January transfer madness came and went in England and it was ... as mild as a game of "Marble Madness." (insert groan here.)
Unless you're a person who spends 99 percent of his waking hours playing "Football Manager," it's tough to get revved up for David Pizzaro moving on loan from Roma to Manchester City. Sure, we've all twisted and turned in our beds, unable to sleep trying to decide if the Chilean is better as a deep-lying holding player or tucked in behind the strikers, yet it's not all that juicy, nothing more than an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite.
Sadly, for us in the "business" of making pithy and instantly forgettable quips about people from the anonymity of a keyboard, Premier League clubs realized that shelling out big money on flashy signings in the middle of the season -- sometimes on an hour's notice -- might not actually be the best way to run a club.
Of the 20 clubs in the Premier League, only two really did drastic re-designs on deadline day: QPR and Everton. QPR, was expected, since Mark Hughes was given money to keep the team in the Premier League, while Everton's was a mild surprise since David Moyes is always crying poverty.
QPR gambled on Djibril Cisse still being a viable player at the Premier League level. He did score on his debut Tuesday, for what that's worth. Cisse, if healthy, will score some goals and do little else. However you slice it, he's an upgrade over Jay Boothroyd.
Less convincing is the long pursuit of Bobby Zamora from Fulham. Why go for broke on a player making 90,000 pounds a week who's best goal return was eight in 27 matches at Fulham two years ago?
The potential Zamora-Cisse front line is decidedly more Premier League-level than what QPR had previously, though it casts aside whatever cohesion the team had in winning the Championship last season under Neil Warnock. (Not that those players/tactics were working this season in the top flight.)
QPR looks more Premier League with Zamora, Cisse, Nedum Onuoha and Taye Taiwo on-loan from Milan, but what happens to these highly-paid players should the club be relegated? And it's not like the club sorted out the on-going problems with Adel Taarabt. Suppose Hoops fans better hope his relationship with Hughes is more of the Craig Bellamy sort than the Robinho.
All that said, just three points above the drop, QPR needed to do something and they did.
Everton, after years of losing players, finally made a couple moves meaning David Moyes must have signed over one of his kidneys to a Russian Oligarch to fund it. Fortunately Landon Donovan is a nice guy and only requested a case of Crabbie's Ginger Beer from Moyes to play on loan at Goodison Park for a couple weeks.
Laugh at the Darron Gibson signing, but he's still only 24 and is a decent enough player to provide the club a little depth. Have him hang around Leon Osman at all times and maybe Everton secretly got themselves a little value.
Nikica Jelavić from Rangers is a dangerous move since whenever Moyes opens up the wallet, it tends to backfire. See the Russian winger who's name best be left unremembered. Again it's not rocket science, if Jelavic provides a consistent threat of goal up front, it's a good move, if not it's another waste of money. When you're Everton, you can't afford for it to be the latter.
And oh Stephen Pienaar.
Let it be said, the grass isn't always greener.
It's February and the puzzles of the Premier League picture are crystal clear in the forms of "mini leagues."
At the top it's Manchester City and Manchester United level on points. One will end up with the title.
Below that is where the fun is, with Spurs (relatively safe in third), Chelsea, Newcastle United (haven't faded, have to count them), Liverpool and Arsenal all fighting for those last two Champions League places. We could easily see two of the old "Big Four" on the outside looking in next season, a far cry from the days of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United comprising three of the final four teams in the Champions League a few years ago.
If Arsenal or Chelsea fall out of the top four, seismic changes could be on the way.
A little further down, let's lump the group of Sunderland, Stoke, Everton and probably Aston Villa as teams that basically have nothing left to play for. Barring calamity or a dry spell of Steve Carrell proportions, they're not getting relegated.
Norwich City, Swansea City, Fulham and West Brom are probably solid enough that they won't be sweating out every 90 minutes in March, April and May, but they're not good enough either to afford to ease up.
So that leaves the relegation derby between QPR, Bolton, Blackburn, Wolves and Wigan. If any of these five emerge as a "dead" team and an automatic three points, where they simply roll over it might be Wolves, who've shown nothing for weeks ... aside from taking a point at White Hart Lane.
Blackburn, you'd think, already would have quit on Steve Kean, but they haven't, although it appears Chris Samba has. Wigan is still Wigan. Write them off at your own peril.
Bolton isn't very dynamic -- or good -- so expect Owen Coyle to be sweating through his short-shorts the rest of the way.
