The exact origins of the nickname may belong to a pre-Internet era, but there is little doubt that the Beautiful Game is often exactly what it says on the tin. And while it is impossible for every game of football to be a stonewall classic, the consensus among fans is that one of the reasons that football is a global sport is down to the fact that its apparent simplicity is the backdrop for pure drama.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the latest round of fixtures in what is arguably the most high-profile domestic league in the world.
Supporters of Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1 and the German Bundesliga may disagree that the English Premier League is the epitome of the Beautiful Game, but I defy any football fan to say that they looked at the most recent set of EPL games before a ball had been kicked and accurately predicted how they would finish.
With 14 games left in the season after Gameweek 24, the stakes at both the top and bottom of the league are getting higher. As The Turf has noted many times before, the top six clubs are distancing themselves from the best-of-the-rest, while the relegation dogfight could snare as many as nine teams.
So let’s take a few minutes to review what happened this week, preferably over a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. In addition, we should probably think about EPL Gameweek 25 … which (for the most part) will be completed before the Super Bowl has even started the pre-game festivities.
Setting the scene for drama
After a weekend in which the FA Cup took prominence for some Premier League clubs , EPL Gameweek 24 was a mid-week evening affair. As per usual, the 10 games were spread over a couple of days, thanks to TV requirements and the need to cater to armchair supporters.
All of the top six avoided each other and there were two local(ish) derbies—Spurs vs Watford and Manchester United vs Burnley.
The latter was of particular interest, mainly because interim manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was aiming for eight wins in a row (which included two FA Cup wins). Spurs, on the other hand, had been dumped out of two cup competitions in four days and the vultures were—yet again—circling over a club that is, according to Deadspin, “a fairy tale in search of a happy ending.”
Elsewhere, leaders Liverpool were at home to Leicester City, while League Cup finalists Manchester City and Chelsea were away to Newcastle United and Bournemouth, respectively. Relegation-threatened Huddersfield entertained Everton, goal-shy Fulham had Brighton, Southampton and Crystal Palace were set for the notorious six-pointer and high-flying Wolves welcomed West Ham.
Finally, there was the game between Arsenal and Cardiff to consider, a match made more poignant by the tragic plane accident involving Cardiff’s record signing Emiliano Sala on January 28. Sala had only signed for Cardiff two days before from French club Nantes, and, according to the BBC, aviation authorities were still searching for wreckage in the English Channel.
Any team, any day …
Long-time followers of English football know that the form book is often thrown out of the window.
Teams that should roll over their opponents often don’t, and players that have been bobbins for weeks can suddenly get the crowd back on their side. And EPL Gameweek 24 was one of those weeks when the majority of games stuck two fingers up at those of us who thought we knew something.
After recording successive scores of 7-0, 9-0, 3-0, 3-0, 1-0 and 5-0 in January, Manchester City were expected to put Newcastle to the sword. Factor into the mix that City scored after 25 seconds, and the smart money would have been on another battering.
Remember what I said about the form book? Yep, out the window. Newcastle recovered from that early setback and went on to win 2-1. Two shots on goal, two on target and the Magpies were heading to the nosebleed position of 14th.
That result then cemented the ever-growing belief in the media that Liverpool’s long wait for their first EPL title was getting closer. Beat Leicester, the media said, and the gap would be seven points with 14 games to go.
After three minutes of the game, you could feel the smugness emanating from various pundits when Mane put Liverpool one up. Factor in that Leicester had lost their last three games (including a chastening defeat to League Two’s Newport County in the FA Cup) and the odds were stacked in Liverpool’s favor. Guess what … the game ended 1-1, and Leicester ensured that the gap between first and second was limited to five points.
And then there was the game at Old Trafford.
Since the departure of the “Special One,” Manchester United fans have been treated to a series of imperious displays that has seen the team advance in the cup and, essentially, cement their top six position. Wins at Spurs and Arsenal have increased the call for interim manager Solskjaer to get the job on a full-time basis, with an expected win at home to Burnley making it nine out of nine …
Football doesn’t work like that. Two down to the visitors with less than five minutes of normal time to play, United showed a depth of resolve that had been missing under the previous manager and scored two in quick succession to prevent the first Burnley victory at Old Trafford since 1962.
An added element to the drama was that United equalized deep into “Fergie Time,” the long-held theory from non-United fans that the team is given more time to play when they are losing at home. In this case, Manchester United scored in the 93rd minute, which led Burnley boss Sean Dyche to question how his team lost.
