It’s 2023 and club football is back with a bang! Newcastle United and Arsenal have underlined their Premier League title credentials with a series of impressive performances, while in LaLiga one of the Qatar World Cup‘s most infamous characters was back in the spotlight again.
ESPN correspondents Julien Laurens, James Tyler, Mark Ogden and Sam Marsden break down the big stuff you need to know about the weekend.
Howe’s impressive Toon turnaround
Newcastle fell short of winning seven successive Premier League games for the first time since 1996 with Leeds United holding Eddie Howe’s team to a 0-0 draw at St James’ Park on Saturday, but the result was only a minor glitch at the end of an incredible year for the club.
On Jan 1, 2022, Newcastle were second bottom of the Premier League with 11 points — and just one win — from 19 games, but a year on, they sit in third position and now harbour genuine hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, 19 years after last playing in the competition.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Newcastle’s resurgence under Howe is perhaps best illustrated by the calendar year table for the Premier League in 2022. They collected 72 points from 36 games, with only Manchester City (79), Liverpool and Arsenal (both 77) amassing more points between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31.
To go from relegation candidates to Champions League chasers in such a short space of time isn’t unique — Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 after narrowly avoiding relegation in 2015 — but Newcastle’s turnaround has been beyond all expectations.
The investment from the club’s new Saudi Arabia-backed owners has clearly made a difference, but Newcastle have not benefited from the kind of instant financial transformation enjoyed by Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea or Man City following Sheikh Mansour’s takeover in 2008.
Newcastle’s improvement has largely been down to Howe making under-performing players realise their potential, but they must now keep it going and 2023 couldn’t start much tougher than Tuesday’s visit to Arsenal. — Ogden
Steve Nicol expects Newcastle United to maintain their excellent start and challenge for the Premier League’s top four.
Lahoz stars as Barca surrender LaLiga lead
Officiating his first LaLiga game since his controversial outing in the World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and Netherlands, Lahoz handed out 15 yellow cards, sent off two players and overturned a third red card after referring to the VAR.
Marcos Alonso had given Barca an early lead, but the game boiled over after Lahoz awarded an Espanyol a 73rd minute penalty, leading to 10 minutes of madness.
Joselu converted from the spot before the cards started flying out, with Jordi Alba sent off for Barca and Vinicius Souza for the away side. Espanyol’s Leandro Cabrera was also sent off for an apparent stamp on Robert Lewandowski but the decision was reversed.
Barca coach Xavi Hernandez said Lahoz “lost control” of the game, but he did not blame him for the dropped points, conceding that it was Barca’s fault they had drawn the match.
It means the Blaugrana are now level with Madrid at the top of LaLiga after a Karim Benzema double helped them see off Real Valladolid on Friday. The striker has struggled with injuries this season — missing the World Cup with France — but he could be key in the title race in the second half of the campaign — Marsden
Mateu Lahoz’s last two games 😮 pic.twitter.com/fHEuHN6rfy
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 1, 2023
Lens ensure PSG start 2023 with a loss
It was the perfect clash to open the new year. Lens vs. Paris Saint-Germain, second vs. first, Franck Haise vs. Christophe Galtier — two French managers — head-to-head, intensity vs. flair, collective strength vs. Kylian “best player in the world” Mbappe, no Lionel Messi or Neymar but one of the best atmospheres in the world at the Stade Bollaert. And it didn’t disappoint.
Lens put out a master class tactically to prevent PSG from playing or creating chances, pressing them when needed and closing down the influence of Mbappe. The tactics, in addition to the Lensois’ usual work-rate, intensity, heart and constant movement proved too much for Galtier’s side.
Seko Fofana, the Lens captain, Paris born and bred, was outstanding, like all his teammates. They wanted a win more than the Parisians, who got frustrated and were too below their usual level, especially without Messi and Neymar, to be able to cope with everything their opponent threw at them.
PSG’s first defeat of the season is going to hurt a lot even if they are still four points clear of Lens. But for Lens, Sunday’s 3-1 victory will stay forever in the minds. — Laurens
PSG lose their first game of 2023 😳 pic.twitter.com/OVxoYE3P5q
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 1, 2023
New year, same old Spurs
Just when it seems as though Tottenham Hotspur are turning a corner, they turn in a performance that makes you wonder why you believed in them in the first place.
Sunday saw Spurs ring in the new year with a frustrating 2-0 home defeat to Aston Villa that was both self-inflicted and fully deserved. After a first half with plenty of sterile possession and little to show for it, Hugo Lloris fumbled a fairly benign shot from distance and Ollie Watkins beat a lethargic Eric Dier to the loose ball and squared it neatly for Emi Buendia to calmly open the scoring. You’d think it would wake the home side up, but Harry Kane and Ivan Perisic both squandered good chances before Villa’s best move of the day sliced Tottenham up the middle. After Kane lost the ball cheaply inside the Spurs half, some clever interplay by John McGinn and Douglas Luiz culminated in Luiz sending a shot beyond a flailing Lloris to make a safe lead virtually guaranteed.
The defeat means Tottenham have taken just four points from their last four league games and have squandered any edge in the race for the top four, with Manchester United and Liverpool catching up having both won twice in the league since the end of the World Cup break. Antonio Conte claimed postmatch that he wasn’t upset at proceedings — “From the start until the end I have seen the right commitment, the right intensity and desire to get three points” — but this team is limping into the January transfer window with some clear needs (in particular a creative playmaker in midfield) and no sense of whether or not they will go out and get it. You can bet their rivals will, though. — Tyler
Janusz Michallik sees Tottenham’s top four hopes slipping away after defeat to Aston Villa.
