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 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 in 2017. They had not claimed a Premier League win since the 3-0 hammering of Swansea City way back 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.

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Five-a-side TOTW: February 28th 2017

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

Another round of fixtures saw Leicester bounce back without Ranieri and Liverpool continue their poor 2017 form. Chelsea extended their lead at the top due to Manchester City’s fixture postponement. Finally, Crystal Palace got only their third home win of the season – is Big Sam’s ‘bounce’ about to kick in?

Goalkeeper – Wayne Hennessey

On a weekend when Jordan Pickford made his return, making the highest number of saves (6) for the fixture list, you may be forgiven for thinking the young Sunderland keeper would ease his was into our team. However, the plaudits this week go to Wayne Hennessey. It is fair to say, after a great summer with the Welsh national team, Wayne hasn’t enjoyed his season so far with Palace. Steve Mandanda was acquired in the summer as the team’s new number one and with the Frenchman out injured, Hennessey hasn’t exactly been a safe pair of hands in a struggling Palace side. This weekend, he made four important saves for his team as they got vital points against relegation rivals, Middlesbrough. He’ll be needing to do more of the same in order to keep his side in the league next season.

The Stopper – Michael Keane

This is a young defender who will have a long and successful career ahead of him. This season he has been terrific and a huge factor in Burnley’s fortunes. He experienced a hectic five-minute spell against Hull, giving away a penalty for the opener (albeit a poor refereeing decision) then scoring the equaliser at the other end from a Robbie Brady corner. Keane showed great composure to take the ball on his chest and slot home from close range. A contender for young player of the season?

If John Stones is worth £50 million, Keane should bring in double that!

The Playmaker – Cesc Fabregas

I believe most clubs across Europe look to Chelsea with envy when they see Cesc Fabregas warming the bench for The Blues. When involved, he has been electric for the table toppers with his passing and chance creation. On Saturday, it was Fabregas’ three-hundredth premier league appearance and he marked the occasion with a goal and an assist. This being his 103rd assist in the English top tier. A quite phenomenal statistic, particularly when you consider this total is only behind Wayne Rooney (104) and Ryan Giggs (131) who have both played many more games. Whether he stays in West London next season is yet to be confirmed, but there could only be a few clubs in the world who wouldn’t benefit greatly from his services.

Another Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

One is normally enough, but why have one when you can have two? Eriksen has been in great form for Spurs this season and is seemingly showing his doubters exactly what he can offer on the pitch. After a successful campaign last year, Spurs have been under pressure to continue their momentum and it is arguable that Eriksen has been their most improved player. Two assists on Sunday put him at the top of the charts with ten in total. He often seems to be the driving force as Spurs take possession into the final third and they’ll need to keep him purring if they are going to get any closer to the top of the table.

The Finisher – Harry Kane

Another hattrick for Harry Kane. He expertly finished twice, and once with a stroke of luck, to steal the show against Stoke at White Hate Lane. The England forward is on track to make it back-to-back golden boots. Three hattricks in his last nine appearances would suggest this will be Kane’s year, again. There has been talk of Kane going for Shearer’s all time record but that is still some way off. First he needs to ensure Spurs get Champions League football. Maybe not this season, but his second aim will be to continue them on a path as true title contenders. As time goes on, it seems as though the wait to be domestic champions won’t be long.


Jack B. Parker

Why Chelsea must now be seen as favourites for the title

After extending their winning run to 9 games, Simmo looks at why Chelsea must now be considered favourites to lift the Premier League trophy in May.

Nobody wins the title in December, but you can most certainly lose it. Chelsea’s 3-1 win at The Etihad last weekend put down a marker to all the other teams in the title race. It is the sort of result that makes a big statement – and didn’t Chelsea do just that?

It was not just the the result that was impressive, it was the manner in which they won. Gary Cahill’s own goal just before half time had given Manchester City a deserved lead. In the first half they had outplayed Chelsea and had missed several good chances. Chelsea’s seven game winning run looked like it could well come to an end.

The second half began in much the same way as the first half had ended – City were still on top. However, the game was to be turned on its head in the space of three extraordinary second half minutes. When Jesus Navas crossed the ball to Kevin De Bruyne in the 57th minute, the Belgian looked destined to make it 2-0. The City winger was just six yards out with the whole goal to aim at, yet still, inexplicably managed to miss.

