Leicester may have taken out exclusive rights on the word ‘fairytale’ this season, but hear me out while I state West Ham’s own case:
In the season before moving to a new stadium (I’m not mentioning the ownership controversy here *cough*), there were very real concerns about West Ham’s logic in appointing a popular former player with a slightly haphazard managerial record. Slaven Bilic was affable but risky, the opposite of the tedious pragmatism of Sam Allardyce.
What follows is West Ham’s highest top-flight points total for 30 years, and a fighting chance of finishing in the top four. The final game in their old stadium is against Manchester United, which could become a shoot-out for the final Champions League place with Manchester City falling away. Beat United, and the unthinkable could be in Bilic’s side’s hands on the final day.
Like every fairytale, West Ham’s story needs a tagline. And if you don’t think that ‘Be careful what you wish for’ p*sses all over ‘Chat s**t, get banged’ then we’re going to fall out.
It’s not outside the realms of possibility for Bilic’s memorable first season to end in such spectacular fashion. Should West Ham win their remaining three league fixtures and Manchester City lose to either Arsenal or Swansea, the job is complete.
Townsend has not perfected his shooting and still retains that frustrating propensity to shoot over and wide from distance, but (as Sarah Winterburn wrote right here) he’s getting it right often enough to help Newcastle out. If there’s one set of fans who love a left-footed free-kick taker…
Shout out too to Martin Keown, who said on Match of the Day 2 on Sunday evening: “When he gets onto his left foot in these areas, there isn’t a better player in Europe.”
That sound you heard was Arjen Robben, Angel Di Maria, Lionel Messi and Gareth Bale all falling from their seats at the same time.
When Jamaal Lascelles called out the Newcastle’s teammates he believed had not been pulling their weight, he risked an awful lot. At 22 years old, Lascelles was neither a senior first-team player nor a regular starter. Yet he felt he must take action to inspire a reaction from his peers. It has worked magnificently.
From first-team irregular to Mr Irreplaceable in the space of a month, the injury to Fabricio Coloccini afforded Lascelles a chance that he has grasped with both hands. It’s very few Newcastle players you can say that about in the last three years. Rafa Benitez says this:
“From watching from outside you can see a young centre-back who normally needs to improve and make mistakes, but the reaction when he makes mistakes when we are training, he is always listening to you and tries to understand. He is doing really well and he will be a really good centre-back for the future because he is doing really well now and he is learning. He still has 10 years to play at the maximum level. I can see someone who is very professional, who is keen to learn, and for a centre-back he has a great future.”
Newcastle supporters have a chant for Rafa Benitez, based on Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba, tweaked from Liverpool’s own tribute to their former manager. Chancel Mbemba, Gigi Wijnaldum, Jonjo Shelvey and Ayoze Perez are all given name checks, but fans must be considering replacing ‘Shelvey’ with ‘Lascelles’. It scans, too.
Just look at the replies to this tweet to see what Newcastle’s fans think of their new leader:
— Jamaal Lascelles (@Lascelles16) April 30, 2016
One step forward rather than back, but the true joy of Leicester’s weekend can only truly be known on Monday evening. Tottenham’s result is the difference between nervous glances exchanged by Leicester supporters or grabbing and kissing that same person as you celebrate the most unlikely title victory in English football history. They deserve it, too.
This has not been a perfect end to Watford’s season, but their club captain will be smiling this Bank Holiday Monday. Having reached double figures for league goals in each of his last four seasons in the Championship, Deeney has passed that mark in the Premier League.
I regularly forget that Deeney will turn 28 this summer. The route to the top has been sluggish, but he’s earned his plaudits.
Four goals in his last two league games might not be enough to make Roy Hodgson’s squad for Euro 2016, but it should see Noble edge into our Top 10 defensive midfielders of the season, out on Tuesday. That will make him feel loads better.
Since the turn of the year, Sigurdsson has contributed 11 league goals and assists for Swansea, 52% of the club’s total. This is Swansea’s top goalscorer, top assist provider and top chance creator in the Premier League.
Sigurdsson is also the most understated and underrated attacking midfielder in the Premier League. He’s my Gylfi pleasure.
Has now reached double figures for goals in a league season for only the third time in his career. To have achieved that during his debut Premier League campaign and playing out wide in a struggling Swansea team is a superb achievement.
Francesco Guidolin and Premier League inexperience
When Guidolin was appointed as Swansea manager, he was vehemently written off by several high-profile pundits. Even six weeks after his appointment, Paul Merson couldn’t help but have his say:
‘There’s always one team who end up on the glass mountain with moccasin slippers on, and it could be Swansea,’ Merson wrote in his Daily Star column on February 26.
‘You bring a foreign manager in at your peril at this stage of the season, because they don’t know this league and this kind of football. You’ve got to go with a proven manager in these situations who knows what it’s all about.’
