Swansea win shootout against lacklustre Liverpool

It was the ultimate mismatch. Third-place against the side at the bottom of the table. The best attack in the league against the worst defence. Swansea City had little chance. Instead, they pulled off an upset for the ages, handing Liverpool their first home defeat in almost a year and gaining plenty of confidence in a statement victory.

To say the first half was dull would be something of an understatement: comatose would be a more accurate term. Liverpool dominated possession, but faced with a wall of white shirts they could not come close to penetrating Swansea’s disciplined defence. Neither goalkeeper was really troubled, and Liverpool seemed to have no answer to Swansea’s solid defensive front.

As the second half began, it soon became clear that they had no answer to Fernando Llorente, who took less than ten minutes to turn the match on its head. It began with a corner, conceded by Dejan Lovren after a back-pass gone wrong. Gylfi Sigurdsson whipped it in, where Federico Fernandez headed it towards goal. The ball landed at the feet of Wayne Routledge inside the six-yard-box, and Llorente couldn’t have had it any easier as he blasted it in. Inexplicably, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet was already on the ground, as the rest of his teammates just stood there watching.

Embed from Getty Images

Too easy: Fernando Llorente (second from left) blasts home the opening goal of the match.

Liverpool weren’t making much progress in recouping the deficit when Swansea’s lead doubled. It was Swansea’s two new signings who set it up, with Tom Carroll finding Martin Olsson on the left wing. Carroll kept running through and received a return pass before hitting a first-time cross which looped in and was met with an excellent header from Llorente. Mignolet had no chance. Liverpool didn’t look to have too much hope either.

Enter Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian had looked like Liverpool’s most dangerous player from the outset, and he immediately set to work on getting Liverpool back on level terms, scoring their first goal mere minutes after Swansea’s second. James Milner set it up, sending in an excellent cross from the left wing and finding Firmino, who was one-on-one with Olsson on the back post. It was a battle the Swede was never going to win, and a header Lukasz Fabianski was never going to stop.

Swansea recovered, and eventually they had taken some of the heat out of the game. Emre Can attempted a bicycle kick, fell over and gave away a foul as he tripped Jack Cork. It just looked like one of those days for Liverpool. Then, Firmino found the equaliser. Georginio Wijnaldum capitalised on a rare mistake from Fernandez to find space on the left, and his ball for Firmino was perfect. The Brazilian controlled it with his chest before driving it home with his left boot, sending the Anfield crowd into raptures. It was 2-2.

Embed from Getty Images

Unstoppable: Roberto Firmino (left) scores his first goal past Martin Olsson and Lukasz Fabianski.

Liverpool continued to press on, and another goal in the match looked inevitable. It came, just not for Liverpool. Swansea pushed up the field, with Leroy Fer picking out Llorente at the top of the box. He gave it to Carroll, the new signing, who looked to bulldoze his way past Ragnar Klavan and Lovren. It didn’t work, but the ball spilled wide, and Gylfi Sigurdsson was more than ready to put it away. He stretched for the ball, eventually sliding as he put the ball into the bottom corner and put Swansea ahead once again. They were not going to let it slip this time.

There were moments of chaos as both sides loaded the box. Daniel Sturridge was denied by Fabianski at close range, and Adam Lallana was at the centre of a piece of play which saw bodies flying everywhere. He controlled and attempted to shoot, and eventually the ball bounced into the bar. Fabianski flew through the air to try and stop it, but he could not get there and ended up in the back of his own net as the ball rebounded out. Sturridge collected it and found Lallana, who could not convert a close-range header. It was just one of those days.

In the end, Liverpool were very poor and didn’t deserve to win, and this result leaves them in serious trouble as they look for a drought-breaking title. For Swansea, it was a confidence boosting effort which will hold them in good stead for the rest of the season. They will have a tough relegation battle on their hands, and they may still go down, but this game will go down in history as one of their best wins. No matter what happens this season, they will always have this game.

Liverpool – Anfield
Liverpool 2 (Firmino 55, 69)
Swansea City 3 (Llorente 48, 52, Sigurdsson 74)
Referee: Kevin Friend

Liverpool (4-3-3): Mignolet – Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Milner; Can (Origi 70), Henderson, Wijnaldum (Matip 90+4); Lallana, Firmino, Coutinho (Sturridge 57).
Swansea City (4-2-3-1): Fabianski – Naughton, Fernandez, Mawson, Olsson (Rangel 79); Carroll, Cork; Routledge, Fer (Fulton 90+4), Sigurdsson; Llorente (Baston 85).

