As many countries wind down their leagues for a winter break, English football remains as chaotic as ever. Most of the talking points this week come from a mad seven days across the UK: welcome to the final Seven Points of 2018.
The Championship went a bit mad this week. A lot of the games resembled FIFA more than they did real football – goals were flying in almost non-stop, many of them deep into added time. Norwich were involved in both a 3-3 and a 4-3. They produced a dramatic comeback in the first of these fixtures, earning a remarkable draw against Nottingham Forest despite trailing 3-0 with just fifteen minutes to play; Onel Hernandez netted in the 94th and 98th minutes. They were forced to endure a taste of their own medicine just days later – having taken the lead against Derby in the 81st minute it looked as though they would secure an important win in their charge for the title, but goals in the 87th and 92nd minutes turned the game on its head. Leeds, who currently lead the pack, had to rely on late drama of their own: Kemar Roofe scored a brace of added time goals to produce an astonishing 3-2 win against Blackburn Rovers. This all came after Charlie Mulgrew had given Rovers the lead in the last minute of regular time.
There were more scarcely believable matches north of the border. Celtic began their week against Aberdeen, where it was 1-1 with fifteen minutes to play. It was finely-poised, and it might have been predicted that one team would go on to snatch it: few would have guessed it would end 4-3. Brendan Rodgers’ men ensured that they headed into the Old Firm with a three-point cushion courtesy of a goal from Edouard and a brace from Sinclair. They ultimately needed this gap to stay top: Rangers delighted their fans with a 1-0 victory over their bitter rivals, moving the sides on to equal points at the top of the table. Ryan Jack scored the only goal of the game. This represents a big success for manager Steven Gerrard, who has ended a long run of derby losses and in the process got one over on the man for whom he formerly served as captain.
Moving briefly away from these shores, Nicolo Zaniolo served up a late Christmas treat in a match against Sassuolo. Serie A is the only other top league still active over the Christmas period, and the young Roma starlet made the most of his chance to impress. The 19-year-old has certainly not been intimidated by the step up to the first team, and showed an outrageous lack of respect for his more seasoned colleagues when he netted the third in his side’s 3-1 victory. He cut inside after receiving the ball in the box, sitting down his defender in the process. Goalkeeper Andrea Consigli also found himself on the floor after buying a dummy from Zaniolo; the young midfielder then lifted the ball over the pair of them with a delicate chip. This was a late entry for deftest finish of the year, and if he continues in this fashion then Nicolo Zaniolo could soon be a household name.
The return to England brings with it a shift in tone from the sublime to the ridiculous. The lower reaches of the game can be a bizarre world, and so it proved this week – one fan spotted a new billboard at the home of Blyth Spartans, advertising a trip to North Korea. This apparent affiliation with the North Korean tourist board is unlikely to say the least, but it seems to be bringing good fortune to the Spartans: they managed a draw against fourth-placed Spennymoor Town before following this up with a 2-1 win against York City. The absurdity was not confined to non-league – two divisions up, in Tranmere vs Morecambe, an assistant referee was forced to run the line in smart shoes after forgetting his boots.
The Etihad Stadium is less than forty miles up the road from Prenton Park, but the glamour of the Premier League can sometimes seem a world away. Nonetheless, the trials and tribulations are much the same at every level of football – any title challenger knows the feeling of unease that can start to creep in when things begin to go a little wrong, and City have spent their December struggling to avoid a freefall. The seemingly relentless nature of their charge was upset when Chelsea took all three points against them, and this was compounded by a shock home defeat to Crystal Palace. It was the turn of Leicester City this week, who capitalised on this wobble and managed a win of their own against Guardiola’s men. It took another great goal to undo the champions – Ricardo Pereira’s strike was not quite as unbelievable as Townsend’s last week, but his drive into the top corner left Ederson equally helpless. City did at least somewhat steady the ship prior to the crunch match with Liverpool by overcoming Southampton 3-1.
Liverpool will now head into this meeting with a 7-point lead, having come through a congested December with a hugely impressive perfect record. They played eight games in all competitions, winning every one; City’s mini-collapse in the same period has transformed the title race, although as Klopp is eager to point out there is still a vast amount of football to be played. However, in the here and now, Liverpool look unstoppable. Rafa Benitez was warmly welcomed back at Anfield, but the reception did not extend to any mercy on the pitch – the Reds ran out 4-0 winners, and in truth it could have been more. It was more when Arsenal came to town; the Gunners held the honour of being the only visiting team to lead at Anfield in 2018 for a glorious two minutes, but they felt Liverpool’s displeasure as a result. Roberto Firmino responded almost immediately, and practically from the restart added a second to put Liverpool in front. Mane and Salah then got in on the act, before Salah handed over penalty responsibilities to Firmino to allow him to complete his hat-trick. This epitomises the team-driven, ego-free project that Klopp has instilled: fans are starting to believe that this could be the season where it truly comes to fruition.
As the year draws to a close, there has been time to take stock of some of the statistics from 2018. The standout one is that Messi, not for the first time in his career, is the top scorer across Europe’s top five leagues with 51 goals. There is perhaps an argument to be made that an elite few players are at least now catching up with the Argentinian maestro, who finished forty goals short of his frankly mind-blowing tally of 91 from 2012, but the fact that he once again topped the charts pours further scorn on his fifth place in the Ballon D’Or. It might be argued that the game is not all about goals, which is of course true, but Messi just so happens to be one of the greatest creators to have ever graced the game as well. As he enjoys his Christmas break, the best player of all time has legitimate cause to wonder why he does not have another individual honour to add to his illustrious collection.