Five-a-side TOTW: May 2nd 2017

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

With ten teams keeping clean sheets this weekend, we had an opportunity to pick a more defensive five-a-side line-up. Chelsea hammered Everton, Tottenham were crowned undisputed kings of north London, and two Manchester slip ups helped Liverpool gain in the race for Champions League football.

Goalkeeper – Tom Heaton.

Big Tom is back between the sticks after helping Burnley produce their first away win of the season, simultaneously guaranteeing their safety and putting to bed any rumours that Joey Barton’s gambling offenses would rock the boat. Another clean sheet came after a busy match for the Englishman with the pick of his stops coming from Damien Delaney’s close range effort.

The Stopper – Gary Cahill

Whilst his goal against Everton was nothing more than a fortunate ricochet, six Premier League goals suggest Gary Cahill is one of the best finishers plying their trade at centre half. Another accomplished display against Everton made me wonder if I’d written off Cahill too soon. Though he’s been solid for most of the campaign, I expected Chelsea to consider replacing him in the summer. Strong end of season form suggests there is no need. He’d probably top score for this five-a-side team.

The Presence – Victor Wanyama

The slightly flashier and more refined Moussa Dembele often draws the plaudits for Tottenham but Victor Wanyama has developed into a wonderful midfielder this season. Tottenham looked better in every department against their eternal rivals Arsenal and Wanyama typified their desire. Surprisingly cool on the ball, the Kenyan came into his own in physical battles and looked exactly the sort of player Arsenal were missing. Although, in fairness, there’s about twenty seven players that Arsenal are missing.

The Acrobat – Emre Can

Emre Can is another centre midfielder who’s bridged across to a new level in recent months. The German looked a great acquisition at the start of the 2015 season but his development stalled amidst much frustration from Anfield.  His character was never in question but silly tackles and hesitance on the ball made for a difficult second season. He’s been much improved in recent months – in the absence of Jordon Henderson – and impressed again this weekend at Watford. Enough waffling… the German makes our team because of his sensational, surprising, top corner, match-winning bicycle kick.

The Runner – Pedro

Pedro’s played football for a lot of great sides and never struck me as anything more than a nuisance. Clearly skilful, the Spaniard wasn’t a roaring success when he first arrived at Stamford Bridge but has edged his way into the first team. In recent games he has looked a much better player than I ever expected. He finally seems settled under Antonio Conte and proved to be the game-changer when lashing in Chelsea’s opening goal against Everton midway through the second half. He’s a tidy finisher and deserves to the lead the line in this week’s team.


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Five-a-side TOTW: December 15th 2016

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

A full round of mid-week fixtures? It must be nearly Christmas. Chelsea benefitted from Arsenal’s 2-1 loss to Everton at Goodison Park by extending their lead to six points at the top of the Premier League. Manchester City won a league game at home for the first time in three months, and Liverpool halted their mini bad run of form with a resounding win at Middlesbrough. But who has made our five-a-side team of the week?

Goalkeeper – Simon Mignolet

Recalled for the first time in 10 Premier League games, and the Belgian did not disappoint. He looked solid and assured, particularly when he denied Victor Fischer’s rasping drive. The 3-0 win over Middlesbrough saw Liverpool claim their first clean sheet in three games, a welcome relief after conceding six in their previous two league games. Mignolet has been much criticised in the past, yet very few pundits would have found fault with his performance against the relegation candidates.

The Stopper – David Luiz

I have previously voiced concerns about this mans defensive abilities, but boy has he proved me wrong. He’s been a rock since rejoining Chelsea in the summer and has been the lynchpin in a defence that has conceded just two goals in ten Premier League games. Assured in possession and strong in the tackle, the Brazilian centre half really has been a revelation. Antonio Conte has deployed him in the centre of a back three with Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill either side. Together the trio have provided the foundations for a 10 game winning streak. Chelsea fans will hope that the big-haired Luiz will continue his impressive form.

The Runner – Adam Lallana 

In his first season at Liverpool he scored five league goals all season. In his second he could not even match that as he found the net just four times. This season, and bearing in mind we’re not even half way through, he has already six Premier League goals to his name. The goals he scored in Liverpool’s 3-0 win were testament to how he has improved as a player. The first was a bullet of a header from an impeccably timed the run. The second was a calm finish after he once again checked his run at the back post. He is fast becoming a key player for both club and country.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

It took a while for the Dane to join the party – but after five goals in his last four Premier League games it would seem that Tottenham’s little maestro is back to his best. His double against Hull City was his second in as many games at White Hart Lane. Pochettino altered Tottenham’s formation slightly, choosing to go with a back three and two wing backs. This enabled Eriksen to play a little more centrally – a role that undoubtedly suits him better.

The Finisher – Salomón Rondón 

A hat-trick of headers! I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. The Venezuelan usually goes under the radar, but he is certainly one of the most underrated centre forwards in the Premier League. The West Brom No.9 certainly benefitted from some hopeless Swansea marking for his first two goals. On both occasions the Swans defence just simply seemed to switch off. However his third goal of the evening was a thing of beauty. Towering above two defenders, Rondon flicked the ball over the despairing Lukasz Fabianski. Rondon’s eight league goals this season have propelled West Brom up to the dizzy heights of seventh.

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.