It may not be as glamorous as the title race, but tonight was an incredibly important evening in Premier League football.
Indeed, Sunderland recorded an emphatic 3-0 win against a largely abject Everton side, courtesy of a Patrick van Aanholt free kick and a Lamina Kone brace, to ensure their top flight status for another season.
That meant Norwich City’s 4-2 thumping of Watford had no consequence, with the Canaries now preparing for life in the Championship alongside the Black Cats’ bitter rivals Newcastle United.
Meanwhile, in a fixture that had literally no meaning whatsoever, Chelsea came away from Anfield with just a point – their domination cancelled out by a late goal from Liverpool striker Christian Benteke.
We at Football FanCast believe there’s something to be learned from every football match, whether it’s a Premier League relegation battle or a Champions League final. So with that in mind, here’s the FIVE things we learned from tonight’s games.
At times, it has been treated as a stigmatism, excluding him from jobs in the upper half of the Premier League table. But tonight, one can only praise Sam Allardyce’s incredible record of guaranteeing top-flight survival, having conquered arguably his toughest challenge yet in turning Sunderland’s seemingly doomed campaign around.
When Big Sam was appointed in October, Sunderland had picked up just three points from eight games and were producing the kind of abject performances we now associate with Aston Villa. It took the January window for the 61-year-old to truly transform the Black Cats’ fortunes in yet another display of transfer market mastery. But they’ve picked up points at a consistent rate since mid-February and produced arguably their best performance of the season against Everton tonight – no sign of choking at all.
Sunderland fans are well-acquainted with the euphoria of survival, only to find themselves in the same situation twelve months down the line. But with a very talented manager at the helm, the club may finally be moving in the right direction.
It’s safe to say that it has not been a good season for Eden Hazard – in fact, quite the opposite. It took almost twelve months for the Belgium international to find a Premier League goal after claiming the 2015 PFA Player of the Year award and Chelsea duly suffered as a consequence.
But with the European Championships just a matter of weeks away, the Hazard of old is suddenly starting to return. The revival began with a brace against Bournemouth, continued with a title-deciding equaliser against Spurs and carried on tonight with a superb solo goal versus Liverpool – dribbling past defenders like they were training cones before slotting the ball into the bottom corner.
Regardless of how terrible a campaign it’s been for the winger, he’s suddenly in shape to take international football by storm in France this summer.
They say a only a poor workman blames his tools. Yet, Alex Neil is a talented manager and Norwich City’s performance tonight proved that, thumping Watford 4-2 when the result really mattered.
But unfortunately, it proved too little too late as Sunderland annihilated Everton in an emphatic win. They say the league table doesn’t lie and the Canaries simply haven’t picked up enough points from those around them this term, losing to the likes of the Black Cats, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Brom and Bournemouth.
Yet, in my opinion, it’s mostly a question of quality. Norwich just couldn’t sign that all-important goalscorer during the last two transfer windows and it’s incredibly telling that they’ve netted the joint-third-least times of any Premier League side alongside Newcastle.
The worst thing the Canaries could do right now is sack the Scot. With a bit more investment and time to further improve the squad – let’s not forget he took over at Carrow Road halfway through last season – he’ll eventually solidify them in the Premier League.
Everton’s performance tonight epitomised their season. Some stylish football in patches but no substance when it truly matters. Last weekend, they were overawed by a Leicester City side on a mission of celebrating their Premier League title and it was a similar case this evening, facing a Sunderland outfit knowing a win would guarantee their top-flight status.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on Roberto Martinez, who in the context of last two games has been arguably a victim of circumstance. Nonetheless, the Toffees lack leadership, organisation and backbone and considering the level of talent and experience in that squad, one can only attribute such a failing to the man in the dugout.
Seemingly ending the season on a terribly sour note, the Goodison hierarchy will struggle to justify not sacking the Spaniard before the start of the 2016/17 campaign. Simply put, the Toffees should be doing much better.
Following their relegation to the Championship, there is only one question Newcastle fans should be asking – how can we keep hold of Rafa Benitez? The Magpies have improved in an incredibly short space of time under the Spaniard – albeit not enough to stave off relegation – and one only need look at his CV to know he’ll be miles above his counterparts in the English second tier.
Of course, Benitez will probably be a wanted man this summer, having shown he’s not looking for work exclusively at top-end European clubs like Napoli and Real Madrid. But if Newcastle can hold onto the 56-year-old and allow him the funds to create a proper squad, they’ll surely be back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Right now, however, that’s a very big if that I certainly wouldn’t be betting my pocket money on.