Top 5
1. Fernando Llorente (Swansea City)
Llorente didn’t get too many chances over the course of the ninety minutes, but when they came he was more than equal to the task, scoring both goals and providing a key presence in the box for the Swans. He showed his ability to find the ball in the box, and he performed his defensive duties well.
2. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)
Firmino was the only Liverpool player who looked like scoring, and from start to finish he was head and shoulders above his teammates. He scored twice to throw Liverpool a lifeline in the game, and while his team wasn’t good enough to take it he can hold his head high after an excellent effort.
3. Federico Fernandez (Swansea City)
Fernandez was solid as a rock in Swansea’s defence, repelling attack after attack and pairing well with Alfie Mawson to keep Liverpool at bay. He played a key role in creating Swansea’s opening goal, and while he made a small error which allowed Liverpool to equalise he played a very strong game.
4. Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City)
Sigurdsson was quiet in the first half, but his second half effort was excellent. His set-piece delivery was impeccable as he made the most of limited opportunities, and he scored a winner which was harder to convert than it looked. A class performance.
5. Tom Carroll (Swansea City)
On debut for Swansea after moving from Spurs, Carroll looked in great touch throughout. He assisted the second goal with an excellent cross, and he also played a key role in the winner. He defended well, and he showed that he could play a key role for Swansea as this season draws on.

Advertisements

Kane bags three as Spurs cruise home

The score was 3-0. Harry Kane had two goals already when he found Dele Alli on the edge of the area. Alli, one of the most exciting players unearthed in England for years, received the ball and stopped, leaving the defenders who now crowded around him in limbo. From a standing start he lifted it over all of them, finding Kane with pinpoint accuracy. All Kane had to do was get a boot on it and allow it to trickle in. Ben Foster, in the West Brom goal, half-stuck out a leg to stop it. He had performed admirably, but now he had given up.

It would be hard to find anyone who could blame him. West Brom had started the match against Tottenham Hotspur hopeful of a good result, but in the end they were extremely lucky that they only lost 4-0. From the word go, Spurs played as if there was no opposition, dominating possession and cutting through West Brom’s stacked defence with almost contemptuous ease. Kane nearly scored in the first five minutes, getting on the end of a brilliant cross from Danny Rose and almost directing it into the bottom corner.

A few minutes later they were ahead, with Kane finishing after a brilliant pass from Christian Eriksen. He controlled it at close quarters before slotting it into the top corner, past a sliding Jonas Olsson and a diving Foster. Spurs had the lead, and they needed to stay in control.

Embed from Getty Images

Collision: Jonas Olsson (right) attempts to block Kyle Walker’s attempt at a volley.

Things only got worse for West Brom after Spurs opened the scoring. The hosts were brimming with confidence, and they continued to hold the ball and sustain the pressure. Salomon Rondon, West Brom’s sole striker, was so isolated he may as well have celebrated every time he actually touched the ball. Worse still, he probably had the time. Meanwhile, Kane was in everything as Spurs forced a string of corners. Once he was tripped by Olsson as the long-haired Swede looked to hold him back at a corner. Referee Anthony Taylor called nothing. Kane had a chance when Victor Wanyama put a dangerous ball into the box, but Foster managed to deny him.

That the second goal was adjudged to be an own goal should take nothing away from Spurs. It started with Danny Rose, who beat a couple on the break before giving it to Eriksen. Both continued moving forward, and after Kyle Walker put in an excellent pass both Rose and Eriksen touched the ball before Eriksen’s shot was deflected past Foster by McAuley, the Northern Irishman who could not take a trick. Later on in the piece, he was clearly tripped by Walker, and when he complained to the assistant he was booked for dissent. It was that kind of day.

Kane, Alli and Eriksen, however, could do no wrong. Shortly after Spurs doubled their lead came the biggest disappointment of the match, when Alli had a goal disallowed for offside. Eriksen lifted it over the top, and Alli’s touch was sublime as he diverted it past Foster with the side of his boot. Unfortunately, it didn’t count for anything, but it still summed up the first half-hour perfectly.

Kane would have a couple more chances in the first half, but he was still yet to add to his first goal as the sides went to the break, West Brom down 2-0 and completely and utterly beaten. Tony Pulis made some changes at half-time, and they came out much improved, but things changed very little. Even with a bit more possession, their best chance of the game came when Darren Fletcher was presented with an open goal. An open goal from just inside halfway, that is.

Embed from Getty Images

Too easy: Harry Kane (front) scores his third goal as Craig Dawson desperately tries to stop him.

Soon Spurs had worked out the change in shape, and they were back to their old ways. Alli was denied a penalty when he was pushed by Craig Dawson, and suddenly the chances were coming again. One Eriksen corner drew shots from Kane, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, and forced two great saves from Foster. Then Kane turned Olsson after an incredible display of skill from Alli, and Foster was forced into another brilliant stop.

Every time Spurs had the ball they looked as if they would score, such was their assurance in how they went about their business. Kane was fouled by Olsson as he looked to break through, a foul which may have drawn a red card if it had occurred closer to goal. Wanyama forced a great save from Foster, before Kane slotted his second.

Once again, it was Alli who started it, playing a long ball down the right wing which Walker pursued with vigour. McAuley got there first but was hurried off the ball, allowing Walker to put the ball in for Kane. Foster had inexplicably come off his line, and he was nowhere near it. Finally, the result was beyond all doubt.

