Manchester United v Chelsea: match report

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Jose Mourinho produced a tactical masterclass. His side were smarter, sharper and more ruthless than their opponents in every department and showed fans and critics alike what he can do when the big matches roll round. The game in question here, though, was Chelsea’s 3-1 destruction of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United almost 12 years ago. On that day Mourinho enhanced his reputation further as Chelsea marched towards a record-breaking triumph in the Premier League.

 

12 years is a lifetime in football and this time, Mourinho seems like he is rebuilding his once unquestionable reputation. The Portuguese managed his best Man United game yet as he got the better of rival Antonio Conte in a feisty encounter. Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera got the goals in what turned out to be a convincing 2-0 victory at Old Trafford and perhaps gives new life to their top four ambitions as well as the title race.

 

The Special One sprung surprises on Easter Sunday choosing to leave star man Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench and lining up in a 4-2-2 set-up with Rashford and Jese Lingard up front. Ander Herrera was tasked with marrying himself to Eden Hazard – flashbacks of the F.A. Cup tie where the Spaniard was given his marching orders after a late challenge on the Belgian may have had Man United fans worried. Not so this time as the tenacious midfielder stuck to his task diligently and frustrated the Chelsea talisman in an all-action man of the match performance.

 

Mourinho’s men flew out of the traps at Old Trafford with the pace and understanding between Rashford and Lingard causing problems for the Chelsea back three. The game was not even ten minutes old when Herrera stole possession – questionably as big shouts for handball appeared to be justified – before sliding an excellent ball in behind for Rashford to chance and calmly finish. A goal move unable to materialise, perhaps, if Ibrahimovic was spearheading the attack.

 

Diego Costa, often the subject of many subplots throughout Mourinho’s time at Chelsea, yet has seemed more measured under Conte, showed his unsavoury side yet again. The brutish Spanish striker found himself embroiled in battles with United’s defensive duo Marcus Rojo and Eric Bailly. His frustrations earned him a yellow card after a late challenge on Pogba.

 

Chelsea looked unusually unfocused, drawn into Manchester United’s clever mind games and acts of street-smarts. The focus was so much lacking that Gary Cahill was more attentive in hauling Lingard up from the ground during the build up to Herrera doubling United’s advantage.

 

It took Chelsea 45 minutes to muster their first effort on goal albeit a frustrated lash from Costa.

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Whatever Conte’s half time message was to his flat Chelsea side at the forefront of it must have been not to concede another goal early in the second half. However, some three minutes into the second period they found themselves further behind. Chelsea failed to clear their lines once more and Ashley Young, who was given the captain’s armband for the occasion, drove into the Chelsea penalty area before another failed clearance fell to Herrera. The Spaniard, the beneficiary of two slices of good fortune after his alleged handball in the first half for his assist for Rashford’s goal, arrowed his shot through a crowd of players which ricocheted off player’s in blue shirts on its way past Asmir Begovic in the Chelsea goal.

 

Before the hour mark Conte attempted to turn the tide in this giant game of chess. Cesc Fabregas came on to offer much needed creativity in place of Victor Moses, asked to operate out of the other full-back position after a pre-game injury to Marcos Alonso.

 

Mourinho countered with a tactical change of his own, sacrificing pace for control, as he brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard. The switch left Rashford isolated but that did not stop the young England centre forward from hustling and bustling his was up front and making life uncomfortable for the Chelsea defenders.

 

N’golo Kante failed to get his usual grip in midfield, partly due to the excellence of Mauroane Fellaini and Herrera in midfield scurrying around refusing to give the Chelsea key players a moments rest. Matteo Darmian found himself handcuffed to Pedro on the other side of the field refusing to let the former Barcelona wide man find space to operate in.

 

Mourinho’s side could have filled their boots in truth, Rashford smashed an effort into the side netting and Young spurned two excellent chances from the edge of the area to inflict more misery onto Conte’s men. England manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands and will have been impressed with what he saw from the Manchester United English trio – especially in a new tactical set-up.

 

Rashford was brought off with just two minutes of time remaining to a standing ovation and allowed Ibrahimovic to get on in a cameo appearance.

 

Conte pleaded with his side to push forward in the closing stages but by that point United had become water tight, refusing to give an inch.

