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McCarthy's return a reminder of late coach's contribution to Irish football and more Premier League talking points

Plus Mohamed Salah’s brilliance and Jose Mourinho’s critics growing louder following back-to-back draws.

1. McCarthy’s return a poignant reminder of late coach’s contribution to Irish football

James McCarthy returned to first-team action today, making just his second Premier League start of 2017, after a nightmare spell out with injuries.

The comeback did not go exactly according to plan — McCarthy gave the ball away in the lead up to Bournemouth’s opening goal, before being replaced by Wayne Rooney at half-time in a game that the Toffees ultimately lost 2-1.

Nonetheless the fact that he is at least fit enough for first-team action is encouraging from an Everton and Ireland perspective — at his best, the player is capable of contributing significantly for both club and country. He was, for instance, one of Ireland’s standout performers in the 1-0 win over Italy last summer, and the Boys in Green would at the very least probably not been beaten so badly by Denmark in the World Cup play-offs had McCarthy been fully fit and available to protect the backline for the full 90 minutes.

James McCarthy A teenage McCarthy pictured lining out for Ireland in 2007. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

In addition, there was an added sense of poignancy about McCarthy returning this afternoon on a day when news emerged of the sad passing of Seán McCaffrey.

The late football coach played a key role in McCarthy declaring for Ireland and thus had a major influence on the player’s career, helping to develop him at underage level before the Glasgow native went on to bigger and better things.

- Paul Fennessy

2. Salah unquestionably the signing of the season

While Liverpool’s defence remains a work in progress, there are not many better attacking teams out there at the moment.

In Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, only Man City and PSG have scored more goals. A major reason for this stat is the presence in the team of Mo Salah.

After his match-winning brace against Leicester this afternoon, Salah moved within one goal of Premier League top scorer Harry Kane.

As Opta have pointed out, the Egypt international has more goals in all competitions than eight Premier League teams this season.

His 23 goals before the New Year now bring him level with club-record holder and Liverpool legend Roger Hunt.

The one drawback from today’s match from a Liverpool perspective was news emerging afterwards that a knock Salah picked up means he is in danger of missing out on their upcoming trip to Burnley.

Without Salah last season, the Reds struggled at times to break down the Premier League’s weaker sides.

Today’s match with Claude Puel’s side was the type of game they would likely have lost or drawn last season.

Jurgen Klopp’s team can consequently scarcely afford to be without Salah for too long. The 25-year-old provides his side with a much-needed x factor.

- Paul Fennessy

3. Encouraging start for Carlos Carvalhal

Watford v Swansea City - Premier League - Vicarage Road Swansea City manager Carlos Carvalhal celebrates after the Premier League match at Vicarage Road. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

There were some raised eyebrows when Carlos Carvalhal was appointed Swansea manager recently.

The Portuguese coach was only sacked on Christmas Eve, after two years in charge of Sheffield Wednesday.

Skeptics questioned the ambition of a Premier League club appointing a manager who ultimately failed to cut it in the Championship.

Yet the move has paid off in the short term at least, with Swansea picking up an impressive 2-1 win away to Watford this afternoon.

 “We tried everything to win. Watford are very strong. We felt a little lucky in moments, but Watford were lucky also,” Carvalhal told the BBC afterwards.

“The game is like this, but we prepared very well, changed the formation and had just two training sessions with the team.

“I must give congratulations to my players. They are better players than they are showing. They need a plan and a dynamic. During the game they were better and better.”

Of course, there is still plenty of work to do with the club sitting second from bottom on 16 points.

Five managers have been sacked by the Welsh club in the past four years, and Carvalhal has a huge task on his hands if he is to successfully buck this worrying trend.

- Paul Fennessy

4. Shane Long ends 2017 without breaking goal drought

It seems so much longer than a year and a half ago that Irish fans poured into France with the chant of ‘Shane Long’s on fire’ on their lips for what promised to be a magical summer of football at the European Championships.

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League - Old Trafford Phil Jones alongside Shane Long. Source: Dave Thompson

The forward had been the orchestrator of that unforgettable win against Germany and had just come to the end of his second successful season at Southampton where he had managed 10 Premier League goals.

Jump forward 18 months and not only had Long failed to score in France as Ireland’s most potent attacking threat, but as we come to the end of 2017 it will have been close to 10 months since he scored a goal at all.

The 30-year-old will know that more than anyone else in the world and will be pining for a fresh start in 2018.

Saturday saw the forward come in against Manchester United in the absence of Charlie Austin and despite a brilliant individual performance where Long ran himself into the ground at Old Trafford, he simply couldn’t nick a goal.

He ran and he ran, he put defenders under pressure and was an utter menace to Phil Jones throughout on Saturday.

But he just couldn’t convert and beat David de Gea, who pulled off one particular save to deflect the ball over the bar which looked all but impossible and deny the striker when it looked like the drought would finally come to a close.

Long has played below himself in 2017 but if he continues with displays such as that on Saturday against Man United, everything else should fall into place and, finally, the goals will come again in 2018.

- Aaron Gallagher

5. The tide of public opinion is swinging firmly against Mourinho

When he does one day retire, Jose Mourinho will be remembered as one of the greatest managers of the last two decades.

One of the many elements which defines his management style is in harnessing a siege mentality surrounding his teams — both within the dressing room and with supporters.

Manchester United v Southampton - Premier League - Old Trafford Source: Martin Rickett

Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously said he would die for Mourinho such was his unfaltering loyalty to his boss at Inter Milan, but now all voices seem to be unifying into one against the Portuguese.

Blaming referees, the media and the spending power of other clubs has not won the United boss any loud supporters over the last few months, and one begins to wonder which result will break the camel’s back.

Saturday’s 0-0 stalemate at home to Southampton sparked a chorus of boos ringing around the stands at Old Trafford, as United fell 15 points behind league leaders Man City and into third spot.

Even during his darkest days at Chelsea and Inter, Mourinho could almost always rely on the backing of his players and supporters to see them through with unwavering commitment and loyalty.

Frustration is now building like a runaway freight train as United supporters watch their city rivals go from strength to strength while they continue to fall further and further behind, with their manager unwilling to take responsibility.

Great leaders are forged in times of adversity but at the moment it’s difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel for Mourinho in a season where the title is all but wrapped up five months before the coronation ceremony.

- Aaron Gallagher

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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