Soccer

English Premier Roundup: Manchester City, United, Everton and More

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In the year 2010 -- particularly during Christmas Holiday Season -- it's pretty easy to take some cynical, snooty shots at the good ol' red, white and blue and all things American. About 35 seconds in a Wal-Mart confirm this. North American scum as it were.

For whatever ills America might possess in a broad geopolitical sense, at least we can handle the elements, well, unless you live in SoCal. Parts of the Midwest, the Rust Belt and Northern New York have been crippled by unrelenting, piles of snow. Life goes on. Americans break out their shovels, grab handfuls of rock salt and go on with life. Go watch "Fargo" if you must.

Part of me has always wondered why some savvy politician doesn't run on a "Roads" platform. As in, your one major running point is improving roads. Who doesn't use roads? Who can actually take a position for potholes? Granted the downside of this campaign would be the inevitable "Road Warrior" headlines and since it's not 1986 any more, being associated with Mel Gibson isn't exactly a selling point.

But I, as usual, digress.

Flash across the Atlantic to England, where snow and ice basically seem to have shut down the country and its network of transportation, and as a result the Premier League. It's getting managers to think, hey, perhaps playing games during the worst weather months of the year isn't exactly the brightest idea ever conceived. Consider when the calendars for playing league football were drawn up -- cue the droopy Victorian mustaches and rugged masculinity team sport represented back then -- and it makes more sense, though with guys like Steve McManaman snickering at every chance for playing wearing gloves and "snoods" things might not be all that much different.

Any rational person would see that from a weather and player health position, the Prem would be best served to shut down for a week or two at the end of the year. Rationality and television contract don't seem to mix, hence the crowded holiday fixture onslaught we're about to witness. And really, what could go wrong cramming 11 percent of the season's games in 10 days?

Hey, it's still better than the Gator Bowl.

Since yours truly hasn't enlightened you with his usual esoteric pop culture references and third-grade level syntax in a couple days, here are a few odds-and-ends before this weekend's EPL picks. Call them stocking stuffers, if you like.

In the City there's a 1,000 things I want to say to you:

I threw this out there on that Twitter thing the kids are using during Manchester City's 2-1 home loss to Everton: Why is it so fun to see City fail?

Is it all about big spenders coming up short? Does your body, like a transplanted organ, reject the notion of an inauthentic, artificially created team? Are City too much of a Frankenstein team, hence our natural inclination to chase after it with torches and pitchforks?

Perhaps it lies more with the players.

It's hard to fathom how City, with all the money at its disposal has courted so many unlikeable players. Emmanuel Adebayor, Mario Balotelli, Nigel de Jong, even James Milner since he looks like a jerk-y high school football linebacker with a cro-magnum forehead created by unchecked HgH use. (He just, unfortunately, looks that way.) Carlos Tevez could go entire way. His beyond-bizarre transfer "saga" made him a tinge more unlikeable, yet Tevez is sly as a fox since he apparently never says more than two words so he's never done anything completely damaging, he's an idiot savant on the football field.

This might be a little unfair, but in theory it would be fun to root for a team with the ambition of breaking up the established order at the top of the Premier League, yet City's cold, emotionless exterior make it difficult for the team to be embraced.

Easier question: Who on City is there to like? (I'll wait for an answer.)

City, as currently constructed, just sort of is. So that being the case it's easier to root against it's nouveu riche success than it is to cheer for it to win.

Follow me into the desert as thirsty as you are:

Nevermind the current La Liga table. This is still Jose Mourinho's world, we're all just living in it.

Rafa Benitez should have known not to follow in the shoes of "The Special One" at Inter Milan. The Spaniard was doomed from the start, lasting barely six months in Northern Italy.

Guess you could say Inter batted about .500 this summer, post Champions League-triumph. They whiffed on Benitez, but made the best bit of football business -- selling Balotelli to City for almost $40 million. (Err, umm, this assumes you're on the same wavelength as Sepp Blatter and believe FIFA is above board and beyond corruption and Qatar and Russia won their World Cup bids on merit alone, not oil-dollars.)

This week's firing puts Benitez in the middle of Jose's successors' wake.

When Mourinho left Porto in 2004 for Chelsea, his replacement, Luigi Delneri never even coached a match before he was fired. Avram Grant did a little better at Chelsea, leading them to a runner-up showing in the Premier League and Champions League, though his penance for trying to fill Mourinho's shoes has been potentially back-to-back last place finishers in the Premier League with Portsmouth and West Ham. Delneri has finally emerged from the Mourinho shadow after a few years with middling Serie A team to lead a mini-revival at Juventus this season.

Bottom line, Rafa, take some time off. Enjoy the tapas around the holiday table. Get some sun. Put your feet up. Relax. Go through some hypo-therapy to purge the word "Liverpool" from your vocabulary.