 

The final whistle brought with it a rapturous ovation, it was perhaps the most complete United performance since the days of Ferguson, and certainly the best day so far in Mourinho’s time as Man United manager. The former Chelsea boss could not have asked for much more in a week where his side have a vital away goal in the Europa League quarter-final against Anderlecht capped off by a monumental league victory over what many believe to be the champions elect. Mourinho was at his meticulous best – substituting captain Young fully knowing it would take the winger-turned-full-back more time to exit the field due to him passing on the armband.

 

United fans chanted Mourinho’s name in unison clearly buoyed the masterful display. The same fans which were often sickened by Mourinho bringing his Chelsea teams to Old Trafford and furthering his reputation as The Special One now get to experience perhaps what is come down long road ahead.

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West Brom V Liverpool: match report

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A particularly stale encounter in the Black Country on Easter Sunday saw Liverpool take another step towards Champions League qualification while West Brom’s stagnation after reaching the 40-point mark continued. Before the fireworks at Old Trafford Jurgen Klopp’s men took their chance to establish themselves even more in the hunt for the top four and heap further pressure on those behind – including Mourinho’s men in Manchester. Roberto Firmino got the solitary goal – and managed to keep his shirt on – in a hard-fought 1-0 victory at The Hawthrones.

 

West Brom by comparison look to be on their holidays – mentally if nothing else. Now past the magical 40-point mark and with their Premier League status promised for at least another campaign the hard work for the Baggies has been done. Perhaps this speaks to a wider problem about the ambition at West Brom, but most of their players looked to have downed tools and lacked motivation – so much so that Pulis was screaming encouragement throughout the whole 90 minutes instructing each player when to close down, take on their full-back and so on.

 

The game started with Liverpool half asleep in the opening two minutes being sloppy from two throw-ins to the annoyance of Klopp on the touchline. West Brom failed to capitalise on their visitor’s slow start however with little creativity from their midfield. A huge area of need this summer if West Brom are to build on their impressive season.

 

The first big chance of the tussle fell to Firmino after a quarter of an hour. Claudio Jacob lost possession to Philippe Coutinho inside the West Brom final third. Coutinho then slid in his fellow Brazilian with a deft ball in. Firmino’s effort was scuffed but had Ben Foster beat, instead trickling past his far post.

 

West Brom endeavoured to get down the flanks with Matt Phillips and Nacer Chadli the likely benefactors from deep balls by Jake Livermore and Chris Brunt. Perhaps just the lack of a high-quality playmaker all that was missing to really carved Liverpool open down the sides.

 

On the other side, Liverpool’s high end architects were struggling. Coutinho and Firmino were smothered under the organisation that came with a Tony Pulis side.

 

West Brom’s success from set pieces caused them to spring into life and maraud forward when anything as little as a throw in in Liverpool’s final third presented itself. Phillips’ throw ins were no match for those of Rory Delap and the Stoke side of nearly a decade ago which built theirs, and Pulis’ reputation, as a rugged, no-nonsense outfit.

 

Right on the stroke of half time it was Liverpool taking a page out of their opposition’s book. James Milner’s free-kick was flicked on by Lucas and found Firmino all alone in the six-yard area to nod past Foster. The goal was uncharacteristic from both sides. It is not often that Liverpool make the most of set pieces, and it was even less likely that West Brom surrender back-to-back headers to two Brazilians whom both measure under six feet tall. Firmino’s 12th goal of the season undoing all of the effort West Brom had put in with Pulis’ constant instructions from the side line counting for naught at the interval.

 

The home side conducted a small meeting before the second half got underway with captain Darren Fletcher offering encouragement amongst other things to try and spark some life into West Brom.

 

Hal Robson-Kanu, surprisingly making just his first home start for West Brom since joining in the summer, Offered the Baggies the best route to goal but too many times found himself compromised by the linesman’s chequered flag.

 

Liverpool offered more creativity and incision after the break with Divock Origi and Firmino exploiting the extra half a yard of space left behind by the West Brom midfield as they attempted to restore parity.

 

Milner was offered the chance to seal the game early in the second half after a delightful chipped ball from Firmino found the midfielder turned left-back in acres of space only for the England international to blaze his effort straight over the crossbar. A finish befitting of a full-back. Firmino could only offer up a knee slide in despair and not, as he probably anticipated, in celebration.

 

Liverpool briefly had a second which was quickly chalked off after Firmino had just leaned into an offside position before cushioning a header back into the path of Origi who calmly headed the ball into Ben Foster’s goal. The diminutive Brazilian was starting to find more leaks in the West Brom damn with Jurgen Klopp looking for his side to make it burst. An extra worry for Pulis surely had to be that his usually robust defensive outfit were losing headers to a slight midfield playmaker.

