By Steve Alabi
As one of the stakeholders of the Nigerian game, I take greater interest in the local league and detest the raging condescension that elevates foreign leagues above our own. But once in a while, European football throws up results that warrant shifting my focus to an examination of leagues that do not concern us.
As it happened in March, another cocktail of improbable results rocked international club football on Match Day Four, this time restricted to England. The Premiership was really on fire spewing results that confounded aficionados and shocked bookmakers to their marrow. Great goals came from unlikely sources and tore unlikely nets to shreds. After 48 hours of Match Day Four fire and fury, it was the elite of the English game that lay prostrate on the ground in an unbelievable crash of the titans.
The signs started showing right from the opening day when Leeds United, newly promoted to the pole league again after 16 years in the wilderness of the Championship, stretched the defending champions, Liverpool, to the limit with a combative 4-3 score at Elland Road. Crystal Palace stunned Manchester United 3-1 at Old Trafford while
Everton overwhelmed Tottenham 1-0 at the Spurs’ glittering grounds. West Bromwich battled Chelsea to a 3-3 standstill at home while Manchester United needed the grace of the rule that makes the penalty the only kick that must be taken in the event of final whistle to overcome a stubborn Brighton and Hove Albion at the American Express Community Stadium. The elite did not take caution. The hungry smelt blood.
Pep Guardiola, who was served enough notice last season when strugglers stopped his troops from defending their league jewels against a relentless Liverpool, received the first shock of the new season when Leicester City brought his classy Manchester City down to earth with a 5-2 drubbing at the Etihad on Match Day Three. The architect of this hailstorm was the fleetfooted goal machine and last season’s highest goalscorer, Jamie Vardy, who now carries the distinction of being the only one to have fired two hatricks past Guardiola’s teams.
The Cityzens’ usually superior possession ended up as a useless statistics against the rampaging Foxes. The improbable champions of the 2015/16 Premiership came for a show and a showdown and went back to Leicester with heads swelled up.
But they too forgot in the next game that he that is up must take caution lest he is pulled down. Last season’s incredible 2-1 revenge of Southampton whom they inflicted the league’s worst defeat on – a 9-0 away score – apparently did not teach them the required lesson. Pitted against a struggling West Ham at their King Power hunting grounds, the Foxes lost their predatory cunning so evident at the Etihad and were hammered 3-0.
It was the beginning of the crash of the titans on March Day Four. By the time the dust settled down, three other matches, out of the ten fixtures for the Day, did not follow pattern. Only six respected the hierarchy: Chelsea predictably tore Crystal Palace apart 4-0, Arsenal defeated Sheffield United 2-1, Southampton beat West Bromwich 2-0, Wolverhampton Wanderers overcame Fulham 1-0, Everton outshone Brighton 4-2 and Newcastle dismantled Burnley 3-1.
The three heavyweights, of the defending champions, Liverpool, former champions, Manchester City and their city rivals, Manchester United, crashed like packs of cards against supposedly lower oppositions. Only Manchester City escaped humiliation with a 1-1 draw at Leeds United in a crafty game of ceaseless attacking football masterminded by two purists, Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa. It was a result worthy of the efforts put in by the gladiators.
For once since Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal of the great era, the Premiership witnessed purist principles in full bloom. But not so with the two old brigades, Liverpool and Manchester United, who found themselves jaded and uninspiring, and beaten black and blue by hungry predators.
Manchester United eggheads must be wondering what is wrong with their club. A second home loss in three games is surely a disaster. If the first, a 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace, was bad enough, the second, a 6-1 mauling by Tottenham, was an unacceptable calamity. To be defeated by a club tutored by former handler, Jose Mourinho, is troubling enough; to be walloped 6-1 is the equivalent of the sun setting on the British Empire. It came with the added ignominy of the loquacious Mourinho celebrating a famous revenge over his former employers.
The biggest humiliation was reserved for the reigning kings from Merseyside. No one expected a resurgent Aston Villa to do more than fall to prediction against the might of Liverpool. Like it happened when Watford became the first side to beat Liverpool in the Premier League after Manchester City in January 2019 last season in a 3-0 drubbing, what the football world expected was a tight Liverpool rear and ferocious attack, and a weak Villa back and tame forwardline.
What it got was the exact opposite: a 7-2 whitewash of the favourites. Klopp did not know what hit him. The squad got lost in exasperation.
Improbable results give sports the defining character of unpredictability and the fans that great satisfaction of underdog triumph that only sports can give. Some will go into sports folklore for ever, others may last only a few years, and some others only fleeting.
The way things are going, there is nothing to suggest that the Premiership will not witness more crashes of the titans this season.
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