Boxing Day roundup

On a day when Tottenham striker Harry Kane broke Alan Shearer’s calendar year scoring record with a 5-2 victory at Wembley over struggling Mauriccio Porchettino’s former Southampton team, what else happened?

Manchester United recovered from a 2-0 deficit to draw 2-2.

Liverpool put five goals past bottom placed Swansea. 5-0.

If you were Southampton manager Manuel Pellegrino, and you knew Harry Kane was seeking to break a record, would you not double team him for much of the game? Take him out of the equation, force the others to make plays without Kane, yet still try to go through him, and then strike on the counter? One wonders why Pellegrino did not consider that kind of tactic.

Bournemouth and West Ham drew 3-3, but the match ended in controversy when former Stoke striker Marco Arnautovic’s injury time goal was cancelled out by the Cherries Callum Wilson, who appeared to be in an offside position, and to also handle the ball.

The guy must think Thierry Henry is his idol. Henry, of course put the Republic of Ireland out of the World Cup with his infamous handball.

If you take into account all the diving, handball and other misdemeanours on the field you may conclude that the modern game nowadays is about gaining an edge by deceiving the referee. And many players are tumbling like flies at the slightest jostle, yet referees seem apprehensive about awarding yellows for dives, or straight reds for lunges. Remember Harry Kane’s lunge on Raheem Sterling at Manchester City? Had he been sent off, he might have been banned and could have kissed the record goodbye.

How Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe’s stock has fallen. Last year after Sam Allardyce was sacked, he was touted as a possible manager, a young hand being steadied by an old manager such as Harry Redknapp. But now his team are in danger of being relegated, he no longer hears his name associated with being England manager any more.

It was goals galore at Liverpool and Tottenham, but the fact of the matter remains that outside the top six, only one other team – Burnley – has a positive goal difference. And that’s not much, because Sean Dyche’s men have only scored one more than they have conceded. And with James Tarkowski banned for a flagrant elbow that looked less intentional that Charlie Austin’s boot to the goalkeeper’s face, it is unlikely that Burnley will continue to maintain that positive goal difference.

Tottenham are posed to make a move for Everton’s Ross Barkley, currently out injured. Barkley was the thorn in former manager Ronald Koeman’s summer, as speculation over his future at Goodison continued to overshadow things at the club, even the departure of Romelo Lukaku. In a way Barkley was like the Alexis Sanchez of Merseyside, and perhaps when the transfer window opens both may find themselves being linked with other clubs again.

Ronald Koeman was boasted that he had Olivier Giroud nearly ready to sign for the Toffees but the deal collapsed because Giroud preferred to remain in London. Will Giroud consider Goodison again? He is behind Lacazette in the pecking order and also perhaps behind Sanchez, so it pretty much remains if Sanchez is going and Lacazette and Giroud play together. It would be interesting to see a 3-5-2 featuring Lacazette and Giroud as the forwards, as it would give the Arsenal wingers the chance to lob balls in the penalty area to trouble opposing centrebacks.

But the last Boxing Day word must remain with Harry Kane. He has only scored one less goal than Lionel Messi in all competitions and surely he must be in the running in the Ballon d’Or this year with a high chance of winning.

And then maybe it’ll be Kane to Spain. To one of the big two anyway.

A weekend of records

So what happened in the league this weekend?

Arsenal and Liverpool split a six goal thriller on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return to the Emirates. The Gooners scored three goals in a five-minute spell in the second half, before Roberto Firmino’s header dashed all Arsenal hopes of a win.

And what sort of a record did this set? Well, Arsenal didn’t fall apart in a big game, after a two-goal deficit. Usually they just go to pieces after they concede in a big game.

Remember the 6-3 defeat of Arsenal by Manchester City? Or the 8-2 defeat by Manchester United?

You can see why some of the stars of the team wanted to leave. Arsenal always had a reputation for losing big games with the top six. And when they lost, player such as Mesut Ozil always got the blame for switching off, and for their poor body language.

Certainly no one could fault Alexis Sanchez for effort. The ____ – bound Chilean hustled for the first goal by nipping in front of the Liverpool center-back and getting back a goal which he really had no business of winning.

And what about Mesut Ozil? Often accused of switching off in big games, he scored the third goal in the five-minute second half blitz.

Incidentally, it looks like Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata has been swotting up on Ozil’s style.

At least it wasn’t this.

Speaking of Chelsea, could Alexis Sanchez be off to Chelsea instead?