* Arsenal v. Blackburn Rovers -- (Live, ESPN2, 8 a.m.) Arsenal's ills are easy to diagnose, if strange. The team can't score goals. Since defeating Wigan 4-0 on Dec. 3, the Gunners have scored more than once in a league game only twice. After Robin van Persie's league-leading 19 goals, the next Arsenal player is Gervinho with four. This is where the losses of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri are killing the team. Although Wenger replaced them, nominally with Mikel Arteta and increased playing time for Aaron Ramsey, the knack for goal eludes them. Double that for Theo Walcott. Wenger better sort it out, since the Gunners' season will be defined in late February and early March with the two-leg AC Milan Champions League tie sandwiched around a home game with Spurs and a trip to Anfield. ... Arsenal 2, Blackburn 1
* Wigan Athletic v. Everton -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Here's Wigan in a nutshell, haven't won a game since Dec. 10, but if they find a way to ever win two in a row, the Latics are out of the relegation zone. Problem for Roberto Martinez, the team can't stop leaking goals. Everton have the league's worst offense, aside from Wigan in terms of goals scored. Wonder what happens without Landon Donovan, who seems to set up everything for the Toffees as of late. ... Wigan 1, Everton 1
* Norwich v. Bolton --Good example, here, of why chemistry on the field counts more for soccer than most sports. Norwich's collective roster had a tablespoon of combined top flight experience coming into the year, while Bolton's lineup though forgettable was filled with "proven" Premier League players -- and David Ngog. Norwich is nine points better than the Trotters this year. Shouldn't be so surprising, yet it is. Bolton haven't lost in four games (all competitions). If Owen Coyle could get his team to turn some of their division-high 15 losses into draws -- Bolton only has two -- and this club would be a lot better off. ... Norwich City 2, Bolton 1
* QPR v. Wolves -- Running theme here, Wolves haven't won since Dec. 4. It gets headlines when owner Steve Morgon storms into the locker room to dress down the team, but what does he expect? This club is decidedly average in all spots. Counting on Sebastien Bassong and Emmanuel Frimpong to come in on loan and save the season is a bit much, too. ... QPR 2, Wolves 0
* Stoke City v. Sunderland -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Martin O'Neill was rolling seven after seven at the Sunderland craps table and then ... brings in Wayne Bridge. Oy. Joking aside, nice to see Frazier Campbell back in the fray for Sunderland. The kid had an abundance of talent, prior to blowing out his knee twice. Read somewhere, too, he used to attend matches in a hoodie and stand with the Sunderland supporters. Wish there were more stories about stuff like that instead of Mario Balotelli tall tales. ... Stoke City 1, Sunderland 1
* West Brom v. Swansea City -- Call it the Hodgson effect, but West Brom are the most "meh" team in the Premier League. Nothing flashy. Nothing that jumps out at you. They show up. Play 90 minutes. We move on with our lives. ... West Brom 1, Swansea City 1
* Manchester City v. Fulham -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) Thinking ahead here, but if Clint Dempsey scores in this match it's among his most important at the club. Not quite scoring vs. Liverpool in his debut season to keep Fulham in the Prem, or the chip of ages vs. Juventus, but it would directly impact the title race. ... City 2, Fulham 0
* Newcastle United v. Aston Villa -- (Live, FSC, 8 a.m.) Is the fact Newcastle United is 11-6-6 in the Premier League in February, sitting in fifth place an endorsment for the strides the league has made for being more competitive? Or the indication of a water-down, weaker league in general? ... Newcastle United 1, Aston Villa 2
* Chelsea v. Manchester United -- (Live, FOX ... unless you live in North Carolina, 11 a.m.) I tweeted this a while ago, but thank god ESPN's talking heads don't know who John Terry is, so let's just move on since I get way too many warm and fuzzy thoughts thinking about the American public "meeting" the English Lion himself on national television. Schools are going to be filled with children Monday morning featuring haircuts that will get them sent to detention since the teachers will think they did it themselves with a pair of clippers in the bathroom between periods.
People of England should probably be grateful Terry is standing trial for his alleged racial slurs on Anton Ferdinand. It stripped him of the England captaincy meaning he's no longer guaranteed to start for England, which is a good thing since he's not the player he once was. If Fabio Capello had any guts, he'd leave him home for the Euro, good karma like that can only be beneficial in the long run, right?
Sticking with the national thoughts, is there a player in American sports we all revel in his personal failures with such delights at Fernando Torres? Tony Romo? LeBron James? A-Rod? That's good -- and bad -- company to be associated with.
Have a feeling here that Sir Alex won't care about entertaining the American audience when he fields his lineup, instead picking a conservative team, where a glum draw wouldn't be the end of the world. Not sure with the team so beat up, the Red Devils can gear it up here and put Chelsea to the sword.
Then again, all it takes is a moment of sloppiness from David Luiz for United to keep the knife right at City's throat.
The one shame here is that there isn't a betting line on this for an England international breaking a metatarsal during the 90 minutes. ... Chelsea 1, Manchester United 1
* Liverpool v. Tottenham -- (Live, ESPN2, 3 p.m.) Willingly have chosen to ignore Harry Redknapp's tax trial, because honestly I might enjoy English soccer but I could give a damn about English tax torts. Plus, it's always uncomfortable, speaking from experience, to see a grown man cry.
It's funny again how things work out. Liverpool spent all that money on new players in 2012 and the best signing was Craig Bellamy on a free transfer. Couple that with the rapid return to form from Steven Gerrard and it's like the 2005 FA Cup Final all over again.
The way the table has shaken out, this is a much bigger game for Liverpool trying to grab fourth place than it is for Spurs, who can really cement a place in the Champions League with a point here and win next week vs. Newcastle United. Liverpool are going to miss Lucas (as usual) in chasing around Luka Modric, it should be fun to see Glen Johnson "marking" Gareth Bale. Maybe Kenny Dalglish has something in his bag of tricks, figure he'll try something out of the ordinary to get Tottenham on the back foot. ... Liverpool 2, Spurs 1
Last round: 4-6