Kane added his third shortly after, and received a much-deserved ovation as he left the game in the ninetieth minute, replaced by Son Heung-min. For Spurs, they put in a performance worthy of the title contenders that they are, and seem to be finding their feet as the end of the season creeps upon us.

London – White Hart Lane
Tottenham Hotspur 4 (Kane 12, 77, 82, McAuley 26 og)
West Bromwich Albion 0
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Tottenham Hotspur (3-4-2-1): Lloris – Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen (Davies 64); Walker, Wanyama, Dembele (Winks 83), Rose; Eriksen, Alli; Kane (Son 90).
West Bromwich Albion (4-2-3-1): Foster – Dawson, McAuley, Olsson, Brunt (McClean 54); Fletcher, Yacob; Chadli (Robson-Kanu 62), Morrison, Phillips (Field 90); Rondon.

Top 5
1. Harry Kane (Tottenham Hotspur)
Kane was everywhere from start to finish, bagging a hat-trick and allowing Spurs to ram home their early dominance with his excellent finishing. He combined brilliantly with Eriksen and Alli, and he fully deserved the standing ovation he received when leaving the field.
2. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Eriksen was in top form throughout, directing everything and creating huge problems for West Brom with his skill and vision. He was unlucky not to be credited with Tottenham’s second goal, and he will be looking to keep up his excellent form in weeks to come.
3. Dele Alli (Tottenham Hotspur)
Alli was on top of his game, showing incredible skill and setting up Kane’s third goal with a brilliant lofted pass. He had a beautiful finish disallowed for offside, and his combination with Kane and Eriksen was a key part of Tottenham’s success.
4. Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)
Walker was excellent as a right wing-back, taking Matt Phillips out of the game and pressing forward to open up the midfield for Spurs. He assisted the third goal with an excellent cross, and his energy in both attack and defence was outstanding.
5. Ben Foster (West Bromwich Albion)
Foster was the main reason West Brom only lost 4-0, making a string of brilliant saves and keeping the lead at 2-0 for most of the match. He conceded a couple of goals at the end, but in a game where the presence of most of his teammates was non-existent he can hold his head high.

McDermott snatches victory from the jaws of defeat

It was over. It was over as the Melbourne Renegades plundered the Hobart Hurricanes bowlers, sending them to all corners of the diminutive Etihad Stadium. Jake Reed was hit for 54. Stuart Broad was smashed for 39. Dan Christian, Cameron Boyce and Sam Rainbird were taken apart. D’Arcy Short bowled one over, and it went for 18. The final tally, 222, was 12 runs higher than any other score in Big Bash history. There was no question as to who would win the match.

The Hurricanes needed to go all out, and it was against this backdrop that Tom Cooper seized the early momentum. After a swashbuckling and innovative 53 not out which included reverse ramps, cleanly struck pull shots and pretty much everything in between, it was all over when he took the new ball and knocked over Tim Paine with the third ball of the innings. The Hurricanes captain was out for a golden duck.

At that point Ben McDermott strode out to the crease. The man who had come into the side when the Hurricanes quietly dropped Kumar Sangakkara, he was under pressure to pin down a spot. Not only that, he was competing with one of the greatest batsmen cricket has ever seen, a true legend of the game. A legend with over 12,000 test runs. If the game hadn’t been sealed when Paine fell, it was the wicket of Short that should have done it. Despite being somewhat hit and miss this Big Bash (with two fifties and two golden ducks), there was still a feeling that he was the man. That is, if the Hurricanes were to miraculously win. He was bowled, seemingly extinguishing all hope. It was the third over.

It was over as McDermott scratched around with George Bailey, recently dropped from the Australian one-day side. He had one run from 6 balls, then 7 from 7 as he hit his first six, dispatching Xavier Doherty over the midwicket fence. No-one could have known how many more boundaries like that he had in store. When the powerplay ended, he had 24 off 17, and the Hurricanes had some momentum before James Pattinson and Brad Hogg took it away with some tight bowling. With the last ball of the eighth over, Bailey was dropped. Aaron Finch got a hand to it, but he couldn’t get it as it fell to the ground. Hogg laughed it off. If only he knew.

It was over as Pattinson returned for a second over. It didn’t matter when McDermott launched the second ball for his third six. It didn’t even matter when the next ball went too. 19 runs came off it, but it still seemed a bridge too far. A single off Hogg in the next over brought up 50 for McDermott, off 31 balls. A closer look would have revealed that he had hit 22 off his last six. The innings continued to meander along. It was over.

Embed from Getty Images

Innovation: Tom Cooper (in red) reverse sweeps during his rapid half-century.

It was over as Brad Hogg stood at the top of his mark to bowl the thirteenth over. 15 runs had come from the 45-year-old’s first two overs, and after years of brilliant overs he had no reason to see that this one would be any different. 1 came off the first, to Bailey. Then an edge for four. And another for three. Then another single. The fifth one was tossed up, and drilled over cover. Suddenly, the over had gone for 13, all before the last ball was dispatched, with clinical precision and disdainful ease. It went for six, the over for 19. McDermott had 80, off 42 balls.

