Surprise of the weekend… There is no limit to how far Spurs can run
Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino are a team that have been told – in no uncertain terms – that they will be working hard for the foreseeable future. Last season, they barely dipped, running harder and faster than most of their opponents. The full-backs, particularly, spent most of the season in a blur.
This season, as with last, things started a little wanly, but as the calendar progressed, so did the vim and verve of Spurs. Always running and chasing, no longer doing what Spurs do. This isn’t a Spurs side, it’s a Pochettino side.
However, there are limits, and the festive period is a time when all teams struggle, especially those whose game rests in large part on being able to field eleven Steve Redgraves capable of grinding opponents into dust. Could Watford take advantage of that?
No. Spurs overran Watford, seemingly stripping their guts and energy after about half an hour, and proceeded to add goals whenever they fancied. Watford were awful, hindered by a depleted squad, but Spurs were remarkable. Their physical efforts are a credit to however their manager has prepared them.
Miserable weekend for… Zlatan Ibrahimovic
It is no surprise that referees continued their abject performances of the season. Players are allowed to risk breaking the legs of their opponents with a decent chance of immunity. Offsides are regularly missed. Yellows are never shown in the first few minutes of a match for any challenge, out of a sense of tradition. Lee Mason managed an exceptional decision yesterday, though, ending 2016 as he started it – by being a terrible referee. As Zlatan Ibrahimovic extended a leg to flick in a cross past Victor Valdes, the ground celebrated an imaginative, joyful piece of football that would have levelled Ibrahimovic with Lionel Messi’s 51-goal haul for 2016.
Mason wasn’t in the mood for that. Peep! He whistle. No goal! He said. It was apparently dangerous play, given Ibrahimovic’s foot had been within a metre of where Valdes’ head was a couple of seconds later. It was dangerous in the sense that walking along the pavement is dangerous – you have to move a couple of yards for it to actually matter.
Most important goal… Georginio Wijnaldum
Wijnaldum is a player of questionable value. For the money spent on him, it is difficult to imagine that Jurgen Klopp didn’t have other targets in mind before he settled on him. However, his goal against Manchester City gave Liverpool three points which allowed his side to stretch their lead in second to four points.
He is a neat player, and certainly better under Klopp than he was at Newcastle United. This was his second goal in 18 appearances for his new club. An important goal then, from an ephemeral, unconvincing player. Imagine what Klopp will put together with money and time.
Best goal of the weekend… Olivier Giroud
If you want to annoy Arsenal fans, then you can claim two things. One, you can say that Henrikh Mkhitaryan invented the goal. Something that palpably isn’t true, but the truth isn’t important in matters like this. Secondly, you can also claim that Mkhitaryan’s goal was better, which might be true in some respects, but is eventually defeated because at least Giroud’s was onside, whereas Mhkitaryan’s clearly wasn’t. But you only need to do that if you want to annoy Arsenal fans – that’s pretty much everyone, though.
If it wasn’t for Lee Mason, Ibrahimovic might have tried to claim that his was the very best goal of the weekend, but this is one of the times that, in truth, Arsenal have won something. It was a remarkable goal, taking technique, courage and pluck to attempt and pull off. Congratulations to Olivier Giroud, he has indisputably scored the best goal of the 1st January 2017. A triumph.
There are other, better players for Chelsea. At the start of the season, Diego Costa and Eden Hazard began to play as well as they had refused to in 2015/16. Both had their pace, their running and their special qualities back. Hazard was direct and inventive, but with a cutting edge. Costa had his aggro back, picked up a couple of yards of pace, and then the back of the net.
More recently, it was Cesc Fabregas. Last season he could barely think how to pass the ball to a teammate, and this season he started slowly, too. But as Nemanja Matic has been given the chance to rest, Fabregas has provided crucial passes for those around him. He’s not the player he was in his title-winning season with Chelsea, but he far more threatening again.
But now, now it is Willian. Finding Antonio Conte’s trust on the right hand side, he has seen Oscar moved on to China, and flourished. He is full of the running Conte requires, but he is also, like Costa and Hazard, back in the goals. While he is yet to be sure of a long-term future at Chelsea, Real Madrid might be willing to bring him to Spain.