Football isn’t alone in having it’s festive traditions. Whoever is top at Christmas will normally go on and win the league, unless of course it’s Arsenal. Whoever is bottom of the league will probably get relegated, especially if you are Hull.
Also, columns like this spring up as we look back at the previous a year, a year that has been very much one of two halves for our reigning champions. That’s Leicester, if you had forgotten. It didn’t get mentioned much.
The year kicked off with a lot of talk about Wayne Rooney and his form. He started 2016 magnificently, scoring the winner against Liverpool and starting the terrace chat of how he was going to lead England to glory in the summer.
Well, he certainly led England to something, didn’t he? His form must have been short lived as United ended January losing 1-0 at home to Southampton having been, shockingly, drawing 0-0 at half time. Imagine putting £100 on ‘under 0.5 goals at HT’ on United under LvG. You’d have made a fair bit of cash.
Arsenal met Chelsea and the stage was set for Arsenal to move ahead of Leicester on goal difference. All they had to do was beat that relegation threatened team in blue. Even without Jose in charge, Chelsea remained Arsenal’s nemesis, their kryptonite. After 18 minutes Diego Costa and Per Mertesacker got caught in one of those embarrassing dad races at the local sports day and the German got a straight red for bringing Costa down.
Personally, I think anyone out-sprinted by the slightly rotund striker deserves an instant dismissal. Costa proved to be the double thorn in the side, meeting Ivanovic’s cross with a fine finish for the game’s only goal. Arsenal bottling the chance to go top?
How 2016. Or 2015. Or 2014. You catch my drift.
That Jamie Vardy, he only scores tap-ins, right? NO! That Leicester, they just whack it long to the quick lad don’t they? NO! Well, maybe. The pass from Mahrez to Vardy for the former non-league striker’s first goal against Liverpool was sublime.
That said, Vardy still had a tiny bit to do when the ball arrived exactly where he wanted it. The eventual volley from distance was exquisite and sailed into the net, setting the scene for Leicester to go and seal their place at the top of the table once again.
Manchester United were involved in another shock result, beating Stoke 3-0. The biggest shock of it all was the fact that United scored twice in the first half. Old Trafford had not witnessed scenes like these since the ‘great old days’ of 2012.
Aston Villa ‘manager’ Remi Garde intimated he was considering his position as he was left amazed by Villa’s inability to persuade anyone to join an already sunk ship in the transfer window.
Leicester then went on to beat Manchester City at the Etihad, leaving the vast majority of neutral football fans hoping that they weren’t just being a complete tease and might go on and win the damn thing. Not that Ranieri was having any of it, of course.
The increase in TV coverage of matches on a Sunday has often led to such days being called ‘Super’ or ‘Special’ or ‘Days of Destiny’ or other such rubbish. However, Sunday the 14th could well have been a pivotal moment in the Premier League.
The day started with leaders Leicester travelling to third placed Arsenal. Leicester led at half time, the mercurial Jamie Vardy ‘winning’ and scoring a penalty on the stroke of half time. For anyone wondering about the inverted commas, let’s just say that the front man didn’t have to look too hard to find a leg to tumble over in the area.
Leicester looked odds on to see off the Gunners and possibly kill of any dreams of a Wenger title. But no, things can change very quickly, especially if the referee decides to send off one of their defenders. Arsenal sprang to life and Walcott brought the scores level before Welbeck scored a shock winner deep into injury time.
Randomly, it led me to think when the last time such an important top-of-the-table clash was settled by three English goalscorers. Anyway, moving on!
A word in the ear of Joleon Lescott, if I may. When having just been battered 6-0 by Liverpool, a Liverpool that Paul Merson felt might have been there for the taking (which might explain Merson’s management career), it would probably be wise not to tweet a picture of your new £150,000 car. Just saying, Joleon, just saying. The fact that the car probably has a smaller turning circle than yourself nowadays has nothing to do with it. It is not even necessary to review the game. Villa were the Villa of a few months ago and Liverpool turned up.
On the same day, Spurs saw off Man City 2-1, leaving Spurs fans wondering if they might be the fairytale this season, as opposed to Leicester.
