Barclays Premier League Pre-Christmas Report

Roberto Mancini y Samir Nasri.

Mancini: More Than a Word for Cowardly Nasri

The weekend saw the sixteenth round of fixtures in the Barclays Premier League, which means that we’re approaching the all-important festive footballing frenzy which is Christmas in the EPL. Beginning next weekend the Premier League enters a programme which will see five rounds of fixtures take place in just seventeen days. Typically this period is regarded as one of the most crucial in the entire season, so in this article I’ll take a brief look at the last round of results and where they leave the teams going into this vital spell.

Manchester United grabbed a last gasp winner to defeat, defending champions and fierce rivals, Manchester City in Sunday’s lunchtime kick-off. Two goals in the opening half-hour from Wayne Rooney, the first coming totally against the run of play, put United in control at the Etihad and saw them into the break with a two goal cushion. The replacement of Mario Balotelli by Carlos Tevez shortly after half-time gave City the pace, tenacity and determination in the final third which had been so conspicuously absent in the first period, and it almost immediately paid dividends.

Shortly after coming on, Tevez kept his head after his initial effort was saved and picked out Yaya Toure who halved the arrears. Pablo Zabaleta brought City level just five minutes from time when his well-executed half-volley, from Van Persie’s clearing header, found the bottom corner. RVP would have the last laugh, however, bending his free kick past Joe Hart with the aid of a deflection from Nasri – whose behaviour as part of a three man wall was cowardly to put it mildly.

Alex Ferguson claimed the victory was well deserved on the balance of play, something which is very much up for debate, however the victory could have been more comfortable had Ashley Young not incorrectly been ruled offside early in the second half. Nevertheless, a massive victory for United who now sit six points ahead of City at the top ahead of a kind run of games over the xmas period. City need to up their game if they’re going to retain their title. They too face a run of relatively easily fixtures between now and Jan 13th (when they face Arsenal) and Mancini will be at pains to make it clear that nothing less than a string of victories will do. Anything less could see City slip further behind and, if that happens, Mancini could find himself hopping on the managerial merry-go-round before too long.

Liverpool put in a spirited performance at Upton Park on Sunday to come away with three points and push their way into the top half of the table for the first time this season. Without top goal-scorer Luis Suarez, suspended for picking up five bookings, Liverpool took the lead in the 11th minute when Glen Johnson arrowed an unstoppable 20yard drive into the top corner. The game turned somewhat after the Reds lost Jose Enrique through injury midway through the first half. Sensing weakness the Hammers upped the ante and got their equaliser from the penalty spot after Joe Allen was harshly judged to have deliberately blocked a shot with his hand. Noble scored from the spot and shortly before half-time Allardyce’s men hit the front through an uncharacteristic Steven Gerrard og.

Joe

Joe Cole Finally Delivers for Liverpool

Until the 76th minute it looked as if West Ham would see out the game comfortably enough, however when Raheem Sterling threaded a precise first-time ball through to Joe Cole, the former Hammer buried his left-footed effort in the bottom corner. Just three minutes later, a burst down the right from Jordan Henderson was matched in quality by the superb cross which followed from the Englishman. Looking for Jonjo Shelvey, the cross arrived in between defender and goalkeeper with such pace and accuracy that Collins was forced to attempt to clear it and, in so doing, the contact took the ball looping into the air, over Jaaskeleinan’s head and into the back of the net making the final score 2-3.

Liverpool showed great resilience, not for the first time this season, coming back to claim a vital three points. Helped by the injury to Diame, who went off with twenty minutes left, the Reds were again left scratching their heads at refereeing decisions, particularly when Winston Reid chopped down Shelvey in the box with just minutes to go. Despite the lack of a penalty decision (Liverpool haven’t been awarded an EPL penalty since 08/05/12) Liverpool held on, and are now on a run of just one defeat in eleven league games. An eminently winnable set of fixtures over Christmas begins with the visit of Aston Villa at the weekend, Brendan Rodgers will know that in a wide open league, a good run over this crucial period would put Liverpool very much in with a shout of Champions League football come May, especially if Rodgers can add the right components to the group in January.

West Ham have enjoyed a dream start to life back in the top flight and have shown more than enough to suggest that they’ll finish in a comfortable mid-table berth. The loss of Diame for three months is a blow, particularly coming at this time of the year, and the Hammers have a tricky enough run of fixtures to deal with in the next three weeks, including a visit from Everton and a trip to Arsenal. With the players they have however, and the knowhow of a manager such as Allardyce, the Hammers are set up for a decent first season back in the big-time.

Two contenders for the top four went head to head at Goodison Park on Sunday when AVB brought Tottenham to town in an effort to eclipse David Moyes’s Everton. Spurs soaked up the pressure they were put under by the home side for large periods of the game, content to sit back and play on the break. Osman, Jelavic and Naismith came close for Everton, but good defending and poor finishing left the score goalless until deep into the second-half.

