Five-a-side TOTW: February 14th 2017

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

It’s time for our TOTW! Chelsea were held at Burnley, while their nearest challengers, Tottenham Hotspur, were beaten 2-0 at Liverpool. Leicester City lost for the fifth time in a row against Paul Clement’s resurgent Swansea City, a result that leaves the champions just one place and one point above the dreaded drop zone. Elsewhere, Anthony Martial scored a fine goal as Mourinho’s side maintained their top-four challenge. Sunderland were comfortably beaten at home by Southampton, and Arsenal recorded a fortuitous win over Hull City at The Emirates. But who impressed us enough to make it into the Internet’s most coveted five-a-side football team?

Keeper – Willy Caballero

This was not an easy choice – I can’t recall any keeper being particularly outstanding this weekend. I’ve gone with Willy Caballero because I think he has an unenviable task as a Manchester City keeper playing under Pep Guardiola. The City boss is desperately keen for his keepers to play out from the back – something that I don’t think comes particularly naturally to Big Willy. Despite starting the season as City’s first choice between the sticks, he knew that he was going to be likely replaced by a keeper that Guardiola considered to be better suited to the style of play that he wanted to implement. The subsequent signing of Claudio Bravo has proven to be a disastrous piece of business and Caballero has found himself back in the side for each of the last four games, keeping three clean sheets in the process. He deserves a place in this team merely for his patience, fortitude, and the fact that his name is Willy!

The Stopper – Alfie Mawson

I really thought that Swansea would go down. I even wrote an article about how Paul Clement was not the right man for the job and how chairman Huw Jenkins should be referred to as the Swansea Slayer. How wrong have I been proven? Clement, the Premier League’s choice of January Manager of the Month, has masterminded Swansea victories at Selhurst Park, Anfield, and now at home to the reigning champions. They are one of the in form teams in the league and now lie in fifteenth place and four points above the relegation places. Mawson, and his fellow defender Martin Olsson were the scorers as Swansea comfortably won at home for only the fourth time this season. The Swans have been heavily reliant on their Icelandic talisman Gylfi Sigurðsson in recent weeks, so it would have been a welcome surprise to see two defenders chip in with goals. Mawson’s was a sweetly struck volley that left Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal flapping at thin air. The ex-Barnsley man more than merits his five-a-side TOTW debut.

The Ball Winner – Joey Barton

I don’t care what anybody says – Joey Barton can play. He and his fellow midfielder Ashley Westwood were up against N’Golo Kanté (and his twin brother), yet more than matched their more illustrious opponent. Burnley’s performance was industrious, and was built on the solid foundations of hard work, discipline and concentration. Nobody exemplified those traits more than Barton. Burnley are a different team at home and have picked up a staggering 29 of their 30 points at Turf Moor this season. Three more victories should see them secure their survival – a feat few of us thought possible at the beginning of the season. As for Barton, this performance completes a remarkable turnaround. Just three months ago he was deemed surplus to requirements at Rangers and was under investigation by the FA for some fairly ill-advised betting offences. He really did look like he was destined for the football scrapheap. Nevertheless, that well known football adage “bounce-back-ability” is one that can very much be attributed to Barton. Whenever people think he has well and truly messed it up, he seems to some how find a way to prove them wrong.

The Free Role – Sadio Mané

Liverpool are a different team when he is playing. People will go on about the Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana, but Mané really is the main man. When he was away on African Cup of Nations duty Liverpool looked static, one dimensional and void of any pace. He is so direct, so strong, and so unpredictable that defenders simply don’t know what he is going to do next. Tottenham certainly couldn’t handle him on Saturday, as his two goals sealed a first league win of 2017. His first was an excellent finish after he had managed to outpace the hapless Ben Davies. His second was more of a poachers goal but it really did finish off a Spurs side that were well below par. The win keeps the Anfield side in the hunt for a Champions League place and reignites a season that, after recent results, looked to be crumbling apart.