Manchester City’s record breaking season continues and continues without Alexis Sanchez, giving the casual onlooker doubts about what Alexis Sanchez could add to that team.

And if Aguero is already unhappy about his playing time in the team then what happens when Alexis Sanchez arrives there? Two sulks on the bench when Gabriel Jesus plays?

In fact the longer it drags on it appears Sanchez might not be City-bound but may consider a move away to another club where he can still win trophies, such as Manchester United, or increasingly possibly Chelsea. Or why not Paris St Germain or Bayern Munich?

Sergio Aguero scored his 100th league goal at the Etihad, Manchester City eclipsed more than 100 goals in the calendar year. And Harry Kane equalled Alan Shearer’s record of 36 Premier League goals in a calendar year.

Goals. Goals. Goals.

Yet if you looked at the Premier League table, only the top six teams have a goal difference of more than 1.

It tells you how the Premier League teams are playing this year. Like Burnley, playing to scrape points rather than lose games. Aiming to win by 1-0 on 25% possession, rather than playing good entertaining football.

While Sean Dyche’s Burnley team have done well, and are a remarkable side considering what they achieve on their budget, you might well say they deserved to lose 3-0 at Turf Moor against a Tottenham side. When you set out to get a point for a draw, or play for a 1-0 win, as a neutral fan you might prefer it if teams played “who cares about defence” attacking football like Liverpool and Arsenal did.

The gap from 13th to 20th remains at six points, which means win two and you’re out of the drop zone. Which is exactly what Sam Allardyce and Everton have been trying to do. Score goals, don’t concede; but if you’re up against a team like Chelsea, then don’t concede, and hope to score, letting the fans put pressure on the better team. A run of wins and clean sheets has helped Everton rise up the rankings.

Make no mistake. The Premier League developments at the bottom end will be more interesting than at the top end. The bottom three change more often than the seats in the X-Factor’s six chair challenge.

Sanchez’s lure declines with time

Is the star of Alexis Sanchez losing its shine? After the Manchester City summer deal to sign him for £55 million plus £5 million in add ons collapsed due to the Gooners being unable to secure the signature of Monaco winger Thomas Lemar, it seems that Manchester City have got on pretty well without him. So well that they are on a match winning run and Sanchez’s part in the DVD they are making could be reduced to only a cameo. Or if reports are to be believed, he might not even have a part. Manchester City appear to be coping well without him and appear willing to wait until the summer before signing him on a free transfer.

The longer this drags on, the worse it is for everybody really. City may realise that Sanchez may not even be a necessary purchase. In the summer he was seen as one who would take City to the next level, possibly one to replace Aguero, but this was before everyone witnessed the blistering form of Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling. Sterling has scored a few late goals for City and was touted as a makeweight in the Sanchez deal, possibly moving to North London, but has since recovered the form that made City buy him from Liverpool. In fact, it almost seems that the Manchester City front line have something to prove to Sanchez – stop talking like you are destined to come here; which one of us are you replacing? – and are using it as motivation to play well. The boss Guardiola interested in reuniting with his ex-Barca mate Sanchez? Let’s give him something to ponder over.

Sanchez is playing like his days at Arsenal are numbered. Play well and he only emphasises to Arsenal how much they need him. But play badly, suffer a loss of form and he might demonstrate to all teams that they can actually do without him. He is in a tricky situation really – he doesn’t really want to give his best for a team he wants to leave, and in all fairness it is hard to motivate yourself to do so, but he has to in order to attract more suitors – but they may realise, with time, they can cope without him. His form has already stuttered in the three or four months since the proposed transfer. What would happen with an additional half year of waiting, for a transfer that might never happen? Would his form descend to the point it would suffer by the time he gets to leave Arsenal?

The ones in the driving seat are City. They can wait until the summer to sign him because they know he wants to join them, they can save millions of pounds, and at present it seems they only risk damaging their good team chemistry if they sign him now. If Sanchez joins, would he sulk about not being able to play? Would he create divisions in the Man City ranks? He is almost a shoo-in every time he plays for the Gunners, and if he is unable to play all the time at City, would his sulking cause problems? If you sign a guy for say £30 million, what do you do? Play him, to the annoyance of those who have set a record for consecutive wins without him? Or leave him on the bench as an expensive paperweight?

