It’s been quite a week. While Harry Kane was busy knocking down the door to the Dubious Goals Panel headquarters in order to claim the mole on his shoulder got a touch before Christian Eriksen’s cross went in against Stoke, the Champions League was producing a couple of incredible matches that have resulted in referee Michael Oliver’s wife being subject to bizarre and troubling trolling on Twitter. Then, to top it all off, hours before the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were due to enter Syria on fact-finding mission to determine whether President Assad had deployed chemical weapons against civilians, Theresa May bypassed Parliament to join the US in a military airstrike on the Middle Eastern country. Fortunately, if social media is anything to go by, there are millions of experts on the conflict in Syria and the Assad regime, and if you look hard enough you can find an opinion that directly matches your own. You’ll also probably discover that a good portion of those that support the UK’s military action, using concern for the welfare of Syrian civilians, are also the same people that are against Britain taking on refugees, and regularly point to foreign aid as a needless government expense. Still, if the air strikes do miraculously bring peace to the Middle East, you can be sure Harry Kane will be claiming it.
*Flushes internet down the toilet forever*
Anyway, in less apocalyptic territory, a full set of Premier League fixtures took place this weekend with the sides in the bottom three all facing tricky tests in their bid to escape relegation, while a rare Saturday night fixture promised a ding-dong between two of the top four. The action began at St Mary’s where Mark Hughes was looking for his first points as Southampton manger since taking over last month. After a spirited but ultimately fruitless performance at Arsenal last weekend, a Chelsea side that have been spluttering since the turn of the year perhaps didn’t present the most daunting of challenges. Sticking with Shane Long as the lone striker, Hughes gave summer signing Jan Bednarek his Southampton debut in what would usually be deemed a dress-rehearsel for next week’s FA Cup Semi-Final, were the outcome of this fixture not crucial to Saints’ survival prospects. Chelsea came into the game with one win in their last five Premier League fixtures, and from the off Southampton looked keen to get at an apathetic backline. Long and Dusan Tadic were causing Gary Cahill and Andreas Christensen headaches from the first minute, and the Serbian opened the scoring with a quarter of the game gone. Excellent work from former Chelsea man Ryan Bertrand down the left saw him hold off the challenge of Cesar Azpilicueta, before dragging the ball back from the byline to give Tadic a simple finish on the penalty spot. The former FC Twente man should have doubled the hosts lead before half-time, as James Ward-Prowse’s 25 yarder was beaten away by Thibaut Courtois straight at Tadic, but the Serb could only send a weak effort straight at the keeper. After a lacklustre opening half, Chelsea were fortunate to go in at the break with eleven men on the pitch, with Mike Dean too busy making sure the cameras were on him to notice Marcos Alonso’s stamp on Shane Long.
Having caused irritation by buzzing around the final third in the first half, Long should have doubled Southampton’s lead early in the second when chasing on to Pierre Emile Hojberg’s long pass. With Christensen having got back to cover and block the Irish forward’s path to goal, Long expertly turned the Dane inside out before looping a shot off his standing foot towards the top corner, only for Courtois to tip it over. On the hour, however, Southampton’s survival prospects took boost. Ward-Prowse’s free kick from the right was floated to the back post, and with Cahill all at sea, Bednarek ghosted in to calmly slot the ball into the far corner and spark bedlam among the home faithful. Had the Polish international written the script himself it surely wouldn’t have been so perfect. Though, given what happened next, perhaps he’s a bit of a masochist. Bednarek’s goal prompted a double substitution from Antonio Conte, with Pedro and Olivier Giroud coming on for Davide Zappacosta and the ineffectual Alvaro Morata, and ten minutes later Chelsea had found a way back into the game. Marcos Alonso, lucky to be on the pitch, lifted a cross towards goal from deep, and Giroud powered past his marker to head beyond Alex McCarthy. Five minutes later the teams were level. Willian this time the architecht, escaping the attentions of Cedric before drilling the ball into the area and finding Eden Hazard unmarked, leaving the Belgian the simple task of lashing the ball into the net. From elation to desperation in six minutes for Saints. And devastation was to follow. Chelsea were awarded a free-kick on the left corner of the area, and rather than swing the ball in Hazard slipped a short pass to Willian, allowing the Brazilian space to cross into the area. Panic set in among the Saints defence, and having struggled to properly clear their lines, a weak header fell to the feet of Giroud for the supersub to rifle home and secure three points for Chelsea. If, as is looking increasingly likely, Southampton are relegated at the end of the season, they may just look back at these last two defeats and wonder whether a little more tactical nous might have helped them to a couple of useful points.