 

After just over an hour the Baggies boss had seen enough and threw on Salomon Rondon and James McClean, although Rondon himself has not been in great goal-scoring form with no goals in 17 club games since his hattrick against Swansea.

 

The home side’s biggest chance fell to Phillips after a powerful run from Rondon had Liverpool’s defence, often questioned but comfortable on the day, scrambling to stop the burly Venezuelan. His pass found Phillips on the inside left of the penalty area and the winger could only take aim and fire his effort into the onrushing Simon Mignolet.

 

A mad scrap ensued in the final moments of the game with the West Bromwich faithful roaring mightily with every set piece earned. The proceedings even saw Foster come up from his goal for an injury time corner – and nearly resulting in disaster. Substitute Alberto Moreno won the ball from the corner and tried his luck from all of 45-yards but completely missed the target, much to the disgust of Daniel Sturridge, when Foster a full 60-yards back from his own net. Amazingly, Foster stayed rooted in the heart of the Liverpool half in a desperate bid to snatch a leveller but to no avail. A smile of relief greeted Klopp upon hearing the ringing of the full-time whistle.

 

Klopp will care little that his side failed to provide their usual swashbuckling best, as at this stage of the season it is all about the three points which propel the Merseysiders into third – nine points ahead of fifth placed Everton and heaping even more pressure on Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger.

Five potential replacements for Mesut Ozil

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Mesut Ozil’s future at Arsenal is just as unclear as fellow teammate Alexis Sanchez and manager Arsene Wenger. The German playmaker has been linked with moves to Turkey as well as a return to his homeland and even Manchester United have reportedly expressed and interest, which would bring with it a reunion with former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho.

 

Should Ozil leave Arsenal in the summer here are five potential replacements for the classy creator:

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5.

Mario Gotze

Club: Borussia Dortmund

Cost: £30m – £40m

Currently out injured with a metabolism problem, the scorer of the goal which crowned Germany world champions has many hallmarks of Ozil. Gotze is classy with a deft touch and the ability to spot passes which slice open opposition defences. Another hallmark he shares with his fellow German is his consistency – or lack of as it may be. Gotze failed to impress during his spell at Bayern Munich which lead to a reunion with Dortmund.

 

However, the German would offer almost a like for like replacement for Ozil. With the 24-year-old also keen to play in the Premier League he may well be wooed by Arsenal should they express and interest in the playmaker.

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4.

Ivan Rakitic

Club: Barcelona

Cost: £35m – £50m

The Croatian wizard made Barcelona tick in his early days at the Catalan giants but has since been wildly inconsistent and has fallen out of favour with Barca boss Luis Enrique. Rakitic offered a replacement for long-time metronome Xavi in the heart of the Barcelona midfield along with Andreas Iniesta. That alone speaks to how highly the former Sevilla man is rated.

 

Rakitic has been deployed in a deeper role in Spain but could easily push up the field and influence attacking play more. Arsenal is a club with many similarities to the Spanish powerhouses in terms of their style of play which would suit the Croat perfectly. His elusiveness in between the lines and vision often leaves defenders scrambling and attacking players licking their chops at the service he provides.

 

Rakitic may prove costly but with his pedigree at the top level he would almost certainly be worth the large outlay and with Arsenal making noises that they are ready to throw the kitchen sink at the Premier League next season they may be able to tempt the Barcelona midfielder to London.

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3.

Bernardo Silva

Club: Monaco

Cost: £55m – £75m

This guy is going to cost an awful lot. Silva is being courted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs and a bidding war could soon ensue.

 

With Leonardo Jardim’s side in vogue with young, exciting players strutting their stuff in both domestic and continental competition, Silva is just one of a handful of sort after players.

 

A classic number ten Silva has been highly praised by former Portugal great Deco, who believes the former Benfica product can be one of the world’s best. With the ability carve open a defence with his combination of exception dribbling and passing the young superstar is a difference maker for his current employers. If Manchester United, Real Madrid and other have their way he will soon be a difference maker for them, too.

 

The 22-year-old Portuguese playmaker has scored six goals to date as well as contributing seven assists this campaign as Monaco continue their charge towards the title.

 

Perhaps a wildcard for Arsenal with them no longer mentioned in the bracket of elite clubs when talking about Europe’s brightest youngsters going elsewhere. However, if they are willing to bid an extraordinary amount and pay the youngster extraordinary wages then they may just get their man.

