Watching eight (no, seven) relegation candidates in action…

Date published: Monday 30th April 2018 8:55

It’s heartless, I know, but relegation season is my favourite time of the year. Each mistake or moment of brilliance is magnified a thousand-fold; each tactical decision is total genius or rank idiocy; each goal is glory; each result means everything, or a bit more. So this weekend offered the consummate sporting experience. Eight – eight! – matches with significant bearing on the relegation race, and nothing to do but sit at the computer and/or television and mainline football.

Here’s what it looked like, in the order I watched the games:

 

Liverpool-Stoke City
The weekend starts at Anfield. Stoke City desperately need three points, but the time to get them was last week against Burnley. Here it looks like damage limitation. On the other hand, Liverpool have a few other things on their mind, so there’s no telling how they’ll perform.

Tactics for Stoke should be pretty easy: just do the opposite of whatever Roma did. Give Paul Lambert credit, because he doesn’t park the bus. It’s a 4-4-2 with Peter Crouch and Mame Biram Diouf up front, Xherdan Shaqiri on the right, and a fair amount of pressing. But he’s also careful to keep his centre-halves deep.

Not that it helps a few minutes in when Mo Salah gets behind the defence. Time for yet another exquisite dink, and – what the hell? It’s the first sign Salah and Liverpool aren’t at their best, or even close. Stoke get physical, racking up 10 fouls in the first 35 minutes or so, and it looks like a point is a possibility.

If it’s going well you don’t change anything, right? Nope – out for the second half, and Lambert has switched to a 4-4-1-1, with Crouch alone, Shaqiri behind him, and Diouf on the right. Best chance to get a point, I suppose, and it works. The back line defends superbly against the off-colour Reds, Stoke get the breaks from the ref, and it’s 0-0 at full time. One point probably won’t be enough, but they live to fight another day, and with Crystal Palace (H) and Swansea City (A) left on the schedule, two wins are still possible. But the bookies have them at 1/16.

One more thing. In the 65th minute, Lambert makes the most bizarre substitution in the history of football. With Crouch tiring, he moves Diouf back up front and brings in Darren Fletcher to play right wing. Surely this has to be a disaster, and it’s as if millions of Staffordshire keyboarders cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. But either Liverpool don’t notice or don’t care, and he gets away with it.

 

Burnley-Brighton & Hove Albion…er, wait a minute, that’s Huddersfield Town-Everton
Next up is Burnley-Brighton. The Seagulls are close to survival, but have a difficult run-in, and so a result would be helpful. All set – except for some reason the stream stops working. The teams are coming out of the tunnel, and suddenly darkness. It’s like an Ingmar Bergman film. So I switch to the Terriers.

This is the big one for Huddersfield Town. With some very difficult games coming up, it’s their best chance at three points, and a win will almost certainly ensure survival. No surprises in their line-up or tactics: they have to go with what’s brought them so far.

As the first half proceeds, the word that comes to mind time and again is ‘quality’. The Terriers just don’t have enough of it. Rajiv van la Parra, Collin Quaner, Steve Mounié, Aaron Mooy, Alex Pritchard have all had a great game or two at some point during the season, but not even Mooy, the most talented of all, seems to be able to repeat the feat often enough. The quality is on the other side of the ball, mainly with Theo Walcott and Seamus Coleman.

But this is Everton, and attack doesn’t seem much of a priority. So with a bit of luck, Town might still get a result – but then a sucker punch, the dictionary definition of ‘against the run of play’. Cenk Tosun’s fine finish puts the Toffees on top, and although we’re only in the 39th minute, it looks desperate for the home side.

It stays that way. Jordan Pickford doesn’t need to make a save the entire second half, and as the game opens up, the talent gap becomes more obvious. In the 77th minute, Everton get a second, and Huddersfield are done for the day.

Their next two matches are at Manchester City and Chelsea, so maybe one point maximum. But on the final day they host Arsenal, that’s hopeless-in away-matches Arsenal, so one last push might get the Terriers to 38 points and survival. It probably won’t be settled until the last minute.