That result at St Mary’s added a further degree of spice to the M23 derby (as it if needed any more!!!), with Crystal Palace safe in the knowledge that a win over rivals Brighton and Hove Albion would lift them six points above the drop zone. Though the rest of the footballing world may have watched on nonplussed, Palace and Brighton fans had spent the lead-up to the game ensuring neutrals that this is definitely a derby. If you know, you know. Fair enough. Chris Hughton’s side have hit the skids a little in recent weeks, having taken a solitary point since beating Arsenal at the beginning of March, and with perhaps the most punishing run-in of every team in the bottom half, the salt-and-pepper haired manager will have been looking to take something against a Crystal Palace side that have won just once at home since the turn of the year. The home side flew out of the traps, however, setting the tempo for a pulsating game, and after Luka Milivojevic and Ruben Loftus-Cheek had worked a short corner on the right, the Serbian’s powerful effort from a tight angle was spilled by Mat Ryan, leaving Wilfried Zaha the simple task of tapping into an empty net. The Aussie ‘keeper’s afternoon didn’t look like getting any easier when Andros Townsend measured a dipping volley from 25 yards, and Ryan could only flap the ball behind for a corner which his defensive colleagues failed to clear, allowing James Tompkins to hammer the ball in and double Palace’s lead. A breathless opening twenty minutes then found Brighton embark on their first meaningful attack of the game and win a corner, which Lewis Dunk headed goalwards before Glenn Murray hooked in from two yards out to halve the deficit. Six minutes later, Palace restored their two goal advantage as Milivojevic’s pinpoint cross from deep was met by a rare Zaha header at the far post. There was still time in an action-packed first half for Jurgen Locadia to slip the ball through to Jose Izquierdo, and the Colombian winger cut inside before bending a splendid effort around Wayne Hennessey and into the bottom corner.
Going into the second half win a narrow advantage despite scoring three times in the opening 45 minutes, Palace approached the remainder of the game with caution, abandoning the free-flowing football of the first period and happy to keep Brighton at arms length. The South Coast side did manage to carve open opportunities however, and Murray’s volley from Izquierdo’s cross was inches away from giving the visitors an equaliser. Dale Stephens then tested Hennessey from long range, with the Wales keeper lucky that his punch away was cleared to safety, but as the clock ticked towards the end of the match, the Selhurst Park regulars understandably became nervous given their sides propensity to leak late goals. It looked like they might be adding another to their collection in the first minute of stoppage time when substitute Leonardo Ulloa cushioned a cross to the back post and Murray arrived to smash a volley at goal from ten yards, but managed to cannon the ball straight at Hennessey. The win for Palace will massively ease relegation fears in south east London, with the remaining fixtures looking favourable for Roy Hodgson and co, while Brighton may just have done enough up to this point to avoid the drop – with seven points seperating them from Southampton, its likely they’ll just need to nick a draw or two in their remaining games, though trips to Anfield and the Etihad may well prove fruitless.
A condensed 3pm programme saw just three more games, with Burnley strengthening their grip on 7th place thanks to a 2-1 home victory over Leicester, while towards the bottom Huddersfield grabbed a late winner in a drab game with Watford, and Swansea brought themselves a point closer to survival with a draw at home to Everton. With two televised games scheduled for the evening, Liverpool’s comfortable victory over Bournemouth was served up as an hors d’oeuvres, as the Reds front three of Sadio Mane, Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino all helped themselves to a goal in the Merseyside sunset.
