Now that I’ve overcome the seething tide of anger at Howard Webb and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, I thought it would be fun to have a little look back over some of the festive premier League games. The ones I watched, anyway. And, in the finest traditions of football journalism, I’ll throw in some grandiose claims based on a tiny sample size and crow about them mercilessly if they are shown even for a second to be in any way accurate.
So, onto the things I saw (I won’t say “learnt”, because I’m not the Guardian and I suspected a lot of this stuff anyway).
1) Man City are going to win the league.
Yes, they are. I know that the team who’s top of the league at this time of the season has gone on to win it for the last four years, but this is going to be the year the trend is well and truly bucked. City are just, obviously, the best team in the league at the moment, definitely the team with the best midfield and attack and the best options in these positions. Admittedly, their victory over Liverpool was a bit contentious (read: that linesman was wearing an Aguero shirt under his black top), and relied on a miss from six yards by sex addict Sterling (he’s got 3 kids! 3! At 19!), but still, they were good for at least a point. Maybe. Or at least the kind of fawning over a “good performance” that Liverpool got after being cheated out of badly-needed points for the first time this Christmas…
Ahem. Seriously though, the variety of City’s attacking play at the moment is second to none; they have serious defence-springing ability from Nasri (and who’d have thought I’d be saying that this time last year?) and Silva, in Navas they have devastating pace on the counter-attack, superb, physical forwards in Dzeko and Negredo, flair in spades from Aguero and Jovetic (still to make an impact-watch this space), threat at set-pieces, muscularity from midfield… Liverpool gave them a proper game, a real spectacle, but you could just see the Man City experience giving them the edge on Boxing Day. And, what’s more, their keeper is back and performing, and they’ve even started to get stupid, match-changing decisions going their way, the sign of destined champions.
Not that I’m bitter. And on a completely different topic-does anyone have that linesman’s address?
2) Mourinho’s definitely back
Whilst I’m not being bitter, let’s get this one out of the way. Liverpool’s match against Chelsea yesterday took me out beyond the fields of anger into the sea of absolute fury, as well as proving to the world that Howard Webb’s ego has definitely grown to the point where it’s obscured his vision. Not only should Liverpool have had two penalties, the second one as stonewall as you will see with Webb standing about three yards away, but Eto’o, scorer of Chelsea’s winning goal (courtesy of another Mignolet weak hand, by the way-this needs to be sorted promptly by Rodgers)-Eto’o should have been off the pitch after his assault on Henderson. And for once, “assault” isn’t hyperbolic; well after the ball had gone, the Cameroonian raked his studs down Henderson’s legs, and this after three minutes of the game.
People are trying to defend Webb for his ridiculous decision not to award anything other than a free-kick for this, saying it would have ruined the game as a spectacle for a player to be sent off so early on, but I’d say it ruined the game as a spectacle to have Liverpool’s second-best performer in recent games hobbling around unable to make his imperious driving runs because he’d been crippled, wouldn’t you? Anyway, this had all the hallmarks of a Mourinho-game, where his team are instructed to kick the crap out of a technically superior side and get some goals on the counter. Oh, and just to wrap it up-Oscar should have gone, too, though it doesn’t excuse Lucas’ reaction.
Hey, maybe I’m not over it yet. Oh well, moving on…
3) Arsenal need another stiker
Yeah, yeah, heard it all before. But it’s still true; Arsenal are going to pay, and recently have been paying, for the lack of cover for Giroud. I think the Frenchman’s importance in Arsenal’s performances early in the season has been really underplayed; he was genuinely excellent up until December, bullying and occupying centre-halves so that Arsenal’s tiny midfield goblins had space to run the show, and chipping in with the goals too. But he’s been looking really tired and jaded in recent weeks, only to be expected given the physical nature of his role, and Arsenal have been suffering for it.
They’ve ground out a few results (and Walcott looked pretty good against West Ham and Newcastle, I’ll admit) but they’re really missing that battering ram up front, and have started doing that typical Arsenal thing of passing it around nicely in front of a defence without penetrating, as in previous seasons. Podolski is a different type of player to Giroud, and not the answer (though, as his performance against the Irons shows, an excellent option to have); and with Ramsey missing for the next few weeks, and Ozil too, a forward who can lead the line and give Giroud a break is looking more and more important for Arsenal’s title fight.