Clint Dempsey’s deflected goal in the 76th minute looked to have given Spurs and AVB the textbook smash and grab victory, but late drama was to change all that. Stephen Pienaar returned to haunt his former club with a 90th minute equaliser, which Lloris might feel he should have saved, but the action didn’t end there. Deep into stoppage time, Velios’s attempted overhead fell to Jelavic and the Croatian rattled home an instinctive, first-time finish much to the delight of David Moyes and the home support.

A vital victory for the Toffees who, despite a run of good performances, recorded only their second win in eleven games with that last gasp strike. David Moyes’s side have more attacking options now than at any time under his stewardship and their quality is of a higher standard too; put together with a solid spine and the creativity provided by the likes of Baines and Pienaar, the Toffees have a very strong first eleven. Everton have a couple of tricky games over Christmas, including a trip to Newcastle and a visit from Chelsea, but appear certain to challenge for the top four, especially if they manage to stay injury free. Moyes will know however, that if they are to kick on, they’ll need to start picking up the points their performances deserve.

Tottenham fans have been on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride under AVB this season. Sunday’s defeat was their first after three straight league wins, however that winning streak came on the back of three straight defeats. This inconsistency is to be expected during the type of transition which Spurs are undergoing this season, however it means that their top four credentials are perhaps a little less certain than they have been in the last few seasons. Tottenham were without Bale at the weekend and keeping him fit appears vital to their hopes, he, along with Dembele adds real quality to the Spurs midfield. The fixture list has offered AVB some respite by serving up some friendly fixtures over the Christmas period so, if Spurs can add a bit of consistency in the next few weeks, they could be flying high in January.

West Bromwich Albion’s magnificent start under Steve Clarke appears to have hit the wall. After a run of four wins in  a row, Saturday’s defeat at Arsenal (albeit a decidedly harsh one) was their third on the bounce. Arsenal, themselves in the midst of a poor run of form, won the game courtesy of two Mikel Arteta penalties which should never have been given. The first came in the 26th minute and was the result of a blatant dive from Santi Cazorla, the second came in the 64th minute thanks to a foul on Alex Oxlaide Chamberlain. The tackle warranted a penalty, however, before bursting into the box, the Ox (as he likes to be known) clearly pushed Popov to the ground in order to win the ball, the game should’ve been stopped and a free-kick awarded. Wenger, who’s often complained about a raw deal from referees, can have no complaints about Mike Jones after his performance gifted the Gunners three desperately needed points.

Arsenal move up to 7th, one place behind Albion and with five very winnable games between now and their meeting with Manchester City on 13th January, I’d expect to see them make a steady ascent during the festive programme. They are lacking in pace however, which is a worry – particularly with the uncertainty over Theo Walcott’s future – and the feeling persists that they will need to add a couple of players in January if they are to maintain a real challenge for one of the top positions. However, with Wenger at the helm, they’ll surely be there or thereabouts.

West Bromwich Albion are altogether a tougher act to call. Six wins from eight at home gives them the joint best home record in the league and Steve Clarke’s men have shown, until now, that they are a match for anybody on their day. Away from home it’s a different story but they have picked up a couple of away wins in the last month. This run of three defeats has taken some of the shine off of the new boss however, and now he faces his first real test as a number one. Albion have a trip to Old Trafford on 29th December, however their other fixtures in the xmas frenzy shouldn’t hold too much fear and, if the Baggies are to get their season back on track, the next few weeks could go a long way towards making it happen.

Aston Villa and Stoke played out a goalless draw on Saturday in which the Villains were much the better team. I wrote an article about Stoke some weeks back when they were in the midst of a run of just five wins in thirty two, however since then (funnily enough) the Potters have put a sock in my mouth by winning four of their last six games and drawing the other two. Resolutely strong at the back, notoriously physical (they get away with far too much in my opinion), I had a fancy that this season perhaps their lack of creativity would prove costly. It appears, however, that Stoke will continue to play to their strengths and that those strengths may be good enough to grind out results and to keep them afloat for another year at the highest level. Pulis’s side face a really tough Christmas period with games against, Liverpool, Everton, Tottenham and City, amongst others, by the end of which the Potters may be thanking their lucky stars for their form over the last few weeks, but it looks like in the end they’ll have enough to stay up.

Replacing Alex McCleish, Paul Lambert stepped into the Lion’s Den at Villa Park. An awful season last year, with an almost unwatchable playing style, led Villa to the brink of suffering the same fate as their city rivals did at the hands of the one-dimensional Scot the year before. Lambert however, thankfully for Villa fans, has a lot more about him than his countryman and has set about making Aston Villa a much tougher prospect.

