Big Weekend: Hazard, Allardyce, Lovren

Date published: Friday 1st January 2016 9:49

Eden Hazard Chelsea Kiev

Sam Allardyce
How brave of Sam Allardyce to shine the spotlight on that put-upon minority: the British football coach. “We are denying British coaches positions in all divisions now,” cried Big Sam earlier this week. “What we could do is make sure that a British coach is interviewed for every position, a bit like the Rooney Rule. It would be a fantastic idea because there are so many coaches out there who are highly-qualified, have spent a huge amount of money qualifying and have a great amount of experience and are not even getting the opportunity to do the job in their own country as they should be.”

Allardyce is flying the flag for the courageous, victimised British coach, having been handed the (dubious) opportunity of the Sunderland job. As if the Black Cats hadn’t already proven they were impervious to relegation over the past few seasons, they employed the Premier League’s chief safety net following Dick Advocaat’s departure.

Sunderland were 19th upon Allardyce’s arrival in October, five points adrift of safety after eight games. The gap has increased to seven points 11 games later. Has Allardyce’s magic run out?

Fortunately for him, the only side faring worse than Sunderland this season await on Saturday. Aston Villa, the league’s lowest goalscorers, the side with the fewest wins and joint-most defeats, travel to the Stadium of Light. Remi Garde’s men themselves are 11 points from safety, and defeat to their nearest rivals would extinguish any lingering hopes of a revival, while simultaneously boosting those of Sunderland.

Inability to secure a win is an unthinkable prospect for Allardyce and his side. This is a manager whose standing is based on keeping endangered top-flight sides afloat, with substance preferred over style. Sunderland have offered neither so far this season. If Villa come away from the Stadium of Light with a point or more, Allardyce’s reputation in the game will be hanging by a thread. Not even a contrived Rooney Rule could save him.

 

Claudio Ranieri
Even in the midst of Leicester’s remarkable run to the top of the Premier League, Claudio Ranieri remained unmoved. “Forty points” was the answer each time he was asked of his targets this season. That magic 40-point mark, and almost certain safety from a relegation tipped by many – particularly not far from here. With Leicester sitting on 39 points after 19 games, a draw against Bournemouth would nudge them over the periphery. Victory at the King Power Stadium would mean the Foxes beat last season’s points tally in 18 fewer matches.

For an indication as to just how far Leicester have progressed, their last two games provide an unlikely insight. One point from a visit to Liverpool and a home match with Manchester City is seen as a disappointment, yet they garnered the same total in four games against the two sides last season. And for all the talk of Arsenal topping the table heading into 2016, Leicester sit behind them only on goal difference.

Yet their last two results cannot be ignored. This is the first time they have gone two Premier League games without a win since August, and the first time they’ve gone two league games without scoring since March. Ranieri will demand a response against Bournemouth.

 

Eden Hazard
And so Cuco Martina joins Modibo Maiga, Emmanuel Riviere and Marouane Chamakh in the list of 207 players who have scored at least one Premier League goal since Eden Hazard’s last. Oh and since scoring the goal which confirmed Chelsea as champions last season, on May 3 against Crystal Palace, Hazard has only assisted four goals.

Nemanja Matic, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas in particular have regressed for Chelsea, but none more so than last season’s Player of the Year. The 24-year-old has suffered a dramatic fall in almost every facet of his game. He registered 2.1 shots, 4.8 dribbles and 58.4 passes per game in 2014/15; this campaign, it is 1.2 shots, 3 dribbles and 47.6 passes. Most galling for Chelsea fans must be that in the four games Hazard has played for Belgium this season, he has scored in each.

If Guus Hiddink is to rescue Chelsea, reviving Hazard’s fortunes will be key. A 0-0 draw with Manchester United and a three-game unbeaten run represents as big a positive as the Blues have had all season, but they are still only three points above the relegation zone. Inspiration is needed, and individuals must finally deliver.

