Sportsthoughts (8) – festive football madness

Back to work, finally, tomorrow. Dumped the Christmas tree today.  The festive season is truly over. As ever, the footie went a bit bonkers over the festive season. Is it the sprouts or a heavy-lying Christmas pud that turns some of our top Premier League stars into plonkers and conversely inspires the journeymen to greater deeds?

My festive viewing started just before Christmas with Tottenham v Chelsea.  A great game, end to end stuff, Tottenham the more incisive first half, but Chelsea very solid second half and could have won it. Bale’s pace and cross for Spurs’ goal was superb. On Chelsea’s left Ashley Cole played a blinder – up and down the wing – and deservedly got man of the match.  Chelsea were almost playing a 3-4-3 as Cole bombed forward. I feel sympathetic to Chelsea as I like AVB and think he could eventually turn them into an excellent attacking team, if he gets the chance.  Mind you, the wobbles then hit them over Christmas.  1-1 v Fulham and losing at home 3-1 to Villa. There’s a fragility there at the moment which it’s hard to see the fans, or Abramovich, tolerating for too long.  Non-qualification for the Champions League? Maybe they’ll just have to win it this season.

Both the Manchesters had their dodgy moments too.  City suddenly looked vulnerable, having lost to 2-1 Chelsea on 12 December. 0-0 v West Brom and a 1-0 defeat against Sunderland.  The latter revived and inspired by Martin O’Neill, but even so, not what you’d expect of the petro-elite. I watched the home game against Liverpool, which City won 3-0.  Another enjoyable game with plenty of goalmouth incident. Liverpool must be kicking themselves because they were the better team in the first half, but without Suarez, lacked that final touch in front of goal.  And both City goals slipped by the usually reliable Pepe Reina. In the second half they ran out of steam and couldn’t even capitalise on the Gareth Barry red card. City regrouped and Yaya Toure continued to maraude, winning the penalty for 3-0. He is an immense player, the beating heart of City, and it will be very interesting to see how they cope without him during the African Nations Cup.

Utd don’t look great, but the stats say this is one of their best ever starts. Have standards fallen?  Or even risen, so it is harder to dominate? What Man U have done for much of this season is slaughter the lesser teams – Wigan, Fulham, Wolves and QPR have all been tonked in the last month, the first two by five. But even they hit the skids over Christmas.  First, losing at home to Blackburn – Blackburn! –  3-2.  Then given a 3-0 going over by Newcastle at what must now be called the SportsDirect Arena. The highpoint for ABMU fans was the Phil Jones own goal to make it 3-0.  Hope it doesn’t set him back because he is a very fine prospect for Utd and England.

I had mixed feelings about seeing Demba Ba in such fine form. Good to see him thriving in the Premier League, but wishing West Ham could have kept him. We could do with him now.  I’m pleased to see Alan Pardew doing well.  I thought he was a good manager at West Ham – came undone through some domestic issues and an inability to integrate Tevez and Mascherano in those wild days when we briefly thought the Icelandic biscuit magnates were going to take us to the top. I still can’t believe that Hayden Mullins was keeping Mascherano out of the team! No disrespect to Hayden – he was a solid player – but Mascherano was/is one of the world’s best defensive midfielders.

So we’ve had all the Man Utd crisis stories – a grand tradition around this time of year, after which they usually put the foot on the accelerator and more likely than not win the league.  Why should this season be any different?  The emergence of City as contenders?  Maybe, but I have a feeling that City will crack under the pressure. Just a feeling.  They are City, after all.

And then my own Premier favourites, the Ars-en-al. Their usual dotty selves. A couple of routine 1-0 wins and then blowing it: 1-1 at home to Wolves, 1-2 at Fulham. As ever, dominating games, failing to take chances. Four points thrown away. Refs blamed, luck bemoaned.  Just something missing.  It’s fingers crossed for a top four place, expectations lowered. The return of Thierry Henry for a couple of months is a nice story, but can he make a difference?  How much pace has he got left?  We shall see.

Tottenham move serenely on, a couple of draws, but generally in good shape.  Hard to imagine them winning the league, but it’s not out of the question if the key players – Bale, Parker, Modric, van der Vaart – stay fit. Would be great to see ‘Arry take the title before moving on to the England job – as long as his tax affairs don’t wind him up with a criminal record.

And Liverpool?  Solid, but not ready yet.  The Suarez affair will hurt them, and they haven’t helped themselves.  Misguided loyalty or a principled stand?  I’m sticking to the football.  The most striking image in the game versus City was Andy Carroll lumbering around, disconnected from the rest of the team, who were playing short, sharp football. He should have stayed at Newcastle and learned his trade. It’s hard to see him adapting to the fluid style that Liverpool now favour. He’ll get his chance while Suarez is out, but has he got what it takes?  I must admit that a year ago I really thought he was the future for England’s forward line, Rooney feeding off his knock downs; but he seems to have gone backwards.  Maybe there’s a fitness issue we don’t know about. But we read that he’s always going back to Newcastle, to see family and friends. Bears out the suspicion that it was a move too soon.  Fingers crossed for the lad – he can’t half head the ball when on song.

And talking of big men up front, pleased to see Peter Crouch thriving at Stoke.  He scored two quite outstanding goals in the 2-1 victory away to Blackburn – subtle technique, powerful finishing. Ball skills that Carroll hasn’t acquired yet. Still worth a place in the England squad?

Down in the Championship, everyone played badly at times, West Ham as poor as anyone.  But we scraped a couple of 1-0 victories and find ourselves second to Southampton with the same points. Huge Twitter speculation about all the players we are going to buy – Jordan Rhodes of Huddersfield the people’s choice having knocked in five the other day –  but where will the money come from?  And a few underachievers, especially in the strike force (only in name, not in deed) must be sold. The worry is that good young players may be tempted away.  It worried me that James Tomkins, our centre back, stayed on the bench today, in the lamentable 1-0 FA Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, who are currently in League One. Was this to prevent him being cup-tied?

And talking of the “magical” FA Cup, what a game today between Man City and Utd.  The latter running out 3-2 winners after Vincent Kompany was sent of for what initially looked like a two footed lunge, but was actually a perfectly good one-footed challenge which got the ball.  Easy to say after seeing the replays.  Does make you wonder why the ref can’t refer quickly to a video ref if he’s not sure, as in rugby.  Radio Five Live’s 606 programme tonight was almost exclusively about the refereeing decision. Mostly lambasting Chris Foy the ref.  Some discussion of whether contact is necessary for there to be a foul. Great things, rules.  No-one really has a clue, even when they are there in black and white. For the conspiracy theorists, I thought it was interesting that Fergie gave Foy a little pat on the back at the end of the game.  Thanks for that mate.  Won us the game and maybe the league too, if Kompany is suspended for four games (after a second straight red this season). Especially while Yaya is away. But then again, wouldn’t anyone do the same?

Funniest moment of the festive period, if not Phil Jones’s clanger, must be Everton keeper, Tim Howard’s  goal for Everton against Bolton.  One bounce before the ball, heavily wind-assisted, sailed over Adam Bogdan, the Bolton keeper’s head. Howard didn’t want to celebrate: doing that to a fellow goalie hurts. Bolton had the last laugh anyway, winning 2-1.

So the wacky goings-on over the frantic festive season keep things nice and open for the next five months. Who needs a winter break?

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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