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2.

Riyad Mahrez

Club: Leicester City

Cost: £35m – £48m

The Algerian made noises at the end of last season that he wanted to make the step up from The Foxes. However, then manager Claudio Ranieri convinced the playmaker to stay at least one more season to spur Leicester on their maiden Champions League campaign.

 

While the English champions have surprised many with their run to the quarter-finals of Europe’s elite club competition, their form in the league has been dismal – costing Ranieri his job. Mahrez has often looked disinterested during Leicester’s faltering title defence which could be cause for concern for any club interested in the Algerian’s services. However, much like Ozil, his ability should see perspective buyers overlook some of his inconsistencies.

 

At the start of the season Arsenal expressed an interest in the Algerian playmaker, as well as Barcelona, and it seemed to have turned his head. Should Mahrez leave the champions this summer he could well be a replacement for Ozil.

 

Mahrez is already acclimatised to the Premier League way of playing, technically gifted and with an eye for goal – as displayed during Leicester’s title run he may offer a slight upgrade over Ozil, who is often criticised for his lack of goals for Arsenal.

 

The 26-year-old has certainly see his stock drop from where it was this time last year. Leicester may not be able to command the same fee for the playmaker as they perhaps could have 12 months ago but would still get a handsome amount for their star player. Arsenal would probably be willing to pay the £45m it would take to acquire the Algerian.

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1.

Isco

Club: Real Madrid

Cost: £25m – £35m

 

The Real Madrid misfit looks set to leave the Spanish capital this summer with a number of potential suitors trailing the former Malaga midfielder. Falling behind Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in the pecking order for manager Zinadine Zidane the frustrated Isco is desperate for first team action.

 

Arsenal would offer the diminutive Spaniard a chance to start games with a void left by Ozil as well as experience the Premier League and – perhaps – be part of a rebuilding process at The Emirates should Arsene Wenger leave the Gunners in the summer, or even if he stays.

 

Isco was heavily linked to Manchester City in 2013 before being tempted to Madrid. Clearly the Spanish international is open to plying his trade in England.

 

Isco may have his inconsistencies but that could be put down to him not getting a run of games in the Madrid team. What is clear, is that when he is on his game he beautifully links defence to attack and can open pick the killer pass which results in a goal.

 

His style of play is very comparable of fellow Spaniard David Silva. If he could replicate anywhere near the standards Silva has set in England then he shall be very well received indeed by Arsenal fans.

 

Weight of pass in the modern game is often overlooked but Isco has the class and technique to perfectly pick out runners without them having the break stride before firing into the back of the net.

 

The price tag may start to rise with rumours circulating that even Barcelona are looking to prize Isco away from their bitter rivals. Arsenal are certainly in the mix, however. A tug-of-war for the 24-year-old’s signature is a likely outcome – in the past Arsenal have often fallen away when the bidding wars start. They did manage to outmuscle Liverpool for the signature of Alexis Sanchez however, so perhaps the Arsenal hierarchy are no longer afraid to go toe-to-toe with other clubs to get their man.

Five potential replacements for Alexis Sanchez

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Alexis Sanchez’s future is still in the air at Arsenal. The Chilean cuts an increasingly frustrated figure at Arsenal and while his manager Arsene Wenger dances to the tune of ‘He wants to stay’ the consensus is that Sanchez will be plying his trade elsewhere next season.

 

Should the former Barcelona forward leave The Emirates here are five potential players who could replace the dogged Chile frontman:

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5.

Anthony Martial

Club: Manchester United

Cost: £35m – £55m

A bit of a wildcard to start off with. With Jose Mourinho and Wenger’s open dislike for each other it is unlikely that Mourinho would want to sell a talented player to a rival. However, Martial is well out-of-favour with The Special One and could be offloaded this summer. Should Arsenal submit a bid which would recoup a lot – if not all – of what Louis van Gaal paid for the then teenager Mourinho may well be willing to part with the young Frenchman.

 

Martial offers directness, pace and can finish. He is still inconsistent Wenger will no doubt have patience with the former Monaco man and give him the love he looks like he needs.

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4.

Yannick Carrasco

Club: Atletico Madrid

Cost: £51m – £65m

Carrasco will cost a lot of money; the type of money Arsenal have never parted with. However, the Belgian is becoming a star under Diego Simeone in the Spanish capital. The winger has eight goals and four assists this season for Atletico.

