Milan Lalkovic took centre stage this week as his sixth goal of the season – and the 96th scored by a Chelsea loanee in 2013-14 – ensured the run of Blues scoring for over clubs this campaign entered an unbroken 30th week. There were assists for Marko Marin and Thorgan Hazard most notably elsewhere, whilst the rest of the crop largely continued in their familiar roles as the die has become cast for the final two months of the season.
Lalkovic netted away to Walsall’s League One playoff rivals Rotherham United, but despite his goal the Saddlers were only able to take a point away from the New York Stadium. The Slovakia forward had been a substitute for their midweek home game against Crewe but came on at half time to positive effect and, playing from the start at the weekend, produced the goods again.
He’s proven to be a popular member of the Walsall squad since joining last summer and with his Chelsea contract up in the summer, has repeatedly spoken of a desire to remain in the Midlands depending on how their season finishes.
It was a relatively quiet affair at the top end of things, with Victor Moses an unused substitute for Liverpool away to Manchester United and Ryan Bertrand precluded from featuring for Aston Villa against his parent club at Villa Park. Romelu Lukaku did play ninety minutes for Everton at home to Cardiff and put in his usual bustling display in attack, only without contributing to the scoresheet.
There was a double helping of Championship action but precious few of Chelsea’s crop in the second tier featured across both rounds of action. Kenneth Omeruo was the only one to do so, cementing his place as arguably Middlesbrough’s best defender with good performances in draws with Ipswich and Bournemouth, the latter another clean sheet. Teammate Nathaniel Chalobah started the first of two outings but reportedly received a chastening appraisal of his work by manager Aitor Karanka and was only afforded substitute duty at the weekend.
Patrick Bamford was a second half substitute in both of Derby’s draws (against Bolton and Reading respectively) and despite his relatively impressive goal return, still hasn’t been given a chance to show what he can do as Steve McClaren’s number nine.
Josh McEachran was an unused substitute for both of Wigan’s matches after playing against Manchester City last weekend; the first of those a clash with Sheffield Wednesday also missed by Sam Hutchinson following a red card at Yeovil last time out. He was back in the fold for the Owls on Saturday though, and armed with an extension to his stay at Hillsborough, impressed in midfield once more as his side beat Birmingham City 4-1.
Todd Kane was given a rare start for Blackburn in their midweek reverse to Bournemouth, and was back on the bench for the weekend win at Huddersfield, although he did at least get on. Perhaps most disappointingly though was the fact that whilst in recent weeks he has played second fiddle to defender Adam Henley, he watched on this time as midfielder Jason Lowe was used in a secondary position ahead of him.
Better news continued to come from League One at least. Whilst Lalkovic was impacting matches on the scoreboard, George Saville continued to boss midfields up and down the country as Brentford kick on for promotion. He was impressive on Tuesday in a win over Tranmere before earning Man of the Match honours against Leyton Orient in a match televised live on Sky. The Bees had been reduced to ten men but Saville did the work of two men as Mark Warburton’s boys ran out 1-0 winners.
In non-league football, Daniel Pappoe impressed as a midfielder again in Kingstonian’s 1-1 draw with Hornchurch.
Vitesse Arnhem’s Champions League qualification aspirations took another dent on Saturday night as they lost 2-1 to fourth placed PSV Eindhoven in a controversial battle at the Gelredome. In front of their second biggest attendance of the season (including for the first time your author), Vitesse fell behind early after goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen missed his kick entirely to allow Jurgen Locadia to tap into an empty net, but they were able to level when former PSV man Zakaria Labyad curled in a scorcher from the edge of the area.
PSV’s winner came in controversial fashion when a penalty was awarded for a foul on Jetro Willems. The referee, who issued nine yellow cards in a feisty affair made worse by his inconsistencies, had initially signalled for a corner only to be overruled by his linesman, but the hosts’ frustration was only just beginning. Velthuizen saved Memphis Depay’s spot kick, but Park Ji-Sung was alert to the rebound, heading towards goal where Depay then poked home, albeit from a position claimed by Vitesse to be offside. The goal stood and the three points went back to Eindhoven.
