WHILE other top European leagues take a winter break, the English Premier League’s ultra-hectic Christmas and New Year schedule makes it the ‘world’s toughest league’. With teams playing almost every 72 hours, the festive season is a test of stamina as well as squad depth, with injuries and fatigue wreaking havoc on more than a few sides.
Focus M looks at the latest round of games played on Saturday (Dec 30).
Nottingham Forest 2 v Manchester United 1
After a stirring comeback victory against high-flying Aston Villa in midweek, Red Devil supporters could be forgiven for thinking they had finally turned the corner but they were brought crashing down to earth by a Nottingham Forest side now managed by Nuno Espirito Santos.
Manchester United had forced an equaliser in the 78th minute through Marcus Rashford and the travelling support thought they had done enough to get at least a point. But a wonderful strike by Morgan Gibbs-White just four minutes later ensured that the pressure continued to mount on Old Trafford boss Erik Ten Haag. The Dutchman remained belligerent post-match, insisting that he could turn things around but a few more defeats like this will surely see the axe sharpened.
Luton Town 2 v Chelsea 3
A wild encounter that saw the home side very nearly snatch a point with a late comeback. The Hatters had gone two-nil down with Chelsea comfortably in control of proceedings. The outstanding Cole Palmer had given the Blues the lead and it beggars belief that Manchester City allowed him to leave in the summer. Noni Madueke doubled the lead before halftime, and it looked like Luton were dead and buried when Palmer extended that lead in the 70th minute.
However, a late surge that saw Luton score twice in the final 10 minutes made it a grandstand finish but ultimately it was a little too late as Mauricio Pochettino’s men held on to take three precious away points.
Aston Villa 3 v Burnley 2
Villa were smarting from letting a two-goal slip at Old Trafford in midweek and again led against Burnley. Unai Emery must have feared the worst when the visitors managed to claw their way back with a 71st-minute goal by Lyle Foster. But a last-minute penalty converted by Douglas Luiz ensured the Villa went joint-top with Liverpool for a few hours at least. Vincent Kompany will take heart from his team’s battling performance but he knows that it is imperative that Burnley start accumulating points if they want to avoid the drop. Villa supporters meanwhile, will be dreaming of a title tilt.
Crystal Palace 3 v Brentford 1
An eight-game winless run had piled the pressure on the Eagles’ boss Roy Hodgson who has had to deal with an extensive injury list. That streak was broken with the help of another standout performance by the fit-again Micheal Olise. He notched his third goal in four days to help Place ascend the table to 13th place.
The Bees meanwhile seem to have lost their sting without the suspended Ivan Toney. This was their fifth successive defeat which saw them drop dangerously close to the relegation zone. It will be interesting to see if the Brentford board will sanction the sale of Toney in the January window, given that his goals will be crucial to avoiding a relegation scrap.
Manchester City 2 v Sheffield United 0
Fresh from being crowned champions of the world, Manchester City made light work of the Blades. Not having to go beyond third gear, City eased past the hapless visitors with goals from Rodri and Julian Alvarez underscoring the vast gulf in class between the reigning champions and the basement dwellers.
Many are expecting City to go on one of their famous unbeaten runs to see them surge back to the top and this routine win shows that Pep Guardiola’s men are warming up to the task. With Kevin de Bruyne fit again the odds are that Manchester City will soon hit top gear in their quest for an unprecedented fourth consecutive top-flight title.
Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 v Everton 0
The Wolves continued their recent impressive form with another fine display that saw them dispatch Everton with consummate ease. After some battling performances fuelled by a sense of injustice over the ten-point penalty imposed for financial wrongdoings, the Toffees have now slumped to three consecutive defeats, leaving them just one point above the drop zone.
Sean Dyche will be lamenting the lack of energy and more pertinently, urgency from his side as they surrendered meekly, rarely troubling the home side’s goal. The scoreline could have been more emphatic had Hwang Hee Chan’s late goal not been chalked off for offside. – Dec 31, 2023
All photos credited to The Guardian