Pattinson came in again to stop what had started as a cameo but turned into a major concern. He failed, as two more fours and two more sixes put paid to that. A pull shot over square leg brought up one hundred, and a few fist pumps from McDermott before he returned to the important business of winning the match. 24 runs had come from the over, and suddenly the game was back up for grabs.

McDermott had 114 off 51 balls as he took Thisara Perera’s second over for 16. Sunil Narine came on. He was their only hope, and he delivered. McDermott, brimming with confidence, took on the reverse sweep and was hit on the thigh pad. The umpire’s finger went up, and a brilliant innings was ended. Four runs came from the over. Surely it was done once again.

Then it wasn’t. Christian hit Hogg for six over square leg, then four through midwicket. Then he was out, leg before as a sweep shot went wrong. Hogg celebrated with all the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning, before bowling Jonathan Wells for a golden duck. Finally, it seemed, the Renegades had done it.

Embed from Getty Images

Top form: Ben McDermott hits to the leg side during his innings of 114.

George Bailey had something to say about that. For so long the passenger as McDermott hit the bowlers to all parts, he whacked Perera for six with the first ball of the eighteenth. After two balls, they needed 30 off 16. Then a dot. It was over. And then it wasn’t as Bailey hit a four, bringing up fifty with a shot through the covers. Another dot followed, a wide yorker leaving Bailey on the ground. Then another boundary, through cover again. This crazy game had not decided it was going to end. Not yet anyway.

It looked over after Narine worked his magic in the nineteenth, taking it to 18 needed from 9 balls. Then Beau Webster launched one high into the Melbourne sky. It was back on, at least for a few seconds before it became clear that Cooper was going to catch it, and that there would be no more runs from Webster. Bailey went three balls later. Now, with 16 runs needed from 6 balls, it could surely be laid to rest. Surely.

The last over started well for the Renegades. A single to Rainbird, followed by a run out as Narine made a brilliant stop before throwing the stumps down from third man. A long delay followed as the third umpire tried to ascertain whether keeper Peter Nevill had broken the stumps. After a tense wait, Boyce was given out.

The first ball Stuart Broad faced contained a litany of errors. Perera delivered a slow, wide full toss, which Broad somehow failed to hit, and Nevill somehow failed to grasp. He then missed the stumps, and they stole an overthrow as no-one backed up. Broad hit a two, before the fourth ball of the over went to the fence as a half-volley was dispatched. Five off two. Suddenly, an edge went through the slips, and with one ball to go the scores were level. Perera bowled back of a length, and Broad edged it high into the air. As it became clear that the ball would land safe over the packed infield, Broad celebrated, almost running an unnecessary second out of jubilation. Now, finally, it was over. The Renegades had lost the unlosable.

This win keeps the Hurricanes in the competition, but finals are still going to be a challenge. Either way, they will always have this game to remember, a great memory to take away from this season. For the Renegades, it will almost certainly be the one that got away, whether they sneak into the top four or not. For anyone who watched it, it is a game, and more specifically an innings, that will be remembered for years to come, the kind of memories the Big Bash needs if it is to weave itself further into Australia’s sporting fabric.

Melbourne Renegades vs Hobart Hurricanes, Etihad Stadium, Melbourne
Melbourne Renegades 222-4 (MS Harris 25 (19), AJ Finch 63 (40), CL White 34 (19), TLW Cooper 54* (24), CJ Ferguson 15 (7), NLTC Perera 28* (11). Bowling: SCJ Broad 4-0-39-0, SL Rainbird 3-0-37-0, DT Christian 4-0-37-1, JK Reed 4-0-54-2, CJ Boyce 4-0-36-0, DJM Short 1-0-18-1)
Hobart Hurricanes 223-8 (DJM Short 18 (11), TD Paine 0 (1), BR McDermott 114 (52), GJ Bailey 59 (42), DT Christian 12 (6), JW Wells 0 (1), BJ Webster 0 (2), CJ Boyce 1 (1), SL Rainbird 1* (1), SCJ Broad 11* (4). Bowling: TLW Cooper 2-0-12-2, XJ Doherty 3-0-30-0, SP Narine 4-0-27-3, JL Pattinson 3-0-47-0, GB Hogg 4-0-45-2, NLTC Perera 4-0-59-0)

Hobart Hurricanes won by 2 wickets
Player of the match: BR McDermott (Hobart Hurricanes)
Toss: Hobart Hurricanes, who chose to field
Umpires: PJ Gillespie and P Wilson

Late surge leaves Boro heartbroken

It only took one lapse in concentration. After nearly 90 minutes of solid defence, warding off attack after attack and keeping out complex passing moves, the equaliser came from one of the simplest attacks of the night. Desperation had begun to set in for Manchester United, as Middlesbrough threatened to end a year of upsets with a surprise of their own. Eric Bailly heaved the ball forward, managing to hit Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the edge of the box. He flicked on a header, and Anthony Martial rammed it home to level the scores.