As has been the case in recent weeks, Christian Atsu was the only one of Chelsea’s four loanees to start, and he played well for large spells of the match. Starting on the left, he produced several moments of interest early in the game and then volleyed wide close to half time after meeting Mike Havenaar’s lay-off with a ferocious hit on his favoured left foot.
He moved to the right midway through the second half when Lucas Piazon came on to play on his favoured side, but the Ghanaian still managed to influence things, regularly driving at Willems and making gains which ultimately came to nothing. His usually consistent end product in terms of delivery and quality of crosses deserted him here, but otherwise he was amongst Peter Bosz’ better performers.
Piazon was involved in some neat play as Vitesse chased a point late on, but remained on the periphery for too much of his cameo. He had a fabulous chance to steal a share of the spoils with the last kick of the game, but failed to connect properly with Valeri Qazaishvili’s cross and allowed the moment to go begging. With Atsu, Labyad and Renato Ibarra all enjoying solid form, his chances of returning to the starting selection aren’t much better than they were a month ago.
The same goes for Patrick van Aanholt and Bertrand Traore, who watched on as unused substitutes. Van Aanholt’s recent two-match suspension allowed January signing Rochdi Achenteh to come in and show what he’s capable of, and whilst he wasn’t all that impressive against PSV, he has shown a generally high level of performance and more importantly for Bosz, a willingness to defend. Van Aanholt undoubtedly provides more at the other end, as his five goals this season attest to, but questions about his defensive work ethic mean Achenteh may be the favoured man for the rest of the season.
Traore, of course, is still finding his feet in the world of football and will be a bit-part player for the rest of his loan spell. He did impress (along with Piazon) for the club’s reserve team in midweek though, and every little helps in his bid to prove himself a capable game-changer from the bench at worst.
Over in Breda on Sunday, Stipe Perica got a few minutes at the end of NAC’s 0-0 draw with Ajax, a result which technically helps Vitesse, but any dreams they have of winning the Eredivisie are distant ones at this stage.
Monday night’s second division action will see Cristian Cuevas and FC Eindhoven take on Jong Vitesse, with news of his performance on Twitter @chelseayouth and updated in this report after the game.
Thibaut Courtois and Atlético Madrid booked their place in the Champions League’s elite eight in midweek with a 4-1 thumping of Milan, and with the Belgian in goal they can count themselves genuine dark horses to win the competition. Yet another clean sheet followed in La Liga action Saturday – his 49th for the club – in a 1-0 win over Espanyol, and although he took a nasty blow to the head, all seems well for now.
Marko Marin saw just under half an hour of Europa League action on Thursday as Sevilla lost 2-0 to hated rivals Betis, and then on Sunday made a first league start since October 6th to play his part in a 4-1 win over Valladolid. He played 71 minutes and put in a very impressive performance; winning a penalty and laying on a second to claim two assists.
Oriol Romeu returned to the Valencia squad this week having rehabbed his knee surgery, but both their win away to Ludogorets and defeat at Real Sociedad proved too soon for him to make a comeback on the pitch.
Uli Dávila was an unused substitute for second division Córdoba, and Jhon Pírez was again absent for third division Leganés.
Kurt Zouma returned to Saint Etienne’s starting eleven after three games on the bench, and he did so faced with the toughest possible assignment against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and PSG. Les Verts lost 2-0 but Zouma did play ninety minutes at right back, meaning he was directly up against Cavani, and whilst he had his ups and downs, he did enough to impress overall.
Thorgan Hazard played his part in Zulte Waregem’s 1-0 win at Gent – a result they thoroughly stole in the face of home dominance – by providing the assist for Idrissa Sylla’s solitary goal. Zulte have ensured a place in the Jupiler League’s top group at the split, and with the ten point gap to second placed Club Brugge now halved to five at this stage, they still harbour outside hopes of a Champions League place.
Billy Clifford again sat on Royal Antwerp’s bench for the entirety of another match, this time against former Chelsea satellite outfit Westerlo, and is surely counting the days until the end of the season.
Gael Kakuta was an unused substitute for Lazio, Wallace wasn’t involved for Inter; ‘twas ever thus and ever thus shall be.
Mario Pašalić did not play in Hajduk Split’s 1-1 draw against Osijek.
Matej Delač kept his first clean sheet as FK Sarajevo’s goalkeeper by shutting out FK Mladost in a 2-0 win.