Southampton vs. Leicester
In the summer, the powers that be at St Mary’s concluded that an eighth-place finish—complemented by narrow defeat in the League Cup final—fell so far short of expectations that it wasn’t even worth giving the architect of such a calamity a chance to turn things around. Maybe his meek demeanour persuaded them that he wasn’t quite cut out for the brash brawl that is the Premier League? Maybe after seeing the previous two headhunted managers desert them—in pursuit of fancier projects, with very mixed results—the board just wanted to be the ones who got to dictate the terms of disengagement for once? “It’s not you Mr Puel. It’s us”… “We just don’t think we’re in a place where we can give you what you deserve right now”… “You’ll always hold a special place in our hearts”. Whatever the case, revenge is a dish best served Claude.
Leicester City supplied a gourmet meal of reprisal, on behalf of their new boss on Wednesday night, spanking four past Southampton to make it as many wins on the bounce. If his spell on the South coast was characterised by a lack of fizz and the feeling of progress, the Frenchman’s brief tenure at the King Power has witnessed nothing but. After an extended, unavoidable and unbecoming post-title hangover—that cost both Claudio Ranieri and Craig Shakespeare their jobs—the total absence of connection between Puel and that oh-so-magical season seems to have finally slammed the foxes’ feet back to the floor. The last residual specs of fairy dust have been swept out of sight and the slow, prosaic struggle towards the top that they so bewitchingly bypassed two years ago has begun in earnest once more. All of a sudden the only thing brighter than Riyad Mahrez’s hair is his form. Demarai Gray is scoring goals. Shinji Okazaki is scoring goals. Jamie Vardy again resembles the kind of twitchy, feral nuisance that centre backs would prefer to take care of via exterminator rather than zonal marking. Such has been their climb since Claude’s arrival that Leicester now find themselves in—what do you know—a handsome eighth place in the table. It’s a position all those below, Southampton included, can only gaze up at enviously.
Newcastle vs. Everton
Puel wasn’t the only man to exact vengeance on an old flame in midweek, however. It may be getting on for a decade since Sam Allardyce was dismissed by Newcastle but if there’s one thing we’ve learnt about the man in the intervening years, it’s that he takes great delight in getting one over on those he thinks underestimate his abilities. “Life is too short to hold grudges” Allardyce had said this week, sounding like a man who holds grudges so enduring and unbreakable that he’d roll naked over hot coals stretching beyond the horizon in order to achieve retribution. All he needed in this instance was a toe-poke from Wayne Rooney, who now has as many league goals as both Romelu Lukaku and Alvaro Morata.
Crystal Palace vs. Watford
Everton’s win left them level on points with Watford but only after the latter capitulated in the closing minutes away at Crystal Palace, in much the same way they did at Goodison Park in November. Tom Cleverley missed a late penalty that day and it was his sending off that sparked the comeback at Selhurst Park. Roy Hodgson will hope that James McCarthur’s winner dispels any lingering anxiety generated by Christain Benteke’s penalty farce at the weekend and so long as the option of just giving the ball to Wilfred Zaha and letting him run at defenders one-on-one is open so too will be Palace’s hopes of survival.
Arsenal and Liverpool underlined again why they are so far off the pace at the top, with both failing to beat West Ham and West Brom, respectively, while the rest of the big guns avoided similar slip-ups. It certainly hasn’t been a great few days for Brighton keeper Matt Ryan though. At the weekend—having already conceded the opener via Steve Mounier’s knee—the Australian didn’t so much attempt to save the striker’s slow, low, central header as crumple before it as if a phantom presence had inflicted a knee of its own to the underside of his bar. Against Spurs on Wednesday, it was a Serge Aurier cross which left Ryan futilely back-pedalling as the ball sailed into the back of the net. Having had such a promising start to the season, the Seagulls have started to stall slightly and they’ll need their number 1 back to his best for the arrival of a rampant Burnley side on Saturday.
A stuttering Stoke City
Sean Dyche declared himself the “proudest man in Proudsville” this week after his side were briefly vaulted into the top four following their 1-0 victory over Stoke. Yet, as Newton’s Third Law of Physics teaches us, for every dream fulfilled there’s an equal and opposite nightmare being lived out. While Dyche skips between the clouds like stepping stones, defeat sinks Mark Hughes deeper into the quagmire of managerial quicksand. Failure to beat West Ham at home at the weekend will most likely see Hughes go the same way as most Turkeys at this time of year.