It’s still a young team, but the upturn in confidence and belief amongst the players is palpable. They play for each other now and it’s no surprise that results have begun to improve. Ignoring the matches against the two Manchester clubs, Villa are unbeaten in their last five EPL games, winning twice and drawing thrice and, more importantly they are picking up points over the teams  likely to be scrapping against relegation with them. A tough festive line-up sees them face Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea, however the home match against Wigan on 29th December will be Villa’s biggest game during the Christmas spell. Villa are an improving side and I expect to see that trend continue throughout the season.

Southampton recorded an important and well deserved 1-0 victory over Reading at St. Mary’s on Saturday. Saints scored in the second half through Jason Puncheon, although they were unlucky not to hit the front in the first period when the same player had a goal ruled out for something akin to nothing. When I wrote my early season report card on this site, I said that Saints need to shore things up defensively or they’d be taking the quick route back to the Championship. Well, the good news is they’ve done just that; Adkins men have now won three of their last five, losing only once and conceding just three goals. Southampton’s xmas fixtures aren’t too bad, aside from the Arsenal game on New Year’s Day they face Sunderland, Stoke and Fulham; tough games, but games they’ll feel they can take points from. Out of the bottom three and in a run of form, there’s no reason now why Saints can’t consolidate further.

Reading, Reading, Reading, on the other hand look almost a certainty to be playing Championship football next year. Just one win all season has left the Royals six points from safety and, even at this stage of the season, it’s almost impossible to see how they’re going to claw that back. Four draws from eight at home and six defeats from eight away is an equation that spells relegation, their inability to hold a lead is also more than a little bit worrying. With Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham to play over the holiday period, things are likely to get worse for Royals fans before they get better (if they ever do) and, in those circumstances it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if McDermott was ushered aside before too long. Whether there is a managerial change or not, whoever is in charge would have to be backed up by a major investment in new talent in the January window if the Royals are to have any chance of beating the drop.

Fernando Torres

Rafa Has Torres Firing Again!

Chelsea have changed their manager since my last EPL report and there are now signs that that decision is beginning to bear fruit. Benitez recorded his first win as Chelsea boss at the Stadium of Light on Saturday. The match ended 1-3 and the result was never in doubt from the moment that Fernando Torres put the Blues ahead. Torres was unlucky not to bag a hat-trick; his brace came just before half-time as he took responsibility and buried his first penalty in English football. Shortly after the re-start Torres smashed a left foot shot off the angle and Juan Mata stroked home the rebound. Adam Johnson replied for Sunderland on 66 minutes but it proved to be no more than consolation.

Torres’s goals took his tally to four in his last two games under Benitez and eleven in all competitions for the season. It’s already apparent that Benitez’s arrival has made a massive difference to the Spaniard and, if his improvement continues, Chelsea could find themselves very much back in the title race before long. Aside from a trip to Everton on 30th December, Chelsea look to have no worries arising from their holiday fixture list and, if they can get back from the Club World Cup unscathed, December could yet prove to be a great month for them. In Benitez, despite the fans’ hatred of the Spaniard, I think Abramovich has stumbled upon the perfect manager to lead Chelsea through this transitional period and I expect them to be right in the mix for the league title come the run-in.

Sunderland! What hope for the Black Cats? Things are looking more than a little bleak for Martin O’Neill’s side. Aside from their defeat of a ten-man, injury hit Fulham a couple of weeks back, Sunderland’s only victory of the season came at home to Wigan on 29TH September. The Black Cats have lost three of their last four and five of their last seven and now, a side which looked as if it would kick-on this year under O’Neill looks destined to be part of the relegation dogfight. Players who shone in the second-half of last season, the likes of Larsson, Sessegnon and McClean haven’t reached anything like the level that they did last season and, with their defensive solidity crumbling, the Black Cats are becoming sitting ducks. With games against United, City, Liverpool and Tottenham coming up over the next three weeks, it’s unlikely to be the most wonderful time of the year for Mackems. However, if O’Neill can mastermind victories over Reading and Southampton Sunderland fans may enjoy a little Christmas cheer.

Norwich and Swansea, two of last year’s Premier League inductees produced a thrilling game at the Liberty on Saturday. Norwich eventually won the match 3-4; after going in at half-time 0-3 down, the home-side fought back brilliantly to make it 2-3. However, the Canaries grabbed a vital fourth goal which meant that Michu’s second of the afternoon, coming late in the game, was effectively mere consolation.

Both these teams seem set to attain mid-table finishes this year. After an appalling start to the campaign, Norwich have turned the corner emphatically. An unbeaten run of eight matches has seen them beat, Manchester United and Arsenal, along with Sunderland and Swansea, and the Canaries now sit 12th, nine points above the drop-zone. Chris Hughton’s men face Chelsea and Manchester City during the festive fixtures, however both games come at Carrow Road where they’ve taken on and beaten the big boys already this season.