Well, well. Since his appointment, Swansea have taken 24 points from 15 matches. They sit sixth in the Premier League over that period, and have taken more points per game than Manchester City. It’s almost as if using the term ‘foreign manager’ as a collective (and perjorative) term is both ignorant and foolish.
Not content with completing more tackles than all but one player in the Premier League this weekend, Leicester’s left-back was also the highest chance creator in the division. His performance came too late for a FWA nomination for Player of the Year to match Danny Simpson’s.
Whatever their problems on the pitch and in the dugout, Everton came together as a club before kick-off on Saturday to pay tribute to the astounding work done by the Hillsborough families, who finally got justice after 27 years last week. The cover of Everton’s matchday programme was a wonderfully simple but meaningful gesture, with the pre-match messages incredibly emotional.
In his column for The Guardian this weekend, Daniel Taylor expressed his sadness that football is increasingly played out on a stage of anger. Mercifully, there are glowing exceptions to that rule, however isolated. Everton did their city proud.
Last week’s verdict, as well as finally allowing some closure for the loved ones of the 96, confirmed something to the wider footballing world, a fact that supporters have long suspected: It really could have been your club, your friends, your family, you. That is the true human tragedy.
Football is indeed a place of great anger, bitterness and resentment. But look in the right places, and you can still find the best of people.
Three goals (a Premier League weekend high), four shots on target (a Premier League weekend high), eight tackles (a Premier League weekend high) and five interceptions (a Premier League weekend high). Not only was this the complete performance from Mane, it was also one that made you truly believe he can make it at the highest level.
The evidence for that comes, illogically, in the things the Senegal international did badly. He gave the ball away with a third of his passes, twice chose to go alone when he could have passed to a teammate and failed to create a single chance. There is also the point to be made that Mane is guilty of going missing for matches on end, as frustrating as he is mesmeric. Mane the moments, quite literally. His performances are exceptional, with room still for improvement.
The tools are all there, that much is obvious. If a manager of an elite club can round off Mane’s sharp edges – without losing what makes him so special – he really could be a star.
At his best, Tadic is a master of effort economy. If that sounds a slightly w*nky term, let me explain by example.
On 18 October 2014, when Southampton beat Sunderland 8-0, Tadic completed just 29 passes, yet seven of those were created chances, a whopping 24%. Three of those created chances were assists.
On the first day of this season against Newcastle, the same occurred. Six of Tadic’s 20 completed passes were created chances. Against Manchester City on Sunday, Tadic completed 21 passes. Five were chances created, and three of those were assists. The obvious contrast is with Mesut Ozil, who also created five chances this weekend. Whereas Tadic completed 21 passes, Ozil completed 71.
Tadic is the anti-Ozil, both regularly assisting goals and creating chances but through diametrically opposing strategies. While the German looks to weave himself through every element of Arsenal’s play, Tadic is far happier picking his moments to make his impact. Both techniques are beautiful to watch.
This is getting silly now. Iheanacho has been on the pitch for 608 minutes of Manchester City’s league season, 18.8% of the club’s game time. He’s now also City’s second highest league goalscorer.
If that sounds ludicrous, wait for this: Iheanacho’s seven league goals have come from just 15 shots, a shot conversion rate of 46.67%. Of the 46 Premier League players with more than five goals this season, the next best conversion rate is Riyad Mahrez, with 28.8%.
Liverpool played Villarreal in Spain on Thursday evening, a match that finished at 10pm UK time. They were then the earliest kick-off on Sunday, a 12pm start again away from home. Their game should have been played later in the day. Jurgen Klopp understandably made significant changes, and his side lost by two goals.
Manchester City play Real Madrid in Madrid on Wednesday. They were picked as the last game on Sunday, the latest possible time their match could have been. Their game should have been played on Saturday, in the midpoint between their two Champions League matches. Manuel Pellegrini understandably made significant changes, and his side lost by two goals.
The reason (being dictated to by broadcasting deals) for these imperfect situations are clear, but we need more flexibility. City and Pellegrini have effectively been punished for reaching the Champions League semi-finals. Progression in European competition shouldn’t force a club to prioritise between league and cup. At this stage of the season, equal footing should be given to both.
Sympathy – particularly for City – may be low given the transfer budgets they enjoy, but that’s besides the point. The principal role of the Premier League’s scheduling should be to facilitate entertainment and competition in its own product and assist its clubs’ chances in Europe. This weekend, neither was achieved.
One month ago exactly, Norwich beat Newcastle 3-2 to pull themselves clear of the relegation zone, and a city celebrated survival. They were 17th, four points clear of the bottom three.
Since then, Norwich have lost three straight league games without scoring a goal and dropped to 19th in the table, two points from safety. They face Manchester United on Saturday, and should they lose will probably need to win both of their remaining games to survive. “Let’s be ‘avin you.”
