From all of us at The Boot Room, I would like to wish you all a happy New Year. The first weekend of Premier League action in 2016 took place recently and; as if sluggishly digesting that final course of Christmas pudding, many matches took quite a while to burst into life. However, once the action became as exciting and end-to-end as we have become used to, the first top flight games of the new year did not disappoint. Read on to discover which stars for their team have made it into The Boot Room’s Premier League Team of the Week.
Manchester City travelled south to face an over-achieving Watford side, and the hosts made a bright start to the game, symptomatic of their several strong performances this term after gaining promotion from England’s second tier. The Citizens had not won on the road since 12th September and since that date, they had only scored two goals away from home. Pellegrini’s title hopefuls did weather the early storm of Watford pressure and grew into the match more and more with each passing minute, with Silva and De Bruyne’s influence being increasingly keenly felt.
Ten minutes into the second half, Alex Kolarov produced an odd piece of defending from a corner, ducking out of the way of a Ben Watson delivery and flicking the ball beyond Joe Hart rather than clearing the danger. City needed a moment of magic from somewhere and; in a similar fashion to his mostly lackadaisical performance against Arsenal, Yaya Touré popped up in the final ten minutes with a beautifully struck left-foot volley to give his side some hope. The added belief that this moment provided was clearly displayed only a few minutes later when City snatched the winner. The diminutive Aguero; who had been quiet by his own standards, leapt above the taller Watford defenders to plant a header into the opposite corner, sending the travelling fans into ecstasy. A 2-1 victory had finally stopped the rot away from home.
Guus Hiddink took his troops to south London to take on Crystal Palace and while The Blues have undoubtedly shown a marked improvement since José Mourinho was shown the door, they do still appear to be vulnerable. However, Alan Pardew’s men had to deal with arguably Chelsea’s best display in the Premier League for the entire campaign. Not letting Hazard’s early injury sway them, the away side edged a well-balanced first half and through some fine work between Fabregas, Costa and Oscar, the Brazilian put them ahead. It was to be Chelsea’s superstar of the season; another Brazil international in Willian, who doubled their advantage in the second half. He produced an unstoppable drive past Hennessey before turning provider for Diego Costa a few minutes later. Their defeat of Crystal Palace by three goals to nil was only Chelsea’s second victory away from Stamford Bridge this season. Could this performance spark a Chelsea revival and a march up the table? Only time will tell.
For several weeks, Manchester United under Louis Van Gaal have been on a downward spiral. We will never know what might have happened if The Red Devils had lost at home against Swansea, but it is not implausible to think that the Dutch manager may have been relieved of his duties. Preventing this however, Wayne Rooney stepped up to the plate at long last and grabbed the winner in fine style to calm the nerves gripping Old Trafford. Adding to Martial’s early opener, the former Everton forward took United ahead once more after Gylfi Sigurdsson’s equaliser and ensured that all three points remained in Manchester by deftly flicking the ball past Fabianski. Wayne Rooney is now the second highest scorer in Premier League history; one ahead of Andy Cole, and the second highest scorer in the history of his club too; now edging ahead of the great Denis Law with only Bobby Charlton to catch. This was his first strike after a drought of 553 minutes of club football and in breaking his duck, Rooney led the Old Trafford outfit to their first win in nine matches.
West Ham United’s 2-0 victory at home to Liverpool was the opening act for the Premier League in 2016 and certainly led to two sets of contrasting emotions on either side. Some controversy did surround the first goal for The Hammers after Moreno was fouled deep into the opposition half. However, to allow the ball to come back towards their own goal over the entire pitch is unacceptable for a side with Champions League qualification aspirations. Michail Antonio overpowered Nathaniel Clyne in the air and powered home their opener, a scenario that would become all too familiar for the Liverpool defence. Benteke was supposed to be a significant upgrade over Andy Carroll, but it was the former Liverpool striker who impressed far more than the big Belgian forward. His towering header typified the Geordie’s display and secured all three points for his side. Although the Anfield side play a style of football which does not suit a more direct approach, Benteke could learn a great deal from Carroll in terms of attacking the ball with intent.
In stark contrast to the East London outfit, Klopp’s Reds appeared to be bereft of ideas or invention when approaching the final third and Adrian had very little to do throughout the match bar a brief period of concerted pressure in the last ten minutes or so. West Ham United were therefore able to complete the double over Liverpool this season, following the shock 3-0 victory at Anfield earlier in the campaign.