Swansea are currently in eighth place, ten points from danger and new manager Michael Laudrup now appears to be getting a consistently high level of performance from his squad. The Swans face a mixed bag in terms of xmas fixtures, with Tottenham and Manchester United likely to be tough ones, however Laudrup will fancy his team’s chances against Reading and Villa. It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, are made to either of these two squads in January, to see if either (particularly Swansea) can make the next step up.

Wigan and QPR went head to head at the DW on Saturday producing a 2-2 draw. Two goals from Wigan’s James McCarthy, one in the first half and one in the second, sandwiched goals from Nelsen and Cisse for the visitors. The draw means that QPR, despite replacing Mark Hughes with Harry Redknapp, still haven’t managed to record their first Premier League win of the season. They now hold the record for going the longest time in the top flight without a win in the Premier League era, an unwelcome thought around the dressing room I’m sure.

Harry Redknapp

Can Harry Play Houdini Again?

Harry Redknapp is the master of escapes, he’s proven it in the past, however this looks like a really tough task he’s taken on. Mark Hughes employed a buy, buy, buy policy during his spell in charge, however succeeded only in signing a lot of players who were good at one time, nut no longer appear to be so. Added to that, Hughes managed to sign a large number of individualist players such as Junior Hoillett and Djibril Cisse and in there, not too many who are likely to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.

Already eight points from safety, Harry has a mountain to climb if he’s going to keep Rangers up and the Christmas fixtures haven’t been too kind either. Rangers face Liverpool, Chelsea, West Brom and Newcastle in the coming weeks, which makes it likely that QPR will be staring down the barrel come January. Whether Tony Fernandes will be willing to finance further squad development in January remains to be seen but, if he doesn’t, I can’t imagine that even Houdini himself could perform this escape.

Roberto Martinez’s perennial relegation battlers have begun this season in much better fashion than the last one, however they have dropped off a little in recent weeks. Wigan currently sit 17th, two points above the drop-zone and, with games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton coming up over Christmas, things could be getting a little dicey by January. Martinez’s Wigan are, as they proved last season, capable of beating the very best on their day and appear to have enough creativity and goals in their side to get them through another season in top flight. They look likely to  beinvolved in the survival scrap once more but should have the experience to come through it unscathed.

Finally, the two teams who have not yet played in this gameweek, Newcastle and Fulham. These two take each other on at Craven Cottage on Monday evening and both sides will be looking to get back on a winning run before Christmas kicks-in. Newcastle won their last game with the help of a large refereeing blunder. Mike Jones, the same Mike Jones who produced a calamitous performance at the Emirates on Saturday, also got all the big calls wrong during his previous assignment at St James’s the Monday prior. The game-changing cock-up came when he awarded the home side a penalty and sent off Wigan’s Maynor Figueroa very early in the game. The Geordies went on to win 3-0, however that victory was their first in six in the league and came on the back of four straight defeats.

Injuries to key personnel haven’t helped Pardew this year, however the failure to strengthen in the summer, especially in light of extra Europa League commitments appears to be costing Newcastle and it seems very unlikely that they’ll achieve anything like the success that they managed last year. A nightmarish holiday season which sees the Magpies face the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Everton could see Pardew and the Gallowgate End with a severe case of the blues come January when, if the Magpies are to mount a challenge, money will have to be spent.

Fulham were on a decent run in the league until Brede Hangeland got himself sent off after half an hour against Sunderland. Brian Ruiz picked up a serious injury in the same match and since then, without two of their most important players at either end of the pitch, Fulham have failed to win a game and (including that one) have lost three of those four games. Fulham are traditionally very strong at home and this year has proved no different, however with Ruiz now side-lined for a considerable period, the goals are proving harder to come by. The Cottagers fixture list isn’t too painful during the next few weeks, with trips to Anfield and the Hawthorns likely to be their toughest tests. Hangeland is due back for Monday’s game with Newcastle and I expect Fulham’s form to pick-up accordingly, however, come January Martin Jol will need to add reinforcements up-front to sustain a challenge for the top half of the table.

So that’s how the Barclays Premier League is shaping up as we enter the vital few weeks that is the Christmas period. By the time we emerge on the other side the season will be more than halfway through and we’re likely to have a much clearer picture of how the league may finally shape. With results going the way that they are and matches becoming harder and harder to call, we’re in for one of the most exciting seasons of modern times and for me, Christmas is when it all begins to heat up.

Mancini image by Ines11thiago. Joe Cole image by kevinzim.

Torres image by PanARMENIANPhoto. Harry image by thesportreview

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