Louis van Gaal claimed he would be ‘very unhappy’ if United approached Mourinho behind his back. To be fair, Louis, they had been doing it right in front of you so what say you of that, eh? Either way, losing 2-1 to Sunderland and admitting you would not get into the Champions League places was not exactly going to stop the Portuguese measuring up a few pictures in your office, was it?
Two games is normally long enough to label someone the new ‘Rooney/Lineker/Owen/Fowler/Henry/Shearer/Charlton/Giggs/Best/Pele’ so Marcus Rashford was immediately destined to be one of them, maybe even two of them rolled into one.
Having come off the bench to save United’s blushes in Europe on his debut, he beat Arsenal on his own, making Graeme Souness look rather silly, for once, for suggesting he may be out of his depth against Wenger’s defence. Ha.
Spurs kept winning and ended February a mere two points behind Leicester City. Arsenal already knew the gig was up.
March started with another clear sign where the title would end up. Those Leicester boys. They could have fallen head first into a well and come up with all the pennies that have been thrown down there.
They played West Brom on a Tuesday night and were held to a 2-2 draw, to which came the cries of “that’s all Spurs have been waiting for” and “that’s the mistake Arsenal needed to see” and “it’s too soon to completely write off City!”
Wednesday night saw West Ham beat Spurs 1-0, Swansea beat Arsenal 2-1 and Liverpool batter City 3-0 at Anfield. Standard Leicester.
Ranieri must have put some kind of spell on the teams around Leicester City. The following weekend saw the North London derby and there was only one result that would really suit Leicester down to the ground. Claudio likes entertainment, so he would never have wished for a 0-0.
No, the suave Italian is much more of an end to end 2-2 kind of guy when dishing out treats to the public, and maybe throw a red card in there too hey, Claudio? Arsenal led, and then Coquelin was shown a second yellow card. His first was probably harsh, considering he had been fouled first, but Claudio’s spell said drama.
Toby Alderweireld equalised and then Harry Kane scored a beauty to send Tottenham top of the league. But no, wait! Arsenal finally found a little bit of that bottle they had misplaced in the last fortnight to steal an equaliser. Sanchez netted his first league goal since October to give the Leicester fans what they wanted.
A point was great for the Foxes, but they still had to end Saturday’s matches with their own right result. Now would not be a good time for teams to have worked out how to stop the Leicester juggernaut and for the third game running it looked like the leaders might struggle to find the win. Without stating the obvious, to win the title you need match winners when it is going against you and Leicester have one very special talent in Riyad Mahrez.
Ten minutes into the second half, the ball fell to him on the edge of the area. A lesser player, say Rooney for example, would have thumped it first time. Mahrez brought it under, shimmied in a way that you would only see on Strictly and then curled it delightfully into the top corner. That was all they needed to go five points clear.
In years gone by this would be the time of year that United would steadily move through the gears, chase down anyone that had dared gone ahead of them in the table and invariably end up breaking some hearts.
If Louis had pretended that the top three didn’t exist he may have been able to play that game himself whilst adopting a thick Scottish accent and pointing at his watch a lot. United beat City in the Manchester derby with a goal from young Marcus Rashford, who according to many was now booked on the plane to Euro 2016. The boy striker now had five goals in his first eight United matches.
Rashford became the youngest goalscorer in a Premier League Manchester derby in a stat that once again reminded us of the television’s desire to brainwash us into thinking football started in 1992.
It took Cantona ten games to score his first five and Van Nistelrooy thirteen. That was it, Rashford was definitely the next kid on the ‘wasn’t he supposed to be the next Michael Owen’ block.
April rocked around after some international games and Leicester were still running away with the damn thing! Twelve points from their remaining six games would guarantee them the most unlikely of titles having beaten Southampton, you guessed it, 1-0.
Efficient was the word you were looking for when describing Leicester and supporters of Nottingham Forest are still trying to work out how a team with Wes Morgan as their skipper won the league. I don’t know, Forest fans, maybe a good manager and better players around him brought the best out of Wes?
But Spurs were out to hunt the leaders down. That was the clear message from Harry Kane with his ‘cheeky little Instagram’ picture of lions (Spurs) waiting for their prey (Leicester). Spurs had no intention of slipping away any more quietly than Vardy leaving a football pitch having been shown a second yellow card. Or something like that. Well, not yet, anyway.