Something of a surprise inclusion against his former club, Aaron Lennon stroked in an excellent finish on the half-volley with a quarter of the game gone to open the scoring on Sunday evening. Everton had struggled to get going on Sunday afternoon but this moment out of the blue sparked a much better period for The Toffees. Nevertheless, a Tottenham equaliser came through a classic route for this current Pochettino side – a perfectly weighted long diagonal pass from Alderweireld was brought down expertly by Dele Alli before being fired past Howard almost in one movement. This youngster from MK Dons really is beginning to look like the real deal. An end-to-end second half did not result in any further goals and with the final score being 1-1, I imagine that Pochettino will leave Goodison Park as the happier manager after not losing at a notoriously tough stadium to visit.
Petr Cech: Arsenal’s acquisition from Chelsea during the off-season may well have been Wenger’s only incoming deal, but it looks to be an increasingly useful one. Petr Cech pulled off a couple of vital saves from Wijnaldum in the first half while the scores were tied at 0-0. Arguably the best of the lot however came in the early stages of the second period when the former Blues stopper was once more on hand to deny Newcastle’s Dutch summer signing. Wijnaldum was put through on goal by Ayoze Perez after some sloppy play in midfield from The Gunners but Cech was very fast to come off his line and save at point-blank range. In such a tight match where Arsenal struggled to get their fine football flowing, the security of Petr Cech as their last line of defence was paramount and his shot-stopping ability was only part of that. The Czech international’s security with his handling was just as important as it allowed his fellow defenders to concentrate solely on their own game.
Héctor Bellerin: Although Arsenal as a whole were not at their free-flowing best, Héctor Bellerin frequently got into space in attacking areas on Arsenal’s right hand side. Paul Dummett found it very difficult to cope with the Spaniard’s searing pace and neither Ayoze Perez nor Georginio Wijnaldum provided much protection for the left-back. One of Bellerin’s many ventures down Arsenal’s right flank culminated in him winning a corner for his side, from which Laurent Koscielny fired home the winner. The defensive side of his game should not be overlooked either. Wijnaldum has not been an easy man to tie down for the entirety of this campaign and we need to look no further than his late heroics against Arsenal’s rivals Spurs to see Perez’s potency. Therefore, for such a young man and still relatively inexperienced, Bellerin did a good job to prevent them from opening up Arsenal’s back-line on too many occasions.
James Collins: Certainly coming into the twilight of his career, James Collins’ influence on this West Ham side is far from dwindling with age. The Welshman has a vast amount of experience and used every ounce of it to ensure that Christian Benteke had a miserable afternoon against The Hammers. The Belgian was utterly dominated in the air by Collins, with the centre-half only losing one aerial duel throughout the ninety minutes. Aside from this, he marshalled Benteke tightly and also made sure to be in the way of any forward bursts from the likes of Firmino and Coutinho. Clearing the ball to safety on 17 occasions, James Collins was an absolute rock for Slaven Bilic’s side.
Laurent Koscielny: As an absolute main-stay of Arsenal’s back-line, Laurent Koscielny was tested a great deal against Newcastle United. Although The Gunners were at their fortress of The Emirates Stadium, McLaren’s Magpies have demonstrated recently that they can raise their game against stronger opponents and so the Frenchman certainly did not have an easy ride. He was required on two occasions to put his body on the line to block three shots, and also was on hand to make four interceptions and five clearances. At the other end of the field, Koscielny was Arsenal’s goal-scoring hero, grabbing the only game with a finish that befitted a poacher such as Jermain Defoe or Harry Kane. He anticipated Giroud’s knock-down to sneak in front of Ayoze Perez and divert the ball into the corner of the net, notching his third against Newcastle United in the process; more than he has against any other club. Should Arsenal wish to maintain a Premier League title challenge, they will need Laurent Koscielny to maintain his form at this high level.
Aaron Cresswell: Impressing down the left flank for the victorious West Ham United side, Aaron Cresswell put in a top-drawer display in every aspect – attack and defence. With Manuel Lanzini occupying the berth on the left of midfield, the Argentine’s inclination to cut in onto his favoured right foot often left Cresswell a little exposed when Liverpool were in possession. Both Jordon Ibe and Nathaniel Clyne are at their best with the ball at their feet, driving at the opposition but the former Millwall defender dealt with the threat admirably. A common counter to the danger was to cut off the play at its source, making six interceptions. In an attacking sense, Cresswell thrived on the fact that Andy Carroll was always in the penalty box, looking to attack even the simplest of balls into the area. Four chances were created from his crosses from the left and Liverpool never really found a way to deal with the threat that he posed.
