Championship

The hangover

This season has been an unprecedented season for so many different reasons. As previously discussed in my blog post, which can be found here; https://ayyazmalik.com/2021/01/09/a-season-like-no-other/. This season has been an unusual one to put it mildly. In the English Premier League, there has been some normality that’s returned as Manchester City seem odds on to win their third title in four seasons.

Across Europe, Real Madrid/Barcelona neither of them are leading Laliga, it’s Atletico Madrid who seem to be running away it, but a surprise 2-0 home loss to Levante, means that the gap has closed at the top to just three points, but Diego Simeone’s side do have a game in hand.

In Germany although usual league leaders Bayern Munich are still top, ever since they returned for a successful and triumphant Club World Cup, The Bavarians have conceded 31 goals already this term, one less than they did in the entire 2019-2020 season. Their 2-1 defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt means that the Bundesliga is more competitive this year.

With the example of Bayern, the Champions League winners have been far from flawless. In France last year’s Champions League beaten finalists PSG, have been suffering from indifferent from and they too aren’t have thing their own way in Ligue 1 as they trail league leaders Lille by four points. This is the same that could be said about Italian champions Juventus.

Juve, who have had a strangle hold on the Scudetto for a past best part of a decade, trail league leaders Inter by a massive 11 points, it must be noted that The Old lady have two games in hand over The Nerazzurri in Serie A. Regardless of this fact, even Juventus haven’t had things their own way.

This bug, shall we call it has travelled to Scotland too. Celtic who were looking to complete the ’10 in a row’, have been thwarted by a resurgent Rangers who are just seven points away from a first trophy in the Steven Gerrard reign. Covid, has affected us all and here’s to thinking that May can’t come quick enough.

But there’s some good things to have come out football being the way that is due to Covid, it’s not as boring and predictable as what it has been across Europe. That is a good thing, here’s to hoping that next season will be something similar, but I am not holding my breath.

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Saturday fourth round FA Cup round up

Southampton, knocked out holders Arsenal with a 1-0 win against The Gunners. South Coast club Southampton, who last won the FA Cup in 1976, were full value for their win against an Arsenal side who have been in good form of late.

The visitors were missing star forward Pierre Aymerick Aubameyang due to personal reasons, just couldn’t live with the home side’s attack intent in the first half. The Saints were full value for their win, and for visitors Arsenal this was their first loss in seven, and the first time they have conceded in over 500 minutes of football.

A trip to Molineux against Wolves awaits for Ralph Hassenhutl’s men, where they will fancy their chances. Wanderers, who have been struggling in the league, edged out non-league Chorley who put up a spirited showing in their fourth round game on Friday night.

The Midland club, have now addressed one of their weaknesses in a key area, by signing striker Jose Willian from Spanish side Real Sociedad. So maybe Southampton, won’t have it all their own way in this one.

Elsewhere in the Saturday games there were big wins for West Ham and Swansea City respectively. Premier League side West Ham, who have been impressive this year, and find themselves in seventh, faced a Doncaster Rovers team who are chasing promotion in League One.

Rovers were always going to be up against it, especially how well the East London side have played this season. Any chances of an upset were quickly dispelled as early goals from Pablo Fornals and Andriy Yarmolenko, helped the home side to a 4-0.

The other high scoring game of the day was between Swansea and Nottingham Forest. The Swans, who are flying high in the Championship, took their confidence into this one, and were simply too good for their Championships visitors as they steam rolled them 5-1.

Goals from Liam Cullen and Matt Grimes, effectively ended this game as a contest. The shock of the day was at Oakwell where midtable Barnsley defeated runaway Championship leaders Norwich 1-0.

To end my round up, the final game of the evening saw League two Cheltenham take on Premier League giants Manchester City. The League two side, looked set to cause an all mighty upset after they took the lead through Alfie May.

Town, battled really hard and kept out their illustrious opponents until 81 minutes. Phil Foden, who had some chances earlier in the game, finding the equaliser. Goals from Gabriel Jesus (84) and Ferran Torres (90+4) added further gloss on the scoreline, that arguably flattered the visitors.