April was the month that it started to turn sour for Sahko at Liverpool. Many a Liverpool fan had commented in recent weeks that Sahko had finally started to look like a quality footballer. Well, at least we all know how he has achieved that now!
The clue might have been in the way he celebrated his Merseyside Derby goal with teammate Kolo Toure, he of a previous six month ban for ‘accidentally’ taking a fat-burning drug that UEFA are not that keen on. Liverpool’s French central defender failed a drugs test after the Europa League match against United.
Maybe Kolo wasn’t the guy to turn to in the changing room after all, especially as the experienced Ivory Coast ended up taking young Sahko’s place. Devious, Kolo, devious.
In the same week, and following the derby victory, King Klopp described the way he is to manage Daniel Sturridge as getting the best out of an orange. Apparently, and who am I to question the German’s wisdom on matters of fruit, the way to get the best out of an orange is to squeeze them gently, not to remove all the juice in one go.
I think this was clever manager speak for “Daniel, get used to the bench son. You are an injury waiting to happen, so you’re going to get the odd half an hour here and there.” Still, King Klopp made some lovely OJ out of Sturridge that weekend,
For the first fifteen minutes at Old Trafford it looked like Leicester were determined to eke out a little more drama, as if this season had not seen enough already. United stormed out of the blocks in a way that suggested LvG had already been sacked and scored the goal that most neutrals didn’t want to see. Leicester were on the rocks, their title bid crumbling before their very own eyes if you were to believe the narrative on social media.
That Leicester, no backbone in the big games, hey? Not true, sir, not true. Before the Leicester fans were able to start taking their ‘we are staying up’ banners seriously, Wes Morgan headed home the equaliser, beating Rojo to the ball with the age old trick of standing still long enough. Rojo, could genuinely lose the guy he is marking in a lift. All they needed now was a result to go their way in London.
Does anyone know what odds the bookmakers were offering on Leicester to win the title last season? I didn’t see it mentioned anywhere. Equally, where on earth had that Vardy lad sprung from? The commentators really should have done a little more research on his background.
At 2-0 to Spurs the following night, it looked as though Senor Bocelli might have had to cancel his flight to East Midlands Airport. The title race was heading into another weekend, the pressure was going to be on the Foxes to beat Everton. Yet what had we learned? Never write off Leicester’s chances of doing something ridiculous. They weren’t even playing in the match, they were having a shindig at Jamie’s place.
Yet their incredible mind control kicked in and they inspired the team in blue to play a little bit like them for the last half an hour. Hazard said he wanted to stop Spurs winning the league and boy did he prove it, curling in the equaliser that led to Ranieri ‘hitting the ceiling.’ The impossible had happened. Leicester City, 2016 Premier League Champions.
On of the bigger disappointments in May was that nobody mentioned that a London side would soon be leaving their historic home of a hundred or so years. Yes, that’s right. Tottenham Hotspur were down to their last thirty, or thereabouts, matches at White Hart Lane before they go and rent a massively overpriced white elephant of a stadium. Does that sound familiar to anyone? Granted, at least Spurs are building their own to move into after lodging at Wembley.
Oh, and West Ham fans gave the club a typical East London send off gainst United. Manchester United’s players came in for a lot of criticism last season, but getting grief over how they reacted to some tomatoes being thrown at their team coach as they tried to navigate through Green Street was a new one.
To be fair, whilst Hammers fans ‘attacked’ United’s coach before the game, United’s fans waited until after the game to attack United’s coach, Louis van Gaal, who watched his side concede from two late set-pieces and succumb to a 3-2 defeat.
Maybe it was the sight of missiles being thrown in their direction that sent the United players back to those traumatic moments of a few hours earlier? Their failure to hold on to their 2-1 lead means that United needed an 18 goal swing in their final game against Bournemouth if they were to pip City to the final Champions League spot. A cynic would have suggested United were never going to score 18 goals in the second half.
Manchester United’s home match with Bournemouth was postponed following the discovery of a suspect package in one of the stands. No, it wasn’t a first half goal but it was the most exciting thing to happen at Old Trafford last season. Personally, I felt very sorry for all those United fans that had travelled from all over the country to support their side. The match was abandoned on police advice.
If only people at United had been capable of taking advice earlier in the season, Jose might have led them to the Champions League places. I think they saw City go 1-0 up and thought ‘stuff it, let’s have the weekend off.’ Apparently Bournemouth went straight home, but United kicked off anyway.
