After the resounding success of Sky Sports’ RIVALRY WEEKEND a month ago, they thought they’d give it another bash this weekend, giving Saturday’s live matches the billing of DERBY DAY 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO. If at first your hyperbolic build-up to historically tight and turgid football matches fails, try, try, and try again. Ironically, Sky’s two headline matches were always going to be affected by the double header of the Champions League quarter-final taking place either side between Liverpool and Manchester City, televised by BT Sport. With Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola both intimating that they’d be sending out weakened teams this weekend, with both glancing round at the forthcoming second leg, the broadcasters transported themselves into 2017’s favourite meme.
The Merseyside derby was first to face the test of expectation, as Sam Allardyce’s Everton looking for their first league win over Liverpool since 2010. If ever there was a time to snatch it, this weekend was it, as Klopp sent out a team resembling a ‘Where Are They Now?’ clickbait article. Ragnar Klavan, Georginio Wijnaldum, Danny Ings, Nathaniel Clyne, and Dominic Solanke came into the side, with the latter three boasting just five Premier League starts between them this season, though in Clyne’s defence he has just returned from a long-term injury. Even so, with Mo Salah left out of the matchday squad with a knock, and Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all on the bench, Klopp had clearly downgraded the derby in his list of priorities. With a lack of star quality on the pitch, it was no surprise to watch a trademark derby day unfold – plenty of guts and spirit with very little goalmouth action to get excited about. In the first half Solanke produced a fantastic save from Jordan Pickford when the ball fell to him ten yards from goal, while at the other end Yannick Bolasie came closest for Everton, curling a long range effort at goal that required the fingertips of Karius to prevent the hosts taking the lead.
The most exciting moment of the match came in the 57th minute when an immobile and ineffective Wayne Rooney with withdrawn for Idrissa Gueye, and Everton’s golden boy stomped off the pitch in a strop before not so subtly expressing what he thought of his manager’s decision. “Fucking bullshit”, apparently. Rooney’s erstwhile England colleague Oxlade-Chamberlain had the best chance of the second period for the Reds after emerging from the subs bench, but could only fire over after a driving run at the heart of the Toffees defence, and Cenk Tosun’s misguided header that drifted well wide of Karius’ post summed up the afternoon for both sides. With no shots on target in the second half, and just four between the teams throughout the whole game, this particular Merseyside derby may well go down as the dullest match of the season. Not that either manager will mind too much – for Klopp, Champions League progression next week will vindicate his decision to play for the draw here, while Allardyce avoids the tricky questions a demoralising defeat would have undoubtedly encouraged.
As seems to be the case every week at this stage of the season, the 3pm kick-offs on Saturday centred around the scrap towards the bottom of the league, with plenty of teams looking to secure the points that will guarantee Premier League football next season. Given the form of the sides currently sat in the bottom three, many of those still not mathematically safe could be forgiven for not losing too much sleep over the run-in, but with some sides facing tricky run-ins, this weekend’s fixtures provided the perfect opportunity to extend the gap. The biggest clash towards the bottom of the league took place at the Amex Stadium, as Brighton and Hove Albion met fellow promoted side Huddersfield Town. When the two sides met at the John Smith back in December, a 2-0 win for the Terriers helped them leapfrog Chris Hughton’s side into twelfth, but the two teams have experienced decidedly different fortunes since then, with Brighton picking up 15 points since the turn of the year, compared to Huddersfield’s 7. David Wagner and his team headed to the south coast off the back of an awful run that’d seen them fail to score in their last four games and pick up just one point. Brighton, meanwhile, have hit the skids themselves in recent weeks, as three defeats on the bounce against teams in the top half have threatened to derail what had looked like a straightforward route to safety. Both sides came out in the first half looking to grab an early goal, and Davy Propper should have done better in the first minute when played one on one with Jonas Lossl, but the Dutch international could only fire wide. It was then Huddersfield’s turn to threaten the scoresheet, and Mat Ryan had to be sharp to punch away a fierce volley from Steve Mounie. As both sides traded blows it looked just a matter of time before the deadlock was broken, and just before the half hour mark Brighton received a slice of luck when Solly March’s shot was pushed onto the post by Lossl, only for the ball to rebound in off the ‘keeper’s head. That lead lasted just three minutes however, as Shane Duffy suffered a brainfart and played an atrocious backpass across his own penalty area to allow Mounie to nip in, sidestep Ryan, and roll the ball home.