Manchester City, will play Swansea in the next round. That’s my FA Cup round up, Sunday’s games will also be covered here on ayyazmalik.com.

Australian Open review; COVID over shadows build up

Football has fell victim to it, cricket has fallen victim to it, now tennis is feeling the fall out of the Coronavirus. There was the infamous Belgrade tournament, which Djokovic arranged and most of the competitors ended up getting the virus.

The Australian Open, which is due to start in early February, has seen the build up to the tournament over shadowed by several players having to isolate for 14 days in their hotels due to Covid concerns. Serb Djokovic did write a letter to tournament organisers, in the aim to try and improve conditions and get organisers to relax quarantine rules.

That move by the six-time Australian Open, was badly criticised by many, but the man himself has tried to clear any misunderstandings. Former Wimbledon champion Sir Andy Murray is one high profile name, who has been affected by Covid, which further emphasises the calibre of tennis players who have been affected.

In difficult circumstances, many players have been trying to improvise and get some training in. From playing with a tennis ball against the wall or even against the mattress, one thing I know is that a young me, if I was to do the same, I would get a forehand smash to the face.

When I was a kid, I was told to not jump on the bed, but was never told to not hit a tennis ball against the mattress, I have missed a gem of my childhood, by the looks of it. The players (some of them) have had to deal with rodent infestations, not quite the Jerry out of Tom and Jerry kind.

It’s not been an ideal build up, to this years Australian Open, but this is the world of Covid19, where nothing is normal. First and foremost is the safety of the players, we wish each and every one of them well.

Australia vs India, tourists win a classic

India won a gripping fourth test by three wickets, which helped them clinch the series 2-1 and retain the Border Gavaskar trophy in the process.

Tourists India, were injury hit and between their seamers of Thakur, Saini, Siraj and Natarajan (who made his debut), there was barely 10 international appearances between them.

The Indian’s were set a very tricky 328 to win this test and the series. To put this into perspective, the Asian side had last won at The Gabba since 1930, a record which they changed in some style.

Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill (both who have impressed in this game and the series ), both fell short of centuries in the match .

As much as that personal achievement would have been nice been nice for either player, the contributions of both men, helped India win this one in what turned into nail biting circumstances.

The final day, was played like a One Day International, rather than a test match.

Hosts Australia, who are third in the World Test Championships standings after this test series defeat, had no answer to this Indian on slaught. Gill and Pant in particular, showed the Aussie attack that they weren’t settling for the draw.

After the game, captain Tim Paine said Australia were outplayed in this series, that in itself was a credit for this young Indian team that was lead superbly by Ajinkya Rahane. Home side Australia did have some good moments in this test, Marnus Labuschagne made another century (108) and captain Paine made a half-century.

India were not to be denied this historic win, and will go into their up and coming test series with fourth placed England, full of confidence.

The Asian side will most likely have first choice spin pair Ravi Jadeja and Ravi Ashwin back available for this one.

The world test series is really hotting up.

Sri Lanka vs England, first test review

England captain Joe Root’s double century in the first innings of the first test, helped The Three Lions on their way to a seven wicket win over hosts Sri Lanka. Tourists England who had skittled the 1996 world champions out for just 135.

In reply to this paltry total, England largely thanks to Root (228) and some good support from Dan Lawrence (73) on debut, were able to pile on the runs (all 421 over them). The hosts, were now well and truly on the back foot.

After a crushing defeat by South Africa, you wouldn’t have blamed Sri Lanka for feeling a sense of ground hog day.

To the Asian side’s credit, they dug in, in the second innings. Angelo Matthews (71), Kusal Perrera (62) and emotional Lahiru Thirimanne century (111) helped the home side make 359 all out second time round.

The second innings was a much better showing by Sri Lanka. Nothing summed out their second innings better than Thirimanne’s second test ton, seven years after his first.

Despite a battling second innings showing, tourists England just needed 74 to win the first test in Galle.

What seemed a very small total, was threatening the to be a challenging one. Sibley, Crawley and Root were all back in the pavilion cheaply.

England’s scorecard read 14-3, which really raised the question of a shock win. Jonny Bairstow (35 not out) and Dan Lawrence (21 not out) saw the tourists home without any further scares.

