Eden Hazard used as striker as Chelsea lost against Liverpool

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Many Chelsea supporters have called for Callum Hudson-Odoi to be given more first team opportunities. Maurizio Sarri has finally begun to oblige, putting his faith in the 18-year-old in recent games. However, this has brought up another conundrum for the Italian manager: with Willian in fine form and Eden Hazard being Chelsea’s main man, it’s difficult to drop either of them.

Rather than doing that, Sarri started all three today, with Hazard playing as a makeshift striker, while Hudson-Odoi and Willian operated from the wings. The plan of action could have been deployed because Sarri didn’t believe Gonzalo Higuain or Oliver Giroud weren’t up to the job against Liverpool or simply to get all three wingers into the side. The only thing that is certain is it didn’t work.

Joel Matip and Virgil van Dijk marshalled Hazard very well throughout the game, as he struggled to make his usual impact. It was only when Hudson-Odoi was substituted for Higuain in the 56th minute, which meant Hazard was moved back to the wing, that the Belgian began to thrive. With Chelsea failing to get on the score sheet in a 2-0 at Anfield, it was too little too late. However, there is definitely a lesson to be learned.

Hazard has played as the central figure of Chelsea’s attacks in other games during this season, with varying levels of success. He scored twice in a win against Watford from the centre and also assisted twice against Manchester City from the same position. However, with Hazard being Chelsea’s greatest and most threatening player, he should surely be deployed in the position he plays his best football in, which is undoubtedly from the wing.

As well as potentially detracting from Hazard’s game, playing him in a central role can also be of detriment to his team mates. While he has impeccable control, he doesn’t have the height of someone like Giroud, meaning his team mates don’t have the option of clipping in a high ball for him to battle for in the air.

While Sarri does like to have his team play a passing game, which involves keeping the ball on the floor, Jorginho likes to send a dinked ball into the front man to move the play on. Hazard is usually the beneficiary of these kinds of balls, as his link up play with whoever is occupying the striker spot allows him to get in behind defences once the initial ball has been flicked on.

Today’s loss means that Chelsea are relying on Arsenal and Manchester United losing their games in hand to retain their top four status. With four more Premier League matches remaining, one of which will see them travel to Old Trafford, the Blues can’t afford anymore slip ups if they’re going to get back into the Champions League through the Premier League.

Though before they focus on the league run in, Chelsea will face Slavia Prague in the Europa League on Thursday, a competition which offers them an alternative route into Europe’s primary competition.

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Sarri to put more trust in Chelsea’s youngsters?

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One of the things Maurizio Sarri has been most criticised for this season is his unwillingness to trust youngsters. Callum Hudson-Odoi was the main absentee who got people talking about this, but there are other examples within the Chelsea team.

With the potential of a transfer ban looming, if Sarri remains as Chelsea manager past this season he will need to start using the talented academy graduates at his disposal. Throughout the campaign it seemed as though this was something the Italian wasn’t happy to do, though Thursday’s win against Brighton & Hove Albion could be the signal for change.

Sarri had declared Hudson-Odoi ready to play shortly before the Brighton game. He ended up giving the teenager his first ever Premier League start, while also giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek his first league start of 2019.

Both players duly repaid his trust. Hudson-Odoi assisted the opening goal of the game when he breezed part Anthony Knockaert, before firing a low ball into Olivier Giroud who bundled the ball home.

Having scored a controversial winner against Cardiff City, Loftus-Cheek was the scorer of Chelsea’s final goal as they won 3-0. He received the ball from Eden Hazard on the turn before calmly side footing it into the top corner from outside the box.

Both of the goal contributions from the Chelsea youngsters were executed with supreme skill and confidence. They must have seen this game as a chance to prove they should be in the line up for the latter stages of this season; they certainly took the opportunity to show what they’re capable of.

The question now is whether Sarri will continue to play them from the start of games in the league. Both players have impressed numerous times in the Europa League and with their latest performance, it would seem they’ve done everything possible to force their manager’s hand.

Tomorrow night will see Chelsea host West Ham United, with a chance to go from fifth to third in the table- though Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal will both have a game in hand on them. Each match between now and the end of the season will be vital for Chelsea going forward, as well as for Sarri’s job security. If he decides to play the youngsters against West Ham and beyond it will be a sign that he truly trusts them.