Seconds later, they had taken the lead. After Gaston Ramirez was denied a penalty at the other end, Juan Mata set up Paul Pogba, finding space to cross and hitting the Frenchman with pinpoint accuracy. The header went in to the top corner, leaving Victor Valdes with no chance. It was devastating for Boro, as the game was turned on its head in a dramatic couple of minutes.

United had been the better side. From the start, they had gained a hold over possession and they were creating opportunities. Pogba hit the post with a bicycle kick, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan was everywhere as he created chances for himself and others. It was, however, a shocking decision which gave Boro a massive let-off. Martial was the spark, first hitting the post from long range before collecting the ball and weaving his way into the box. He crossed it, and Ibrahimovic only had to extend his leg to get the ball into the back of the net.

Then the controversy began. Valdes went down, and referee Lee Mason determined that Ibrahimovic had fouled him as the two collided following the goal. United were in disbelief, but the decision stood. Boro survived. As the second half began, the chances started to come a little more readily. Ibrahimovic was denied at close range by Valdes. Pogba tried another bicycle kick, with much less success. Mkhitaryan was through, but offside. Then, after being denied on so many occasions, it was United who went behind. Calum Chambers put in a good cross for Alvaro Negredo, whose header into the path of Grant Leadbitter was perfect. The ball was struck first-time, and it left David de Gea with no chance. United’s recurring nightmare seemed to be happening again.

The emotional rollercoaster of a game was not yet over. There was controversy, as Marcus Rashford was denied what appeared to be a clear penalty after he tangled with Bernardo Espinosa. There was some excellent goalkeeping, and a brilliant cameo off the bench from Rashford. In the end, however, it was Manchester United who dominated, and Manchester United who were deserved winners thanks to their late surge.

Despite this, Boro did create some chances thanks to the explosive pace of Adama Traore, who was at his dynamic best. A bad decision from Traore proved costly a couple of minutes in, as a goal scoring opportunity on the break was missed. They could have scored again a little while later when Traore first beat Daley Blind to the ball before running around him and managing to slip past Chris Smalling in an exceptional display of speed. The cross left George Friend with an open goal, but the controlling touch proved costly.

In the end, Boro were fighting an uphill battle from the start, and nothing could change that for them. They came close, but ultimately they left disappointed, and desperately short on points heading into the new year. United, on the other hand, enter the new year with confidence after a string of victories, and they will be desperate to continue in their current vein of form and try to make an impact on the top four.

Manchester – Old Trafford
Manchester United 2 (Martial 85, Pogba 86)
Middlesbrough 1 (Leadbitter 67)
Referee: Lee Mason
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Valencia, Bailly, Smalling (Rashford 72), Blind (Rojo 64); Fellaini (Mata 64), Herrera; Mkhitaryan, Pogba, Martial; Ibrahimovic.
Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Valdes – Chambers, Espinosa, Gibson, Friend; Leadbitter (Clayton 78); Traore (Fabio 82), Forshaw, de Roon, Downing (Ramirez 63); Negredo.

Top 5
1. Anthony Martial (Manchester United)
Martial was in top form throughout, wreaking havoc on the left wing and proving a nightmare for Calum Chambers. He was able to work his way into dangerous positions with his excellent skill on the ball, and he scored the equaliser with a very nice finish.
2. Victor Valdes (Middlesbrough)
Valdes kept Boro in the game with some incredible saves, and until United’s last burst it looked as if he was going to win it for them. His positioning was very good throughout, and his clean hands did not allow United to capitalise on his mistakes.
3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)
Mkhitaryan was in top form, picking out teammates in good positions and cutting inside to provide a big threat from the right wing. He was unlucky not to score on a few occasions, and he will look to continue his good form into the new year.
4. Adama Traore (Middlesbrough)
Traore was Boro’s main attacking weapon, displaying incredible speed and, at times, finesse. He was too fast for anyone on the pitch, and he left Blind for dead on a few occasions. He was unlucky not to create a goal for his side, but he will take confidence from his performance.
5. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba scored the winner with an excellent header, and it was his ability to get into dangerous positions which caused serious problems for Boro. He ran the show from attacking midfield, and something always happened when he had the ball at his feet.

Palace fight hard, but Ibrahimovic steals late win

Yohan Cabaye had gone to ground as he tried to make the challenge. Paul Pogba was too strong, pushing his opponent away as if he was made of paper. With space to work with, the Frenchman put a ball through for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the mercurial Swedish forward who was making a good run into the box. It looked as if it was out of his reach, and the angle was too tight. He finished anyway, slotting the ball past Wayne Hennessey with surgical precision and all but sealing a win for Manchester United.

Crystal Palace had done quite well up to that point, but they would not recover. As soon as Ibrahimovic put his winner into the back of the net, no amount of desperate long balls could save them from an inevitable defeat. From the start, Palace were on the back foot. It took them well over a minute just to touch the ball, and it took a lot longer for them to start building up moves and retaining the ball.