Atletico’s Morata back with a bang
Atletico Madrid‘s World Cup stars returned in style as they moved back into the top four with a 2-0 win against rock bottom Elche on Thursday, complete with a fine individual effort from Alvaro Morata.
There appeared little danger when he picked up a Griezmann pass wide on the right, but he produced two brilliant feints to beat two defenders before his admittedly heavily deflected shot found the back of the net.
After a hot and cold start to the campaign, coach Diego Simeone will hope this win can provide the platform to a sustained run of form in the new year. — Marsden
Golovin, from Monaco with love
Aleksandr Golovin is just that kind of player, isn’t he? He is capable of the absolute best, as we saw Sunday, but often — maybe too often — anonymous for 90 minutes and more.
But when he is on, he is a very special player. And he was very much on against Brest at the Stade Louis II this weekend. His magnificent goal just after the break, with a lovely piece of skill on the edge of the box and then a wonderful strike on the top corner, was decisive again. It is only his fourth goal of the season in 16 Ligue 1 games. He also has four assists, and he could have added at least one more Sunday seeing how inspired he was with the ball.
We should enjoy him and these kinds of performances when they come, but we can also bemoan the fact that he doesn’t do it enough. Since joining AS Monaco in the summer of 2018, after a good World Cup, he has only scored 20 goals in 153 appearances. But, at 26 years old, it is not too late for Golovin to become more consistent and finally get to the next level. His talent certainly deserves it, and Monaco have been waiting long enough for it now! — Laurens
WHAT A SHOT 😳 ALEKSANDR GOLOVIN GIVES MONACO THE LEAD! 🙌🔥
— beIN SPORTS USA (@beINSPORTSUSA) January 1, 2023
Rashford responds in the right way
The 25-year-old had been surprisingly dropped by manager Erik ten Hag for “internal disciplinary reasons” — it turned out that Rashford had overslept on the day of the game and missed a team meeting — so the pressure was on him to deliver after Ten Hag had given him the chance to make amends with the game at 0-0.
Rashford made an instant impact, though, by adding pace and purpose to United’s attacking play and he won all three points by scoring the only goal of the game late in the second half.
Receiving the ball on the near touchline, Rashford burst towards the penalty area, played a one-two with Bruno Fernandes and then beat goalkeeper Jose Sa with a cool finish for his third goal in three games since returning from the World Cup.
It was the goal of a player with lots of confidence, but also a big moment because his performance showed that he had reacted in the right way to Ten Hag’s decision to drop him. — Ogden
Goalscorer 🤝 Matchwinner
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) December 31, 2022
Teams in trouble
Leicester City need some help
The Foxes scored three goals Friday at Anfield, but because two of them were own goals converted with equal parts aplomb and calamity by Wout Faes, Brendan Rodgers’ side suffered a second straight league defeat after the World Cup. It’s not terminal, by any means — just 10 points separate 11th place from 20th — but Leicester are rapidly losing any margin for error. Against Liverpool, they raced to a 1-0 lead inside five minutes after some nifty collaboration between Patson Daka and Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, but Faes’ ignominious double before half-time put them in a hole they never looked like clearing.
(And can we marvel at Faes for a moment? The first OG was a slapstick shank over Danny Ward when the goalkeeper had yelled loudly enough to claim the cross that everyone in the ground heard but the Belgian defender. The second was the epitome of “life comes at you fast” as Darwin Nunez‘s emphatic shot pinged off the post right into Faes, who could only bundle it into his own net.)
It’s true they won’t lose to multiple own goals every week but, combined with Boxing Day’s 3-0 home thrashing by Newcastle, Rodgers & Co. need a spark from somewhere and it remains to be seen just where it’s coming from. Jamie Vardy, long the scorer of crucial goals, has just one in the league this season from 17 games. Daka, who had the assist Friday, has just three in 16 appearances. It’s simply not good enough, especially as their defense is always liable to concede. Things were far too easy for Liverpool once they took the lead before half-time, but the next month should give the Foxes every chance to recalibrate: Games against Fulham, Nottingham Forest, Brighton and Aston Villa can enable them to get points over potential relegation rivals before a brutal February sees them face Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal in consecutive matchdays. — Tyler
Sampaoli’s Sevilla slump continues
It could have been much worse, too, after Gabri Veiga gave Celta, who are also in trouble themselves, a first half lead. Kike Salas did draw Sevilla level after the break, but they were hanging on at the end after Jose Angel Carmona was sent off.
Sevilla finished fourth last year and were in the Champions League this season, so it is remarkable that after 15 games they remain in the bottom three with just two wins and 12 points. Their performances can no longer be put down to just a blip in form. — Marsden
Odegaard showing leadership with the Gunners
Erling Haaland isn’t the only Norway international tearing it up in the Premier League this season — Arsenal captain Martin Odegaard is also having a huge impact and he could yet help his team win the title at Haaland and Manchester City’s expense.
The Gunners midfielder was once billed as a potential world star, just like Haaland, when he joined Real Madrid as a 16-year-old.
But while his big move to the Santiago Bernabeu never quite took off, Odegaard, now 24, is making up for lost time at Arsenal and he delivered the latest in a series of big performances during Saturday’s 4-2 win at Brighton.
Odegaard scored one and made another for Gabriel Martinelli as Arsenal capitalised on City being held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to claim a victory which moves them seven points clear at the top of the table.
And Odegaard is crucial to the way Mikel Arteta’s team play, with his passing vision and growing leadership skills making him one of the outstanding players of the Premier League season so far.
When he was handed the captaincy last season by Arteta, Odegaard seemed too young and inexperienced to emulate great Arsenal captains such as Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira, but he is now showing himself to be a worthy successor. — Ogden