There is of course plenty more talent outside of Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi, which Sarri can utilise this season and next if he wishes. The likes of Andreas Christensen and Ethan Ampadu, 22 and 18 years old respectively, are likely to be deployed in the Europa League and could be used sparingly in the league.

Looking ahead to next season, players such as Tammy Abraham, Reece James and Mason Mount -who have all impressed on loan in the Championship this campaign- could all be brought back into the Chelsea fold.

Chelsea have had an incredible talent production line for years, which has been criminally under used by those in the Chelsea hot seat. Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek could be heading up the group that finally make their mark on the first team.

 

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Denis Suarez hits back at critics

Denis Suarez

Denis Suarez has played just 91 minutes of football out of a possible 900 since joining Arsenal on loan from Barcelona. The most time he’s played in one match was 25 minutes on his debut against Manchester City and there have been four times where he hasn’t come off the bench at all.

Having not started a single match, many tongues in the English media began wagging. The suggestion from some was that Suarez wasn’t impressing manager Unai Emery in training, which was the supposed reason behind his lack of time on the pitch.

However, the Spaniard recently hit back at those suggestions on his Instagram story, saying: “Don’t talk about my workouts if you have no idea”. This isn’t the first time he’s publicly condemned talk of his shortcomings. When rumours arose that Arsenal wanted to send him back to Barcelona, he responded, again through his Instagram story: “Let them keep talking” with a shushing emoji.

That he has been so vocal and ready to fight for his place in the Arsenal team should be an encouraging sign for the Gunners faithful. With eight matches coming up in April, Emery will need to rotate his squad to keep them fresh if he is to battle on all fronts. This means that Suarez is likely to be needed. Having him fired up should help him to give his best when he is called upon.

This is already a man with a point to prove. He had impressed while at Barcelona and was supposedly a player who would represent the Catalonian giants for years to come. However, he was unable to get into the team and was sold to Villareal with a buy back clause. Having impressed in yellow, Barcelona activated that clause. He was unable to force his way into the team though, which brought along his loan to Arsenal.

With Suarez now 25-years-old he will need to prove himself in the next few years if he is to make it at the top level. This puts the importance of his loan move to Arsenal into context; if he is able to succeed in North London then this could be the springboard for him to reach the levels expected of him during the early stages of his career.

If he is unable to get into the team, this will surely be seen as a signal of his career stalling. Of course, even if his time in red and white doesn’t turn out to be a success there will be time for him to get back on track. However, having been so close to reaching the top he won’t want to take another step back.

His first chance to claim a place in the Gunners’ starting line up will come on Tuesday in a friendly against Al Nasr. Following that, Arsenal’s first competitive game back following the international break will come against Newcastle United on Monday 1st April. Having ensured his voice would be heard off the pitch, Suarez will be hoping he’ll get the chance to make his mark on it.

 

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Olivier Giroud is being under appreciated at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud’s main reason for leaving Arsenal in 2018 was that he wasn’t happy with the lack of game time he was getting in North London. Though a year on he’s in a pretty similar position, just in Chelsea’s blue rather than red and white.

Having scored a hat trick against Dynamo Kyiv on Thursday, he was put back on Chelsea’s bench for today’s 2-0 loss against Everton. He’s the highest scorer in the Europa League but hasn’t started a single league game in 2019. This all comes after he was laughed at by many for not getting a shot on target during the 2018 World Cup, despite being one of the most influential players in France’s winning squad. He also had impressive link up play with Eden Hazard in the early stages of this season.

He has started just six Premier League matches in the current campaign. The fact that he is in his current position after numerous important contributions feeds into the idea that he is currently being under appreciated and underplayed at club level. Though he has managed to keep his place in France’s national team, as he was called up for their imminent Euro 2020 qualifiers against Moldova and Iceland.

Chelsea have had their fair share of striker troubles since Diego Costa’s departure in 2017. This makes it even more surprising that Giroud has been given so few chances to establish himself as Chelsea’s first choice striker. Maurizio Sarri has even brought Gonzalo Higuain in on loan and put him straight into the team ahead of the Frenchman.