Due to the hosts playing midweek, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City were allocated the lesser-spotted Saturday night slot, with Pep Guardiola hoping to end an unprecedented three game losing streak in all competitions against a Mauricio Pochettino side with half an eye on next weekend’s FA Cup semi-final and a striker looking to win the Golden Boot at all costs. Aymeric Laporte, Kyle Walker, Kevin De Bruyne and Gabriel Jesus returned to the starting line-up, having been rested against Manchester United last weekend, while Erik Lamela was preferred to Heung-Min Son in Tottenham’s first XI. Though City’s seemingly impenetrable veneer has taken something of a pummeling in the last couple of weeks, any notion that Spurs would be able to roll the champions-in-waiting over was quickly diminished as City came out looking for blood. Leroy Sane could’ve given the visitors the lead as early as the fourth minute, connecting with De Bruyne’s cross and smashing a volley against the post, serving as an early warning to the hosts. That warning wasn’t heeded however, and in the 22nd minute Jesus scampered after Vincent Kompany’s long ball and held off Davinson Sanchez before slotting past the onrushing Hugo Lloris. Three minutes later, Lloris was rushing off his line once more, though this time he made a full and frank connection with Raheem Sterling to send the City man sprawling. Referee Jon Moss immediately pointed to the penalty spot, but replays suggested the offence was outside of the area, and in a week where supporters roundly applauded the Premier League’s decision to postpone the use of VAR, there were more than a few grumbles suggesting it would have come in handy here. Ilkay Gundogan dispatched the penalty perfectly into the right corner, and Guardiola’s fornight from hell looked to be coming to a satisfactory end. When he wasn’t busy making bad penalty calls, Moss spent much of the first half with his hand in his pocket, dishing out four yellows in a game that matched skill with full-blooded physicality, as both sides looked happy to fly into challenges. It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Tottenham in the first half, and a chink of light appeared three minutes before half time as Kane repaid Christian Eriken’s generosity last week by slipping a ball in between City’s centre backs and offering the Dane a chance to score, though the assist will go to Laporte, who’s challenge cannoned off Eriksen and into the net.
Any hopes of a Mouriho-esque come back were squashed by City’s insistence on attacking the home side in the second half, and they could easily have added a couple more to their tally before the hour mark. Jesus was once again played in one-on-one with Lloris, but this time scuffed wide, and when Lloris spilled Walker’s cross at the feet of Sterling, the young winger’s famed profligacy reared its ugly head once more. Sterling was more clinical with eighteen minutes to play however, lashing home after Lloris had parried De Bruyne’s shot straight to his feet. Much like last week, Sterling could have had a hat-trick but for poor finishing, though credit should be given to Sanchez for his last ditch challenge that prevented the City forward pulling the trigger when played in on goal minutes later. Save for a long range effort from Lucas Moura late on, Spurs were hardly at the races in the second half, and City were well worth the win that put their fingertips on the Premier League trophy, though surely Manchester United would make them wait another week with a win against bottom side West Bromwich Albion…wouldn’t they?
Sunday’s action began in Tyneside sunshine, with an intriguing but largely meaningless tie between Newcastle United and Arsenal. The Magpies came into the game in excellent form, with last weekend’s surprise victory at Leicester City making it three wins in a row for Rafa Benitez. Arsenal, on the other hand, headed to the North East looking for their first points away from home in 2018, though could point to a twelve game unbeaten run against their hosts as a harbinger of promise. Having made the exhausting 3,000 mile trip back from Moscow in the early hours of Friday morning following Thursday night’s Europa League tie with CSKA, Arsene Wenger shuffled his pack, giving 18 year old Joe Willock his Premier League debut, as well as rare outings for Calum Chambers and Rob Holding. Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang were paired up front from the start for the first time, while Newcastle remained unchanged for the fourth game in a row. Despite the confident mood in St James’ Park, the visitors were on the front foot from the off, with Aubameyang and Alex Iwobi in particular causing concern on the flanks. It was no surprise to see the Gabonese striker in the thick of the action when Arsenal’s anticipated opener arrived, chasing down Shkodran Mustafi’s long ball before hooking it over the heads of Newcastle’s backline for Lacazette to slam in at the near post. The first half dominance continued from the Gunners, and on another day they might have been awarded a penalty when Aubameyang’s wayward shot grazed the hand of Newcastle captain Jamaal Lascelles, while Iwobi could only dig out an effort straight at Martin Dubravka having worked himself an inch of space in the penalty area. Having already fired a couple of warning shots against the tide of blue-shirted Arsenal players streaming towards the Gallowgate End, Jonjo Shelvey then lifted an inch perfect ball over the top of the visitors backline for Dwight Gayle to chase. With Holding shepherding him away from Petr Cech’s goal, the Newcastle #9 laid the ball off to DeAndre Yedlin, and the full-back steered in an inch-perfect cross for Ayoze Perez to nip in front of Mustafi and attack, curling a deft finish into the net. That set-back didn’t deter Arsenal, however, and Chambers very nearly restored their lead minutes before the break, as Nacho Monreal dived to head the ball across the face of goal, but the young defender arrived too late for a decent connection and ballooned the chance over.