Despite this, United were short on quality chances, and Palace continued to keep their head above water comfortably. As the first half drew to a close, opportunities began to come. Pogba’s chip over the top found Wayne Rooney, who nearly converted. Pogba himself had a chance when Michael Carrick provided him with an open volley, but it was saved by Hennessey, desperately keeping his side in the game.

Embed from Getty Images

Frustration…: Paul Pogba shows his annoyance at a decision.

When United finally struck, less than a minute out from half-time, it was controversial. Juan Mata’s free kick found Ibrahimovic, whose attempt to find Pogba in the six-yard box involved a suspicious use of the arm. Luckily for United, it was not called and the ball rebounded off Joel Ward in finding Pogba, playing him onside. The finish was as easy as could be, and United were ahead after 45 minutes of dominance.

Palace needed to step up their game in the second half. They did. Immediately they looked dangerous, with half-time substitute Joe Ledley finding space and using the ball well. After an early second half flurry, however, the game looked to have settled back into a familiar rhythm, with Palace again struggling to find the ball. Instead, James McArthur gave them momentum with a long shot which was brilliantly tipped away, and minutes later he finished off the equaliser.

Joel Ward provided the spark, playing a series of passes to get himself to the edge of the box before cutting it in for Damien Delaney, the veteran Irish centre back who provided an unexpected touch of class with his first-time flick on for McArthur, who couldn’t miss. It seemed to be another case of United’s recurring nightmare, a nightmare only made more excruciating by the events which followed.

Embed from Getty Images

… and joy: Manchester United players celebrate after their win.

McArthur’s goal was the catalyst for an incredible period of play which contained multiple refereeing errors and plenty of drama. A penalty was not awarded and a goal was disallowed as United looked to break the newly-created deadlock, and frustrations began to boil over. First, Ledley punched a corner from Rooney away from danger, sparking an indignant response from United when nothing was called. Then Mata was incorrectly ruled to be offside when he tapped in Marcos Rojo’s header. There were bookings, arguments and the game seemed to be taking a life of its own.

It looked to be over for United before Ibrahimovic bagged the winner, as if all their hard work had been for nothing. Instead, they defied their recent history of mishaps and near-misses, and came away with a win that they thoroughly deserved. For Crystal Palace, hard work wasn’t enough, and leaves them with some stern questions to answer as they languish in the bottom half of the table.

London – Selhurst Park
Crystal Palace 1 (McArthur 66)
Manchester United 2 (Pogba 45+2, Ibrahimovic 88)
Referee: Craig Pawson
Crystal Palace (4-2-3-1): Hennessey – Ward, Dann, Delaney, Kelly; McArthur (Campbell 87), Flamini (Ledley 46); Lee Chung-yong (Fryers 80), Cabaye, Zaha; C Benteke.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): de Gea – Bailly (Darmian 52), Jones, Rojo, Blind; Carrick, Herrera; Mata (Lingard 71), Pogba, Rooney (Rashford  80); Ibrahimovic.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Pogba was on his game from the start, and while his goal was controversial it was thoroughly deserved. He provided excellent supply for his teammates up front, and it was his pass that set up Ibrahimovic for the winning goal as the game drew to a close.
2. Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace)
Hennessey was the main reason Palace were able to stay in the game, making a string of excellent saves and barely making a mistake all day. His stop to deny Rooney late in the first half was brilliant, and he continued to perform right up to the final whistle.
3. Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Manchester United)
Ibrahimovic was in solid form from start to finish, providing plenty of chances and making his way into dangerous positions. His finish at the end was pure class, and he performed effectively as a centre back when Palace mounted a desperate final assault.
4. James McArthur (Crystal Palace)
McArthur was in excellent form, cutting inside from the right and finding himself in dangerous positions as Palace pushed forward. He created some excellent chances and made a good run to finish for the equaliser, and his defensive work was always solid.
5. Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
Rooney had a solid all-round game, working into space and creating opportunities with clever positioning. His set piece delivery was excellent throughout, and created plenty of chances in the air. He was taken off late in the game, but he can hold his head high after a strong effort.

Classy Arsenal too much for Stoke

With Christmas fast approaching, there was a bit of a festive feel about the Emirates Stadium, with banners such as ‘Santa is a Gooner’ prominently displayed. Arsenal, however, weren’t really getting into the charity of the season, clinically dispatching with Stoke and replacing Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, at least for the time being.

Arsenal started on top in the possession count, but before the half-hour was out they had fallen behind thanks to an errant elbow from Granit Xhaka which brought down Joe Allen in the box. The resultant spot-kick, which could only be taken after Allen was removed from the area, was converted by Charlie Adam, and as half-time approached it looked as if the Potters would maintain their lead.

They didn’t. Instead, two goals either side of the break gave Arsenal the lead and Stoke little chance to catch up. Theo Walcott netted first, after some brilliant play from Hector Bellerin. Bellerin, a right back in one of his first games back from an injury, had been named on the bench but was brought on early for an injured Shkodran Mustafi. After the goal, he flipped the game on its head, pushing forward and ruthlessly exploiting the defensive weaknesses of forwards who he, by rights, should have been marking.