The second and final test of this series will also be in Galle. England, will go into that test looking to extend their unbeaten nine game run in tests.

Sri Lanka, will go into the final test, no doubt looking to restore pride. The final test starts on 22nd January.

The Masters review

Twenty-year old Chinese star Yan Bingtao came the second youngest player to win in The Masters after beating former two-time winner John Higgins, in what proved to be a gripping final. Bingtao, who beat world number two Neil Robertson earlier in the tournament, showed he is a player for the future by displaying admirable battling qualities.

In other matches, the 20-year old won on final frame deciders, the final all though not going to a final frame decider was still hard fought. Former four-time world champion Higgins, who many thought was ‘past it’, silenced some doubters here.

On another day, Higgins would have come out on top. The 45-year old veteran did lead 5-3 and 7-5, but Bingtao won five of the remaining six frames to clinch his maiden rankings event title. This win in Milton Keynes, (the makeshift home of The Masters, due to the Coronavirus) will add to the Riga Masters title Yan Bingtao won last season.

World number six Higgins showed the snooker world, he still has something to offer, that brilliant win against Ronnie O’Sullivan a tournament highlight, but this win for Yan Bingtao, the world number 11 shows that he is a force to be reckoned with.

World number one Judd Trump had to miss the tournament due to Covid concerns, but sitting at home, he will be in the knowledge that he has a new challenge to over take his supremacy at the top of the world game.

Yan did come close to winning a ranking event in 2017, only to beat edged out ny former world number one mark Williams 9-8 in the Northern Ireland Open. So this win, three years on will be all the more sweeter.

Liverpool vs Manchester United, post match review

Title rivals Liverpool and Manchester United, played out an inevitable draw, in a result that although didn’t damage The Reds’ title defence, it surely didn’t help it. Liverpool who before kick off, were three points behind current league leaders Man United, went into this one in woeful form.

I say that, due to the high standards the Anfield club have set themselves in the past two seasons in particular. It’s well documented, that Liverpool have had some defensive issues to contend with, but the issues have been up the pitch.

Famed front three, Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane failed to score for the third game in a row. Jurgen Klopp’s men haven’t gone on such a run since 2005, that season was the season of the 2005 Champions League win.

With summer signing Diogo Jotta, not back until February, what seemed a team that was indestructible is arguably on the course of self destruct? Such an accusation is harsh, especially since current leaders Manchester United have hardly been flawless themselves.

A 6-1 mauling at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the season isn’t results of champions elect, but this season has been a strange one. Anyone has beaten anyone. The gap is three points, a Man City arguably would have taken full advantage in this game, as hosts Liverpool huffed and puffed but never looked like scoring.

Home debutant, Thiago was superb. The Spaniard, has added an edge to what seemed to be an already complete Liverpool midfield. Former Bayern Munich man Thiago, was time and time again dictating the pace and tempo of the game. Despite the 29-year old’s best efforts, he couldn’t help his team be composed in the final third.

The best chance Liverpool did half came from Thiago, who forced Man United keeper David DeGea into a smart stop. Having to play with stand-in centre backs Jordan Henderson and Fabino, United did have two good chances to score the opening goal.

Bruno Fernandes who was on the whole quiet in this one, had a shot well saved by Alison, who superbly saved a Paul Pogba effort to ensure the score remained 0-0. Two points dropped arguably for Man United, but if they were told they would get a point at the start of the game, The Red Devils surely would have taken it.

FA Cup fourth and fifth round draw

Manchester United and Liverpool face each other in what is the tie of the fourth round. Due to the coronavirus, both the fourth and fifth round draw were done on the same day.

The Red Devil’s who were last years semi-finalists face Liverpool, who of course won the Premier League last season after a 30 year wait. These two Premier league giants, are due to face other in the league this month, and this extra game between the two sides, has all the ingredients to be a classic.

In some other ties of note, third round giant killers Crawley are rewarded with an away game to Championship high-flyers Bournemouth. Fellow giant killers Chorley face Premier League Wolves, and if the Lancashire side beat Wanderers, then holders Arsenal could be awaiting in round five.