“I don’t know where the five minutes of stoppage-time came from,” Dyche said, in an interview with the BBC. “That’s a bugbear because it gave the crowd a lift. I also think Lindelof is offside when Alexis Sanchez heads it, but like I say the margins are tight.”
More EPL drama? Yes, please.
As I said, the form book can be extremely misleading when it comes to the Beautiful Game, and Gameweek 24 was filled with unexpected results across the board.
Fulham came from two down to Brighton at half-time to win 4-2, while Wolves put three past West Ham, with the Hammers likely reflecting on their FA Cup exit to AFC Wimbledon (bottom of League One, scored 18 goals all season, won 4-2). And the drama just kept on coming.
Take the Bournemouth-Chelsea game, for instance.
The Cherries had lost their way of late and there have been dark mutterings that they may get dragged into the relegation fight. Chelsea, on the other hand, booked their place in the League Cup final by beating Spurs, advanced to the next round of the FA Cup, and were looking to hold on to fourth spot. Arsenal’s win over Cardiff had dropped them down into fifth place, but as long as Hazard is in the mood, then the form book will always point to the Blues.
Spoiler alert … the Blues got battered 4-0, slumping to their heaviest league defeat since 1996. Chelsea were bad all over the pitch, but David Luiz had a mare of a game, which started as early as the third minute!
To rub salt into the wound, Bournemouth didn’t even have their top scorer—Callum Wilson—but were still way too good for a Chelsea side that had been accused of lacking motivation by manager Maurizio Sarri after their recent loss to Arsenal. On this performance, Sarri may have a point.
Spurs are another team that the form book (and the media) likes to poke with a stick.
New stadium delays aside, the last few weeks have been extremely troubling for the fan base, especially as the team did not have three of its senior players – Son, Kane and Alli—for the cup exits. The latter two are not expected to return until March, but the lack of any new signings in the January transfer window and the pit of misery that is social media meant that a win over Watford was not a foregone conclusion.
And so it came to pass …
After fielding a team that was destined to fail at Palace in the FA Cup, Spurs played the first of four consecutive “home” games with a lineup that included Son, who had flown back from his Asia Cup commitments with South Korea.
Any joy that his return brought was dampened by Watford taking the lead in the 38th minute and then parking the bus for the majority of the game. The situation was not helped by much-maligned striker Fernando Llorente missing a sitter as Spurs laid siege in the second half.
With 10 minutes to go, the atmosphere inside Wembley was not great.
However, news that Chelsea were being beaten by Bournemouth filtered through and then a ray of Son-light lightened the mood considerably. Son’s equalizer was followed a few minutes later by Llorente doing what he is paid to do—which is put the ball in the net, rather than just be Harry Kane’s understudy. An excellent piece of time-wasting by a ball-boy, which earned Watford’s Issac Success a yellow card (and a wink to the cameras by the unnamed ball-boy) was just the icing on the cake.
Sarcasm just adds to drama
After all the unexpected excitement, there were some games that went to form.
Relegation certainties Huddersfield lost 1-0 at home to Everton and are now 6 points adrift at the bottom. Arsenal spoiled Cardiff’s heartfelt goodbye to Sala (who never actually played for the club BTW) by winning 2-1 at home, while Southampton and Crystal Palace played out a predictable one-all draw.
The latter game’s main talking point was Palace goalscorer—and frequently fouled—Wilfred Zaha getting sent off for two yellow cards in 154 seconds. Somewhat amusingly, the second yellow was dished out after Zaha sarcastically clapped the referee’s decision to give him the first yellow card … which meant he saw red just a few seconds later.
“His reaction to not receiving a foul when he was clearly pushed off the ball – obviously people do get frustrated,” said Palace manager Roy Hodgson, after the game. “But I can’t condone, unfortunately, the applauding of the referee. That is something you can’t do.”
Next up … potential drama
Zaha’s red card now means that he misses EPL Gameweek 25, which comes hot on the heels of the midweek fixtures.
Standout games include Manchester City at home to Arsenal, Leicester hosting Manchester United and Spurs welcoming Newcastle. All three are difficult to call, especially after the last round of fixtures, but you would expect City to put their last result behind them, especially as the gap at the top is just five points.
Liverpool have a chance to inflict more pain on West Ham, while Chelsea should beat Huddersfield. Everton against Wolves is another game that could go either way, as are the games between Brighton and Watford, and Palace versus Fulham. And Cardiff will get the chance to remember the player-they-never-saw at home to Bournemouth, who will be feeling slightly chipper after their midweek exertions.
Buckle up, it’s going to be another bumpy ride.