Arsenal continued to see most of the ball in the second half, but with their well-drilled defence and a revitalised Mo Diame prowling the space in front of it, the hosts continued to limit Wenger’s side to long range efforts. When Iwobi did find half a yard of space on the corner of the box he was unable to find enough accuracy in a snapshot to trouble Dubravka. With Benitez’s side looking relatively comfortable, there may have been times this season that the famously cautious manager would have settled for a point, but the introduction of on-loan striker Islam Slimani for Dwight Gayle just past the hour suggested the Spaniard was in the hunt for a winner. Slimani’s presence saw an immediate swing in the momentum of the game, and having shown some classy touches in the minutes following his introduction, Arsenal’s backline were injected with a renewed sense of dread. Minutes later, the Algerian would play a big part in the match-winner. With four Arsenal defenders ball-watching, Monreal’s directionless defensive header looped up in the air, and Slimani interevened with a bullish header to play the ball to Perez on the edge of the area. His flick found Matt Ritchie steaming into the box, and with two touches the winger set himself before firing beyond Cech to give Newcastle the lead. The hosts could have put the game to bed minutes later when, Slimani again, terrorised the Arsenal defence before slipping a ball into fellow loanee Kenedy, but the Brazilian’s effort clipped the toe of Mustafi and looped onto the crossbar before being cleared. The final chance of the match fell to Lacazette, after the striker had robustly challenged Dubravka, but from an acute angle the former Lyon man was unable to find the target, and Newcastle held on for a victory that surely confirms their Premier League survival. Though it may have been against a tired and weakened Arsenal side, another impressive and gutsy performance from Benitez’s Newcastle suggests they may be going places. There’s just one Discount Sportswear magnate standing in their way.
Manchester United hosted West Bromwich Albion in Sunday’s 4pm kick-off, as Project: Delay Pep’s First Title For As Long As Possible entered it’s second phase. Baggies caretaker manager Darren Moore halted an abysmal run of eight defeats on the bounce with a draw at home to Swansea last weekend, but surely even the new manager bounce gods wouldn’t be able to help the beleaguered bottom side to a result against a scorned Mourinho. Victor Lindelof was given a rare run out in one of two changes to the United team that staged such an impressive comeback at the Etihad last time out, with Juan Mata taking Jesse Lingard’s place in the front three as the other. Still, there’s been an evident shift in the spirit and application of the West Midlands side since Alan Pardew slung his Sergio Georgini jacket over his shoulders at the Hawthorns for the last time, and the early stages suggested Moore had set up his side looking to frustrate them. In fact, besides Paul Pogba’s long range effort that failed to trouble Ben Foster, it was the visitors that carved open the first goalscoring opportunity of the game, and David De Gea had to be at his best to turn Jake Livermore’s effort away after good work from Salomon Rondon. Having been underworked for most of the first half, Foster then had to be at his sharpest to prevent Romelu Lukaku a clear sight of goal, rushing out to block before the Belgian could connect with Mata’s lob over the top of the West Brom defence. The Premier League’s basement club eventually managed to make it to half-time with a clean sheet, though were lucky to escape a penalty when Ander Herrera was felled by Ahmed Hegazi – had the combative midfielder’s fall not been so dramatic he may have earned the decision.