He’s arguably not had the desired impact, as his only goals in the 10 games he’s played in Chelsea’s blue came against Huddersfield Town and Fulham- who are both in the relegation zone. Giroud has started just five matches in the same amount of time but has hit the back of the net five times.

Chelsea have had a kind run in the Europa League, which has arguably helped Giroud’s record in the competition. His team mates Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have also impressed on the European stage this season. This hasn’t been enough for any of the three to be given regular time in the league though.

The January transfer window saw questions begin to circulate as to whether Hudson-Odoi would look to go elsewhere, with Bayern Munich showing interest. There have been indications that a similar situation could occur with Giroud, as the striker recently said there was “no chance” he’ll except his role as a bit part player going forward.

At 32-years-old, Giroud is beginning to approach the latter stages of his career. If he is to get more playing time at the highest level then he will likely have to do so soon. If Higuain continues to fail to hit the back of the net then Giroud should be given the chance to step in. Meanwhile, he will continue to the lead the line in the Europa League, with the next game in the competition coming against Slavia Praha on April 11th.

 

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Arsenal overcome Manchester United

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

It’s been a mixed few days for Arsenal. Thursday saw the Gunners lose out to Rennes, but they recovered from that setback to beat Manchester United 2-0 today.

Thursday night started well for Arsenal, as Alex Iwobi put them ahead after just four minutes. However, Sokratis’ first half dismissal marked the beginning of the Gunners’ capitulation, as goals from Benjamin Bourigeaud and Ismaila Sarr as well as an own goal from Nacho Monreal gave Rennes a two goal lead to take into the second leg.

Meanwhile, Manchester United had one of their greatest nights in years on Wednesday. They overturned a two goal deficit at the Parc de Princes to overcome PSG in the Champions League thanks to Rashford’s late penalty.

However, there was a role reversal for the teams this afternoon. Arsenal’s character is often questioned but they showed plenty of that today to overcome Thursday’s mishap, against a side who have been prolific opponents since Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival.

There was a similarity between this game and the one in France though, as the Gunners established an early lead. Granit Xhaka struck a speculative effort from outside the box 12 minutes into the match. Many would have expected David de Gea to be equal to it -considering the strike wasn’t carrying an extraordinary amount of pace- but the swerve the Swiss international put on the ball fooled the keeper. The ball hit the back of the net, putting the Gunners 1-0 up.

The Red Devils did have chances to bring the scores level. However, the likes of Romelu Lukaku, who had been so prolific in Paris, were unable to put their chances away. In the 69th minute they were made to pay for their lack of clinical edge when Fred was adjudged to have fouled Alexandre Lacazette in the box. The Frenchman gave the ball to his strike partner Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had missed from the spot in the dying moments of the recent North London Derby draw. He made no mistake this time though, as he coolly passed the ball into the net, sending de Gea the wrong way.

Despite the game being fairly even there was never the feeling that United would get back into the game following that moment. There were no more goals in the game, as the Gunners won 2-0, inflicting Solskjær’s first league defeat as Manchester United manager.

This result sees Arsenal go fourth in the league with just seven games of the season remaining. They aren’t able to look too far forward yet though, as Thursday sees them partake in another incredibly important match. They will play the second leg of their Europa League Round of 16 tie against Rennes, needing to come from behind as they did in the last round against BATE Borisov.

Following on from that, their next Premier League match will be at home against Newcastle United on April 1st, after the international break.

 

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Kepa returns to Chelsea’s starting line up

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Kepa Arrizabalaga returned to the Chelsea starting line up today. He was dropped for Chelsea’s 2-0 derby win against Tottenham Hotspur, following the League Cup shenanigans surrounding his substitution- or lack of it. However, he was reinstated for the club’s second London derby in two games, as they won 2-1 against Fulham.

There was a shaky start from the stopper, as in the 18th minute he spilled a ball into the box which should have been taken easily. He got away with his error though, as Ryan Babel (who’d been the ball’s target) turned his back on Kepa. This allowed the Spaniard to retrieve the ball before any further embarrassment could be caused.