It may not be that much of a surprise that Sanchez leaves Arsenal, and it may not be much of a surprise if he doesn’t actually doesn’t go to Manchester City. What? Pardon? Not to City? I wouldn’t be surprised if in six months time City think they can manage without him, and Sanchez ups sticks to head for the other Manchester team instead, reigniting a partnership with Mesut Ozil as the former Gooners. Lukaku is under criticism, Ibrahimovic is declining, Rashford and Lingard need mentoring, and his quick play and runs would suit a counterattacking Manchester United, one that slightly slows down with Lukaku. Think about it. Manchester City wait another six months for him and then decide they can do without it. Sanchez decides to join the other Manchester team as a snub. It may turn out this way.

Counting down the days

Is Arsenal’s Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez merely counting down the days to the transfer window? Former Gunners legend Ian Wright seems to think so. The former striker said of the current striker that he appears to have clocked off, and is not putting a shift in for the Gunners.

At this point last year, Sanchez had already scored twelve goals, but this year he has only scored four.

Wright, whose scoring average was around 0.666, believes that mentally Sanchez has switched off and is not giving of his best. This is in contrast to what Arsene Wenger has always said of Sanchez, that he is professional, gives of his best, and honours his contract.

Why is Sanchez so keen to leave? One reason may be that he sees the Gunners as a top-four team, and nothing more than that. The only competition they appear to be winning and aiming for is the FA Cup, but at the current rate they may soon be dropping that and aiming for the Carabao Cup instead. Owner Stan Kroenke appears to be satisfied with merely qualifying for Champions League football, while Sanchez, accustomed to winning with Barcelona, may not want to stall his career by merely finishing in the top four and semi-finals of the Champions League. He wants a Champion League winners medal, and with Guardiola and Manchester City, he sees a potential winner.

Would it affect his sales potential as Wright suggests? He is already on the shopping list, and has been since the summer. His supposed poor form is not going to put them off. He really is caught between a rock and a hard place. Play well and Arsenal refuse to release him. So maybe he has to pitter patter his feet a little bit to see if he can actually make Arsenal release him out of disgust.

And what about his counterpart in contract renegotiation? Long ago it was suggested that the agents of both players were banding together and trying to leverage Arsenal management into giving them enhanced contracts. It was said that Sanchez’s agent would discuss the proposed terms his client had received with Ozil’s agent, and vice versa, and both were driving up the weekly wages.

And if Sanchez and Ozil do go, they would find themselves on the opposite side of the Mancunian spectrum, with Sanchez to City and Ozil to United, both reunited with former managers. But who would that leave Arsene Wenger with to lead the strike line? Lacazette, Giroud, Welbeck and Walcott? The latter two have not exactly been their best – Welbeck flourished in his initial move from United, but injuries have taken his toll and he and Walcott are currently the number 5 or 6 strikers.

Who knows what goes on in the minds of the Arsenal strikers? Sanchez is definitely not accepting being the leader of a top four team and is hungry for more. He only has a few more Xs on the calendar to mark.

 

What Chris Froome could learn from Jamie Vardy

Ah. Chris Froome missed out on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Did it come as a surprise? Unfortunately in the week leading up to one of the most important sports awards of the year, the cyclist had a bad week in the press, savaged for his use of medicine in his sport … and the BBC of course could not risk giving him that kind of prestigious award under that kind of ominous cloud.

So Mo Farah got it instead.

Rewind back to 2016 in Leicester City’s magical season where they emerged champions. When the short list for the PFA Footballer of the Year was announced, it looked like this:

Dmitri Payet

Harry Kane

Jamie Vardy

Mesut Ozil

N’Golo Konte

Riyad Mahrez

Given that three of the six nominees were from Leicester’s team, it was a sure sign that one of them would win it.

But which one? If defense is your thing, then you would have voted Konte, now protecting the back four at Chelsea. But surely the award seemed destined for Jamie Vardy, in a fairy tale era where an Englishman set scoring records by scoring in consecutive matches and breaking the record long held by Dutchman Ruud van Nistelrooy.

BBC. English corporation. English talent. Jamie Vardy. You might argue that Harry Kane was also in the running, but if you read the signs well, Leicester’s incredible season was not going to be overlooked. Harry Kane winning it over the three Leicester men? Unlikely.

Vardy seemed a shoo-in for the award, of which the ceremony was to be held on 24 April 2016.

Unfortunately for Vardy, in a match against West Ham on 17 April 2016, he was sent off. Not just sent off, but sent off for a theatrical dive with the intention to deceive the referee. He basically ran over his opponent’s outstretched leg and did his famous half-twist in mid-air. If you watch him now, he’s still doing it on the pitch. He must have had a lot of practice at that, the form’s almost always the same.