The hosts grew into the game more in the second half as Huddersfield looked to stick with a point and defended in numbers. It took a fingertip save from Lossl to prevent Dale Stephens from restoring Brighton’s lead, but when Propper was dismissed for a studs up challenge on Jonathan Hogg with a quarter of an hour left, Wagner may have sensed his side could nick all three points. Instead it was Brighton that went closest to snatching the win, as Jose Izquierdo broke through on goal but was unable to beat Lossl, and Ezequiel Scholetto’s follow up effort saw another diving save from the Dane. A point that may suit Huddersfield more than Brighton, but with both sides facing tricky tests against the top six before the end of the season three points could have done them the world of good.
Another side nervously looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone also visited the south coast on Saturday, with Crystal Palace hoping to get over last weekend’s late disappointment against Liverpool as they visited Bournemouth. Only Watford have conceded more goals at home this season that Eddie Howe’s side, though they came into this one having dropped just four points from five home games since the turn of the year. Christian Benteke was missing for the Eagles, so Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha reprised their double-false-nine roles seen during Palace’s revival earlier in the season. For 45 minutes however, the rudimentary strikeforce were unable to get a sniff, and Bournemouth’s pairing of Callum Wilson and Jermain Defoe fared little better. Wilson’s poor connection with Charlie Daniels’ cross gave Wayne Hennessey little to worry about, while Nathan Ake prevented Asmir Begovic from dirtying his gloves by blocking a goalbound effort from James McCarthur.
The game kicked into life two minutes into the second half, as Yohan Cabaye was fouled twenty yards from goal. Luka Milivojevic stepped up to prove that its not just the penalty spot he’s deadly from, bending a wonderful free-kick past a dumbfounded Begovic to give Roy Hodgson’s side a much needed lead. Hennessey was then called into action twice in a couple of minutes as Marc Pugh and Lewis Cook both fired long range efforts on target, before Patrick Van Aahnolt missed a glorious opportunity to give the Eagles some breathing room after Zaha had played him one on one with Begovic. The Dutchman’s profligacy would come back to haunt him minutes later when Bournemouth levelled. Ryan Fraser’s cross wasn’t dealt with by Palace’s back line, and when the ball fell to Lys Moussett the French striker had the simple job of sweeping the ball into the bottom corner. Showing the kind of grit necessary in a relegation scrap, Palace dug in and went back on the attack, and fifteen minutes from time reaped their reward. Zaha, showing skill and poise in the final third, danced round the attentions of three Bournemouth defenders before rocketing a shot into the top corner. With the clock ticking towards 90 minutes and the nerves from the away end palpable, Palace failed to clear a Bournemouth corner and substitute Josh King was on hand the poke the ball in at the far post to secure a point for the home side. That’s now four times in six games that Hodgson’s side have conceded in the final few minutes, and if you’re ever looking for signs of a team destined for the drop this might be one of them. Fortunately for Palace, their run in is far favourable to that of their closest rivals, and games against Brighton, Stoke and West Brom should yield enough points to see them safe.
The other 3pm games saw Spurs hammer another nail into Stoke’s coffin with an uncharacteristically narrow victory at the bet365 Stadium, West Brom’s caretaker manager Darren Moore began his stint with a decent draw at home to Swansea City that does little for the Baggies’ survival prospects, but at least restores a modicum of pride after Alan Pardew’s reign of terror. Burnley picked up another creditable win on the road as they came from behind to beat Watford, and Newcastle took another gigantic step to securing safety with an impressive win at Leicester City.
With part one of their Derby Day 2 bonanza falling flatter than a bottle of post-Brexit champagne, Sky pinned their hopes on a Manchester derby that surely couldn’t fail to deliver. Despite Pep’s assertions that he’d be resting players for midweek, there was still the opportunity for City to finally secure a title that has been assumed theirs since the nights started drawing in against their fiercest rivals. Even better, it gave us the latest chapter of Pep vs Jose, the World’s Most Tedious Soap Opera. Though Kyle Walker, Kevin De Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero all started on the bench, City’s lineup had more than a hint of a Premier League winning team about it, as £26.5m Danilo, £20m Ilkay Gundogan, £43m Bernado Silva and £50m Raheem Sterling were drafted in. Ahead of the game much of the talk surrounded Mourinho’s tactics, with many predicting a dour, defensive line-up in the hope of spoiling the party at Eastlands, but in the Portuguese’s defence, a front three of Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard hardly screamed park the bus. In fact United went toe-to-toe with their neighbours in the opening stages, and clearly hadn’t been instructed to play for the draw. Trying to match City hasn’t ended well for most sides that have gone up against them so far this season, and in the opening stages Ashley Young in particular looked vulnerable to the hosts attacks. Having first escaped the concession of a penalty when David Silva flashed the ball across the area and the ersatz full-back appeared to divert it away with his hand, he then escaped censure after a tussle with Sterling. David De Gea was soon called into action for the first time when a moment’s hesitancy from Phil Jones allowed Bernado Silva a shot at goal, but the Spanish custodian stood firm to clear the danger. City, though, were swiftly clicking into top gear, and 25 minutes in they belatedly took the lead. Chris Smalling lost his man at a corner, and Vincent Kompany powered a bullet header past De Gea to give Guardiola’s side one hand on the trophy in scenes that evoked their vital victory over United in 2012. Five minutes later, and with the visitors all at sea, Sterling guided the ball towards Gundogan and the German schemer pirouetted past the attentions of Smalling before poking a shot into the bottom corner to double the hosts lead and surely put the result beyond any doubt. With Manchester United looking frustrated, and Sanchez and Paul Pogba looking less than ineffective, there was a sense that Jose and his team could be in for an humiliating evening given their opponents dominance in the first half.
