixture in August gave the travelling supporters hope on Tyneside. Newcastle, unchanged from the side that saw off Southampton in their last game, enjoyed the lions share of possession in the first half, and carved David Wagner’s side open on three occasions. Dwight Gayle’s flick releasing Matt Ritchie on goal, only for Jonas Lossl to deny the winger a third goal in three games, and Jonjo Shelvey’s quick free-kick putting Gayle one-on-one with the Dane – though Newcastle’s #9 could only lob wide of the post. With the first half drawing to a close, a wicked cross from DeAndre Yedlin fell kindly for Gayle, but after controlling the ball the striker could only volley over the bar.
Though they continued to dominate possession, chances were few and far between for the Magpies in the second half, and in fact Huddersfield could have taken the lead when Mathias Jorgensen met Alex Pritchard’s corner with a stooping header, only for Collin Quaner to block the effort on its way past Martin Dubravka. With time running out, Benitez introduced Islam Slimani for his first appearance since a January deadline day move from Leicester City, and the on-loan Algerian striker was involved in the match-winning goal. Ayoze Perez won the ball in Huddersfield’s half and sprayed it out to substitute Christian Atsu, and his cross towards Slimani caused panic in the visitors penalty area, with Lossl only able to flap the ball into the path of Kenedy. The Brazilian composed himself before squaring for Perez to slide the ball in and secure another win for Benitez’s side. With Newcastle now sitting on 35 points and seven games to play, they are surely just a win away from securing Premier League safety. Had you offered that to the Gallowgate regulars in December, they’d have surely snapped your hand off. As for Huddersfield, it’s looking like going right to the wire, but they’ll have to show a lot more attacking intent in their next game if they’re to start picking up points – Brighton away has suddenly become a must-win.
Elsewhere in the 3pm games, Manchester United comfortably saw of Swansea thanks to goals from Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez, Leicester earned an impressive three points at Brighton despite seeing Wilfried Ndidi sent off, Burnley hammered another nail into West Bromwich Albion’s coffin with a win at the Hawthorns, and Watford and Bournemouth played out an entertaining 2-2 draw that keeps both sides’ relegation fears at bay.
The Saturday evening kick-off gave us Lardiola v Guardiola, as Everton hosted Manchester City at the end of a week in which Sam Allardyce ran his mouth off for a change, insisting that City are only running away with the title because they’ve spent so much money. This from a man with a career transfer spend of £260m and no trophies. Allardyce once claimed that he’d be better suited to managing a team like Internazionale or Real Madrid, and on the one hand he’s right – if he served up the kind of dross that Everton fans are already sick of at the San Siro or Bernabeu he’d be placed under the witness protection scheme within a month and we’d never have to hear from him again, which would suit us. Given his confidence pre-match, the Goodison faithful might have hoped for a tactical masterclass from Allardyce come kick-off, but conceding after four minutes seemed a little avant-garde, even for Sam. David Silva scampered into the Everton area and hooked the ball across goal for the waiting Leroy Sane, who evaded £25m defender Michael Keane and smashed a volley into the bottom corner. Eight minutes later, City had a second. Breaking forward, Kevin De Bruyne lobbed a cross into the area from the right wing, and Gabriel Jesus was on hand to glance a header past the despairing reach of £30m ‘keeper Jordan Pickford and put the visitors in complete control. Silva and Kyle Walker could both have added to the scoreline after carving open the hosts defence, and the inevitable third finally arrived some eight minutes before half-time. Another swift counter attack allowed Silva to swing a ball in from the left, and Raheem Sterling arrived to sweep the ball past Pickford. Regardless of the quality of opposition, no team does first half collapses quite like Allardyce’s Everton.
Pep Guardiola’s side were content to play out the second-half by knocking the ball around, though Sterling did force Pickford into a sharp stop from a deflected shot, and Everton even managed to pull a goal back as the lesser spotted £25m winger Yannick Bolasie met Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s cross with a bullet-header. That was one of just two efforts on goal for the hosts throughout the game, and by full-time the stats backed up the scoreline, with City managing a whopping 82% possession. With England being the most prominent team to watch in the past ten days, it might have been easy for neutrals to forget just how good Manchester City are, but watching them attack Everton’s defence at will, playing quick, slick, one-touch football without a blue shirt laying hands on them, it was a timely reminder of how excellent this football team have been this season. Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal, Chelsea, and indeed Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City’s have all spent plenty of money to secure the Premier League title, but its difficult to remember a side that have won it with such elegance and flair as this Guardiola side. For Everton the end of the season, and subsequently surely the end of Allardyce’s reign, can’t come soon enough.
