Unwanted International Break
The latest international break has come and I think I speak for most soccer fans when I say that it is most unwelcome. The drama in the Premier League has begun to ratchet up and the coming friendlies are to soccer fans what a television show’s mid-season break is to regular people, desperate to binge watch their favourite shows.
In the Premier League, Manchester City continue to lead the way as they go into the break 8 points clear at the top of the league. Their latest victims, Arsenal, might feel a little hard done by as they conceded two controversial goals on Sunday that arguably shouldn’t have stood in their 3-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Despite dominating proceedings, City needed a soft penalty, given after a seemingly legitimate shoulder charge by Nacho Monreal on the rejuvenated Raheem Sterling, converted by Sergio Aguero and a Gabriel Jesus tap-in assisted by an offside David Silva to beat the Gunners. Arsenal seem to keep their best performances for City with a good recent record against them but will be alarmed at a fourth away loss already this season.
City are setting the league alight this season and after only 11 games are well clear at the top of the league having scored 38 goals, 15 more than the next highest scorers, Manchester United. The team have taken to Pep Guardiola’s tactics with players such as Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling seemingly unstoppable. Sterling has already scored more goals so far this season than in the whole of last year. Hopefully England will be able to take advantage of his form in the summer. Aguero, for his part, has already broken the City all-time scoring record this season and the added competition of Gabriel Jesus has only spurred him on to even greater heights. Guardiola came under heavy criticism last season because of the poor defensive performance of the team and critics seemed to insist that City could not adapt to the way Pep wanted them to play. How did he respond? He bought defensive stability this summer and despite the continued absence of long-time captain Vincent Kompany, the team have only conceded 7 goals in the league so far despite the use of the defensively-suspect Kyle Walker and John Stones and no recognised left back after the serious injury to new signing Benjamin Mendy. The successful conversion of Fabian Delph to left back bodes well for the rest of the season as it does for England next summer. It still remains to be seen if City can overcome their traditional mid-season wobble as the winter months approach. Traditionally teams that play the attractive fast-pace football that City play tend to struggle against physical tall sides that stand strong in the cold wet away days in unfashionable hinterlands such as Stoke and Burnley. These days though, there are fewer of these teams around as Mark Hughes, for one, has transformed Stoke into a football-playing side and teams such as Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield are committed to entertaining their crowds rather than focus purely on how to reach the coveted 40 points needed to mark survival. This author, for one, doesn’t expect the table to change much from its current look at the end of the season.
The other spectacle that occurred this weekend was the confrontation between Premier League Champions Chelsea and Manchester United coached by Chelsea’s bitter ex-coach Jose Mourinho. Chelsea have had a bit of a wobble recently, indeed they were thrashed midweek by a Roma side that outplayed and outthought them all over the pitch. Chelsea coach Antonio Conte has been plagued by rumours of discontent within the ranks and curiously David Luiz, one of the surprise performers in the title-winning season last term was dropped from the squad entirely. Mourinho was expected to set up his United side similarly to previous matches against title-rivals and to park the proverbial bus in order to ensure that United didn’t lose ground against their runaway league-leading neighbours. Credit to Mourinho, United came to play but found a resilient Chelsea eager to prove to the manager and fans that the Roma result was just a blip and with a sublime Morata header in the second half emerged 1-0 victors. The result left United 8 points behind City and with Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal breathing down their necks, it would seem the fight for Champions League qualifiers will go down to the wire as it has done in each of the last few seasons.
The aura of negativity at Chelsea has not dissipated with rumours of a training ground bust-up between Conte and Luiz and various pundits referring to the prevalence of “player-power” at the club which often results in the sacking of the coach. I applauded his decision to leave out Luiz after some woeful displays this season and felt Andreas Christensen was a solid replacement. I just wish Conte had been similarly strong this summer when the club were sending the various high quality youngsters, that Chelsea have amassed over the years, out on loan. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham and Nathaniel Chalobah have all performed well this season at Crystal Palace, Swansea and Watford respectively and could easily have had big roles to play at Chelsea. Additionally other former Blues Kevin De Bruyne, Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata have all been playing very well for various rivals. It greatly bothers me to watch the heroics of De Bruyne at City and I often wonder what might have been if Mourinho had not prematurely let him go. On the plus side, the news of Michael Emenalo’s departure is likely to be music to the ears of Chelsea fans. Emenalo was the Abramovich apparatchik in the Chelsea coaching staff and after a series of poor decisions in the transfer market, not least those mentioned above, not many Blues fans are likely to shed any tears at his departure. Hopefully he’ll pitch up somewhere red in the near future.
On the other end of the table, West Ham dispensed of their coach, Slaven Bilic, after another poor home performance against Liverpool, losing 4-1, leaving them mired in relegation trouble. Crystal Palace, who had already relieved themselves of one coach this season, acquitted themselves quite well against Tottenham but ended up on the wrong end of a 1-0 loss, leaving them 6 points from safety. The match of the weekend was undoubtedly the Everton comeback thriller against Watford where after finding themselves 2-0 down at home to the Hornets, Everton took advantage of some poor goalkeeping by substitute keeper Orestis Karnezis to recover and post a first victory in 9 matches in all competitions. This lifted Everton out of the relegation zone for the time being. The news that Sam Allardyce is being interviewed for the full-time coaching position should also serve as a relief to Everton fans worried about a relegation battle this season. Allardyce, the veteran coach who has saved several below-average teams from relegation, had retired at the end of last season after saving Palace from the drop but I’m assuming the lure of a ‘top 7’ club was too good to ignore. Despite attracting many critics because of his style of play, once described as “19th century football” by none other than Mourinho, it is time for him to be given the chance at a relatively high level.
As both battles at each end of the table heat up, I, for one, am hoping the international break passes quickly with as few injuries to key players as possible and that we get back to business in the Premier League. On a personal note, Greece play Croatia in the World Cup qualification playoffs and unfortunately without our two central defensive lynchpins in Sokratis Papastathopoulos, injured in the 3-1 Klassiker thrashing dished out by Bayern Munchen to Borussia Dortmund, and Kostas Manolas, who has been banned for one game by Fifa for being perceived to have deliberately been cautioned in the Cyprus victory in September to alleviate himself of the risk of suspension from the playoffs. I still have hope but against the likes of Mandzukic, Modric and Perisic, we might have some trouble.