 

Louis van Gaal
“Swansea have been what I call my ghost team, meaning we are looking to start this new year with what I have been told you say in England by breaking the duck.

“We know it will be tough and know we have to be creative and take our chances if we are going to end this run without a win. And that is the aim – to put smiles back on the faces of the staff, the players and the fans.”

Go on then.

 

Dejan Lovren
The unlikely lucky charm of the Liverpool defence, the Reds have now kept clean sheets in 10 games this season, with Lovren starting nine of them. The Croat has begun seven games alongside Mamadou Sakho in central defence, with clean sheets being earned in five. Was Martin Skrtel the problem all along?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is certain is that Skrtel faces six weeks out through injury, and the prospect of a Lovren-Sakho partnership in his stead is not nearly as worrying as it would have sounded even a couple of months ago. Lovren is looking as close to a £20million defender as he has at any time since joining the Reds in 2014.

But we’ve been here before. Lovren has previously enjoyed patches of excellent form, even in his troubled debut season. At the beginning of this campaign he helped keep three clean sheets in Liverpool’s opening games. That run ended with a nightmare performance in the 3-0 defeat against West Ham. As fate would have it, Slaven Bilic’s side are Liverpool’s opponents in Saturday’s early kick-off. A welcome chance for Lovren to banish his personal demons.

 

Xherdan Shaqiri
“Who knows in this season?” was Mark Hughes response when asked whether Stoke could conceivably qualify for the Champions League this season. The favourite for the Manchester United job can avoid black cats, broken windows and ladders for the rest of his life, but even with the stars aligning, it ain’t gonna happen. Surely?

That is not to belittle Stoke’s achievements, however. The Potters endured a difficult start to the season, failing to win any of their opening six games, but have since recovered to match points totals with Watford and West Ham. Liverpool and Manchester United sit just one point further ahead. No side excited over the Christmas period more than Hughes’s side, with victories over United and Everton sealed in the most impressive of fashions. Central to their fortunes was one Xherdan Shaqiri.

Signed from Inter Milan in the summer, Shaqiri’s first two goals came in that win over Everton on Monday. The club-record signing has not been a disaster by any means, but has struggled to live up to expectations. Until now. The pressure will only increase on the 24-year-old, along with Bojan, Marko Arnautovic and Ibrahim Afellay, to ensure such excellent form continues into 2016. But Shaqiri’s two-goal salvo at Goodison Park will place the emphasis firmly upon him. The winger had just three assists and no goals in the 14 games before this week, and forward players will unfortunately always be judged upon such statistics. Time to give them a boost.

 

Alan Pardew
Crystal Palace take on Chelsea on Sunday, exactly one year to the day since Alan Pardew was appointed manager. From 18th and relegation battlers, to fifth and pushing for Europe, it’s been a phenomenal 12 months at Selhurst Park. Consecutive stalemates with Swansea and Bournemouth have dampened spirits somewhat, but Palace are unbeaten in six, and just four points behind the Champions League spots. Qualification for Europe’s elite competition remains incredibly unlikely, but Palace could put an end to Chelsea’s hopes of European football next season with victory. The gap between the two sides is already 11 points and eight teams, yet Chelsea are still shorter odds to finish in the top four with most bookmakers. Pardew will rightly relish the opportunity to change that indefinitely.

 

A Kompany-less Manchester City

A 0-0 draw with Leicester heralded City’s first Kompany-less clean sheet of the season, bringing the second statistic to one clean sheet in 10. The perfect remedy to a struggling defence lacking confidence is hardly 90 minutes up against Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney.

 

Arsenal
The 2015 Calendar Year Trophy winners, Premier League table-toppers heading into the new year, outscored by just two teams, with only three boasting a better defence, and a manager who is finally willing to capitalise on such a position of power by spending and strengthening in the transfer market. Arsene Wenger praised Arsenal’s “maturity” earlier this week. The Frenchman’s pride in his squad, particularly their mental strength, so often precipitates a mighty fall. Newcastle away win it is, then.

 

Matt Stead

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