Beware the Ides of January:

We're barely a week from the wild, wacky January transfer window. Always fun times. Remember how Manchester City signed Adam Johnson last year? I'll always know where I was when that happened. Oh right ...

One thing to pay attention to is Sir Alex Ferguson. To his credit he snared two of United's most important players in the January 2006 transfer window, snaring Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic almost entirely under the radar. Maybe this is a coincidence, and Ferguson's recent work in the transfer market has been spotty, but the old Scot certainly has his eyes on a few players across Europe who we all have no idea about.

Of the 20 teams in the Premier League, Chelsea seem the most in need of an injection of somebody, most likely a forward. Neymar is not that player. One thought, why not make a short-term play for a guy like John Carew, whom Aston Villa would drive to the gates of Stamford Bridge? Not sure how long is contract is for, but he's a proven scorer in the Premier League, who'd fit in with Chelsea's muscular style of play.

Any team that goes after Adebayor is asking for trouble, or at least more trouble than the Togolese giant is worth. Sure, he'll probably score on his debut, but that's about it.

Everton are in the most desperate need of a striker. David Moyes seems smart enough to avoid Adebayor. If Moyes is smart he'd make a run for Nicklas Bendtner from Arsenal.

Consider me leery, too, on Wolfsburg's Edin Dzeko. He almost seems to good to be true, be it for Manchester City or Chelsea or whomever. My skepticism is from the fact the it seems the Bundesliga has become a drunken sailor on shore leave, with teams scoring at ease. Through 17 matches the German top flight has produced an astounding 481 goals.

This isn't to say Dzeko is destined to be a flop like Mateja Kežman, who did next to nothing for Chelsea after scoring about 814 goals for PSV in Holland, but the 24-year-old Bosnian isn't a slam dunk, especially since for the past two years his "dream" was to go to Italy and now it's Eastlands?

Sunday:

Like nearly everybody, not crazy about the uber-crowded holiday slate, especially with games bumping up against NFL football on Sunday. C'est la vie.

* Fulham v. West Ham -- (Live, FSC+, 7 a.m.) As turgid as West Ham's seasons has been, a win at Craven Cottage would put the Irons even on points with Fulham, albeit with one more game played. Maybe this is a little America-centric, but really the difference in these two teams is Fulham at least has a match-winner in Clint Dempsey this year, while West Ham has ... don't answer. Underrated Dempsey stat, he's been involved in over 60 fouls, giving and taking this season. Not sure he's going to have a lot of juice left in the tank for this summer's Gold Cup. Factor in Fulham might be strapping up for a relegation fight and Dempsey's going to be needed even more, unless the return of Bobby Zamora in February eases his burden. Since this has all been about Dempsey, let's hope his personal whipping-boy, Robert Green plays, as opposed to Ruud Boffin. ... Fulham 1, West Ham 0

* Newcastle United v. Manchester City -- Who'd have thought in a line-up, Andy Caroll might be judged less insane than either Balotelli or Tevez. One thing I've never been a fan of is sportswriters trying to moralize. Having said that, maybe one of his teammates can buy Balotelli a biography of Jackie Robinson for Christmas. Yeah, Balotelli is a arrogant, unlikeable, spoiled brat, but let's not forget too he's been jeered, whistled and in some quarters reviled in Italy for the color of his skin and wearing the Azzurri shirt. A little of the dignity of Robinson used while breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier certainly might help Balotelli. Of course this is pie-in-the-sky thinking, since Balotelli seems to openly court controversy, this week pretending not to know who Jack Wilshere is, then proclaiming himself the second-best player in the world behind Leo Messi. Oh, right, this came when he accepted the "Golden Boy" award. Think that says it all. I will now get off my soapbox. ... Newcastle United 2, Manchester City 1

* Manchester United v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Sunderland is a nice little team. That's a compliment. Steve Bruce is building a nice side with a decent amount of depth. You'd have to like the Black Cats chances much more were Danny Welbeck available to play against his parent club. Welbeck might be the best striker Manchester United has to offer at the moment, with five goals in his last seven matches. Sunderland did win at Stamford Bridge and it would be one hell of an accomplishment to end Chelsea's massive home winning streak, then hand United its first loss of the 2010-11 season. Bruce has the team pointed in the right direction, but not quite yet. ... Manchester United 2, Sunderland 0

* Everton v. Birmingham City -- Smart move, personally and more importantly physically for Landon Donovan to slam the door shut on a month-long rumor mill of him returning to Everton for a couple months before the start of the next MLS campaign. Donovan's in great shape, so no sense grinding him down just to play in a couple more European matches. Lost in this discussion is that Everton could have dearly used his injection of attacking nous. Even with Monday's 2-1 win at Manchester City, Everton might be in trouble since Tim Cahill will miss most of January on Asian Cup duty with Australia in, yep, Qatar. Cahill, who might be the best header of the ball for goals in the world, has nine of the Toffees 19 league goals. Don't see anyone on the roster stepping up to fill in. Gulp. Meanwhile, Brum is being linked heavily to a different striker currently employed by the Los Angeles Galaxy -- Edson Buddle. Not sure he's the kind of guy who can save their season, but at least he's an option not named Cameron Jerome. If I'm Buddle, though, unless I'm hell bent on playing in Europe, I'd wait to pick a more inviting spot than a team gearing up for a relegation battle. ... Everton 1, Birmingham City 1