 

An explosive winger who can play on both flanks, Carrasco causes nightmares for opposition full-backs who have a difficult time dealing with tricky wide man. Carrasco is still 23-years-old and can get better with the right nurturing.

 

Carrasco would bring with him the directness which Sanchez would leave behind. While the young Belgium international may cost a lot but the windfall Arsenal should receive for Sanchez, should he leave, would go a long way to bringing the Atletico Madrid winger to The Emirates. Having said that, with speculation over the future of Antoine Griezmann, Simeone will be more than reluctant to let two of his star men walk away in the same transfer window.

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3.

Mohamed Salah

Club: Roma

Cost: £30m – £40m

 

After failing to shine during his first brief stint in England with Chelsea Salah has gone on to light up Serie A with goals and assists galore. The Egyptian forward has 11 goals and eight assists this campaign and 27 Serie A goals in total since joining Roma in 2015.

 

Salah himself is still only 24-years-old, although in recent years he has felt like somewhat of a journeyman since his Chelsea move did not work out with stints at former club Basel and Fiorentina before finally settling in Rome.

 

The Egypt frontman has pace in abundance, can play with either foot and finish in a variety of ways. Arsenal are always looking for classy forwards and Salah has shown that he is certainly one of them. His eight assists and 60 chances created this term show he can pick a pick a pass also – perfect ammunition for Olivier Giroud, or maybe a new Arsenal forward.

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2.

Douglas Costa

Club: Bayern Munich

Cost: £22m – £30m

Douglas Costa is reportedly unhappy at Bayern Munich and is seeking a move away. Now at 26 the Brazilian is at a stage in his career where he needs regular games – which he is not getting behind Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

 

Costa tore Arsenal apart during their 5-1 hammering of the Gunners in the last-16 tie of the Champions League with trickery and pace that neither Hector Bellerin nor Nacho Monreal could handle.

 

Costa’s inconsistency is perhaps what drives Carlo Ancelotti to leave him out of the Bayern first XI but he certainly has the ability to get Arsenal fans out of their seats. Not as direct as an out and out winger, Costa is strong on both feet and can float inside to get involved through the middle as well as beating his full-back down the line.

 

With his unhappiness at Bayern and the German giants seemingly happy to offload the wide man Costa would probably be the cheapest option of the list – which would probably appeal most to Wenger as he is notoriously tight with the  purse strings.

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1.

James Rodriguez

Club: Real Madrid

Cost: £45m – £55m

 

James is maybe the most likely player to make his way to The Emirates on this list. Not so much because he is desperate to join Arsenal or Arsenal are desperate to take him, but because Real Madrid and the Colombian have made no secret about his desire to leave and Madrid’s keenness to offload him.

 

James is typically a number ten but can play out wide. His goal in the 2014 World Cup against Uruguay was the stand out moment that summer and announced James to the world stage – it is also a glimpse of what he can do in a split second.

 

If Arsenal part ways with the £50m sum the Spanish giants are asking for then they will be getting a player that will not hound and harass defenders like Sanchez will, but will give you quality in abundance when going forward. In order for the Colombian to succeed he may need, perhaps like Mesut Ozil, a world-class holding midfielder who will pick up his lack of work ethic.

 

The former Monaco man has the flair that Arsene Wenger loves in a player and the technical quality which the Arsenal boss also looks for in his attacking players. He can float between the lines exposing the gaps in midfield and defence which can carve teams apart.

 

 

James is a different type of player to Sanchez – perhaps more in line with Ozil’s style of play but his quality cannot be denied and if Sanchez leaves Arsenal must replace him with quality – and James is certainly that.

Crystal Palace v Arsenal: match report

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Arsene Wenger endured another humiliating night as his side were soundly thumped 3-0 by Crystal Palace. Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye and a first Crystal Palace goal for Luka  Milivojević saw The Eagles add to Arsenal’s woes.

 

For Sam Allardyce he collects his second scalp in nine days as his Palace side started April by beating Chelsea 2-1.

 

Wenger will now face a fresh inquest surrounding his future. In contrast, the Allardyce-effect is in full flight and the future of Crystal Palace looks to be edging closer to playing in the Premier League next campaign.

 

On a night when Arsenal looked half-asleep throughout, Palace were the sharper side from the first whistle with Wilfried Zaha and Townsend tormenting the Gunners’ back four with their lightening pace down the flanks.