After 45 minutes it was still 0-0. All jokes aside, the suspect package turned out to be a mobile phone attached to some gas wires and the local bomb squad was called in to carry out a ‘controlled explosion.’ The device was thought to be a forgotten training device. To be fair, the bomb squad showed a better ability to control anything than Wayne Rooney had all season.
It was the final weekend of the league season that also confirmed that Spurs had managed to come third in a two horse race. Football is football and that means, of course, Arsenal finished above Spurs in the table.
United won the FA Cup in extra time. Or rather, Palace lost the FA Cup with ten minutes left on the clock. And in no way, shape or form, would Pardew’s goal celebration dance come back and bite him on the backside at any point.
Palace were not the only side to clasp defeat out of the jaws of victory that week. Liverpool, dominant in the first half against Sevilla in the Europa League Final, will have left the changing rooms after half time with the words of Klopp jangling in their ears: “Keep it tight boys, don’t concede early and they will run out of ideas.” Oh Jurgen, to see Moreno squeeze two mistakes into the first thirty seconds of the second period must have been heartbreaking.
Still, when you have lost four cup finals in a row you must be used to cup final heartbreak. Sturridge sent a nod in the direction of Roy Hodsgon with a fine outside of the boot finish to give Liverpool the lead and then an entirely different team played out the second forty five minutes. Still, Kolo Toure looked half decent which was a surprise to say the least.
It’s nearly June, do you really want reminding of the Euros?
Having spent ninety minutes watching England bang their heads against a Russian wall, I found myself for the first time in my footballing life feeling somewhat jealous of the Welsh. Yes, it is true.
Even the fact that Ryan Giggs was theirs and not ours did not bring out such emotion as I watched Rooney and his mob fail to score the all important goal from open play. Why could we not scuff one in like Hal Robson-Kanu?
England were up to their old tricks in Marseille. No, not having a bit of knees up with the local police, but failing to win their opening match in the European Championships. England have never won their opening fixture in this tournament, a fact that gets watered down when you recall how many times we have failed to qualify for it.
Roy had clearly Googled ‘cunning plan’ when putting together his team for the match against Russia. The wily old fox unveiled his strategy to bring the trophy back to English shores and end 50 years of hurt and about 48 years of bleating on about it. What’s that Roy? Rooney in deep midfield, Kane on corners and Dier on free kicks? That will never work!
Then there was the Wales match, which probably was the end for Joe Hart in Pep’s eyes. Hart will have been hoping Pep was looking elsewhere when he allowed Gareth Bale’s fifty yard free kick to squirm into the corner of the net but somehow Roy’s tactic of keep throwing on strikers until we score actually worked out.
Roy appeared to offend the whole country by making a few changes for the match against Slovakia. My word, you would have thought he had told lies to win a referendum or something. England, for the third game running, dominated their opponents. The only slight problem was they couldn’t score. Not that it mattered, I wrote at the time, we would probably lose against Iceland on penalties. I was only bloody joking, lads!
I have a friend who is Welsh and works for Iceland. Not the country, the shop. Either way, you can imagine his joy on that fateful Monday night. Yes, it may have been over six months ago but the aftershocks of England getting beaten by a country with a population the size of about five Wembley Stadiums are still reverberating.
Sadly there was no Article 50 chat to bail out Joe Hart from utter ridicule across the world as his error led to Pep frantically Googling ‘goalkeeper shortlist.’
They seemed to lack a clear plan. They were a little disorganised. They did a fine job of upsetting Ronaldo. They were busy, and if only they had brought on someone with a bit of pace earlier then the result might have been different. I am talking about the moths of course, not France. Still, Ronaldo managed to finally emulate one of his idols in football.
No, not players like Casillas, Gullit or Platini in captaining the side to the European Championships trophy, but John Terry for barking orders from the technical area whilst your manager wonders what you are doing.
With Roy, Gary and, er, Ray Lewington all having worryingly prepared their resignation scripts before the Iceland match, the FA were in no hurry to appoint Big Sam as the new man in charge. By appointing him England had clearly reverted to lumping it to the big man and hoping for the best.
