The festive fixture list may take its toll on players and managers, but for the rest of us looking on, it’s something of a Christmas bonus. As well as all the eating and drinking, there was almost a continuous flow of matches to take our minds off all the extra turkey and stuffing sandwiches we’d eaten.
The biggest losers over the festive period were the champions, Man Utd. Defeat at home to largely disinterested and defensive Blackburn was a huge blow that will take some coming back from, but the causes are easily traceable to Lord Ferg’s absolute unwillingness to select players in their natural positions – i.e. not playing relatively untested youngsters vs. experienced players in alien roles – and this finally caught up with them. Michael Carrick will never be a worthy centre-half, and Rafael will never be steely enough for central midfield. The line up certainly improved against Newcastle, but the Geordies were well organised, played with a great energy that Man Utd couldn’t match, and thoroughly deserved their 3-0 win. Rooney’s lethargy, back from his Fergie-imposed ban for missing curfew, summed up Man Utd’s performance to a T.
Chelsea and Arsenal both underlined their inability to put a consistent run of results together. 3 wins for either in what were very winnable games would have kept them within touching distance of the title race; 4 points from a possible 9 has left the door open for a dour Liverpool side to somehow make it a 3 horse race for the final champions league spot.
Newcastle, with players returning from injury, would be hoping they could muscle in on the hunt for that champions league place, and they are well placed to make run. However, it’s hardly a controversial statement to say that they may struggle for form while their two of their best players, Chiek Tiote and 15-goal Demba Ba are away on African Nations duty. With Alan Pardew no longer in the market for a striker, they will have to find goals from outside the attack, with the less-than-prolific Shola Ameobi and Leon Best leading the line.
Blackburn remain bottom, despite an unlikely return of 4 points from games at Anfield and Old Trafford. One is left questioning their resilience after their subsequent failure at home to Stoke, but their two previous performances must give some hope to the eternal optimist Steve Kean. They are only 3 points from safety, but must pick up points in their next 2 games, at home to a Fulham side who have won once on the road this season, and away to a goal shy Everton, if they are to maintain any realistic hopes of survival.
Wigan may have improved of late, but a 4-1 home belting at the hands of a rejuvenated Sunderland must have knocked the stuffing out of them once more. If this is the year they finally succumb to relegation, may I just say that Moses, Watson and Boyce are all very welcome to head back to Selhurst Park where they can re-ignite their careers under hot-stuff rookie manager Dougie Freedman.
Making up the bottom 3, Bolton, soon to be shorn of captain Gary Cahill, will continue to struggle. Owen Coyle talks a good game, and while they were deserved winners against Everton in midweek, only a vast improvement in their home form (4 points from a possible 30) will lift them to safety. I think the final relegation place will be a shootout between them and Wolves, heavily reliant on Steven Fletcher’s goals, seem to have been cursed with Roger Johnson’s “luck of the brum” from last season. Buying centre-halves from dire teams that were deservedly relegated in the previous season never seemed like such a great idea to me – take note Villas-Boas. And Mick McCarthy, I hope you’ve learned your lesson.
QPR have been on a very poor run, but with chairman Tony Fernandes eager to spend some cash, they will probably edge their way to safety. Above them, West Brom and Fulham should have enough in their respective lockers to maintain a relatively safe distance from the drop zone, though a mere 3 points separate 15th placed West Brom and 9th placed Norwich – any one of those teams will be feeling they can make a charge for a European spot, or less hopefully, collapse into relegation hell.