 

The game was only 17 minutes old when Zaha burst into the penalty area and, even though he slipped, his cross met Townsend sneaking in between an oblivious Hector Bellerin and Shkodran Mustafi to bundle the ball into the back of the net from close range.

 

Arsenal retainined much of the possession but made it count for little. Mohamed Elneny saw a long-range effort tipped wide by Wayne Hennessey in the Palace goal and Alexis Sanchez saw his effort trickle wide but Arsenal muster no clear-cut chances throughout the 90 minutes.

 

Granit Xhaka was perhaps the worst player in yellow on Monday night. The Swiss international was sluggish across the ground allowing Cabaye and company to exploit the spaces in midfield and his usually sound passing range was well out of sync.

 

In a bid to claw his side back into the contest Wenger sent on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud in place of Elneny and an isolated Danny Welbeck. Yet, three minutes later, Arsenal found their deficit doubled thanks to a superb finish from Cabaye. The Frenchman collected a pass from Zaha before unleashing a delicious curling shot into the far side of Emiliano Martinez’s goal to send the home support into ecstasy.

 

Zaha continued his rich vein of form, ending the night with two assists and a standing ovation as he was withdrawn from proceedings on 88 minutes. The Ivory Coast winger is now beginning to fulfil the potential Sir Alex Ferguson saw in him when he paid £15m to bring him to Manchester United.

 

The Gunners had no plan B. Persisting to dominate possession of the ball and hit hopeful crosses into the box. The dismal performance continued, Martinez committed himself to a 50-50 ball with Townsend and sent the England winger tumbling – while little contact was made it was enough to convince referee Michael Oliver to point to the spot. Milivojević did the rest to put the home side three to the good.

 

Palace hounded the visitors into mistakes and the bouncing Selhurst Park played its part, too, creating a hostile atmosphere which saw players in yellow wilt.

 

Palace and their supporters enjoyed the game thereon in. ‘Ole’ chants greeted every completed Palace pass while Arsenal fans commenced their ongoing witch hunt for Arsene Wenger’s head, chanting “Arsene Wenger, we want you to go.” Perhaps this may be the straw which finally breaks the camel’s back, only time will tell.

 

Down the years, Wenger has often been the architect of the tactical masterclass. On this night, he found himself on the receiving end of one from long-time nemesis Big Sam.

 

Palace could have extended their advantage further with Christian Benteke having half chances to add a fourth goal, and, but from a credible performance from Martinez between the sticks for Arsenal, they may well have got it.

 

The autopsy of Arsenal has now reached new heights. The futures of key members of the squad still way up in the air, their once masterful manager, increasingly looking a caricature of his former self, yet to decide his fate and now Arsenal’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread. Currently seven points off the pace for fourth spot perhaps their lacklustre season looks ever more like marking the end of two decades of Champions League football, and perhaps Arsene Wenger.

Bolivia v Argentina: Match report

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Argentina’s World Cup hopes were left hanging by a thread as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat against Bolivia in La Paz. Juan Carlos Arce and Martins Moreno grabbing the goals to sink the 2014 World Cup finalists.

 

The visitors were without Lionel Messi after the Argentina hero found out he was to be suspended for the next four games for using foul and abusive language towards an official during Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Chile. This just five hours before kick-off in the Estadio Hernando Siles, meaning the Barcelona forward will be available for just the final qualifier which, by the time it comes around, may be all but irrelevant should La Albiceleste fall further behind the pack.

 

Still it was the home side that started the brighter pressing the inexperienced Argentina side, that manager Edgardo Bauza had made eight changes to, and using the high altitude to their advantage with the ball gliding unusually through the pitch.

 

Winger Pablo Escobar gave Argentina cause for concern early one with two dazzling runs and crosses picking out his Bolivian teammates. Frantic Argentina defending stopped Moreno from giving his side an early lead.

 

Argentina tried valiantly to get to grips with the conditions as quickly as possible yet painted a picture of frustration as passes often went astray, and when they did get them right the first touch let them down.

 

It took the Messi-less visitors until the 28th minute to render their first clear opportunity, Angel Di Maria who was slipped through by Angel Correa only for the ball to escape the Paris Saint-Germain forward after his first touch, allowing Carlos Lampe to obstruct the ball’s path goalward.

 

If Argentina did not feel sick from the altitude of playing nearly 12,000 feet above sea level they soon would be feeling sick from Di Maria’s missed chance. Just three minutes later Bolivia took the lead through Arce. A hopeful Escobar cross was met by the diminutive midfielder and his clever flicked header alluded goalkeeper Serigo Romero on its way into the Argentina goal.

