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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 16 December, 2018

Mourinho's gritty masterclasses and more Premier League talking points

Plus Roy Hodgson’s steady impact at Crystal Palace and Chelsea back on track following a dismal start to the campaign.

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League - Old Trafford Anthony Martial has averaged a goal every 67 minutes this season. Source: Martin Rickett

1. Will Anthony Martial’s impressive record off the bench materialise into a starting position?

When Anthony Martial took to the field against Tottenham with 20 minutes to go on Saturday afternoon there was no immediate expectation that the French forward would be the difference between the sides, following a tense affair where the deadlock simply couldn’t be broken. However perhaps there should have been.

When he jinked the ball past Hugo Lloris following an expert headed knock-on from Romelu Lukaku after 81 minutes it was the fourth time the 21-year-old had scored off the bench for Manchester United this season.

Martial has played 271 minutes in the Premier League this season in nine appearances — three of which were off the bench.

With team-mate Lukaku hitting a dip in form which has seen the Belgian fail to score in his last three league appearances, with one in his last five appearances in all competitions, perhaps Mourinho will be considering giving his brilliant impact sub an opportunity to lead the line from the front.

This raises two key questions — would Martial be up to the task and could Mourinho bear to drop a player his club spent £75 million on a matter of months ago. Lukaku’s pedigree as a proven Premier League striker speaks for itself, but a point is reached where Martial’s consistent scoring rates off the bench are rewarded with a starting position.

This then begs the question as to could Mourinho fit both into his starting eleven, where would this leave Marcus Rashford, at what point this Zlatan Ibrahimovic return to the equation and would the United boss just be better off continuing to bring Martial in off the bench?

There could be few scarier thoughts for a Premier League centre back than having to deal with the task of keeping Lukaku quiet, only to realise the pace and precision of Martial is warming up with 20 minutes to go.

2. Roy of the Rovers for Zaha as Hodgson’s revival continues at Palace

‘Character’ was the word Roy Hodgson used to describe Crystal Palace’s pulsating 2-2 draw with West Ham yesterday after Wilfried Zaha drew the sides level in the 97th minute with virtually the last kick of the game.

The manager had to think about whether or not the draw felt better than his side’s win against Chelsea a fortnight ago — the side’s first win of the season at the eighth time of asking.

“I don’t know if it’s sweeter than the win over Chelsea,” he said. “But I do think it’s showed me this team has more character than they’ve sometimes been credited for.”

Crystal Palace v West Ham United - Premier League - Selhurst Park Roy Hodgson has earned four points from nine since taking over at Selhurst Park. Source: John Walton

His side has shown a lot more of that quality “character”, a word which has all but lost meaning following the post-match antics of Brendan Rodgers during his tenure at Liverpool.

But clawing back a point after his side had fallen 2-0 down in front of their own supporters at Selhurst Park does confirm his point that there is more to Palace than meets the eye.

The team has not given a proper account of itself this season, losing all seven of its opening games. Indeed the fact that they still sit rock bottom of the Premier League show there is still an Everest-sized mountain to climb for them not to be relegated.

But it is significant that Hodgson’s introduction in the dugout has had an immediate impact — sooner, rather than later, many would say. A succession of defeats straight away following the sacking of Frank De Boor could have been too much to turn around for the ex-England boss.

Palace were without both Mamadou Sakho and James McArthur in yesterday’s 2-2 draw and still managed to stand the test and not give in after Andrew Ayew slotted in a second, as Slaven Bilić’s side looked to be cantering towards a comfortable three points.

Zaha’s late leveller seven minutes into stoppage time meant the draw felt like a loss, Bilic said afterwards, but it also meant it felt like a win for Palace.

They remain bottom of the table, but more performances showing the same determination and persistence which was on display on Saturday might mean relegation is not the absolute certainty it looked a month ago.

3. Jose’s negative tactics prove his naysayers wrong — again

Criticise Jose Mourinho at your own choice and will, but it comes to a point where the Portuguese shows his managerial pedigree time and time again, with yesterday’s 1-0 win against Tottenham a perfect example of his expertise at grinding out a result when it was needed most.

It’s never going to be pretty with a Mourinho side, but there is something perversely admirable about his dedication to that ugly, win-at-all-costs type of performance which has yielded him league titles and European silverware almost everywhere he has went across the continent.

The United boss received a backlash of criticism following their 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield a fortnight ago, as many took a heated dislike to his unwillingness to attack a vulnerable defensive unit which had a shambolic Dejan Lovren positioned at its heart.

Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League - Old Trafford It wasn't pretty, but once again Manchester United got the job done against Tottenham. Source: Dave Thompson

Essentially, Liverpool were there for the taking and Mourinho would not budge from his principles, with the following week’s defeat to Huddersfield only heaping further pressure on his shoulders to change his tactics.

For 80 minutes at Old Trafford yesterday afternoon United and Tottenham huffed and puffed in an even game where it seemed like nothing could separate the sides, and that a point would be shared.

Under normal circumstances a point against a Spurs side which finished seven points off top spot last season would be an acceptable result. However the ramifications for both sides — meaning Manchester City would extend their lead at the summit to seven points — meant they both had to go for the jugular and claim three points for themselves.

Dele Alli could have sealed a win for Spurs with a slight touch on a Christian Eriksen cross after 78 minutes and a few short moments later Romelu Lukaku struck the post with a header.

It looked like United would be dropping points for the third week in a row — draw, loss, draw. But following the introduction of Anthony Martial and his smart finish 11 minutes later, United had their goal and Mourinho a massive three points stashed in his back pocket.

The manager stuck to his guns, following a fortnight which some said could have derailed United’s title bid, and grabbed a three points which not only reaffirms their grip on second ahead of Spurs, but also keeps the heat on rivals City in first.

When the pressure was at its highest he stuck to his guns, and when it was needed most Mourinho got the win he needed.

4.Back in the top four, Chelsea continue to make up ground following early season woe

Chelsea’s title defence got off to the worst possible start this season.

After losing the Community Shield to Arsenal, Antonio Conte’s side lost to Burnley and dropped two more points at home to Arsenal, before losing back-to-back against bottom-placed Crystal Palace and league leaders Manchester City.

AFC Bournemouth v Chelsea - Premier League - Vitality Stadium Eden Hazard celebrates giving Chelsea the lead at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday. Source: Steven Paston

That poor tide of form seems to be slowly turning, however.

Following that shock 2-1 defeat to Roy Hodgson’s Palace — the side’s first win of the season following seven consecutive defeats — Chelsea have won back-to-back in the Premier League on top of an EFL Cup win and a draw at home to Roma in the Champions League.

The second half of October has been a lot kinder than the fortnight that preceded it, with this recent run of form edging the champions slowly further up the table.

Yesterday’s 1-0 win away to Bournemouth means they enter the top four for the very first time this season, and are also now just nine points off top spot.

The reasons for Conte’s side’s sluggish start have been numerous — a lack of squad depth, ill-discipline resulting in three red cards and 15 yellow cards in their opening 10 games this season (Chelsea didn’t suffer a single sending off en route to the title last season), and also untimely injuries.

Eden Hazard’s strike six minutes after the break was the difference against struggling Bournemouth. Chelsea dominated the opening half, but that did not mean the final exchanges were not nervy for boss Conte.

Back-to-back wins in the league have put his side back on course following a disastrous start to the campaign which is slowly receding into the horizon with each passing matchday.

5. No end in sight for Everton’s misery as Toffees drop into relegation zone

Everton dominated Leicester in possession (59%) and shots during Sunday evening’s 2-0 defeat. However their 16 shots mattered little in the end, as their opponents converted three shots on target into two goals.

Leicester City v Everton - Premier League - King Power Stadium Wayne Rooney reacts after being substituted during Everton's 2-0 defeat on Sunday evening. Source: Mike Egerton

The Toffees were managerless as interim boss David Unsworth took to the dugout to see Jamie Vardy and 21-year-old Demarai Gray put his side to the sword in a display which contained numerous elements of the old, title-winning Leicester of two seasons ago.

While Leicester march up the table with back-to-back wins and just one defeat in their last six games, Everton slump into the bottom three. Despite the axing of Ronald Koeman last week, there was no immediate impact on the pitch in terms of the result.

The contrast between the sides on Sunday was apt, with both having relieved their managers of their duties in recent weeks. Claude Puel got off to the perfect start, however a vision for a more promising Everton future is not immediately clear.

Many of the fundamental issues which were present under Koeman remain behind after his departure. The side created numerous opportunities in a display full of attacking promise against Leicester, however converting those chances without a defined striker persists.

A season which began with promise and expectancy at Goodison Park has transformed into a Halloween nightmare as they slump into the relegation zone with a -13 goal difference.

Where the current winless run ends is yet to be seen with a tricky away trip to Lyon to come in the Europa League on Thursday.

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Aaron Gallagher

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