The remarkable altercation between Kepa and Maurizio Sarri in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final could probably fill all seven of this week’s points, but there is lots more to discuss from an action-packed week.
That said, there is only one place to start this column. Chelsea began their week with a 2-0 defeat to Manchester United, bringing their recent record against Manchester clubs to eight goals conceded without reply. The Blues looked bereft of ideas, and murmurs about Sarri’s future started to become distinctly more audible. A 3-0 victory over Malmo staved off some of the immediate criticism, but the unpleasant prospect of a rematch against Manchester City in the League Cup final awaited them. In fact, for much of the game, they gave an excellent account of themselves: Sarri showed some long-awaited flexibility in approach, and Chelsea were largely able to contain the champions at Wembley while creating some dangerous situations of their own. It remained goalless deep into extra time, but at this point the match descended into farce. Kepa went down for a second time in quick succession, apparently suffering from cramp. The Italian manager, presumably wishing to avoid fielding a goalkeeper at less than 100% in the looming shootout, resolved to bring him off – the world’s most expensive shot-stopper had other ideas, insisting he was okay to continue and refusing to leave the field of play. Such insubordination would be unacceptable at the best of times, but to put the self before the team in a cup final beggars belief; Sarri certainly thought so after being forced to abandon the substitution, starting to storm out of the stadium before thinking better of it. Kepa could not even claim ultimate instrumental justification: a visibly rattled Chelsea went on to lose the shootout, the Spaniard making one save but letting another slide underneath him. For City, this is the first of a potential four trophies they are aiming to win.
The Wembley appearance was a novelty for City and Chelsea, but Spurs have if anything grown too accustomed to the stadium while it has been doubling as their temporary home ground. However, it does not seem to have been doing them too much harm – they travelled to Burnley knowing that a win would move them to just two points off the top of the table. Sean Dyche’s team are on a hot streak of their own, however, and it was not to be ended. Chris Wood opened the scoring in controversial fashion, heading home from a corner that should never have been awarded; Harry Kane equalised on his return from injury, but the in-form Ashley Barnes scored a late winner to snatch all three points. The watching Austria manager must surely be thinking about capping the forward, who has now scored in each of his last four games. Pochettino, incensed about the manner of the opening goal, angrily confronted Mike Dean after the match – it was a rare outburst from the usually-calm Argentinian, who perhaps feels that his side’s title chances have slipped away.
Borussia Dortmund are another side starting to feel the heat in their title race. Unlike Spurs, who roundly beat them in the first leg of their Champions League meeting, they have led the way domestically all season – a stuttering run coupled with a Bayern upsurge has made things much tighter, however, and Lucien Favre’s side went into their game in hand against Bayer Leverkusen level on points with Bayern. A win was therefore imperative to open up a little daylight once more. Zagadou made the breakthrough after half an hour with a goal from a set piece, his first for the club. This lead only lasted seven minutes, however: Kevin Volland fired in an equaliser. Dortmund showed the spirit of potential champions in their response – they were back ahead within a minute, Jadon Sancho showing exquisite technique to control a volley into the corner. Mario Gotze drove one in from the edge of the box to give Dortmund a cushion with half an hour to go; Jonathan Tah’s 75th minute goal set up a nervous ending, but Dortmund held on for a big win. The game against Bayern on the 6th April is looking increasingly like it may be crucial.
Sancho is looking like he may well be one of the stars of the future, but the undisputed king of the current era is Lionel Messi. He blessed us with his brilliance once more this week, putting in a mercurial performance against Sevilla to single-handedly drag his side to victory. It is unclear what Sevilla have done to anger him, but he enjoys an amazing scoring record against them: following his hat-trick, he now has 36 goals in 35 games against the opposition. For context, this is more goals in Sevilla games than all but two of the current Sevilla squad have managed. His opener outshone even Sancho’s impressive volley; the ball came in from the left, and Messi connected with it at a height at which it should not be possible to generate the control over direction that he conjured. It flew crisply into the top corner, cancelling out Jesus Navas’ opener. Barcelona trailed again before the break through Mercado, but Messi produced the goods once more. This time it was his theoretically weaker right foot delivering the magic, curling the ball into the other top corner beyond a helpless goalkeeper. He completed the hat-trick with a trademark delicate dink in the 85th minute, giving his side the lead in the process. Unbelievably, this was the 50th hat-trick of his career. Such is his brilliance, Luis Suarez decided to produce a tribute act – after receiving a ball from the great man he produced a chip of his own, putting the game to bed. Barcelona now enjoy a healthy seven-point lead at the top, although they have work to do in the Champions League after labouring to a goalless draw with Lyon.
Messi was not the only man getting the match ball this weekend. In a somewhat more humble setting, Rochdale and AFC Wimbledon served up a classic of their own: Ebanks-Landell had the hosts in front within two minutes, and they led again through Hamilton after a Joe Pigott equaliser had evened things up for less than sixty seconds. Pigott’s second of the game brought AFC Wimbledon level once more, and Wordsworth put the Dons in front with fifteen minutes to play. It looked as though the points would be shared when Ian Henderson made it 3-3, but in the 95th minute the referee pointed to the spot. Pigott stepped up to complete his hat-trick, bringing a much-needed three points back to Kingsmeadow. They remain jettisoned at the bottom of the table, but at least remain in sight of safety thanks to the victory.
If one penalty seemed dramatic, how about three? This is what fans witnessed at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, where Roger East was kept very busy indeed when Wolves came to town. The hosts benefitted from the first penalty – Norwegian striker Josh King went down very easily under challenge from Moutinho, dusted himself down and dispatched the resulting spot kick. It looked for a long time as though this would be the difference between the two sides; Jordon Ibe went close to extending the advantage through a wicked curling shot that smashed against the crossbar, but it was not until the 83rd minute that another goal was scored. It came from the spot again, this time for Wolves; the decision against Adam Smith was once again far from stonewall, but Raul Jimenez did the necessary and equalised for the Midlands outfit. Perhaps Roger East simply couldn’t get enough of the rush of pointing to the spot, for he did so again very late on to give Bournemouth the chance to win it. The other decisions had been controversial – this one was simply wrong, with the foul fairly clearly having taken place just outside the box. Wolves will therefore feel that justice was done by Josh King’s subsequent miss. The point leaves the Premier League newcomers in an impressive 8th ; Watford are ahead on goal difference after a resounding 5-1 win at Cardiff in which former Barcelona man Gerard Deulofeu scored a hat-trick.
Leicester City know a thing or two about exceeding expectations in the Premier League, but since the dizzy heights of the 2015/16 season they have struggled to perform as impressively. Ranieri was dismissed mere months after securing immortal status at the club by guiding them to the title, and Craig Shakespeare followed after a similarly poor run. Claude Puel came in and steadied the ship, but the Frenchman has not been getting the results of late – he need only have looked to his predecessors to see his fate foreshadowed, and sure enough the board lacked patience and dismissed him this week. This came after a 4-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace; the Foxes had 66% possession and took 27 shots to Palace’s 7, but the underlying numbers were not enough to convince the chairman to extend Puel’s stay of execution. It is hard to deny that Leicester’s squad are capable of a higher position than 12th , but it remains to be seen whether yet another new man can get the most out of the team.