 

The goal did not seem to wake the Argentines up as the hosts carved their opponents, their swashbuckling attacking energy too much for Marcus Rojo and company to cope with.

 

Guido Pizarro made his debut in the engine room of the Argentina midfield but failed to stamp his authority on the game. Forward Lucas Pratto was preferred to Man City marksman Serigo Aguero up front. However, the Sao Paulo forward could do little to convince spectators that he deserved to add to his five international caps.

 

Bolivia went into half-time with their opponents on the ropes, yet with such attacking verve at Bauza’s disposal many would have been forgiven for thinking the solitary goal advantage would quickly evaporate after the interval. It did not happen.

 

Instead Bolivia picked up from where they left off in the first half. The second half was just six minutes old when Moreno doubled his sides advantage. With Matias Caruzzo ball watching, Martins Moreno took no chances once collecting Jorge Flores’ cross, after the left back had beaten Mateo Musacchio for pace, belting the ball past Romero.

 

Soon after seeing the deficit doubled, manager Edgardo Bauza called for Aguero to fish his team out of a sizeable hole. Aguero one of the high-profile names to be left out of the starting line-up along with City team-mate Nicolas Otamendi, Juventus hitman Pablo Dybala and former Napoli favourite, Ezequiel Lavezzi.

 

Aguero was unable to rescue his side from what would be a fourth defeat in seven visits to the Bolivian capital. Instead it was Aguero’s strike partner, Pratto, that spurned the best chance to get the World Cup finalists back into the game. Pratto managed to get himself free at the far post before heading his effort comfortably wide. Di Maria could only look on in exacerbation, perhaps knowing what was on the horizon should his side fail to find a way back into the contest.

 

Bolivia could have added to their lead with Moreno unable to wriggle free from two markers to put away another inviting ball from Flores.

 

In the end the victory was not enough to save Bolivia, but it certainly deepened Argentina’s crisis. After losing their captain and star man hours before kick-off the inquest from the scathing Argentina media will begin about where Argentina go from here.

 

A colossal encounter with Uruguay in Montevideo in September now awaits Bauza’s squad, the Uruguayans one point ahead of Argentina in the qualification table, with Colombia, Ecuador and Chile breathing heavily down their necks.

 

Messi will be eligible to return to the starting line-up for what could be a crunch encounter against Ecuador. But while Argentina fans circle October 10th on their calendars for his return they face a must win, or rather a must not lose, clash against Luis Suarez and company before awkward visits from Venezuela and Peru, Peru still not mathematically eliminated from qualification either.

 

Argentina’s World Cup hopes hang perilously in the balance. One more defeat in a tight qualification group could see them all but eliminated. A performance as flat as week old Coca-Cola in La Paz. Bauza may use the Messi suspension as a smokescreen to shield his side, and indeed himself, from further criticism but Argentina’s problem run much deeper than that.

 

How sport helped guide me through the darkest period of my life

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It has been little over six months since I lost my mother. During which time, I have had to confront grief, stress and deep depression. All of this on top of having to tackle the everyday issues that we all face.

 

Many have helped me get through this period. Family and trained professionals have tried to guide me through the abyss to see me come out the other side Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption style. Yet the place where I often found the most solace was when glued to my screen watching sporting drama unfold.

 

When my mother passed in early September me and my father made the journey from Lincoln to Oldham four days later to grieve as a family. Yet on that day the first Manchester Derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season was also taking place. For an hour and a half, I sat with my family utterly absorbed by the occasion. My uncle Fernando screaming at the television desperate for his beloved Manchester City to be victorious.

 

I myself had no stake in the game, but for 90 minutes all my sadness evaporated as I watched Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola duel on the touchline while superstars draped in sky blue and red played out a pulsating encounter. It made me forget. For however brief the amnesia the game eased the heartbreak and transported me to a world where I did not matter. All that mattered were the 22 men on the field and the thousands in the stands willing them on.

 

Mum’s funeral was some three weeks later. An occasion that provoked reflection amongst other things. Yet even in the early hours of the morning of that exhausting day I found myself sat with my cousin Chris and two friends debating the right back position. A chance to debate and think in depth and compare player X against player Y provided escapism for my brain leaving behind reality.