Eric Bailly replaced Jones at half time for United, perhaps in the hope of instilling a greater presence in front of De Gea to avoid a hammering, while De Bruyne and co remained rooted to the bench, undoubtedly with thoughts drifting to Tuesday’s meeting with Liverpool. Again United started the half looking purposeful, and Paul Pogba’s long range effort in the opening moments suggested they weren’t about to let their rivals win the league with a whimper. Gundogan could have made the game safe five minutes into the second half when his effort bounced off the frame of the goal, though few inside the Etihad could have predicted what would happen next. With Sanchez looking revitalised thanks to his half-time oranges, he clipped a ball into the area that was met by a superb piece of control from the chest of Ander Herrera. The Spaniard’s touch fell perfectly into the path of Pogba, and his sidefoot finish halved the deficit and brought the game back to life. Two minutes later, the £89m man grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Receiving the ball ahead of the halfway line, Pogba played a pass out to Sanchez before embarking on a rangy run towards goal. The Chilean then looked up and chipped an inch perfect cross onto the blonde and blue head of his team mate, for Pogba to twist in the air and nestle a header into the bottom corner. A breathtaking passage of play from Pogba, and the perfect illustration of why United spent so much to bring him back to Old Trafford. With City reeling, and Guardiola turning to his subs bench, Manchester United continued to pile on the pressure. With just over twenty minutes to go Danilo, who’s often looked a weak link for City, conceded a free-kick thirty yards from goal, allowing Sanchez to deliver into the area. Once again the Chilean’s pass was measured to perfection, and Smalling arrived unchallenged to sidefoot a volley past Ederson and staggeringly give United the lead. Breathless stuff. With the lead secured, Mourinho changed tack from free-flowing attacking football to utter bastardry, with Jose’s chief bastard Ander Herrera coming into his own. Breaking up play with niggly fouls and winding up City’s players, the antics of the playmaker-come-enforcer clearly affected Guardiola’s players, who were unable to resist being drawn in by the dark arts. With the game heating up things looked like boiling over when Young again escaped the referee’s attention, this time with a late, studs-up challenge on Aguero that looked a penalty at the very least. Seconds later a high challenge from Fernandinho on Lingard was penalised, and Pogba was quick to seek retribution, getting in the face of City players as tempers flared. Referee Martin Atkinson just about kept a lid on it, though Gabriel Jesus in particular appeared to get more and more frustrated as the seconds ebbed away. There was still time for De Gea to pull off his regulation spectacular save from Aguero’s goalbound header, and a further lucky escape from the resultant corner, as the ball bounced off Sterling and onto the post before United’s keeper scrambled it away. The final whistle brought dejection for the hosts who, just an hour earlier had been counting on popping the corks at the final whistle.The result makes little difference as far as the destination of the title is concerned, though history tells us that if any team could collapse from here, surely its Manchester City. For Manchester United a day of mixed emotions. Ending their neighbours’ unbeaten home run and preventing them from securing the title will provide the smallest slice of succour, but many may be wondering why this kind of perfomance hasn’t been evident all season. Jose Mourinho has the tools, if only he weren’t too stubborn to use them.