Bellerin added another player to the attack on the right wing, and with Walcott cutting inside he received the ball. His cross was perfect, and Walcott placed it into the bottom corner with ease, leaving Lee Grant with no chance. It was a poacher’s goal, expertly taken with pace, power and precision. The second was even easier for Arsenal.

It was Mesut Ozil who scored it, lobbing Grant after getting in behind a failed offside trap. Giannelli Imbula, serving as left back for a couple of minutes while Erik Pieters received treatment, made the mistake, undoing the good work of centre backs Marc Muniesa and Bruno Martins Indi. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played the ball over, and Ozil, onside due to Imbula’s poor positioning, headed it home. He had been quiet, but he was never going to miss such a simple chance.

Arsenal continued to push, not allowing Stoke any sustained time in their own half. When Alex Iwobi scored the third, receiving the ball after Alexis Sanchez was fouled outside the box and driving it past Grant without breaking stride, it merely served to confirm a result which had seemed inevitable for some time.

Of course, Stoke were not without opportunities. Joe Allen and Marko Arnautovic combined twice to create chances. The second opportunity came just before Walcott’s goal, with the power of Allen (despite his diminutive stature) allowing the skill of Arnautovic to shine through. He moved his feet as if he was walking on hot coals, weaving through both centre backs and only missing out after a desperate block from Nacho Monreal. Mame Biram Diouf somehow missed an excellent chance in the air as Stoke looked to level, and Peter Crouch forced a top-class save from Petr Cech seconds after entering the game.

In the end, however, the better side came out on top, with Arsene Wenger’s men showing class and composure in spades to deliver an excellent performance. Whether this is their year, however, remains to be seen, and only time will tell whether they are still delivering in a few months’ time.

London – Emirates Stadium
Arsenal 3 (Walcott 42, Ozil 49, Iwobi 75)
Stoke City 1 (Adam 29 pen)
Referee: Lee Mason

Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Cech – Gabriel, Mustafi (Bellerin 25), Koscielny, Monreal; Coquelin, Xhaka; Walcott, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Iwobi 69); Sanchez (Giroud 78).
Stoke City (4-2-3-1): Grant – Johnson, Martins Indi, Muniesa, Pieters; Imbula, Adam (Sobhi 81); Shaqiri (Ngoy 86), Allen, Diouf (Crouch 72); Arnautovic.

Top 5
1. Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
Bellerin transformed Arsenal’s attack when he came on at right back, adding an extra player to the attack and creating more space for Walcott to move into. As ever, he was defensively solid, and his cross to provide the first goal was perfectly placed.
2. Theo Walcott (Arsenal)
Walcott was a dangerous presence throughout, and his combination with Bellerin provided a significant challenge for Stoke to deal with. He scored the first goal, and, with his pace and goal sense, he was a force to be reckoned with.
3. Marko Arnautovic (Stoke City)
Arnautovic provided a challenge for Arsenal for the whole game, using his pace, skill, height and power to work his way into dangerous positions and create excellent chances. He combined very well with Allen to create a couple of opportunities, and was always a threatening presence.
4. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal)
Oxlade-Chamberlain provided the assist for Ozil’s goal with a beautifully weighted pass, and he had a massive impact on the game with his pace and skill. He was unlucky not to score on a couple of occasions, and while he was taken off in the second half he left his mark on the match.
5. Bruno Martins Indi (Stoke City)
Martins Indi was defensively solid throughout, positioning himself well and averting a number of dangerous situations with his strength and pace. He kept Sanchez mostly out of the game, and while he was not able to stop Arsenal from scoring he put in a solid performance.

Tempers flare as City go down

Sergio Aguero was streaming down the left wing, and quickly running out of space. Over 95 minutes into the game between Manchester City and Chelsea, the hosts didn’t stand a chance, and when Aguero lost the ball to David Luiz his frustration boiled over. He kicked out, leaving his opponent on the ground and sparking confrontations on the left sideline. Aguero was sent off for the foul, and shortly afterwards referee Anthony Taylor gave Fernandinho his marching orders after the Brazilian grabbed the throat of Fabregas. It rounded out the most disappointing night of City’s season, and left them asking where it all went wrong and, more importantly, how it can be fixed.

The game had started with few chances either way, but it was incredibly physical as the two sides went at it with everything they had. City, looking to win to jump ahead of ladder-leaders Chelsea, seemed to have more of the ball, but nothing was really happening as Chelsea defended well. It was Eden Hazard who had the first clear cut chance of the game, with Chelsea’s Belgian playmaker unleashing an excellent strike from the edge of the box which just missed Claudio Bravo’s goal.

After the pace and physicality of the opening stanza the game began to open up, and when City were denied the chance to take the lead by the linesman’s flag it sparked a furious wave of action at both ends. It was a perfect free kick from Kevin de Bruyne on a night where nothing quite went right for him, and while Fernandinho headed it home he was one of many players in an offside position. Then Hazard went to work. He capitalised on an error of judgement from Nicolas Otamendi, who missed a long ball, and took a touch to run past Bravo and leave him out of position. He cut it back for a teammate in the centre of the box, but Aleksandar Kolarov was the only man there.

