The festive season is well and truly upon us, and fans were treated to the early gift of excellent football this week. The final matchday in the Champions League and Europa League provided plenty of drama, and domestic leagues across Europe are heating up as they approach their respective halfway points.
The week began with Everton vs Watford. The Monday night game in the Premier League had plenty of narratives on offer – Gerard Deulofeu and Tom Cleverley both returned to their former club, and on the other side Richarlison and Marco Silva faced off against the side that they left in somewhat acrimonious circumstances. The travelling Hornets fans were certainly not in a forgiving mood after Richarlison fired his new team in front; he kissed the badge as he wheeled away in celebration, turning the atmosphere up in a game that was already highly-charged. Add to that the injustice that Walcott should have been flagged offside in the build-up, and it is little surprise that Watford came out for the second half fired up. They turned things around in just three crazy minutes past the hour mark – an unfortunate Coleman own goal brought things level before Abdoulaye Doucoure powered home a header to put the visitors 2-1 up. It looked as though Everton would be unable to salvage anything after they saw a penalty saved by Ben Foster following a foul by Kabasele, but the Belgian was at fault again deep into stoppage time when he conceded a free kick that proved costly. His bizarre handball was punished in deadly fashion by Lucas Digne, who curled in his shot in the 96th minute to ensure Everton and Silva could at least take a point.
Perhaps the government should send Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino to the negotiating table – they both navigated tricky situations in Europe this week with great deftness. Silva’s counterpart from across Stanley Park knew that a 1-0 win against Napoli would be enough to advance; Liverpool are still yet to lose in Europe at Anfield under Klopp, and indeed have only failed to win twice, so there were reasons for fans to be optimistic. Nonetheless, an Ancelotti team was always bound to provide stiff competition. It fell to the man who has so often been Liverpool’s hero in the last year to pull them through to the round of sixteen – Mohamed Salah netted with ten minutes remaining in the first half, and this ultimately proved decisive. At the other end, there were equally crucial contributions from Van Dijk and Alisson; the Brazilian stopper pulled off a great stoppage time save to keep his team in the competition. Meanwhile, over at Camp Nou, Spurs produced some late drama of their own. They had to match Inter Milan’s result to advance – the Italians were being held by PSV, but with five minutes to play Tottenham still trailed to Dembele’s early goal. It was time for their Brazilian to step up: Lucas Moura nipped in to convert Kane’s excellent cross. They faced a nervous wait to see if Inter would snatch a late winner, but luck was on their side – this represents a remarkable turnaround, given that Spurs took just one point from their first three games. All British teams will now progress to the knockout stages.
There was less on the line in the Wednesday games, and perhaps this explains some of the unexpected results that were thrown up. Young Boys triumphed over the Old Lady in the biggest shock of the day, winning 2-1 against Italian champions Juventus. Guillaume Hoarau had an evening to tell the grandchildren about – he put two past Szczęsny to send the Swiss outfit into a 2-0 lead. Paulo Dybala pulled one back with ten minutes to go, but Juventus could not find an equaliser. It looked as though they had; Dybala slammed the ball home from outside the box, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s attempt to get a head on it was adjudged to be interference from an offside position. There was more late action in Ajax’s game against Bayern. The Dutch side were up 2-1 with just seven minutes to go, both sides having been reduced to ten men, but a remarkable flurry saw the match end 3-3. A Lewandowski penalty and a Coman strike seemed to have turned things around for the German side, but left-back Nicolas Tagliafico equalised in the 95th minute. This ultimately counted for nothing, as only a win would have seen them take top spot from the Bavarian giants, but both sides are safely through to the round of sixteen.
Thursday night saw the conclusion of the Europa League group stage. Chelsea and Arsenal had already breezed through, but the fates of Celtic and Rangers were both on the line. Each could have confirmed their progress with a draw, but neither managed to take a point. Steven Gerrard’s Rangers were largely on top against Rapid Wien, but were punished for failing to find a breakthrough when the hosts nicked a winner with five minutes to play. Celtic had a similarly unpleasant time against Red Bull Salzburg, losing 2-1. One of the goals conceded was absolutely nightmarish for stopper Craig Gordon, who could only find the Salzburg man with his attempted roll-out. However, Rosenborg did them a favour in the group’s other game: RB Leipzig were held to a draw, meaning Brendan Rodgers’ side escaped from the group. Elsewhere, Marseille ended a torrid group stage by getting two men sent off in a 3-1 home defeat to Apollon Limassol – the French side took just one point from their six matches.
Borussia Dortmund advanced as group winners from their Champions League group: no mean feat in a pool featuring Atletico Madrid. Their league form similarly shows no signs of letting up – they won yet again at the weekend, this time triumphing over Werder Bremen. The first goal was a piece of pure genius from a free kick. Reus and Guerreiro both stood over the ball; the Portuguese ran over it and darted down the channel, but when he was not picked out it looked as though the routine had gone wrong. However, it soon became clear what the two players had been in deep discussion about before the set piece. Guerreiro sprinted back to the ball from a new angle and whipped in a delightful cross for Alcacer, who gave the piece of ingenuity what it deserved by heading home emphatically. Reus, who looks reinvigorated this season after a succession of injury issues, got the second one for himself. A Max Kruse reply followed, but although all of this action happened in the first half the game ultimately ended 2-1. This means that Dortmund maintain their 9-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga, a very healthy margin as the halfway stage approaches.
Things are closer at the top in the Eredivisie, where Ajax trail current champions PSV by just two points. Every fixture is crucial in such a tight race, but the Amsterdam outfit have faced much sterner tests than that posed by bottom of the table De Graafschap. Ajax ran riot against the struggling side, eventually running out 8-0 winners. The talented Hakim Ziyech netted a hat-trick, and he was not the only one – more remarkably, Daley Blind also got on the scoresheet three times. Ziyech was the first to complete the hat-trick, so he probably has the technical claim on the match ball, but perhaps he might be kind enough to let Blind have this one: unsurprisingly, this was Blind’s first ever professional three-goal haul. This kept the pressure on PSV, who had earlier produced a 4-0 victory of their own against Heracles.
Perhaps Manchester United could have done with Blind still being at the club for their trip to Anfield. The Dutch defender never truly settled at Old Trafford, perhaps a victim of the managerial chopping and changing, but following a raft of injuries Mourinho’s back line had a definite makeshift look about it. The other notable news from the team-sheet was the absence of Paul Pogba: Mourinho left the mercurial French talent on the bench for this huge match. Whether or not he would have made a difference will never be known, but his exclusion did not prove to be a tactical masterstroke – Liverpool comprehensively outplayed their North-West rivals to break a home winless run against them stretching back five long years. It looked as though it might be another one of those days for a while; Sadio Mane’s opener, brilliantly assisted by Fabinho, had been cancelled out by Lingard following a rare Alisson error. Despite dominating, Liverpool could not re-take the lead until the 73rd minute. Klopp had the luxury of being able to call on Xherdan Shaqiri from the bench, and the Swiss continued to make his price tag look absurdly cheap by turning the game on its head. Mane danced along the touchline before his pull-back was diverted into Shaqiri’s path by the leg of De Gea, and the former Stoke man fired it in with the aid of a deflection. He had a second just seven minutes later to seal the victory – another deflection worked in his favour to fool De Gea. This sent Liverpool back to the top of the table, a spot which they had briefly
vacated after Manchester City beat Everton on Saturday. The two remarkable sides continue to pull away from the pack; Arsenal dropped further adrift this week with a 3-2 defeat to Southampton.