Mark Noble: Alongside Cheikhou Kouyaté in the heart of West Ham United’s midfield, Mark Noble deserves a great deal of credit for his terrific industry and work-rate. This is especially admirable at the beginning of the game when they were at a numerical disadvantage in this region of the pitch, and at the end of proceedings when Liverpool were committing many men forward. Despite his clearly tiring legs, Noble continued to work tirelessly and put in a captain’s performance, making five tackles, blocking two goal-bound efforts from The Reds, and winning three fouls for his team. His display was not all about endeavour however, as there was quality on the ball to go with it. Noble’s searching cross to the back-post found Andy Carroll for The Hammers’ second goal.
John Obi Mikel: In the absence of Nemanja Matic, the security of Chelsea’s midfield was placed in the hands of the often derided John Obi Mikel, but the experienced Nigerian brought everything to Chelsea’s game that their number 21 has become famous for. He was a figure that Hiddink frequently turned to in his previous stint at the helm at Stamford Bridge and it seems that his influence is already having a big effect on Mikel. Chelsea’s number 12 was tidy in possession; misplacing only four out of 82 passes, and broke up play very well at important moments, making four tackles and two interceptions. He ‘mopped up’ like the very best defensive midfielders by moving out of central regions when necessary but did not leave a gaping hole in front of Terry and Zouma. Palace’s attacking midfielders rotated their positions freely but Mikel tracked the danger and was an important reason behind Chelsea’s victory.
Willian: On what turned out to be a surprisingly comfortable afternoon’s work for Chelsea, Willian scored another goal to add to his growing tally for the season. Coming onto a neat lay-off by Oscar, he took the ball in his stride and struck a superb effort into the top right corner, giving Crystal Palace’s goalkeeper no chance. He can be almost credited with the assist for Costa’s goal too, although Hennessey will feel that he should have done much better in his efforts to prevent the ball from reaching Chelsea’s number 19. Quick feet, change of pace and direct approach combined on the day to allow him to create a yard of space away from The Eagles’ defenders. Willian’s delivery is of a high enough quality that his team-mates know; when he has this space, he can deliver on a six-pence. Two direct chances came through the right-winger as he yet again demonstrated the almost irrefutable evidence that he is Chelsea’s man of the season.
Michail Antonio: After initially struggling to break into Bilic’s first-team plans at Upton Park, Michail Antonio has recently become a main-stay of the side; admittedly primarily due to injuries elsewhere, and performed excellently against Liverpool on Saturday lunchtime. In a continuation of a worrying trend for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, they fell behind to an early goal and a major part of this was down solely to Antonio. The Hammers’ signing from Nottingham Forest for around £7 million started off the game on the right flank and worked tremendously hard up and down the pitch for the entire game. A cameo of his whole display could be seen in the build-up to West Ham’s first goal, with Antonio tracking Alberto Moreno all the way back towards his own goal, making a challenge on the Spaniard, before sprinting back up the field and popping up in the left channel to thump a header beyond Simon Mignolet. His work ethic followed this path and as a result, he was a fantastic outlet for his side and was able to create three chances for the home team to add to their advantage.
Odion Ighalo: Eliaquim Mangala may well be far from the most secure of central defenders in the Premier League, but he was exposed at a greater frequency than ever before when faced with the task of stopping Odion Ighalo. Watford’s chief hit-man is the latest super striker to grab the headlines in England’s top flight now that Vardy’s goals have somewhat dried up and when facing Manchester City, Ighalo made Mangala look amateurish on several occasions. The French defender does have a terrific physique on his side, but the former Udinese forward dominated him in almost every aspect of play. Ighalo closed him down at will, backed into him and was able to spin into the channels almost unchallenged, and without doubt caused Mangala’s already brittle confidence to be shattered. Although he did not score, the league’s most lethal man of the moment remained on top form against the title-chasers.
Andy Carroll: Believed to be a man-mountain by the Liverpool faithful, Mamadou Sakho was taught a lesson in the application of upper body strength by Andy Carroll on Saturday. It could immediately be seen that the former Newcastle forward was up for the fight against his former side and that additional motivation spurred him on to produce a fantastic display at the pinnacle of The Hammers’ forward line. Carroll powered his way to winning nine aerial duels and he seemed to hone in on Sakho, perhaps sensing a weakness. West Ham’s attacking players that surrounded him kept feeding him with the sort of supply which he can thrive on and it was service like this which produced his goal. In a serious mismatch of height and physical presence, Carroll peeled away to the back-post to out-jump Nathaniel Clyne and head the ball powerfully beyond Simon Mignolet. Could Andy Carroll come into Roy Hodgson’s thoughts for Euro 2016? If he continues to put in a string of performances in this manner between now and the end of the season, it would be a brave man to leave him off the plane to France.
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