When battle is waged between players and manager, it’s rarely the latter who emerges victorious. ‘Palpable discord’ was the reason cited for Jose Mourinho’s eventual ‘mutual consenting’ at Stamford Bridge on Thursday, the club’s most successful manager ever leaving in a shroud of uncertainty and controversy. For the second time.
What Mourinho leaves in his wake is a football club on the brink. Players who had coasted to the title just seven months ago have been just as culpable in their struggles so far this season as the Portuguese, if not more so. Eden Hazard, last season’s Player of the Year, remains without a goal in his last 27 games; Diego Costa has comfortably remembered the ‘be a sh*thouse’ step in his striker routine, but has forgotten the whole ‘scoring goals’ schtick; Cesc Fabregas has been suffering his ‘half-a-season’ syndrome throughout the calendar year. The Blues boasted six players in the PFA Team of the Year last season; the regression of one would be understandable. Even the drop in form of two would be explainable, but each and every player – Willian aside – suffering such a decline? These are worrying times at Stamford Bridge.
Which is why it’s difficult to work out whether a home match against Sunderland on Saturday is either the ideal fixture or a nightmare one. The Black Cats are three points behind Chelsea, and have won three of their eight matches since Sam Allardyce was appointed. A visiting manager has surely never relished a match quite so much. The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge is certain to oscillate. Fans will be keen to honour their fallen manager, but would doing so directly contradict their support of the players who may well have brought about his eventual downfall? The intrigue surrounding the second post-Mourinho era is as palpable as the discord which precipitated it.
Things were rather different for Manchester United when Wayne Rooney last featured. The club captain’s last game came in the 1-1 draw with Leicester, a result which left United third, and just one point behind league leaders Manchester City. They were also still in the Champions League, and had not been beaten since defeat to Arsenal in early October.
Whatever the reason – alleged or official – for Rooney’s absence, United have failed to win in their last three games without him. Not only that, they’ve been beaten twice. A one-point gap to the top has turned into six, the Champions League has become the Europa League, and pressure is mounting on manager Louis van Gaal.
Considering Rooney’s form and performances so far this season, identifying his return as potentially crucial seems implausible. Rooney has scored just two goals in his 12 Premier League games, but news of his return for this weekend’s clash against Norwich is being widely reported as a ‘boost’. Somehow, it’s difficult to argue. United have gone five games without a win in all competitions, and the 18th-placed Canaries present a kind opponent, especially at Old Trafford. If their return to winning ways coincided with his comeback, it would be difficult to ignore. These are the times when the captain is required to step up.
Reports broke in midweek which confirmed almost beyond doubt just how bizarre this season has been. Both the Daily Telegraph and Express were reporting that Chelsea wanted Southampton manager Ronald Koeman to replace Jose Mourinho in the short-term. For Chelsea to be removing their most decorated manager to replace him with the boss of the club in 12th seemed almost infathomable; then again, so does the fact that Saints are four places and six points above the Blues.
For Koeman though, it would represent an interesting prospect. No manager had a higher stock in the Premier League after last season, with the Dutchman inspiring Southampton to a seventh-placed finish, despite the club having lost yet more of their star players the preceding summer.
Nearly halfway through this campaign however, Saints are struggling. A third consecutive season of their best players leaving has finally caught up with them, and although they look comfortable in 12th, they have not won in the league since beating Sunderland 1-0 in early November. They have just two victories in their last eight Premier League games. December has been the most disappointing of months, with a promising Capital One Cup run ended abruptly at the hands of an irresistible six-goal Liverpool, while their inability to beat the league’s worst club in Aston Villa was compounded with defeat to Crystal Palace a week later. Bournemouth and Newcastle are now both just five points behind.
Koeman, the sixth-longest serving manager in the Premier League despite being appointed in the summer of 2014, needs a positive result. A Spurs side whose unbeaten run has just ended could provide timely respite. With Spurs having won five of their last six meetings however, and Southampton’s last win in this fixture coming thanks to a Nigel Quashie winner in 2005, perhaps the situation will only worsen.
Leicester would be almost certain to head into the New Year in the Champions League places if they beat Everton on Saturday. The league leaders have had no trouble scoring goals – indeed, no side have more – with Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy in unbelievable form, but the Toffees present a different problem. With Romelu Lukaku having scored in six consecutive league games (watch out, Jimmy Dunne), the Foxes’ new defensive mettle will be tested at Goodison Park. Having conceded 14 in their opening seven league games, they have allowed just eight in their last nine. Much of that is down to the Austrian they signed in the summer, with said run beginning with his first start in October. For Fuchs’ sake, you could say.
Steve McClaren and Remi Garde
After 14 games of this Premier League season, Newcastle were in 19th on 10 points, with only Aston Villa on five keeping them off the foot of the table. Both sides looked doomed, sharing just three wins between them from a possible 28.
What a difference two games makes. Newcastle recorded back-to-back victories for the first time since last November, beating Liverpool and Spurs to rise to 15th. Villa, on the other hand, stay bottom, and are now eight points adrift. The Magpies have shown Remi Garde’s men that a revival is possible in the right circumstances, but if McClaren consigns them to a 13th defeat of the season, it would be difficult to see a way back for a Premier League ever-present.
The reaction to the German’s post-match salute after securing a dramatic late draw against West Brom was predictably tiresome and misguided. A few games prior, Klopp had bemoaned the fact that his players gave fans nothing to stay for deep into games, even when chasing a result. Divock Origi’s stoppage-time equaliser against the Baggies was symbolic in that respect, a goal inspired by a vocal Anfield crowd.
But a draw is still a draw, regardless of its nature. And a draw left Liverpool in ninth after 16 games. Few would have predicted – present company included – that they would head into their December meeting with Watford two places and one point behind the Hornets. For such public displays of affection as that at Anfield on Sunday to be effective, they must be followed up in the next game. Luckily for the Reds, they have not won in their last three, while Watford have three consecutive victories to their name.
Two weeks ago, Bournemouth were 18th, two points from safety, and eight behind West Brom. Their next two fixtures were Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and Manchester United.
Two weeks on, and Bournemouth sit 14th, two points above the relegation zone, and only four behind their next opponents, West Brom. Six points against Chelsea and United represent a remarkable and commendable return, but they must be consolidated against sides around them.
Their previous Premier League defeat sparked a 14-game unbeaten run, and yet Spurs are fifth, nine points behind Leicester, level with Crystal Palace, and one point ahead of Watford. Defeat to Newcastle represented their first in the league since the opening day, and Mauricio Pochettino will know only too well the importance of an instant recovery. Fortunately for him, he will be in familiar territory; a visit to the St Mary’s to take on his former club Southampton awaits.
It may be an unlikely scenario, but if results fall kindly for Crystal Palace this weekend, they will be in the top four after 17 games. If Alan Pardew can mastermind another away victory at a Stoke side who have lost as many games as they have won at the Britannia Stadium this season, it will be more than deserved. Just imagine how humble he’d be.