The well marshalled Baggies backline continued to frustrate their hosts in the second half, with Mata and substitute Lingard both forced to take potshots from distance in a bid to trouble Foster’s goal. The former United ‘keeper then earned his salt once more when Lukaku met Mata’s cross ten yards out, only to see his header beaten away by the West Brom stopper. With the game looking like petering out into the kind of drab goalless draw that Mourinho is making his trademark at Old Trafford, the unthinkable happened. Chris Brunt’s corner was swung towards the far post, and pressure from Craig Dawson left Nemanja Matic no choice but to nod the ball back across goal and into danger, where Jay Rodriguez arrived, stooping in front of De Gea to force a header over the line. Unable to wake from their slumber, Manchester United finally conceded the title to their noisy neighbours, just eight days after staging a remarkable comeback to prevent it. Mourinho’s side have revealed their three faces over the course of the last two games, a team that can at once be feckless, unstoppable, and entirely toothless. The Portuguese now faces four-months of soul searching in a bid to work out how he turns this collection of excellent individual players into a title-winning team.
Monday night’s mouthwatering game had football fans across the land checking the schedule and swiftly switching over to ITV to watch The Queen and David Attenborough. In fairness to West Ham, it certainly hasn’t been dull at the London Stadium this season. Five weeks ago there were on-pitch protests against the running of the club from supporters, which was followed by a scintillating performance against Southampton that got David Moyes’ survival bid back on track. If they could take all three points against a Stoke City side without a win since January, surely the Hammers would all but secure their Premier League status for another season. That victory over Huddersfield in his first game remains Paul Lambert’s sole win as Stoke manager, and with time running out and a six point gap opening up between the Potters and safety, the former Aston Villa manager will have been looking for a maximum return against the claret and blues. For two sides with famed dour streaks, the game had an open feel from the off, with both teams looking to stamp their authority in the opening stages. Keepers Joe Hart and Jack Butland, unwillingly part of a ‘Battle of The England Goalkeepers’ subtext, were kept on their toes in the early stages, as Marko Arnautovic hit a couple of chances on target, while Ramadan Sobhi and Mame Biram Diouf both tested the reactions of West Ham’s stopper. Despite the end-to-end action, there were few clear cut chances in the first half, and the sides predictably went in level at the break.
Ten minutes after half time the home side looked to have broken the deadlock when Arnautovic met Aaron Cresswell’s cross with a deft header, but the Austrian had strayed just offside. Luck would evade the Hammers once more in the 65th minute, when Cheikou Kouyate’s long range effort was ruled out for offside again, with Arnautovic blocking Butland’s eyeline as the shot came in. The Stoke stopper did get a clear sight of Cresswell’s free-kick minutes later, and was able to beat the effort away from danger. If the home supporters were starting to think it might just be one of those nights, then the sight of Stoke taking the lead in farcical circumstances ten minutes from time would hardly have changed their minds. Xherdan Shaqiri picked the ball up on the edge of the box and hit a daisy cutter towards goal that came through a crowd of bodies, Hart somehow managed to spill the shot and momentarily forget that he’s allowed to use his hands, which gifted Peter Crouch the chance to stab the ball home. The England plane for Russia will soon have to install a revolving door. The sniff of a renewed survival bid in Stoke nostrils lasted just nine minutes though, as Cresswell pumped the ball forwards and West Ham’s own beanpole striker Andy Carroll connected with a precision volley into the bottom corner to earn the Hammers a point. The result keeps Stoke City’s hopes of avoiding relegation just about alive, bringing them level on points with Southampton but five short of Swansea City, having played a game more. West Ham meanwhile look sure to limp over the finish line.
So Manchester City are finally confirmed as champions, though beyond November it was never really in any doubt. Guardiola may now have an eye on breaking the Premier League points record, needing just eight points from their final five game to match Chelsea’s total of 95 from 2004/05. Meanwhile, the boat down the bottom is running out of life jackets, and Southampton in particular appear to have forgotten how to swim.