10 minutes after that incident, with the score now at 1-0 after Gonzalo Higuain’s opening goal, Kepa made a terrific save. Aleksandar Mitrovic had fired a powerful header towards the top corner, but Kepa was equal to it and tipped it over the bar. However, he won’t have been happy with what followed. Ryan Sessegnon played the ensuing corner short to Babel who sent the ball towards the back post. Calum Chambers was found completely unmarked and scored with a first time finish that the goalkeeper had no chance of stopping.

Jorginho put the men in blue ahead in the 31st minute, giving Chelsea the lead going into half time. Kepa didn’t have that much to do for the majority of the second half, as Chelsea kept Fulham’s attacking talents at bay for large periods of time. The goalkeeper looked comfortable on the ball, as he usually does, passing the ball out from the back in the way Maurizio Sarri desires. He also saved efforts from Tom Cairney and Joe Bryan convincingly.

It wasn’t until the 88th minute when he was truly challenged again. Fulham substitute Floyd Ayite had made a darting run behind the Chelsea defence. The Togo international hooked the ball towards Mitrovic who powered a header towards the goal. The Serbian had plenty of space to aim for, but while it was a good effort, he placed his shot just within Kepa’s range. The Spaniard palmed the ball away from goal well, getting it to safety.

Chelsea were given another defensive scare in the 94th minute. Sessegnon had latched onto the ball in the box after Luciano Vietto had nudged it towards goal. The young Englishman finished well, sending the ball into the net with a first touch finish. However, Chelsea’s three points were saved by the linesman, as he raised his flag flagged for offside.

There were no more real chances in the game and Kepa marked his return to the starting line up with a win, even if he hadn’t quite managed a clean sheet. He may have got back into the team, but it is likely he’ll immediately be back out of it again- though this time not for disciplinary reasons. Chelsea host Dynamo Kyiv in the Europa League on Thursday, meaning Willy Caballero is likely to temporarily return to the Chelsea goal, before Kepa retakes his place between the sticks for Chelsea’s next league match, at home against Wolves.

 

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Manuel Lanzini returns from injury

Manuel Lanzini

West Ham supporters were feeling a bit worried when they went 1-0 down early on against Fulham. However, goals from Javier Hernandez, Issa Diop and Michail Antonio handed the Hammers a 3-1 victory.

The three points –which keeps them in touch with seventh place- will be gratefully received. There is something which will give Hammers fans even more joy though: the return of Manuel Lanzini. The Argentinian international replaced Felipe Anderson in the 76th minute for his first involvement in any game this season.

He had been on the side lines for eight months after rupturing his ACL during Argentina’s preparations for the World Cup in Russia. The timing of the incident was as unfortunate as could be. He’d worked so hard to force his way into the thinking of manager Jorge Sampaoli with dazzling performances in a West Ham shirt.

There were initial fears that he’d miss the entirety of this campaign due to the severity of the injury, so to see him back already is a massive bonus for everyone involved with the club.

The man nicknamed ‘The Jewell’ did show slight signs of rust on his return, as he took too long on the ball when offered a chance in the box and was dispossessed. He also tripped Dennis Odoi in the 83rd minute, picking up a yellow card. When it is considered how long he’s been out of the game he can be let off for needing a little acclimatisation time.

Following the game, he posted a photo of the moment he entered the play. His caption ended with a statement saying: “I want to say thanks to all the fans, I love you”. The feeling is certainly reciprocated by the supporters for a man who is amongst the most technically gifted at the club.

He’s been winning West Ham supporters’ hearts with his skill and trickery since moving to East London from UAE based club Al Jazira on loan in 2015 and permanently the following year. It’s after Dimitri Payet’s departure that he propelled himself to fan favourite status though, as he took over the role of the central creative hub in the side at a time when one was needed more than ever.

It will be hoped that he will now be able to return to a similar role at the tip of Manuel Pellegrini’s three-man midfield. With talents like Anderson and Samir Nasri in the side, there is cause for excitement in regards to the style of football that West Ham will be playing throughout the rest of the season.

