Five-a-side TOTW: April 29th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

We are almost over the line. This weeks five-a-side TOTW includes just the five matches. Chelsea maintained their four point lead over Tottenham with a 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal left it late and needed the help of a Robert Huth own goal in order to seal three important points against Leicester City. Christian Eriksen’s ‘golazo’ was the difference in Tottenham’s match against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Middlesbrough won for the first time in 2017 to all but condemn Sunderland to Championship football next season. And on Thursday the Manchester derby ended goalless.

Goalkeeper – Brad Guzan

Very much seen as the back up to Victor Valdés, the ex-Aston Villa keeper has had to accept a bit-part role. In fact, Wednesday’s 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Sunderland was only the 10th time that the American had appeared in a Middlesbrough shirt this season. Guzan looked assured between the sticks, and made an impressive four saves. The win was Boro’s first since the turn of the year. They had not claimed a Premier League win since the 3-0 hammering of Swansea City way back in mid-December. That miserable run has all but confirmed that they will be playing their football in the Championship next season.

The Stopper – Eric Bailly

Injuries have not helped the young Ivorian settle. After starting this season as first choice and appearing in 13 of United’s first 15 matches, it seemed as though United manager, José Mourinho, had found his rock at the back. Since injuring his knee in United’s 4-0 defeat against champions elect Chelsea in late October, the ex-Villareal man has only appeared in 19 out of a possible 42 matches. He has started in United’s last nine games, a run that has seen them keep five clean sheets and only concede four goals. In the 0-0 draw over Manchester rivals, City, Bailly was absolutely superb. His speed, strength and reading of the game really shone through. If he can remain fit and injury free, United will have a serious player on their hands.

The Midfielder – Cesc Fàbregas

He’s in, he’s out. Poor old Cesc Fàbregas. He just can’t seem to get a solid run of games together. It is is true that he is competing for places with the PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté, and the vastly improved Nemanja Matic. Nonetheless, the ex-Arsenal man must be frustrated with his situation. If he was looking to make a point then his display in Chelsea’s entertaining 4-2 win over Southampton would not have done him any harm. Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, cannot have helped but been impressed with the Spaniards intelligent use of the ball. Time and time again he picked out teammates with perfectly threaded passes, even assisting Costa for his first. Rumours continue to circulate regarding AC Milan’s interest in taking the ex-Arsenal and Barcelona man over to Italy in the summer. Fàbregas turns 30 next week, and he will no doubt be keen to ensure that he is part of a team that picks him more regularly than every other game.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

I must confess – I have never really been convinced by this guy. I have always felt that he has flattered to deceive. Yes, his set pieces are nearly always on the money, and yes, he scores the odd spectacular goal; however, I have always felt that there has been something lacking from his game. I was astonished to find out earlier this week that the Dane has covered more ground than anybody else in the Premier League this season. Furthermore, he is second only to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne for Premier League assists, with an impressive 12 to his name. His brilliant match winning goal against Crystal Palace was his eighth of the season, and it kept Tottenham’s unlikely title charge on track. I am going to have to eat my words over the ex-Ajax man and admit that he has turned into a really fine player.

The Finisher – Diego Costa

His form blows as hot and cold as his temperament. He scored 15 goals in his first 19 Premier League games of the season. In the following 12 he has managed just four. Against Southampton the Brazilian born Spain international was back to his best. An assist and two goals ensured that Chelsea kept their distance over Tottenham. His second goal was absolutely brilliant. Exchanging one-twos with two of his Chelsea teammates; Eden hazard first, then Pedro second, before rifling in a low drive past Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal. A brilliant performance overall.

Gareth Barry: 600 Not Out

As Gareth Barry reaches an extraordinary 600 Premier League appearances, SOTP has a look at his remarkable career to date.

Like much of his career, this astonishing achievement will likely be overlooked by many this weekend. Gareth Barry will become only the third player, and the youngest to do so, to reach 600 Premier League appearances.

Scholes (499), Gerrard (504), Lampard (609), and Giggs (632) have all had stellar careers, yet Gareth Barry’s name is rarely uttered in the same sentence as those Premier League legends. However, Barry has surpassed the number of appearances of the former two, and is fast catching up with Lampard’s haul. It seems silly, especially considering the success he has had, but Barry has never really been appreciated; in fact, he’s often been maligned.

The reasons behind this are puzzling. Unlike the aforementioned he has seldom been a scorer of spectacular goals, nor has he been one for jinking wing play. In other words – he has rarely been a headline writer. Nevertheless, Barry’s contribution to Aston Villa, Manchester City and now Everton, has been immeasurable.