Steve Bruce clearly thought it was in the bag, as he resigned as manager of Hull hours before the FA named their man. It was either that or he fancied an emotional reunion with Sunderland. Either way, Brucey was the odd one out in the game of musical chairs, as David Moyes bundled his way on to the Stadium of Light stool by the time the music stopped.
United were still waving £100m big ones under the nose of Juventus, hoping to tempt them to give them Pogba in return.
Arsene Wenger took a good look at last season, analysed his current squad and decided that what he really needed to win the Premier League back is a teenage Japanese striker and an England U21 defender from Bolton.
He was only pretending to be interested in Mahrez and he was never really going to sign Higuain! Arsene moved for Rob Holding, and the cash on the table was around £2m. José sat there looking faint, this move had worried him.
August saw Everton doing a merry skip and a dance to the bank with big smiles on their faces. Yes, they managed to convince Pep that John Stones was worth £50m. Sadly, José ruled out any chance of signing Blaise Matuidi, meaning my stockpile of Blaisen’ Squad gags were rendered useless.
The longest soap opera in the country – no, not Coronation Street, but the signing of Paul Pogba – finally came to an end, giving United’s social media department the green light to go completely over board. #PogBack? Really? For the first load of matches he played it could have been #SendPogBack.
The season got underway with Lineker presenting MoTD in his pants. Well, short trousers would be more accurate. If the clothes in Lineker’s life followed the same scaling he would look like a kid wearing his Dad’s suit.
Mind you, at least Lineker turned up which is more than could have been said for Leicester, starting their title “defence” with a defeat at Hull. Pep was truley getting into the Manchester spirit of Saturday nights, putting his Willy before his Hart. Pep decided that even Willy Caballero was a better keeper than Joe. You don’t win the title in August, which will have disappointed United fans who were getting a little carried away, but you can lose it, as Leicester proved 100%.
Diego Costa started to show he might be back, managing to push referees to the point they almost sent him off, and then going on to score winning goals.
September is the month where the last minute transfers that might look crazy start to look quite astute. Not that anyone had got past the thought of ‘crazy’ when Chelsea announced they wanted a second dose of David Luiz and were prepared to stump up £32m for the pleasure. How PSG laughed.
Credit to Kloppo too, he managed to find someone to take Ballotelli permanently. I wonder if Pochettino will come to regret poaching Sissoko off Everton at the last minute, based purely off a couple of decent performances in the Euro’s and complete amnesia towards his entire Newcastle career.
Allardyce got his sure to be long term England career off to the perfect start, nicking a last minute winner through Lallana. I can’t even remember who they played, it was that dull. Still, Allardyce didn’t need to tell Rooney where to play, and that quote may well be his England managerial legacy.
Pep casually strolled into Manchester, beating everything in his way, playing full backs as central midfielders and toppling United all in his first month. Nailed on the for title, right?
Having already won the title in August, United fans wouldn’t have been too concerned at their team’s form in September. Pogba may have signed from Juventus, but he hadn’t quite turned up yet and even Watford managed to turn them over. José had previously called Mazzarri a donkey, but there was only one donkey after that result. Well, three if you include Wazza and that big guy with an afro.
Liverpool and Arsenal taught Chelsea and Conte the kind of lessons that make an Italian manager go and brood, scribble some tactics down on a piece of paper and return to training ready to wreak havoc on the Premier League. Just think, if that hadn’t have happened every team in the country might not be trying to copy his 3-4-3.
Ah, October. The month in which the Telegraph showed how much it hated football. Their undercover “stings” attempted to take down such footballing megastars such as Jimmy Floyd, Tommy Wright, Eric Peters and, er, Sam Allardyce.
Yeah, Allardyce went down faster than a pint of white wine and his England reign was over. Still, 100% record eh? He’d have taken that when he took the job. The buck was passed, temporarily at least, to Gareth Southgate. Now, if he could only make them play like Spurs who had just put Pep firmly back on the Premier League stabilisers, the Spaniard falling off his bike for the first time in the stunning 2-0 defeat.
Swansea were playing matches knowing that if they kept losing they might end up being managed by Ryan Giggs, and even that didn’t stop them. Kloppo made Jamie Carragher go weak at the knees on MNF and Liverpool fans dream of them maybe winning the title this season. West Ham’s players decided that an all-nighter ending with a 7am trip to McDonald’s was the way to kick start their season. Prepare like Sunday league players, play like Sunday league players, lads.