 

Escapism has been key. Being alone with your thoughts and all the time in the world is enough to drive any person insane. Yet amid a deep depression those thoughts turn dark. They turn to thoughts of suicide, regret and self-loathing. Nothing is more depressing than questioning with your own mortality and if life is worth it when such pain exists. You can often make a compelling case that it is easier and worth it to end it all. To not have to face the trials and tribulations of life and be reunited with loved ones.

 

The day after I watched Manchester United destroy champions Leicester 4-1 before listening to Arsenal produce a scintillating half of football to gun down Chelsea 3-0. A three-hour period that brought a much-needed catharsis. It was an opportunity to become absorbed in something other than reality.

 

While sport shares many traits with the normalcies of commonplace life it was one of these similarities that I relished most: unpredictability. Mum’s death hit home, harder than ever, that life was unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Yet it was this characteristic that I loved dearly about sport. I appreciated that I knew nothing about the outcome of whatever sport I sat down to watch – and that gave me comfort.

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The day after that I sat in a friend’s kitchen watching the Green Bay Packers open up their 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. We had to leave at the end of the third quarter. We got back just in time for the final drive of the game where I was less composed journalist and more fanboy watching his team try and hold on for an opening day victory. I was so close to the television that nobody behind me could see a thing. I remember I was sent home from work that day after it all got too much. I broke down in the kitchen, then, emotionally spent, I fell asleep once my step-mum collected me from work. When the first ball was kicked in Jacksonville I was as awake as ever. All my difficulties fell away. The only thing that mattered was Aaron Rodgers and company marching Green Bay up and down the field. While they sweated in 30 degree heat they unknowingly provided a strange therapy for a man, whom felt more like a small boy, who had lost his direction in life.

 

In the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing I fell into a deep depression. Forcing every emotion that was not a frown. Smiles were forced rather than naturally occurring, even when I had reason to smile I could not find it within myself to raise one. But when football, NFL or darts was on the emotions flooded back and the drama unfolding in front of me made for a sturdy dam keeping negative emotions at bay. All screams, smiles and large exhales were spontaneous. Each televised sporting occasion became my own outer body experience as I rose from the cocoon of despair and grief to be reunited with emotions of joy and exhilaration.

 

In mid-November I was sat watching the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a gripping encounter. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant ended the game with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Without context, his stat line means little. But less than 24-hours earlier Bryant had lost his father. His Head Coach and teammates paid homage to his toughness in the locker room after the game.

 

Watching an emotional locker room rally around Bryant slapped me back into reality. Bryant could perform due to his dedicated support group. Much like what I had around me. It also reminded me that, as much as we may not want to, life must go on. We must perform our duties in work and home life. He played his position at the highest level less than a day after his devastating loss (fast forward to 1:10 on the video). Bryant used playing sport the same way I used watching and analysing it. An escape from reality, a form of therapy, even if only for a fleeting period.

Not long after I sat in work watching a story on Philadelphia Eagles’ long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose father murdered his mother when he was just 12-years-old. I shed tears. Not only because the story was touching in its own right but because suddenly I could relate. After experiencing such a devastating loss of my own I could offer sympathy on a personal level. Even if that person had no idea who I was.

 

Sport illustrated better than anything that in a split-second anything can happen and with that lives are changed forever. For better or worse sport painted the picture that in the moment anything is possible. It taught me not to assume anything no matter how stacked the odds are in your favour, or against it.

 

For me, my mum was superhuman. She was going to be around even after rapture. But trying to make sense of a passing of that magnitude is hard to convey in the spoken or written word. Yet unknowingly sport demonstrated it perfectly. Sport is a collage of hundreds and thousands of moments, strung together along an undetermined timeline until a certain outcome is reached. It is only after the final moment can a post mortem be carried out to examine what moments mattered most.

 

My own reflective stage taught me to string together the moments that mattered most when remembering my mother: the trip to Barbados, being with her on my graduation, watching the 2004 F.A. Cup final together and seeing a young Cristiano Ronaldo blossom in Manchester. These moments, in hindsight, mattered more significantly than I could have ever imagined at the time. Just like all the moments in sport matter.

 

For the last six months’ sport has provided a wonderful, yet surreal, haven for myself. A bridge between fantasy and reality allowing for brief moments of distraction while being present in the moment. Everything about sport as an industry made it feel surreal. The level of skill on show, the very nature of it being on television and the vast amounts of money on display allowed for an experience unable to be pinned down in reality.

 

After turning to alcohol, work, family and many other outlets for, not help, but a way out it was in sport that I found the most comfort. After all, all I am after, is an escape.

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