The Finisher – Manolo Gabbiadini 

I once signed this guy on one of my Football Manager games – he was a great signing for me then and he looks like a great signing for Southampton too! His two goals helped his new side to a resounding 4-0 away win at Sunderland and took his own personal tally to three in just two games. His first was a smart near post header from a lovely Ryan Bertrand cross and his second came after a wonderful turn that left Sunderland defender Lamine Koné completely bamboozled. With the League Cup Final against Manchester United coming up in less than two weeks, Southampton fans will be hoping that the Italian can maintain his good form until then at least.

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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.

Six players who really should’ve been on the Ballon d’Or shortlist

So the Ballon d’Or list was announced with a fair few notable names missing. Here we look at six players who can count themselves a little unlucky to have missed out.

Claudio Bravo

People may be surprised to see him on this list, especially because I’ve been scathing about his performances since he signed for Manchester City in the summer. But the Chilean international certainly does deserve some recognition for his achievements in recent years. Having captained his national team to consecutive Copa América titles, and winning back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona, there can be no doubting his pedigree. Whether he will enjoy the same success in the Premier League is a different issue altogether.

José Fonte

This is a left field choice and one that will no doubt cause a bit of bewilderment. Nevertheless, the Southampton centre half has been in imperious form over the last twelve months. It is easy to forget that he was playing League One football just five years ago. Having captained Southampton to their best ever Premier League finish and winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, he more than merits some acknowledgement for his achievements. There are only three other defenders on the original list of 30, including his international centre back partner, Pepe. Fonte had to bide his time initially, having been overlooked in favour of veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho. However, after a 3-3 draw with Hungary, the result that sealed Portugal’s passage through to the knockout stages, he came into the team and formed a formidable partnership with Pepe. When playing alongside each other Portugal conceded only one goal in their remaining four matches.

Marcelo

Whilst there will always be question marks regarding his defensive ability, there can be no doubt that the Brazilian is the best attacking left back in the world. Quick, strong, and technically gifted, the former Fluminese man really does have it all. He is so important to the way that Real Madrid play, offering them that extra width when the wingers choose to come inside. It can be difficult to get the acclaim you deserve when Bale, Benzema, and particularly Ronaldo are your team mates, yet Marcelo quietly and efficiently goes about his business. Despite only being 28, it feels like the Rio de Janeiro native has been around for years. Now in his eleventh season at Real, he will no doubt be looking to help retain the Champions League this season.

N’Golo Kanté

It’s absolutely farcical that this guy isn’t on the list. Quite frankly he was the standout midfielder in Europe last season as Leicester claimed the unlikeliest of Premier League titles. His omission really does go some way to devaluing the whole award. Last season he demonstrated his exceptional energy levels and reading of the game whilst forming a formidable midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater. His tactical discipline and unselfish work rate enabled flare players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to excel further up the field. Kanté carried his form into Euro 2016, and has started this season with Chelsea in equally excellent form.

Blaise Matuidi

His absence from the list is also baffling. This is a guy who has won eight trophies with PSG in the previous two seasons. Like Kanté, he featured extensively for Les Bleus as they finished runners up to Portugal at Euro 2016. However, many still choose to devalue the achievements of Matuidi and his PSG side, decrying the alleged weakness of Ligue 1. This perception somewhat overlooks the fact that Matuidi himself has been in excellent form for an awfully long time now. Having joined PSG in 2011 shortly after the club had been purchased by Qatari investors, Matuidi remains the only player from that first wave of signings to still be at the club. He, like PSG, has grown, developed, and improved and consequently now really should be considered amongst the world elite.

Harry Kane

He may have endured a miserable Euro 2016, but there can be no devaluing his achievements in the Premier League last season. Kane was simply sensational, scoring 25 league goals as Tottenham recorded their highest league finish in over 25 years. His finishing and link up play is up there with the best in the world; in a Spurs shirt he really does seem to have the Midas touch. Whilst his performances for England have often been below par, there can be no doubting that he has all the credentials to be one of the all time great English centre forwards. Having scored more league goals than Karim Benzema, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Agüero (all nominated for the award) last season, his omission from the list was certainly surprising. If he continues the form that he has shown during the previous two seasons then he will almost certainly begin to receive the acclaim he so rightly deserves.