It is this that makes the timing of Lanzini’s return so brilliant for everyone at the club. While the initial feeling of having him back on the pitch is nice for supporters, there is a much more important element. He’s coming into the side shortly after West Ham’s disastrous January, but with the Hammers in rich form. The club can still push for seventh place, which could result in a Europa League spot for next season. The feel good factor and technical ability which Lanzini’s return brings the Hammers could be just what the club needs to ensure they get there.

 

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January had a big impact on West Ham’s season

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Things can look very different after a month. With six wins from seven games in December, there was plenty of optimism for West Ham United at the beginning of January. However, an unsettling Marko Arnautovic transfer saga, otherwise uneventful transfer window, FA Cup exit at the hands of AFC Wimbledon and a 3-0 thrashing from Wolverhampton Wanderers have changed the mood in East London.

Many supporters were hoping for a cup run and a chase for European football to add excitement to the end of this campaign. It is being said by many that the second half will be pretty boring for the Hammers though, stating the season is already in danger of fizzling out. It can be difficult for matches to maintain their level of importance unless there is a relegation battle or chase for the top places, it’s a problem which the Hammers have faced in the past and it can be argued will face again this time around.

January begun with Samir Nasri being brought in for free after his doping ban had ended. Despite initial concerns after the considerable length of time he’d spent out of the game there were promising early signs once he got onto the pitch. He’d done well on his debut against Birmingham City in the FA Cup before playing an instrumental role in the victory against his former employers Arsenal. He’s now injured though.

Then there was the Arnautovic drama. The Austrian was linked with a move to China, with his brother adding to the rumours by claiming that West Ham should let him leave. After waving the fans goodbye when taken off against Arsenal, then missing the following games against AFC Bournemouth and AFC Wimbledon it was announced that he’d signed an improved contract to keep him at the club. The contract was announced via a video which was released just after the club’s FA Cup exit, with the forward saying he was “back”. It’s impossible to tell whether his shenanigans were a contributing factor to the club’s recent form but the general feeling is that he’s unsettled those around him. The Wolves game did little to prove otherwise.

With all the talks of exits hanging over the club, there had also been a mention of players who were potentially coming to the London Stadium. Names such as Maxi Gomez have been thrown into the mix and there was mention of potentially bringing someone in on loan from Chelsea. However, when the transfer window ended there were no further recruits aside from Nasri, as Gomez remained at Celta Vigo. There was clear disappointment from many West Ham supporters at the news (or lack of it) as they felt it was an opportunity missed.

The only point gained outside of the win against the Gunners was in a 2-2 draw against Brihgton & Hove Albion. However, as frustrating as January was, it can be argued that this it’s not season ending. The three disappointing results came in the space of 10 days and with the transfer window now closed everyone can get on with the football rather than speculating over moves for now. The FA Cup exit is certainly a big blow, especially considering who is left in the competition this year and it hasn’t helped that two losses against opposition around the Hammers came either side of that shock exit.

However, February brings matches against Crystal Palace, Fulham and Newcastle United. These are all games which West Ham will feel they should be winning and if they do so it could put the men in claret and blue back in with a chance of taking seventh in the league. February –like any other month for a Premier League club- won’t be simple though; the Hammers host Liverpool tomorrow evening and will also face Manchester City. Get wins on the board and some excitement could return to the London Stadium. After all, things can look very different after a month.

 

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Samir Nasri’s brilliant start to life at West Ham United

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There were mixed reactions to the initial news that West Ham United were signing Samir Nasri. Having been banned for doping he began training with the Hammers towards the end of 2018 to earn a contract, with it being announced he had successfully done so at the very beginning of January. Many felt that he wouldn’t be up to the standard after his extended period out of the game. However, Manuel Pellegrini clearly saw enough in him during those training sessions to offer him a contract. His early performances have begun to get the supporters on side as well.

He was on left on the bench against Brighton & Hove Albion –the first game after he was signed- before making his debut in the FA Cup Third Round match against Birmingham City. He played 58 minutes in the 2-0 win, showing the technical ability that had led to him being held in such high esteem during his prime years. There were some touches of true class from the Frenchman during the game, with a pinpoint pass to Marko Arnautovic on the edge of the box after the ball had popped up being a prime example.