 

Newcastle United-West Bromwich Albion
It seems one secret to success is to have the nickname ‘Dave’ even though you’re not named David. It works for Cesar Azpilicueta, and it seems to be working for Darren Moore, who goes by ‘Big Dave’, because he’s big and presumably Dave-like. The West Brom farewell tour is drawing rave reviews, and with Newcastle safe as houses, a win for Albion (and they need to win to stay alive) isn’t out of the question.

The Baggies start with Jay Rodriguez behind Salomón Rondón in the 4-4-1-1 that’s brought success since Big Dave took big control. As it turns out, both strikers, particularly Rodriguez, will have days to forget, but it won’t matter because Matt Phillips – missing in action most of the year – picks today to have his best game of the season. He gets to loose balls, runs at people, and makes Paul Dummett – who’s had a solid last few months – look like he just got out of bed. The Scottish winger thumps a 29th minute drive past Martin Dubravka, and West Brom lead.

As for Newcastle, it’s not just Dummett who’s got the early morning feeling. Jamaal Lascelles is wandering, Jonjo Shelvey‘s passes aren’t clicking, and Dwight Gayle doesn’t seem to be able to keep possession. Kenedy, sent in by Ayoze Perez, should score, or at least pass to an unmarked Gayle, but he tries to get cute and pokes the ball wide. Near the end of the first half, in back-to-back set-pieces, Mo Diamé hits the crossbar and Gayle is denied on an astonishing point-blank save by Gordon Banks Ben Foster. It’s West Brom’s day.

Newcastle seem to have the ball the entire second half. Baggies fans must be watching through their fingers. I’m watching through my fingers. A few minutes from time the Magpies have the inevitable big chance – but it falls to Joselu, and the miss is pretty much inevitable too. West Brom finish with 36.5% possession, but one goal to nil. Big Dave grows from 6’2″ to 6’3″. Spurs at home next week. They couldn’t, could they?

 

Crystal Palace-Leicester City
Palace have been a coiled spring much of the season, and this looks like the match they’re likely to uncoil. Leicester are the second team in two years to grow disenchanted with Claude Puel, and have little to play for besides. Wilfried Zaha is healthy. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is out of the World Cup, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek knows that Gareth Southgate is in the stands. (Maybe he doesn’t, actually.) Degsy has them to win.

It’s all settled pretty quickly. Palace are ready, Leicester aren’t, and it never looks like anything other than a home win. Marc Albrighton contributes to the hilarity with a last-man foul and some impressive but futile complaining to Mike Dean.

In the end, even Christian Benteke scores.  A penalty kick, but it’s in his column now, and 30 years hence only Palace fans will remember. The Eagles aren’t mathematically safe, but it’s almost certainly another notch in Roy Hodgson’s stick. Even better, he’ll have a job next year and Sam Allardyce won’t.

 

Southampton-Bournemouth
It’s put up or shut up time for Mark Hughes. After weeks of passivity and poor results, Southampton need to attack and to win. He picks what looks like his most talented XI, a 3-4-3 with Charlie Austin at striker, Nathan Redmond and Dusan Tadic on the wings, and out-of-favour Mario Lemina in central midfield. He’s helped by Eddie Howe’s choice to play 3-4-3 as well, not Bournemouth’s preferred system.

Things actually seem to be working. Lemina is either pushing for a new contract or a move, because he’s fantastic, better than he’s been in months. When in the 25th minute, a Bournemouth corner is cleared and Dan Gosling gambles absurdly to try to win the ball, it’s Redmond to Lemina to Tadic to the back of the net, as smooth as you like. It’s only Southampton’s second counter-attack goal in the last two seasons.

Unfortunately, that means Bournemouth have them right where they want them. Nobody comes from behind like the Cherries, and before half-time they’re level through Josh King, despite a superb save by Alex McCarthy from Nathan Aké. At this point you’d have to bet on a Bournemouth win.