When John Gregory gave him his Aston Villa debut in early May 1998, few would have expected that Barry would go on to reach 600 Premier League appearances. On that day at Hillsborough he lined up as part of back three in a 3-1 win. Whilst his debut was at centre back, in his early days at Aston Villa he was considered to be primed for the left back role. Indeed, much of his early career, both at club and international level, was spent there. However, there was a feeling amongst many that Barry’s talents were being wasted. A move forward to left wing saw Barry add more goals to his game, yet there was a sense that his footballing intelligence, discipline, and reading of the game were still being underutilised.

It was not until Martin O’Neill’s arrival at Villa Park in the summer of 2006 that Barry was given a consistent role in his favoured central midfield position.

O’Neill’s appointment gave Barry a new lease of life. Appointed captain that summer, Barry thrived, and led the team brilliantly during his two-year spell as captain; scoring 17 Premier League goals in the process.

His performances were beginning to get the recognition they deserved and England manager Steve McClaren brought Barry back into the England fold after 4 years in the international wilderness. Barry’s assured performances during England’s ill-fated Euro 2008 qualifying campaign were one of the few plus points in McClaren’s otherwise dire England reign.

All looked to be going so well until the summer of 2008. Amid a dispute with the Villa hierarchy regarding a prospective move to Liverpool, Barry was fined two weeks’ wages, banned from training with the first team, and had the club captaincy taken from him. When Barry’s move to Liverpool never materialised, there were those who thought that he may sit and sulk. Indeed, Villa fans were fervent and vociferous in their disapproval of their former captain, booing him heavily during a pre-season game against Walsall.

Yet, unlike many other players, Barry did not let his own personal disappointments get the better of him. That season he started all 38 Premier League games, and chipped in with 5 goals in the process.

By the following summer it was clear that Barry’s ambitions no longer matched those of Aston Villa. He craved Champions League football and when newly rich Manchester City came calling in June 2009, Barry left Villa Park after 12 years’ service which had yielded 441 appearances, and 52 goals.

Barry’s move to City was an unprecedented success. An FA Cup win in 2011 was followed by a Premier League winners medal the following year. A key player in both triumphs, Barry was enjoying the pinnacle of his career.

Barry’s England career continued to prosper under McClaren’s successor, Fabio Capello, and he was handed the England captaincy on several occasions. Such was Barry’s importance to England that when he suffered an injury playing for City towards the backend of the 2010 season, England’s World Cup plans were thrown into disarray. Capello himself was concerned and went as far as to describe Barry as “really important.” This was particularly high praise from the notoriously unemotional Italian.

Although selected for the tournament Barry was never fully fit. When England were unceremoniously dumped out by a rampant German team in Bloemfontein, Barry became the scapegoat and unfairly bore much of the blame. Thankfully those within the England management team continued to value Barry’s influence on the team, and he remained a mainstay in the England team during the following qualifying campaign.

When Capello quit England after falling out with the FA, Roy Hodgson, his replacement, included Barry in his squad for Euro 2012. During a pre-tournament friendly against Norway, Barry injured his lower abdomen and was subsequently ruled out of the tournament. This would turn out to be his last England appearance.

Back at City and ready for the new season, Barry once again found himself as the linchpin of the Manchester City midfield. By City’s new high standards, the season was a disappointing one; missing out on the Premier League title to their Manchester rivals, and losing to Wigan Athletic in the last minute of the FA Cup final.

City manager, Roberto Mancini, was sacked and replaced by Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean failed to see what others had seen in Barry. Facing a season on the bench, Barry secured a last minute loan move to Everton. The loan move was made permanent the following summer.

As one of the few older statesmen in an otherwise very inexperienced Everton side, Barry continued in his role as a defensive minded central midfielder. Roberto Martinez, the then Everton manager, described Barry as “one of England’s greats!”

Yet Barry is consistently undervalued by many football fans. However, those who have managed and played alongside him have never wavered in their praise. Indeed, whilst there are a few impressive statistics that separates Barry from many of his peers (namely the fact that he has 110 Premier League yellow cards, 11 more than anyone else!), there is one startling stat that stands out from all the rest. In the 18 seasons since Barry made his Premier League debut, he has only failed to appear in fewer than 30 games once (2001/02). In fact, since the start of the 1998/99 season, Barry has played in 594 out of a possible 684 Premier League matches.

His longevity, consistency, adaptability as well his ability to remain injury free are testament to how he has handled his life both on and off the pitch.

Whilst he may not enjoy the same acclaim as many of his peers, Barry has gone on to become a Premier League stalwart. He will probably never be considered amongst the very elite that this country has seen, yet his achievements to date have been remarkable. Barry will no doubt go on to break Giggs’ record and will set a new high that will probably never be broken.