* Wolves v. Wigan Athletic -- With nothing to say here, let me offer you the warmest Lane Pryce, "Happy Christmas" as possible. ... Wolves 1, Wigan 1

* Bolton v. West Brom -- Nice achievement for Stuart Holden to be voted, by readers of the Guardian, as the best player in the Premier League for the first half. Then again, Blackpool's Richard Kingson was voted the best keeper, which sort of made me raise an eyebrow about the entire list. Damn. Sometimes being such a cynic sucks. ... Bolton 3, West Brom 2

* Blackpool v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Ian Holloway is the sanest "crazy" person ever. Caught a segment late night on Sky Sports of Blackpool's visit to a local children's hospital. Unprompted Holloway started ranting against all the people stuck in airports in England trying to go on holiday, telling them basically to suck it up, go home and be happy they're well-off enough to travel. Love this guy. Steven Gerrard should be back for Liverpool, which will try to avoid losing the season series to Blackpool, as crazy as that sounds. Blackpool are still without skipper Charlie Adam, still trying to serve his one-game yellow card accumulation suspension. And that sound you just heard, that was Liverpool fans across the globe choking back bile on the mere mention Roy Hodgson is considering the corpse of Matthew Upson as defensive cover while Jamie Carragher nurses his shoulder injury. ... Blackpool 1, Liverpool 2

* Blackburn Rovers v. Stoke City -- Good for Christopher Samba for speaking his mind and saying that if how Venky's abruptly fired Sam Allardyce, then its not a club he wants to play for in the future. Glad at least one player in the world showed some guts for a change. If this is true, Samba wouldn't have any shortage of suitors. On an unrelated note, interesting that young U.S. striker Teal Bunbury had a recent trial with Stoke. Glad he's getting a look, but not sure how he'd be able to break into the Potters deep striker rotation, barring injury. ... Blackburn 0, Stoke City 1

* Aston Villa v. Tottenham -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) The success and ascension of Tottenham might be the toughest to swallow for Aston Villa supporters. Under Martin O'Neill Villa kept knocking on the door of breaking up the "Big Four," only to fall short every time. Here comes Harry Redknapp and gets Spurs into the Champions League. It gets especially galling since Tottenham is consistently linked to Villa's best player -- Ashley Young. Not sure where Young would play considering Spurs have Gareth Bale on the left already, but who cares it's a fun rumor to continually propagate. ... Aston Villa 1, Spurs 2

Monday:

* Arsenal v. Chelsea -- (Live, ESPN2, 2:55 p.m.) Arsenal, it would seem, last managed a win over Chelsea or Manchester United when Backstreet Boys were still releasing new music. Arsene Wenger can say whatever he wants, and maybe, yeah, the Gunners did out-play the Blues at Stamford Bridge, if you want to go by passing stats. Here's a stat, via Opta Sports, Didier Drogba has 13 goals in 13 matches vs. Arsenal. Or how about this one, Arsenal have two wins in their last 18 games against Chelsea.

Every time you think Arsenal has changed, in a big game like this the Gunners once again, to borrow the opt-repeated Dennis Green, are who we thought they are. Okay, maybe the portly ex-Vikings/Cardinals coach doesn't draw a lot of water in England. How about a guy by the name of Albert Einstein? "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Arsenal are going to pass and dance about the penalty area, only to get smacked by the remorse-less Blues hammer on a counter attack or set piece.

That's been Arsene Wenger's M.O. for the last five years. Refuse to spend big on a goalie or prime defender, and suffer the consequences when it really matters. You have to wonder, if Barcelona puts Arsenal to an early sword in the Champions League, and the Gunners fail to win the Premier League, will the heat ever catch up to Wenger?

This match might be more revelatory for Chelsea. The canceled fixture last weekend vs. Manchester United was almost a godsend, allowing the team to lick their wounds and get healthier. If any team needs a winter break in England it's the Blues' cast of 30-somethings. We'll get to see if Frank Lampard's return makes the difference we assume it will, and by transitive properties, turn Flourent Malouda back into his deadly form from March through October.

One of these days Arsenal will break through. Until we actually see it, it's foolish to think things are going to chance this time around. ... Arsenal 1, Chelsea 1

Last round: 2-1
Season: 75-97

(Also, with the crammed holiday fixture list, not sure how much I'll post over the next week beyond picks. Have a happy and healthy.)