Embed from Getty Images

Classy: Willian (left) scores Chelsea’s second goal on the break.

Then came the big controversy of the match, as Luiz and Aguero collided as the latter looked to capitalise on a poor pass from Cesar Azpilicueta. No foul was called, drawing the ire of the fans, who believed that the Brazilian should have been expelled for a deliberate block on his opponent. City continued to push, and soon Chelsea were well and truly on the back foot. A delightful ball over the top from David Silva was controlled by Leroy Sane and found Aguero, whose shot was blocked. Aguero missed another chance when he failed to convert de Bruyne’s pinpoint cross. Then City went ahead.

It was a beautiful finish, with one minor hitch. The scorer was on the other team. Jesus Navas played in a dangerous cross, and Gary Cahill, Chelsea’s captain, leapt up to clear the danger. Instead, he was wrong-footed, and his right-footed attempt at a clearance only led to the ball being volleyed into the back of the net. He couldn’t have replicated it if he tried, Courtois couldn’t stop it, and City had the lead to cap off a solid first half.

The second half began, and City’s dominance continued, pegging Chelsea back and keeping the pressure firmly on the shoulders of their opponents. They had a great chance shortly after the resumption when Marcos Alonso’s otherwise innocuous back-pass went horribly awry when both goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Cahill left the ball for each other. Aguero swooped, running in between the two, taking the ball and turning his attention to the now open goal in front of him. Cahill got back, and saved the day by sliding to make the block. The dominance continued. Silva, by now the architect of all of City’s play, found Navas, who crossed into the box. The ball was past all defenders, and within a few yards of the goal, when de Bruyne conspired to hit the bar, getting under it and failing to convert from point blank range.

Embed from Getty Images

Frustration: Players from both sides remonstrate after Aguero’s foul.

It seemed like déjà vu for City when the equaliser came, just minutes after de Bruyne’s incredible miss. Diego Costa had been quiet in the first half, but he had immersed himself in the second half and proceeded to control Cesc Fabregas’ long ball into the box, turning Otamendi in the process. All of a sudden, he was one-on-one with Bravo, and he didn’t miss. City’s worst nightmare had been realised, and Chelsea were back level.

It didn’t end there. City were pushing hard to get back in front, and in doing so they left themselves open as Chelsea’s defence held firm. It started with Ilkay Gundogan, who beat a number of opponents before looking for someone in the middle. Alonso was the only player there, and after a couple of passes Costa had space to work with in a dangerous position. He laid it off for Willian, who had given Chelsea the spark they needed off the bench, and the Brazilian cruised through before putting it past Bravo with ease.

City needed to score, and quickly, with time running out, but they could not find the clarity of attack they needed. The third goal was just window-dressing, with Alonso’s long ball finding Eden Hazard over the top and allowing the Belgian to score easily. It was over. The expulsions further soured the loss for City, leaving more negatives from a forgettable day.

Manchester – Etihad Stadium
Manchester City 1 (Cahill 45 og)
Chelsea 3 (Costa 60, Willian 70, Hazard 90)
Referee: Anthony Taylor

Manchester City (3-4-3): Bravo – Otamendi, Stones (Iheanacho 78), Kolarov; Navas, Fernandinho, Gundogan (Toure 76), Sane (Clichy 69); de Bruyne, Aguero, Silva.
Sent-off: Aguero 90+7, Fernandinho 90+8.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Courtois – Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro (Willian 50), Costa (Chalobah 85), Hazard (Batshuayi 90+4).

Top 5
1. Diego Costa (Chelsea)
Costa stepped up when the game was on the line in the second half, and he provided a constant threat as City looked to regain their former position. His goal displayed excellent skill and strength, and his pass to find Willian for Chelsea’s second was well spotted and executed.
2. David Silva (Manchester City)
Silva was excellent throughout, although his influence waned as the game progressed and City grew increasingly desperate. In the first half, his supply was top class, and his lofted balls over the top of Chelsea’s defence were perfectly delivered and provided a huge threat.
3. Willian (Chelsea)
Willian turned the game on its head upon entering shortly after half time, with the Brazilian scoring one goal and providing the energy which Pedro had lacked in both attack and defence. He played well, and his combination with Costa and Hazard was incredibly dangerous.
4. Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Hazard was not at his marauding best, but he was still very good, unleashing flashes of brilliance and sealing the deal for Chelsea seconds before injury time. His nonchalant displays of skill were incredible, and his ability to work into dangerous positions and beat opponents made him hard to stop.
5. Jesus Navas (Manchester City)
Navas was in top form on the right wing, playing in plenty of dangerous crosses and working into space in attack. His cross was accidentally knocked into the back of the net by Cahill to give City their only goal, and he was unlucky not to provide any more with his accurate delivery.