Sky Sports’ Super Sunday returned to conclude the weekend’s action, and for once it was only half misleading. For many, stuffing your face with chocolate eggs will have been preferable to watching Arsenal v Stoke, but for the visitors at least it was the chance to set in motion the second most unlikely resurrection seen over Easter. With sometime wing-back Mame Biram Diouf leading the line, its fair to say Paul Lambert’s line-up at the Emirates was cautious, but given Arsenal’s propensity to self-combust around this time of year, taking something back to the Potteries wasn’t out of the question. Arsene Wenger could be excused for not knowing which of his sides would turn up against their relegation threatened opponents, having watched the Gunners blitz Watford, Everton and Crystal Palace at home since the turn of the year, as well as put in two lacklustre performances against Manchester City. The first half saw more Jekyll than Hyde for the home side as they struggled to break down a stodgy defence, and could have seen themselves go behind when Xherdan Shaqiri took aim for the top corner, only to see his effort bend round the post. Aaron Ramsey’s looping effort onto the top of the crossbar was the closest the Gunners came to breaking the deadlock in the opening 45, and anyone nursing a cocoa induced bellyache will have been sticking by their decision to avoid this one.
The game turned around a quarter of an hour into the second half, as World Cup 2018 scapegoat Danny Welbeck was withdrawn for Alexandre Lacazette, and Arsenal went two-up-top in search of a winner. With the pressure ramped up, Stoke finally succumbed, and Bruno Martins Indi’s trip on Mesut Ozil saw the hosts awarded a penalty, coolly dispatched by Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. That was the signal for a total meltdown from the visitors, and ten minutes later Arsenal’s record signing doubled his tally with a half-volley from a poorly cleared corner. There was still time for a third Gunners goal, and a second from the penalty spot, as Badou Ndayie barged into Lacazette and, much to the chagrin of Fantasy Football managers everywhere, Aubameyang eschewed the chance of a hat-trick to give the misfiring French striker a chance to notch. Lacazette did exactly that and, from looking good for a hard earned point, Stoke had snatched a comprehensive defeat in the space of fifteen minutes. There are times when you look at a team and know they’re destined for the drop, and this Stoke City side have it etched all over their faces. For Arsenal, another entirely unconvincing win that does little to propel them up the table. It’s surely Europa League or bust for Arsene this time around.
After 75 minutes of dirge, the headline act provided a much needed palette cleanser in the form of Chelsea v Tottenham. Spurs arrived at Stamford Bridge in hope more than expectation as the annual reminder of Gary Lineker’s winner in West London rang in the ears of Mauricio Pochettino’s players. Twenty-eight years and thirty meetings later, Spurs had the opportunity to open a serious gap ahead of Antonio Conte’s side in the race for fourth. Harry Kane made a surprise appearance on the bench after fears his injury at Bournemouth would keep him out for a few more weeks, while Alvaro Morata was restored at the tip of Chelsea’s attacking trident, thanks in part to his cup goal at Leicester a fortnight ago. With the visitors just about shading the first half it was Chelsea that came closest to opening the deadlock, as Hugo Lloris was called into action to stop Willian’s effort, and just ten minutes later the hosts took the lead. Victor Moses stole a march on Ben Davies before swinging a cross into the box that Lloris looked odds on to claim. The French ‘keeper flapped, however, and Morata was on hand to head into an empty net. If that Chelsea goal was harsh on Spurs, then what followed in first half stoppage time was no more than they deserved. Dele Alli won back possession level with the Chelsea penalty area and laid the ball back to Davies, and his lofted pass to Christian Eriksen saw the Dane let fly with a wicked, swerving, dipping volley from 30 yards that flew over Willy Cabellero’s head and into the net.
With the bit between their teeth, Spurs emerged for the second half and quickly gained control of the game from the off. It took a quarter of an hour to fashion another clear-cut chance, and given his recent form it was no surprise to see Hueng Min Son at the heart of it. The Korean gathered the ball just outside the area, and in one quick motion span his marker and fired a shot destined for the top corner, only to watch Cabellero palm away to safety. That chance was the pre-cursor to an emphatic spell of dominance from the visitors, and a minute later they took the lead. Eric Dier’s superb defence-splitting pass from deep fell perfectly for Dele Alli, and with two touches the midfielder killed the ball before poking it beyond the reach of Cabellero and into the net. With Chelsea’s rhythm completely disrupted, Tottenham went looking for the kill and as Son streaked towards goal it looked like the Korean would seal the win as he bore down on goal. Halted first by Cabellero, then by a the retreating Chelsea defence, the ball broke for Alli to control and prod home and give the visitors a two-goal cushion. If Spurs were going to go all Spursy and Spurs it up, it was going to have to take a spectacular effort as the hosts looked shellshocked, dumbfounded and completely devoid of ideas. Kane was introduced for the final quarter of an hour, but ran the channels rather than acting as a focal point, and Pochettino’s side happily ran down the clock. Three massive points secured and, barring a spectacular collapse, Champions League football almost guaranteed for the first season in their new ground. Chelsea are clearly in need of fresh ideas, and for all his success last season, Conte is beginning to resemble a manager that would rather be anywhere else.
So here we are, into the final furlong, and its beginning to look like the major issues might be sewn up by the start of May. With Manchester City looking to secure the title against rivals Manchester United next weekend and Tottenham having stolen a march for fourth, we’re unlikely to see much movement at the top end of the table, while the already doomed West Brom are likely to be joined by Stoke and quite probably Southampton in relegation. Most exciting league in the world, apparently.