City were officially in ‘crisis’ by the end of the month, which was a little like a billionaire being down to their last million.
Sky showed that they still haven’t learned that the more they hype up a Monday night game, the more likely it is to be a pile of dirty pants. United and Liverpool locked horns in the kind of 0-0 that doesn’t get written about too much. Except this one, as it gave some of us all kinds of José ammunition.
Actually, it wasn’t that match that gave us all the ammunition, it was José trying to copy and paste his tactics immediately into the trip to Stamford Bridge. Losing 4-0 to the club that sacked him the previous season isn’t going feature too high on Mourinho’s list of career highlights.
Many managers and players over the years had tried to find ways to stop Zlatan scoring, and it turned out that José had finally found out how to do it.
There was a BBC documentary with Smug Alan Pardew that said something along the lines of ‘if England want me, well who knows.’ How did that work out, Al? He ended the month getting beaten 4-2 by a Liverpool side high in the drama stakes, and by that I mean could not defend if their lives depended on it.
Quote of October for me though? Jamie Redknapp suggesting that the 26 year old Nigerian international Victor Moses was “a young English talent.” Mind you, young Victor was proving to be key in Conte’s new master plan that was moving Chelsea up the table.
November started with Conte having yet another point to prove. According to Sir Alex, he did not see Chelsea as title contenders this year. Does that rival him thinking David Moyes was his natural successor? Who knows.
Chelsea smashed Everton 5-0 in a way that Koeman is struggling to recover from now, but Liverpool kept themselves in the reckoning by destroying Watford 6-1 the following day. Harry Kane returned from injury and scored in a London derby, just like Harry does. Pogba awoke from his slumber and scored the kind of goal against Swansea that started to make people, well me, believe that he might have been money well spent.
£89m for a goal like that against relegation certainties might not sound like a bargain, but give it time.
You’ve got to be a good side to wear pink, and Scotland are not a good side. Imagine turning up to the national stadium of your hated neighbours and playing that badly in a kit that bad.
November ended with Conte and Chelsea winning yet again and keeping yet another clean sheet, Liverpool winning yet again and conceding lots of goals and United suffering from ‘bad luck.’ Leicester still had more Champions League points than Premier League title defence points and Arsenal managed to go unbeaten in November for the first time ever, probably.
Still, it’s not as if they will go and ruin that in December, hey?
December started with one major question that needed answering. What on earth has David Luiz done to upset Sergio Aguero? Sergio got himself the month off by getting a red card in the clash that was very much in City’s hands until Kevin De Bruyne managed to hit the bar from a yard out. Chelsea, obviously, because that’s what they do now, came back and won the match.
Pardew won a game 3-0, giving him hope of having a nice Christmas with the family. Well, he did end up with a family Christmas, we just don’t know if it was nice. Big Sam took over Palace with a couple of doors remaining unopened on his advent calendar.
Liverpool’s title bid took a bit of a hit when they managed to turn a 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to go into an injury time 4-3 loss at Bournemouth, Nathan Ake scoring what might be his most important goal for Chelsea ever.
Fellaini became the current subject for United abuse by managing to come on to protect a 1-0 lead against Everton, yet not protect it all and give away the equalising penalty. United spent the rest of December starting to look quite good, and could be the unexpected side that breaks into the top four.
Leicester showed that they can still play a bit, from time to time, by smashing Man City 4-2. Their comeback didn’t last long though and they ended the year a couple of points off the relegation zone but still in the Champions League.
Chelsea kept on winning, stringing together a club record twelve wins in a row, conceding a mere two goals in the process. Liverpool clung on as best they could, ending their Christmas with a 4-1 demolition of a Stoke side that thought it was still 2010 and picked Crouch and Walters to lead the line.
Still with me? Well done, you’ve shown more interest than Riyad Mahrez since May. These types of columns should always end with some predictions which, guaranteed, will mean the complete opposite happens. So, here we go…
Premier League (top four in order): Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Man United.
Relegated: Hull, Swansea, Sunderland
FA Cup: Liverpool
League Cup: Man United
Team that goes furthest in the Champions League: Leicester
Don’t bet on any of that happening.
Happy New Year everyone!
Follow Chris’ daily Tales over at www.talesfromthetopflight.com