A review of Saturday’s action from the English Premier League sees Spurs and Manchester United claiming vital victories in the race for a Champions League place.
Pundits wax lyrical about The English Premier League’s (EPL) ‘Big Six’. In reality, it’s a ‘Big Two’, as Chelsea and Manchester City are the only teams to have snaffled a title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign came to an end, Leicester City’s aberration excepted.
That leaves a ‘Sort of Big Four’ of Spurs, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. Each season, the goal is to qualify for the UEFA Champions League, an achievement as monumental as receiving your first fake I.D.
On Saturday, two of the ‘Sort of Big Four’ were in action, with Spurs taking on Championship bound Huddersfield at White Hart Lane, and Man Utd entertaining West Ham.
We begin in London.
Spurs 4 v 0 Huddersfield
Spurs is one of four EPL clubs with ‘options’ when it comes to Champions League qualification. In midweek, Mauricio Pochettino’s men beat the favourites Manchester City by a goal to nil in the opening leg of their Champions League Quarter-Final tie, but it wasn’t without consequence, with Harry Kane ruled out for the rest of the season through injury.
The EPL is a different kettle of fish.
In the past six games, Spurs – who not long ago were touted as potential champions – has only recorded a point more than the bottom of the table Huddersfield. With Kane missing, and a lousy track record to boot, was there an upset on the cards?
Spurs grabbed hold of the Terriers, stuck them into an icebox, travelled to Alaska, found an ice hole, pulled them out, stuck them on the end of a hook, and spent the rest of the day dipping them in and out of the water until they fell to pieces.
Pochettino made seven changes from the team that beat City, and that meant rare starts for Fernando Llorente, and Victor Wanyama and the pair were involved in the opening goal on 24-minutes.
The ball was slipped into Llorente, who had his back to goal a few feet inside the penalty area. The Spaniard rolled his defender, and Wanyama strode into space like a steak sausage in a disco full of minced meat sausages, beat a defender to the ball, rounded the keeper, and despatched his first goal in 14-months as if he was Lionel Messi.
Spurs were two-up in the blink of an eye.
Moussa Sissoko had more space than a small pension destroyed by inflation when he picked up the ball in midfield. The World Cup winner drove at the right lung of the Huddersfield defence before releasing Moura, and the Brazilian hammered the ball home from a tight angle.
Huddersfield had the chance to pull one back only for Jon Gorenc Stanković to make a mess of things from six-yards after busy bee Juninho Bacuna had delivered the first corner of the match from the right.
Spurs then had several chances either side of the half time whistle with Llorent at the heart of them all. The former Swansea star’s first chance came when he got on the end of a Christian Eriksen free-kick to head wide of the far post. Then in the second half, he pulled a ball down from the moon with the grace of Glen Hoddle before smashing it against the crossbar, and finally, he was on the end of some neat interplay between Moura and Eriksen only for a last-ditch Huddersfield tackle to prevent Llorente for breaking his duck.
The game opened up.
Steve Mounié headed wide when clean through on goal, and at the other end, Spurs broke from a corner only for Eriksen to see his deflected shot strike the foot of the post.
Then Moura made history.
With three minutes remaining, Eriksen found the Brazilian inside the box, and he brilliantly brought the ball down with his left and finished with his right. Six minutes later, and Moura became the first player to score a hat-trick at the newly renovated ground after slamming triumphantly into the roof of the net after an assist from Son Heung-min.
It was Moura’s ninth EPL goal of the season, and a signal to Pochettino that he wants a place in the starting eleven when they face City in that all-important second leg on Wednesday.
Spurs move into third, a point ahead of Chelsea who play the league leaders, Liverpool, on Sunday.
Man Utd 2 v 1 West Ham
Like Spurs, Manchester United can also qualify for the Champions League via two different routes, but the odds are against them on both fronts. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side is a 15/2 shot to beat Barcelona at the Nou Camp in their bid to recover from a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, and they came into their tie with West Ham having lost two of their three previous EPL games, and with a FA Cup exit to boot.
The one win United had registered in the EPL during that time was a 2-1 win over Watford in a game where the visitors were the better side, and there was a Xerox machine feel about this one too.
Manuel Pellegrini has spent too much time in the UK. The Argentinean loves a good whinge, and his defeat afforded him two more opportunities to let it all out.
The first Pellegrini pine came early when the man in black ruled out a Felipe Anderson goal from close range only for replays to show Diogo Dalot playing him onside.