Nasri also worked hard throughout his time on the pitch, though it seemed he tired after half time before being brought off. However, even after the training he’s undertaken it would have been a big ask to expect the Frenchman to last the entirety of the game.His creative contributions certainly helped In the time he did play, as the Hammers booked their place in the next round.

His performance impressed the manager enough to earn him a spot in the starting line up for the next game. This meant his first game back in the Premier League would be against Arsenal. It was the perfect setting for his comeback: playing against the club who have loathed him so heavily ever since he left them to join Manchester City.

The Arsenal supporters may have been charged up in the stands, but Nasri remained composed on the pitch. A moment which epitomises this is when he had the ball near the edge of the box and was being put under pressure by the Arsenal defence. Rather than panic and try to get a snap shot off, he patiently waited for Felipe Anderson to arrive before laying it off to the Brazilian for a first time shot. The effort may not have gone in, but that alongside other forms of link up play showed that he will be a creative and threatening attacking presence in West Ham’s side.

His most important contribution came in the 48th minute, when Granit Xhaka’s weak defensive header fell to his feet in the box. He took one touch out of his feet, saw Declan Rice and played the ball to the 19-year-old, setting the youngster up for his first ever senior goal. What made the moment even sweeter is that this was the only goal of the game and handed the Hammers the win.

The Frenchman and his team mates will now be looking to build on these victories. West Ham’s next match will be against AFC Bournemouth, with a win potentially taking them up to seventh.

 

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Michail Antonio is having a brilliant start to 2019

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When Michail Antonio gets going with the ball at his feet he’s pretty hard to stop. His powerful running combined with quick thinking mean he can bulldoze his way through the opposition or jink his way past. The West Ham man had struggled to have an impact at the beginning of the season, however, he’s looking to be back towards his best based on recent performances, especially those coming since the turn of the New Year.

This week has been the epitome of what the Hammers’ number 30 is great at. Having played the full 90 minutes three games in a row, Manuel Pellegrini had opted to leave Antonio on the bench for Wednesday’s home match against Brighton & Hove Albion. He was eventually substituted on for Robert Snodgrass in the 63rd minute with his side 2-0 down, due to goals from Dale Stephens and Shane Duffy.

Mark Noble –who’d come on at the same time as Antonio- had set up Marko Arnautovic to make it 2-1 just five minutes after the pair had been introduced to play. Just two minutes later it was the winger who announced himself. With Jürgen Locadia and Bernardo doubling up on him, he kept them guessing until he was ready to make his move. He then pushed the ball past the Brazilian full back, barged him away and just kept the ball in play, cutting it back to Arnautovic. The Austrian took a touch and poked it into the net off the underside of the crossbar.

With Antonio wreaking havoc down the right hand side, West Ham were able to make other opportunities in the game, putting the Seagulls under sustained and intense pressure. Brighton stood strong though and held on for the draw, but nothing can be taken away from the impact Antonio and Noble had.

Three days later and he was starting at right back in the FA Cup against Birmingham City. He has displayed a disdain for playing at full back in the past, when continuously played there by Slaven Bilic. However, with Ryan Fredericks injured and Pablo Zabaleta ill, Antonio has had to fill in there at times in the last month, putting in stellar performances.

Yesterday’s 2-0 win was another of those great showings, as he assisted West Ham’s second goal of the game for the second match in a row. This time, the Hammers had gone up within two minutes and had been in danger of letting their lead slip. It was in the 91st minute that Antonio helped secure West Ham’s progression to the fourth round. He received the ball from Robert Snodgrass and took a touch out of his feet. He then sent a perfectly weighted cross towards Andy Carroll who rose above the defender to head in his first goal since returning from injury.

Aside from that moment, Antonio’s link up play with 20-year-old Grady Diangana was tantalising. The pair put together some brilliant combinations to great effect, taunting the Birmingham defence for the entirety of the game. Diangana was arguably the standout player for the Hammers, but his performance was certainly helped by the overlapping runs and slip balls that Antonio provided him with.

Antonio will be hoping to keep his impressive run of form in 2019 going when Arsenal visit the London Stadium on Saturday. The Gunners have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last four league matches, so Antonio and his team mates will look to exploit any defensive frailties they may meet.

 

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