The remaining minnow left in the draw (Stockport, at time of writing), could face the mouth watering prospect of facing United in an alternate Manchester Derby match up.

Here is the full draw of the FA Cup fourth and fifth round;

FA Cup fourth-round draw

Cheltenham Town v Manchester City

Bournemouth v Crawley Town

Swansea City v Nottingham Forest

Manchester United v Liverpool

Southampton/Shrewsbury v Arsenal

Barnsley v Norwich

Chorley v Wolves

Millwall v Bristol City

Brighton v Blackpool

Wycombe v Tottenham

Fulham v Burnley

Sheffield United v Plymouth

Chelsea v Luton

Stockport/West Ham v Doncaster

Brentford v Leicester

Everton v Sheffield Wednesday

FA Cup fifth-round draw

Fulham/Burnley v Bournemouth/Crawley Town

Manchester United/Liverpool v Stockport/West Ham or Doncaster

Sheffield United/Plymouth v Millwall/Bristol City

Chorley/Wolves v Southampton/Shrewsbury or Arsenal

Barnsley/Norwich v Chelsea/Luton Town

Everton/Sheffield Wednesday v Wycombe/Tottenham

Swansea City/Nottingham Forest v Cheltenham Town/Manchester City

Brentford/Leicester v Brighton/Blackpool

India secure battling draw in third test against Australia

India managed to survive the last day and secure a thrilling draw in their third test against Australia in Sydney.

The tourists India battled against the odds and were indebted to Rishabh Pant (97) and Chasteshwar Pujara (77) for helping them have an improved showing with the bat.

When both men fell in quick succession, Hanuma Vihari and Ravi Ashwin came together to show further defiance to frustrate the hosts Australia.

What made the draw all the impressive, was that Vihari suffered a hamstring injury, his 23 was scored off 161 balls.

The Sunrisers Hyderabad man is almost certain to miss the fourth test in Brisbane.

Fellow spinner Ravi Jadeja is also likely to be absent for the fourth test after the 32-year old all-rounder suffered a fractured thumb. As impressive as this spirited draw has been, it seems to have come at a cost for India.

As for the hosts Australia, their usually potent bowling attack was blunted by India’s rearguard. Three drop catches by Aussie skipper Tim Paine, didn’t help their cause.

What the world champions can take from this performance is that debutant Will Puckovski scored a debut 50 and looks like he belongs at this level, and Steve Smith returned to form after a barren scoring run in this series.

So as disappointing as this draw was there were some positives for sure. Australia produced a brilliant battling display to come back from the disappointment of the second test.

As entertaining as the third test was, there was an incident of apparent racism. India players reported that members of the crowd. This is an allegation at this point, one would hope this isn’t the case.

Australia, have hosted a brilliant test series, and the last thing we want is for this test to be remembered for matters off the pitch. The fourth test between the two sides starts on 15th January.

Crawley stun Leeds in shock of the round in FA Cup

League two side Crawley, produced one of the biggest shocks in recent FA Cup history, with an emphatic 3-0 against Leeds.

The Lillywhites who are in mid-table in the Premier League, were fielding a weaker side. Having said that, the Yorkshire side did include Rodrigo, Kalvin Phillips and Ezgjan Alioski in their side.

So they did have some of their first team squad at their disposal. What would have been alarming for the visitors, is that the League Two underdogs Crawley could have scored even more.

There was no such look for Morecambe, the Lancashire side were well beaten by Premier League side Chelsea 4-0.

Goals from Tino Werner (His first since November), amongst others helped The Blues through in this one.

Former winners Manchester City capped off a good week, with a convincing 3-0 win over Birmingham.

City’s rivals Tottenham, who were facing Non-League Marine, ended up winning 5-0 in a match that could have been difficult for Spurs.

Marine, did well to get this far and were rewarded with a glamour tie with North London side Tottenham.

In a show of respect by Spurs boss Jose Mourinho, the Portuguese boss did field a starting line up that has 402 international caps between them.

The beauty of the cup, is still alive and going going strong. We will bring you the FA Cup fourth and fifth round draw, which takes place on Monday 19:00.