You’d have reckoned without Steve Cook, though, and for that matter Dusan Tadic. In the 54th minute, Cook’s latest nightmare is scooped up near the centre circle by Tadic, who decides he’s really Sergio Aguero. He dribbles all the way into the area and finishes brilliantly. After nearly four months without a goal, he has three in three matches.

At this point you’d really have to bet on a Bournemouth win, and the Cherries do their best to comply. By the end the Southampton back line is in six different places at once, but Alex McCarthy makes two outstanding saves and referee Anthony Taylor helps out by getting in the way of a potential Bournemouth chance. It finishes 2-1. Mark Hughes is the second coming of Rinus Michels, and all of a sudden the Saints are in with a shout. They host Manchester City on the last day, but it’s away to Everton and Swansea City before that, and even Pep Guardiola gets tired of breaking records.

 

Swansea City-Chelsea
All the 3 o’clock results are in, and Swansea know that Huddersfield are in some trouble and the Saints are marching in. So it’s time for Carlos Carvalhal to earn his corn. This may not be a nice word, but the Swans surrendered to Manchester City last time out, and a passive approach absolutely will not do. He may also have studied the video of Crystal Palace’s glorious October win over Chelsea at Selhurst Park. The Blues are even more vulnerable these days, and not exceptionally motivated, so it’s time to go for it.

But four minutes in Andy King takes a poor touch and a few seconds later Cesc Fabregas scores a stunner. It’s only his second goal of the season, and only his second left-footed goal in the last four years, but he takes it like Romelu Lukaku, or even Rivaldo.

In a way it’s just as well, because Swansea have no choice now but to risk it. The champions are d**king around as usual, with only Eden Hazard and occasionally Fabregas looking dangerous. You just know they’re not going to score again any time soon. Gradually the Swans grow into the match, and by the final half-hour they’re dominating. Nathan Dyer has come on for Andy King, and Tom Carroll for Connor Roberts. Something has to give.

But that word ‘quality’ rears its ugly head. André Ayew, the best attacker on the team, gets some shooting space on Gary Cahill but curls barely wide. Carroll has a free shot from just outside the area but misses close as well. Swansea finish with more possession and only one fewer shot, but no points.

It’s now no wins in seven for the Swans, with only two goals in that stretch, and they look in real trouble. But the hardest games are all out of the way. They finish with Bournemouth (A), Southampton (H), and Stoke City (H). The match against the Saints will be epic, but the ace in the hole is that Stoke may be relegated by the final round.

And so ends Saturday, nearly midnight my time. Is the replay of Burnley-Brighton available yet? No. Radio silence from Turf Moor? Russian hacking? It might be the first Premier League game in three years I haven’t seen. Panic. But there’s always Sunday…

 

West Ham United-Manchester City
It figures to be a very brief coda to the weekend’s symphony. City are scoring in bucketfuls, West Ham have one win in eight. Patrice Evra is in the line-up, for goodness sake. All goes as expected for a while, although City aren’t sharp and their two goals offer more comedy than elegance. Time to check the website again. But suddenly Aaron Cresswell beats Ederson on a fabulous free kick, and it’s game on.

It’s also half-time, and with City vulnerable, surely West Ham will come out guns blazing after the interval. But who are we kidding? This is David Moyes – and in his defence, the Hammers did pretty well parking the bus at the Etihad. He decides to play it conservative. It’s over in 20 minutes.

West Ham have the same number of points as Huddersfield, and an easier schedule: Leicester (A), Manchester United (H), Everton (H). But the side has had such wide swings under Moyes that at this point just about anything is possible. And it won’t help to call him Dave, because he’s already named David.

 

The Burnley-Brighton stream never does come up. Desolation. The result is 0-0, same as the reverse fixture, but not for a second do I think “I didn’t miss much”. I missed Brighton getting a point, which might very well be enough to keep them up. I missed relegation football.

But the consolation is that nothing was settled this weekend. No one was relegated, no one clinched survival. That means next weekend offers seven – seven! – more games with relegation relevance. Wow. What did I do to deserve this?

Peter Goldstein

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