4) Fulham are going down; Sunderland and Palace might not
Oh, Fulham. To let Hull-that’s Hull City, whose best player hadn’t scored for two years previous to the Fulham game and who play Danny “how did he miss that? Oh wait, it’s” Graham up front- score 6 goals in one half is just pathetic, there’s no other word for it. A midfield of Parker, Sidwell and Karagounis just doesn’t have the legs, even if it has the determination, to run around in a Premier League game for 90 minutes, especially when allied to the laziest forward line-up ever assembled (Taarabt, Bent, Berbatov and Ruiz? So we’re defending with 6 men, then?). Hull were great, don’t get me wrong, and the Hudd in particular was brilliant… but Fulham are in serious trouble now.
Whilst on the subject of who’s going down, Villa are crap and need to buck their ideas up sharpish. Benteke, who pretty much single-handedly kept them up last season, is looking disinterested, and hasn’t scored in ages; most of Lambert’s new signings are, to put it nicely, shit, especially Tonev, who seems to have had a botched brain operation that makes him need to shoot every time he touches the ball; and now that teams have worked out that Villa can only play on the counter-attack, they’re really struggling. But in better news (for Palace and Sunderland fans), Palace and Sunderland are starting to look like they at least have the grit necessary to stay up. Belasie’s return has really given Palace a boost, they actually look like they have a threat going forwards now and especially with Chamakh returning (after several years’ absence) to form they might actually scrape together some points; and under Poyet’s management Sunderland at least look like they have some guts, fighting back from 2-0 down against Cardiff. With Ki, Borini and Mannone really starting to come good, they could just yet prove lots and lots of people wrong. At least, if they stop playing Jose Altidore, who isn’t even good enough to be called the American Emile Heskey.
Welcome back, Jose. Welcome back.
Well, well. This was incredibly boring. With one team deployed pretty much entirely to negate the other-guess which one I’m talking about-there were barely any exciting moments at all. And here was me hoping for a lovely 3-3 draw with three red cards for each side (preferably Cech, Ivanovic and Oscar for Chelsea, though I’d have settled for Hazard instead). Giroud’s misses aside, and one chance for Willian and a kind of difficult chance for Lampard, nothing happened (football-wise) in this game. Even the block on the line by Azpilicueta at the death seemed boring and lazy, the ball just gently spinning toward the goal and giving the defender all the time in the world to gently flick it away. If we were trying to take away from this game an idea of who is best placed to challenge Man City and (almost certainly not) Liverpool for the title, we’re going home empty handed.
What we can take from this game is that Jose’s back. And not the “Happy One” incarnation, that particular piece of bullshit belied anyway by the grumpy surly way Chelsea’s new old manager has been sitting on the touchline recently. No, the proper Jose, the one who sets his teams up to play paint-dryingly-dull, physical, ugly football, the one who tries to batter the other team down until they can force the ball into the net and hang on for the 1-0, the one who tells his players to get up in the opponent’s faces. By the way, that was something Ivanovic took literally late in the second half, a boot flying very near Ozil’s face and sparking a minor melee, the Serb’s little wink to captain Terry in the aftermath showing he knew exactly what he was doing.
There was no attempt to even pay lip-service to the idea of having possession-based, creative attacking football played at the Emirates. Arsenal tried, sure, and at the end of the second half even managed to play a little. Two chances for Giroud went begging, the first a badly sliced volley after a delightful Ramsey chip (the only thing the Welshman did in the match other than give the ball away), the second a good save from Cech after fine work by Kieran Gibbs. But Chelsea… oh no. Chelsea weren’t going for creativity, despite having a squad boasting Mata (who didn’t get off the bench), Schurrle, Hazard, Oscar, Willian, and Eto’o. They played pretty much exclusively on the counter-attack, with Willian and Lampard (who hit the bar) both having good chances in the first half from this approach, and many other (some other, let’s not exaggerate) chances to launch a counter-attack spurned. It wasn’t especially exciting, it’s fairly standard fare against Arsenal really, but what was good about it was that it represents Mourinho finally coming back into his comfort zone, and in doing so sticking two fingers up at everyone who thinks Chelsea should play some, well, entertaining football this season.