Vardy’s red card at a time the FA was trying to crack down on diving meant that it was impossible that he would receive the award. His subsequent protest and disrespect for the referee meant that if he were won the award, the FA would be endorsing a whole generation of disrespect towards referees.

So Vardy’s great season was undone by that one game close to that award.  It went to Mahrez instead.

Mo Salah won the recent African Footballer of the Year and impressed in the games leading up to it. But one wonders if he had slipped up in the run-up, whether he would have received it.

And Sadio Mane? While he may have been on the shortlist for the December announcement, he wouldn’t have been remembered for his outstanding play. It would have been remembered for the souvenir he gave to Man City keeper Ederson earlier in the season.

The lesson here? If you are nominated for any award, don’t do anything silly in the process.

Saturday Round-up

Can anyone stop Manchester City? This is the question that everyone seems to be asking after the City train steamrolled Tottenham Hotspurs, pretenders to the throne, and all but showed them that if they ever want to be possible Premier League Champions, they still have a long way to go.

Remember when it was not long ago that everyone was gushing over Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen? No one seems to be speaking about them now.

Dele Alli seemed to have cottoned on to something though, something that Manchester City’s past opponents didn’t seem to have registered. If you want to stop Manchester City, you have to stop Kevin de Bruyne. Stop Kevin de Bruyne. Don’t double team him, don’t man-mark him, don’t zone him. Just stop him.

It’s fairly predictable that the three-man panel will give Dele Alli a retrospective ban for the first class stamp on de Bruyne.

Does Manchester City’s fine run mean that Alexis Sanchez’s stock has gone down? Four months ago he was touted to be off to join Pep – maybe as the backup to Sergio Kun Aguero? – but now City have gone on their brilliant run without him. If he does go over in the transfer period, wouldn’t it be said that he merely transferred over to the Premier League champions without doing anything to help them earn it?

In fact, this is what Arsene Wenger should be selling Sanchez. Wenger should tell him, “You want to be recognised for your contribution, sign a new contract with us. Over here the fans recognise you are one of the pulling powers of the team. Over there you are one of many stars. If Tottenham is a Harry Kane team, Man City are a Kevin de Bruyne team. But Arsenal is the Alexis Sanchez team.”

But wait a second, I hear you say. What about Alexandre Lacazette?

Presumable Wenger persuaded him to sign for the Gunners by telling him he could make them the “Lacazette team”. But having spent a fortune signing him and then not playing him in the big games, he is really the £52.6m bookmark. Pretty much like Fernando Torres in the Chelsea days.

“This is my team now. Take a hike.”

“I might hitch a ride on the Wenger Out plane to Man City.”

 

Was Mesut Ozil’s strike against Newcastle one of his last few for Arsenal? Wenger insists Ozil and Sanchez will not be sold to rivals, especially top four ones who could do Arsenal out of a Champions League place.

It’s all shaping out to be an interesting transfer window.

“I’m going to off-load that whinging Sanchez. What the heck, Man City are going to win the league anyway. But if you stay, Arsenal could be known as the Mesut Ozil team.”

And did you see that goal by Watford’s Abdoulaye Doucoure? That is going to win the next Goal of the Month competition.

“I predict that Arsenal are going to be known as the Olivier Giroud team …”

Now everyone dares to Zlatan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always cast himself as a strong lion.

When he was out with his latest injury, he mentioned that “lions take longer to recover”.

But speculation is rife that while his mental fortitude is there, his body may be letting him down.

 

And because of that, now everyone dares to Zlatan. Especially the Manchester City team who reportedly had a dig at him, provoking the post-match brawl.

 

It seems Zlatan is now playing the part of the hurt tiger in the commercial, being provoked – but unable to do nothing about it.


 

The ex-Barcelona man, who once said “If Mourinho lights up a room, Guardiola draws the curtains”, may soon find the sun setting on his career.

Oh well, there’s always the Chinese League for a big payday. And someone of Ibrahimovic’s reputation will always have a team willing to take him, not so much for his on-field prowess, but for his commercial value.

But considering his decline, maybe even the Chinese players may dare to Zlatan.

Ozil to Manchester United

As I mentioned previously, Ozil’s ex-Madrid links are too strong.

If he joins Barca, can you imagine him being booed by the Madrid fans, as well as the Barca fans if he has a bad game?

For a player sensitive to criticism about his body language, that would probably affect him too much in the big games.

A creative player like Ozil, with defensive cover from Matic, and all the youngsters around him … He should really join Mourinho at United.

Besides, the boss has big enough a persona to deflect the criticism away from him, allowing him to do his best and focus on the game.