Will returning Isak fire Newcastle to the Champions League?
One wonders how much higher up the table Newcastle United would be right now had Alexander Isak been fit for the whole season?
The Sweden striker, bought for £63m from Real Sociedad last summer, scored on his debut at Liverpool in August, only to then suffer a serious hamstring tear just as he was settling in at St James’ Park.
That injury sidelined Isak for the rest of 2022, with the forward missing 16 games in total, before he finally returned in January.
However, since regaining full fitness, the 23-year-old has begun to show the type of form we were seeing from him before his layoff, and after Friday’s night double at the City Ground, he has four goals in his last two matches for the club.
His manager Eddie Howe now seems to have decided to go with Isak ahead of trusted frontman Callum Wilson for the run-in, and you can see why given his impressive scoring rate for the Magpies.
Isak has now scored six Premier League goals in just 10 appearances for the club this season at an impressive rate of a goal every 115 minutes.
Leicester show their quality in second-half turnaround
The writing seemed to be on the wall for the visitors in west London. Leicester’s first-half performance had exhibited their recent issues: a lack of cutting edge in attack and uncertainty at the back.
But a wonderful team goal for the equaliser early in the second half was a reminder of the quality in this squad. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was brilliant in midfield, holding off challenges, James Maddison did what he does best in the pocket, feeding a through pass into the box, and Harvey Barnes was dynamic and then deadly with his finish.
Brendan Rodgers threw both arms up into the sky in delight and in relief. It was the kind of move he relishes.
The goal breathed confidence back into his team and, while there was no winner, which would have substantially boosted their standing in the relegation fight, they denied Brentford a shot on target in the second half to secure the result. This will go down as a positive step for a side surely too good to go down.
Brentford have raised expectations
Brentford have gone unbeaten in 10 Premier League home games in a row. They are level on points with seventh-placed Brighton in the race for Europe. Yet the feeling at full-time in their draw with Leicester was one of frustration. That’s a mark of how Thomas Frank has raised the standards for this side.
Brentford have not won a game they have had more possession in this season and again on Saturday they were unable to turn their extra time on the ball into victory. Frank admitted afterwards his forward players had failed to fire and perhaps that leads onto questions about the creativity behind them.
But in the first half they caused chaos in the Leicester box with their direct play and perhaps the second-half drop-off can be attributed in part to the exertions in midweek.
Frank looked tired in his post-match press conference and maybe the international break has come at a good time for Brentford, providing the chance to refresh their minds and bodies for the final 11-game push, where they will hope to at least consolidate their high league position.
“Yes and no, because I know what this group of players are capable of,” said Frank when asked if his team were exceeding expectations. He and his team are ambitions but in the bigger perspective, Brentford’s tremendous season needs to be appreciated.
Bournemouth’s soft underbelly exposed
Confidence would have been high among the Bournemouth squad after impressive performances against Arsenal and Liverpool. They are still very much in with a chance of surviving relegation – but defeat at Aston Villa will be bruising.
They were undone by a slow start to the game – Douglas Luiz scoring inside seven minutes – and a lack of concentration in the final quarter of an hour as Jacob Ramsey and Emi Buendia wrapped things up for Villa.
But for the bits in between, Bournemouth often matched an Aston Villa side looking up rather than down. The home defence needed to be sharp and made some crucial interceptions, while Emi Martinez’s superb save from Philip Billing’s free-kick served a timely reminder of his World Cup-winning pedigree.
Aston Villa simply looked like a high quality, slicker team and they punished Bournemouth for their errors. The Cherries’ defending from set-pieces in particularly certainly left a lot to be desired at times.
While the big results and wins are crucial – as well as core memories for fans – it is the weekly grind of trips to teams like Aston Villa or Brentford, for example, that can make or break a season. You have to perform in each of them to have any chance of survival.
While Bournemouth’s soft underbelly was certainly exposed at Villa Park, they showed they do have the quality to stay up. They must now put those positives to good use.
Gnonto back in the team and having an impact
Wilfried Gnonto was dropped to the bench for the games against Chelsea and Brighton but having been restored to the starting line-up he was a difference maker for Leeds in their 4-2 win against Wolves. It was Gnonto who set up the opening goal for Jack Harrison.
His cross made Harrison’s task fairly straightforward and it was the third time that the winger had troubled Wolves despite the goal coming in only the sixth minute of the match. Allowed to isolate his marker, the Italy international is a real weapon for Leeds.
That freedom has not always been there for Gnonto. It had become so obvious that the team were reliant on him to create that he was receiving a lot of attention. Perhaps those two games out of the team helped because Wolves were not ready to deal with him.
Wolves must focus on their own mistakes
Julen Lopetegui pointed to the decision not to award Wolves a penalty for a foul by Junio Firpo on Nelson Semedo that even injured the right-back and was left just as baffled that the referee did not overturn Leeds’ fourth goal despite being asked to go to the monitor.
The shirt tug on Adama Traore was clear and with this frustration coming so soon after the non-award of a penalty for Nick Pope’s foul on Raul Jimenez at Newcastle, Lopetegui probably has a fair claim when he says that the margins are going against his side.
However, it is their own failings rather than those of the officials that should be a bigger concern for the Spaniard. Wolves had enough openings against Leeds to get something from this game despite conceding four at the other end but still lack a cutting edge.
They scored two, a 41-yard lob and a deflected shot, but it was the misses that will linger – Raul Jimenez failing to find the net from inside the six-yard box, Pablo Sarabia passing wide with the goal gaping. It has been going on too long now to expect it to turn.
Such wastefulness means Wolves must be solid defensively to win matches – the majority of their wins this season have been 1-0. But once Craig Dawson was substituted, organisation at the back was lacking. Bad in both boxes. It is a combination that risks relegation.