With three midfielders sitting in front of a big, strong, Ashley-Cole absent defence, two wide players working back hard and pretend centre-forward Torres dropping into the midfield when he could (or could be bothered), Arsenal just weren’t given space to attack. Arteta had lots of the ball and no passing options, Ozil barely touched the ball until the aforementioned spat with Ivanovic, Walcott had no space to use his pace… It’s not necessarily the best approach with the players Jose has, of course, and it nearly backfired, with referee Mike Dean missing a blatant penalty after a foul by Willian on Walcott and being very lenient with a couple of challenges by Mikel and Ramires that could have ended their games prematurely, but it is pretty much pure Jose, and after this dour 0-0 draw he finally looked like a Happy One once again.
First off, a bit of explanation. Mystic Matt has, for several weeks, been deep in the darkest jungles of Africa, exploring ancient and mystical magics, being taught by the most skilled of medicine men, and hiding like a massive wuss from the group of men who lost all their savings after betting them on his recommendations last time (correct scores predicted: 0). Luckily, with their various blunt instruments have finally been reclaimed by the bailiffs, he feels safe enough to come back, and has prepared a small selection of predictions for the upcoming Premier League weekend…
Liverpool vs Cardiff: 3-1 (Suarez (2), Allen (yes, Allen!); Caulker)
Definitely a fixture to get you frothing at the mouth, with Luis Suarez’ recent form having pushed Liverpool to heights not seen since the heady days of about four years ago. Despite B-Rodge’s gushing support for Malky Mackay over the Vincent Tan affair (which sounds far more sleazy and exciting than it actually is), I wouldn’t expect the Reds to do the Bluebirds any favours. Let’s face it, Liverpool are just much better than Cardiff, and after they dismantled Spurs will be riding high on confidence, whilst the Welsh club lost to Crystal Palace a couple of weeks ago. Crystal Palace. Now I’ve said that, expect Cardiff to win after a Simon Mignolet comedy own-goal and an unprecedented 100-match ban for Suarez after he swallows Gary Medel whole with just a pinch of salt.
Fulham vs Man City: 0-4 (Silva, Negredo (2), Dzeko)
Quite probably the best team in the Premier League travel to almost certainly the laziest in the pick of the 3 o’clocks. The attacking quartet of Bent, Berbatov, Taarabt and (if he plays) Ruiz will have plenty of opportunity to stand by and impassively watch Man City walk through what passes for a Fulham midfield and defence, with headless chicken Scott Parker and living statue Brede Hangeland having their work cut out stopping the waves of sky blue attack. All isn’t lost, though; City will have to do without the injured Aguero, having to rely only on Negredo, Dzeko, Jovetic, Nasri, Navas, Silva, Toure and Fernandinho for attacking threat, and they have fictional daemon Pantilimon in goal, so Fulham should fancy their chances of at least getting a consolation. But they won’t get one, so don’t get your hopes up.
Southampton vs Tottenham: 2-0 (Lambert, Rodriguez)
Oh, Spurs. Where did it all go wrong? £100 million spent in the summer, a coach bedded into the club and the Premier League, real optimism of not just a Top Four Challenge ™ but maybe a run at the title… And now, managed by Tim Sherwood (for a little while at least), loads of players out injured, expensive signings yet to adapt without a guarantee they ever will. Really, it’s far more entertaining than any of the football they’ve managed to produce this season. Saints’ momentum has been curtailed a little in the last few weeks as well, their heavy pressing game probably not sustainable with such a small squad; but they have genuine quality in their ranks, and a reeling Tottenham won’t be relishing this one. Expect Rickie Lambert to wear a Suarez mask just to bring back some of those nightmares for Capoue and Dawson…
Arsenal vs Chelsea: 0-0 (One shot on target from each side)
The Monday night game is a big one, two real title contenders going head to head in a battle of exciting technical attacking midfielders. So, expect something incredibly boring and dour, especially with Mr Mourinho hinting he wants to go more defensive after their recent struggles and with Arsenal just starting to be a little tired. One point of entertainment will be the customary “open-goal miss in a big game” from Torres, though, so it won’t be all bad.