For all Pellegrini’s dignity, over the course of this season he has repeatedly proved that he is not up to the task. Champions League progression has been excellent, just as Manchester City’s title triumph in 2012/13 was well-earned, but the remit of his job is to succeed on multiple fronts in the same season, not either/or. That’s why they have upgraded.
Pellegrini may gain huge sympathy for his alleged mistreatment by City, but his problems were already entrenched before that announcement. The home victory over Southampton in November was City’s only win against a side currently in the Premier League’s top eight. That is appalling.
Hindsight is an omniscient beast, but Manchester City could have had Virgil van Dijk, Toby Alderweireld and £8m in change for the price they paid Valencia for Nicolas Otamendi. If reports are true that Valencia offset much of the fee for money owed for Alvaro Negredo, City got the rawest end of the deal.
The limpest effort on a football field since Paul Alcock tried to stay on his feet after the Paolo di Canio push in September 1998. Fine him a week’s bloody wages.
Kolarov should never play another minute for city, he shouldn't even be allowed in the stadium after this pic.twitter.com/4Db95PiKct
— YourMCFC (@YourMCFC) May 2, 2016
When they’re booing and calling for your head after a victory, your time is nigh. Optimism is a shield of self-preservation, but Martinez’s is being pierced from all sides.
Three months after becoming Everton’s third most expensive signing ever, Oumar Niasse finally started a match for the first time after 19 minutes of league football. He lasted 60 minutes.
Niasse put in plenty of effort, but looked considerably off the pace. He completed 12 passes and had one shot (off target). This would be a reasonable return from the striker’s first start if it had come in early February, but not on the last day of April.
When Niasse was signed, Roberto Martinez claimed that his new striker was ready to hit the ground running, but he’s barely started crawling since. Now with new investment in the club and a likely new manager for next season, Niasse’s potential to become an Everton white elephant is massive.
Lingard gets called “persistent”, “full of running” or “industrious” in 90% of the games I watch him play. That’s probably a euphemism for him not being good enough for Manchester United.
There is no doubt that Lingard has done enough this season to be an effective squad player in an injury-ravaged squad. Yet if United have aspirations of glory, a player of his quality should not be starting 30 games per season, however harsh that sounds. He’s not a kid anymore.
Your striker just got banned for calling the referee “a f**king c**t”, so to shout “you’re a c**t” in the face of Michael Oliver after receiving a second yellow card was sensationally dim. We will now discover whether a second Leicester player is to be banned for their disrespect towards officials. It’s a niche way to close in on the title.
A shot in the arm for the conspiracy theorists. I spent a wonderful 20 minutes on a Sunderland forum on Saturday evening reading about how Cabaye ‘told Karl Darlow where he was putting the penalty with his eyes. Yes, I do need to get out more.
Fifteen full games, 872 minutes and 37 shots without a league goal for Olivier Giroud. Remember when silly people thought that he was ‘world class’?
Liverpool’s back-up players
Having been suitably impressed with how Jurgen Klopp had blooded youngsters into the Liverpool side without letting results cliff, the entire team jumped off a cliff at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday. Klopp clearly has both eyes, nose, mouth and body on the Europa League semi-final on Thursday, but Sunday’s defeat was still awful even by deflated standards.
“We changed the line-up and with this line-up we can play much better football. We could explain a few things and it would sound like an excuse,” said a noticeably disappointed Klopp after the game. “This was not a good enough performance. We deserved to lose, they deserved to win, that’s how football is on a bad day. I thought we lost a lot of easy balls, we weren’t compact, there were a lot of things we could’ve done better.”
The obvious question is whether such a shambolic display affects the mood ahead of Thursday evening. Having abandoned the attempt at a top-six place and therefore Europa League qualification, Klopp has instead placed his eggs in an alternative basket. Champions League football could still hatch in late May.
Another step along the road to proving his full fitness to Roy Hodgson, but the destination is an awfully long way away. Can Wilshere really command a squad place even if he starts both of Arsenal’s last two games?
Tony Pulis and youth
“I keep saying, academy football is a system there that is supposed to be there for excellence,” Tony Pulis said on Saturday. “In any other sport players would be driven and pushed.
“Playing in important games with seasoned professionals is important and for some reason a lot of academies want to keep their players playing Under-21 football. It’s beyond me. I’ve watched Under-21 football and it’s certainly not preparation for what is needed out there.”
To say it’s a bit rich hearing Tony Pulis lecturing on the subject of using young players is like calling Donald Trump ‘a bit of an arse’. Pulis’ comments were provoked by the debut given to 17-year-old Jonathan Leko, but one swallow hardly makes a summer.
By my calculations, Leko was the first teenager to start a league game under Pulis since he was appointed by Stoke in 2006. Which is absolutely incredible.