That miss seemed to galvanise Chelsea. When Cesc Fàbregas collected the ball inside his own half there seemed to be little in the way of danger for the City defence. Fàbregas, like Chelsea, has endured a difficult 18 months. Much maligned, criticised, and even at times written off, the Spaniard has looked a shadow of his former self. Persistent rumours have linked him with a move away from the club, yet in this game he perhaps demonstrated his value to the team. His 50 yard pass into Diego Costa was inch perfect, nevertheless, the Chelsea striker still had an awful lot to do. He chested the ball down beyond the hapless Nicolas Otamendi, before smashing the ball past Claudio Bravo.

The goal had come out of nothing – it really was the classic sucker punch. In many ways it was indicative of the sort of tactics Antonio Conte has brought to the Stamford Bridge outfit. It was unpredictable, quick, and lethal. City, for all of their possession had been outclassed and outdone by a goal that really was a throwback to goals scored in years gone by.

Fàbregas’ ingenuity, and Costa’s skill and technique were to be ably backed up by the finishing of both Willian and Eden Hazard. Willian, Chelsea’s best player last season, has had to settle for a peripheral role throughout much of this campaign. His introduction from the bench seemed to further reveal City’s frailties when facing pace. When Costa once again got the better of Otamendi, Chelsea used their pace to deadly affect. Breaking  on the City backline, Willian was able to out run Aleksandar Kolarov before calmly slotting past Bravo.

Chelsea’s third goal once again saw City’s lack of pace exposed. Pushing for an equaliser, they neglected their defensive responsibilities, allowing Eden Hazard to this time beat Aleksandar Kolarov before firing into the City net.

All three of Chelsea’s goals had a certain ruthlessness about them. Whilst City had their chances, Chelsea were devastating with their finishing. It is that sort of deadliness in front of goal that wins you titles. When Leicester City visited The Etihad last season they won by the same score line, and there were certainly parallels between Chelsea’s display last weekend and Leicester’s back in January. Both teams absorbed City’s attacks before breaking in numbers and showing good composure in front of goal. City, on both occasions were unable to respond.

Yet, despite the impressive nature of Chelsea’s win, the acid test for a title chasing team is to win when you are not playing well. Before this weekend, Chelsea were yet to demonstrate this. However, their 1-0 victory against West Brom proved that even when were things were not going as well as they hoped they were still able to find a way through.

West Brom had set themselves up to frustrate Chelsea. The 3-4-3 formation that has served Conte and his side so well in recent months was not having the desired impact. A change to a more conventional 4-5-1 proved the catalyst for a change in fortune, and the introduction of Fàbregas from the bench once again proved to be telling.

For much of the game Costa had looked isolated; his teammates had been unable to find any sort of decisive pass. Although the winner was more than a little fortuitous, it came from one of the few times that Chelsea went direct. Costa’s persistence and work rate paid off as Gareth McAuley dallied whilst clearing the ball. Still with a lot to do, the Brazil born Spain international rifled an unstoppable shot past Ben Foster in the West Brom goal.

The performance against West Brom was certainly not vintage, and it was not necessarily the sort of performance that sends out an intimidating warning to rivals. What was impressive was the fact that Chelsea were struggling and yet still managed to find a way to get the win.

This sort of resilience is what title winning teams have to demonstrate. You cannot play well for 38 games in a season – it is nigh on impossible. Therefore, it is important that on your off days you are able to grind out results.

A win is three points wherever you get it. It does not matter who it is against, it still is only ever worth three points. The match against West Brom was perhaps a greater test of character than the win against City. Had Chelsea lost at The Etihad few would have bat an eyelid; had they lost at home to a West Brom team who had not won at Stamford Bridge for nearly 40 years then there would have been many questions asked.

Chelsea have proved twice in the last week that they have the ability, steel, and capability to mount a genuine title challenge. They have proved it against the favourites, and they have proved it in a game where they were struggling to perform. There will be other tests before May, however Chelsea have certainly laid down a marker over the last eight days.