The festive calendar of football got underway this week, and it served up an array of early Christmas presents. There were some crackers in England in particular, with derby day on Sunday proving to be an especially rich vein of entertainment.
November’s last football offerings came in the midweek games. The Championship produced one of the matches of the season to round off the month – two promotion candidates met as Nottingham Forest travelled to Aston Villa. Forest were two up within six minutes at Villa Park, with Joe Lolley providing both assists. By the 15th minute, this lead had evaporated: a Tammy Abraham brace restored parity. Lolley laid another goal on for a teammate, this time Matty Cash, to make it 3-2 after just 22 crazy minutes. Abraham had his hat-trick before the half was done, however: he scored from the spot fifteen minutes later to make it three goals apiece. After the restart, Lolley got a goal for himself to put Forest in front for a third time. The game appeared to have calmed down a little, but a 68th minute red card for Forest’s Tobias Figueiredo reignited the chaos. Abraham grabbed a remarkable fourth goal just three minutes later, and Anwar El Ghazi seemed sure to have won it for the hosts when he made it 5-4 in the 75th minute. 10-man Forest refused to see their efforts go to waste, however: in the 83 rd minute Lewis Grabban grabbed his second of the game, once again assisted by Lolley, to make the final scoreline 5-5.
The madness was not limited to the pitch this week. In the town of Brive, Southern France, some proud supporters of the national team attempted to name their new-born child Griezmann Mbappé. The authorities stepped in, invoking a law allowing them to prevent naming that is “contrary to the interests of the child”. Were the child to grow up to have the talent of either of his would-be namesakes then it would undoubtedly be in his interests, but he will have to make his own name if he is to succeed in the world of football. Meanwhile, the real Mbappé took a big step towards the knockout rounds of the Champions League this week with a 2-1 victory over Liverpool.
Liverpool have had their fair share of biting controversies in the past, but this week it was Derby County’s Bradley Johnson getting charged for the unusual offence. His victim was Joe Allen: the Welsh central midfielder, once of Liverpool himself, denied that Johnson had bitten him regardless of what it looked like. The FA were not prepared to take his word for it, however, and handed a 4-game ban to his Derby counterpart. The incident occurred following a first-half red card for Stoke’s Etebo; Frank Lampard’s Derby side looked to be taking advantage of the extra man when Harry Wilson equalised in the 50th minute, but Tom Ince restored Stoke’s lead to deliver a victory for The Potters. Wilson’s work was rewarded more appropriately in Derby’s weekend game – he scored twice, including a stunning strike from range, in a 2-1 win over Swansea City that solidified their place in the play-off positions.
Wilson’s parent club hosted Everton in the Merseyside Derby this weekend, and there was an unlikely hero. Belgian striker Divock Origi, who was reportedly close to being loaned out along with Wilson or even sold altogether in the summer, was thrown on by Klopp with the game tied at 0-0. This scoreline did not reflect what was an enthralling contest – both sides had huge chances, but a combination of profligacy from the forwards and heroics from the keepers meant that nobody could find a way through until the 96th minute. Trent Alexander-Arnold launched a hopeful delivery into the box, which Yerry Mina could only half-clear. The ball fell to Virgil van Dijk, who tried an extremely optimistic volley. He turned away in disgust as it looped high into the air, but had he kept watching he would have seen the backspin take the ball down onto the crossbar; Pickford, seemingly in an attempt to catch the ball rather than tip it over, inadvertently diverted it into the path of the eagerly-awaiting Origi. The forward must take credit for gambling on an error while everyone else stood still, but in truth nobody could have anticipated the bizarre incident – the ball struck the crossbar twice without going out of play on its way to the head of Origi. Liverpool fans did not care about the fortuitousness, and nor did Jurgen Klopp: he sprinted on to the field to celebrate with goalkeeper Alisson.
The other big derby of the day served up even more of a spectacle. Arsenal against Tottenham was undoubtedly the game of the season so far, and will go down as a Premier League classic. The Gunners took the lead in the North London derby after ten minutes, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang converting from the spot after Jan Vertonghen inexplicably handled the ball while trying to deal with a cross. The Belgian defender looked visibly shaken, and Unai Emery’s men threatened to double their advantage. However, it was Tottenham that struck next – once again it was a set piece into the box that caused problems, Eric Dier getting ahead of his man at the front post to divert Eriksen’s free-kick past an unconvincing Leno. His celebrations over by the warming-up Arsenal substitutes proved to be a flashpoint; the game had already been highly entertaining, but it became a proper derby at this point. Tempers flared, and it was Arsenal’s turn to be rocked. Just four minutes later, they found themselves behind; Rob Holding slid in rashly in the box, and Mike Dean once again pointed to the spot. There was minimal contact with Heung-Min Son, but it was needless to even give the referee a decision to make. Remarkably, Mike Dean has now awarded 6.2% of all Premier League penalties (per Duncan Alexander: https://twitter.com/oilysailor/status/1069244014543740928).
Tottenham duly went in ahead at the break, but a bold double-change by Emery swung momentum once more. Iwobi and Mkhitaryan made way for Ramsey and Lacazette, with Arsenal adapting to a narrower diamond shape. This worked wonders, and the hosts ultimately scored three more without reply. Aubameyang got the equaliser with a lovely finish from the edge of the box after a flowing move. Lacazette then had the desired impact when his shot gave them the lead via a slight deflection off Dier; Torreira compounded Tottenham’s misery by running on to an Aubameyang pass and firing beyond Lloris. The only thing missing from the derby was a red card, and Vertonghen duly obliged – he went in high with studs showing, and having already been booked for the handball he had to go.
The result saw Arsenal move above Tottenham into fourth place. Things are similarly tight towards the top end of the Bundesliga, and at the weekend second faced third when RB Leipzig took on Borussia Mönchengladbach. Leipzig took the lead inside three minutes through German international Timo Werner. Their visitors saw more of the ball, but Ralf Rangnick’s side constantly threatened to score a second; it was Werner again who did so just before half-time, making it 2-0. This was ultimately how it ended, meaning Lepizig move within just one point of Mönchengladbach in the table. Perhaps Die Fohlen will have to fall back on the offer they received from the Bundesliga Twitter account this week – they pledged to give the league to Mönchengladbach if they could get fifty-million retweets. With Dortmund winning again at the weekend, this might be the only way anyone can stop them.
There was much less at stake in terms of league position in PSG’s game against Bordeaux. It is only December, but already the powerhouse from the capital can probably be declared champions in all but name – their nearest rivals, currently Montpellier, sit fourteen points behind. However, the 2-2 draw against the Girondins did mean that PSG’s 100% winning start to the season finally came to an end. Things appeared to be going to script when Neymar gave them the lead, and Mbappé looked to have got things back on track after Jimmy Briand had briefly restored parity, but a late goal for Andreas Cornelius meant that the points were shared. PSG’s record now reads ‘played 15, won 14, drawn 1’.