Sunday brought a double header of Top Six v Bottom Six clashes, starting with Southampton’s trip to Arsenal. Given their performance in London last weekend, few Saints fans will have been looking forward to the prospect of facing an Arsenal side that, while at times looking laboured, have won five on the bounce in all competitions. After last week’s flirtation with a 4-4-2 and two strikers lacking pace, Hughes opted for the polar opposite at the Emirates, naming the famously goal-shy Shane Long as a lone striker, and playing a back three with Ryan Bertrand and Cedric Soares operating as wing-backs. Looking a far more solid proposition in defence Saints started brightly, with Long seeing his effort from Dusan Tadic’s pull-back cleared off the line. The Irish forward wouldn’t have to wait much longer for a rare goal as, seventeen minutes in, Cedric sent a teasing ball towards the Arsenal six yard box and Long nipped in ahead of Shkodran Mustafi to poke the ball past Petr Cech and give Hughes’ side a suprise lead. Arsenal, who’d looked more than a little directionless in the opening quarter of the game, began to find a foothold after falling behind, and the equaliser came ten minutes later. Mohamed Elneny and Danny Welbeck combined to carve open a chance for Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, and the £50m man showed his worth by bundling the ball over the line. With those familiar jitters setting into the Southampton defence, the Gunners began to apply pressure with the first half edging to a close, and seven minutes before half-time Welbeck’s effort from the edge of the area took a wicked deflection before looping over the agonising reach of Alex McCarthy in the Southampton goal.
With Wenger’s side continuing to look listless in the second half, belief in the visitors ranks that there was something up for grabs in the game rose, and after 25 minutes of non-action the game kicked back into life upon the introduction of Charlie Austin. The former QPR man had been on the pitch a matter of seconds when Cedric fizzed a cross in from the byline that invited the forthcoming tap-in. A point from such a tough looking fixture would have soothed Saints’ relegation fears somewhat, though wouldn’t have been enough to lift them out of trouble and so, committed to going for the win, gaps began to open up in the visitors defence. With nine minutes remaining Alex Iwobi found space on the right hand side to deliver a looping far post cross, and Welbeck leaped highest to grab his second of the game and secure the points for the Gunners. In what was largely a tepid match, there was still an opportunity for some handbags in stoppage time as Elneny and Jack Stephens exchanged raised hands and both received their marching orders. Arsenal’s chances of picking up a result next weekend have improved all of a sudden. For Southampton, time is simply running out. With trips to Leicester and Everton still on the horizon, as well as hosting Chelsea and Manchester City, Mark Hughes is going to have to pull some spectacular results out of the bag in order to save his new employers. You’d be mad to back him.
The final fixture of the weekend failed to fall under Sky’s DERBY DAY umbrella, though any kind of rivalry between Chelsea and West Ham is purely advocated by knuckleheads looking for a reason to batter other knuckleheads. If only they could get on with it and leave the rest of us in peace. Chelsea came into the game looking in the rear view mirror at their smouldering Champions League qualification hopes after last week’s once-in-a-generation home defeat to Tottenham, while the Hammers were far more relaxed about next season’s prospects following their galvanising win against fellow relegation candidates Southampton. Any hope of David Moyes following in the footsteps of Mauricio Pochettino and ending his side’s long wait for a win in SW6 looked slim as Chelsea dominated the opening period, though given the Chelsea kitman’s blinding omission of a pair of shooting boots in the home dressing room, the Hammers manager may just have fancied his sides chances of nicking a point. Eden Hazard, Willian and Alvaro Morata all came close to breaking the deadlock in the opening half hour, though none could hit the target with their efforts, though when Willian did finally break through a sturdy West Ham backline, he found his effort thwarted by an outstretched Joe Hart. It was always going to take a moment of inventiveness to break West Ham’s resolve, and Cesar Azpilicueta’s overhead lob to tee himself up and finish from close range was as adroit as it was ungainly.
Antonio Conte’s side had chances to finish the game off early in the second half, with the usual suspects again struggling to hit the target – Willian’s toe poke wide, Victor Moses’ wild shot over and Alvaro Morata’s off-target header all chances spurned. Sensing the opportunity to snatch a point, Moyes introduced Javier Hernandez for the hard-working but harmless Edmilson Fernandes, and within three minutes the Mexican had brought his side level. Good work from strike partner Marko Arnautovic down the right hand side saw the Austrian work some space for a pull-back, and Hernandez calmly sidefooted into the bottom corner. Chelsea had clearly run out of steam and ideas by now, and the game petered out for a draw that takes the Hammers six points clear of the relegation zone, with the prospect of a far more winnable fixture next weekend. Chelsea meanwhile fall ten points behind Spurs in fourth, and will now be looking over their shoulders at an Arsenal side currently grinding out results week after week.
So a bad weekend for those in the bottom three and them at the top. City head to Wembley next week in hope of potentially securing the title there, while West Brom could find their relegation confirmed should they lose at Manchester United and other results don’t go their way. Bon voyage, Baggies.