Then United got the opportunity to take the lead when on 19-minutes, the ref adjudged Robert Snodgrass’s foul on Juan Mata to have taken place inside the box when he could have flipped a coin. Up stepped Paul Pogba and with his silly little run-up left in the changing room, the Frenchman fire the ball home.
Anderson could have levelled things not long after when he got on the end of a Snodgrass corner flicking a near post header to the far corner only for it to fly a foot wide, but the sides went in at half time with United holding a slender advantage.
West Ham started the second half much the better side, and they were deservedly level on 49-minutes.
David De Gea threw the ball short in an attempt to find the feet of Pogba. Declan Rice intercepted and laid the ball to Snodgrass, who found Manuel Lanzini, and the Argentine put in a pinpoint cross that found Anderson at the far stick, and this time his goal stood. It was only West Ham’s second away goal in eight games.
With the Hammers in the ascendency, Solskjaer sent Marcus Rashford on to spice things up, and England’s forward had two great opportunities with the first bringing an excellent save from Lukasz Fabianski, before heading over the bar from six yards after a spot of penalty box pinball.
Then came two golden opportunities for West Ham to finish things and Michail Antonio was the man at the helm for both of them. The first was all of his own makings as he ducked and weaved his way into a shooting position before thundering a shot off the crossbar. The second was a header from the back post that produced a world-class, three-point turning save from De Gea as the Spaniard somehow managed to tip the ball over the bar after Antonio’s header had bounced off the ground with the top corner dialled into its GPS.
Then came Pellegrini pine number two.
With ten minutes left on the clock, and United rocking, Ryan Fredericks brought down Anthony Martial as the Frenchman bore down on goal, and the referee pointed to the spot. Pogba marched to the centre of the penalty area with all the confidence of a Polar Bear staring down at a one-legged, blind and deaf penguin, and boom – it was 2-1.
Pellegrini said Martial was offside in the build-up; video replays don’t back the man up.
“We got away with it,” said Solsjkaer. “They were better than us.”
United moves two points closer to Chelsea in fourth, and one point clear of Arsenal in sixth, but both London sides have still to play this weekend.
Relegation News: Two-Horse Race Develops
Switching our attention to the EPL’s pit, and the race to avoid the trap door has only two horses after Burnley’s 2-0 win over Cardiff at Turfmoor, and Southampton’s 3-1 win over Wolves.
With Fulham and Huddersfield already down, only Brighton’s continued meltdown, and a cattle prod of a turnaround from Cardiff is going to prevent Neil Warnock’s side from joining them.
Brighton’s 5-0 thrashing at home against Bournemouth is their fourth successive defeat in all competitions, conceding ten without reply, and they are five points clear of Cardiff with four games remaining. Brighton does have the cushion of a game in hand, and that should be enough to see them competing in the EPL for a third successive season at the end of our summer holidays.
EPL Wk 34 Results
Leicester 0 v 1 Newcastle
Spurs 4 v 0 Huddersfield
Brighton 0 v 5 Bournemouth
Southampton 3 v 1 Wolves
Fulham 2 v 0 Everton
Burnley 2 v 0 Cardiff
Man Utd 2 v 1 West Ham
To Be Played
Crystal Palace v Man City (Sun)
Liverpool v Chelsea (Sun)
Watford v Arsenal (Mon)
1. Liverpool – 82
2. Man City – 80
3. Spurs – 67
4. Chelsea – 66
5. Man Utd – 64
6. Arsenal – 63
7. Leicester – 47
8. Wolves – 47
9. Everton. – 46
10. Watford – 46
11. West Ham – 42
12. Bournemouth – 41
13. Crystal Palace – 39
14. Burnley – 39
15. Newcastle – 38
16. Southampton – 36
17. Brighton – 33
18. Cardiff – 28
19. Fulham – 20 (R)
20. Huddersfield – 14 (R)
Man City 8/15
Man Utd 5/2
Sergio Aguero EVENS
Mohamed Salah 9/4
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 6/1
Sadio Mane 9/1
Current Top Scorers
1. Sergio Aguero – 19
2. Mohamed Salah – 18
3. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – 17
4. Harry Kane – 17
5. Sadio Mane – 17
Next Manager to Leave
No Manager to Leave 1/3
Maurizzio Sarri 6/1
Chris Hughton 8/1