As we dip our toes into the crowded holiday slate of games in the English Premier League, it's fairly clear the powers running the league figure that the players have the same super-human, tireless, work ethic as the elves in Santa's workshop.
The slight irony here, is that in the early days of football in England the players were drawn from the working class. The miners. The textile workers. The laborers, err, labourers. Playing professionally for the players, at least, was a slight respite from the drudgery of day-to-day life.
In turn, the crowded holiday slate of games gave the proletariat some slight cheer ... or at least a couple hours away from breathing in coal soot.
Nowadays there's so much to do, daily information overload as it were, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the EPL shutdown for two weeks. It would do plenty more good than harm. Fans wouldn't forget the league existed. Everybody would be back tuning in when the games resume. Let folks play with their new XBox or PS3s. Head to the cinema for some delightful fare like "Yogi Bear" or "Guilliver's Travels."
A little absence would let the heart grow fonder, allowing the players some much needed-time to heal their aching bodies instead of taxing their tendons, ligaments and sinew even more than usual. Wouldn't you rather the players -- and not to get too sensitive to them since they're paid handsomely -- get a little rest so the quality of play, including the pitches themselves, is more aesthetically pleasing?
More in this case of crowded games, more might prove to be much much less.
Yet like the elderly couple starting at the "Velvet Kramer" ... we cannot look away.
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So, despite my best Ebeneezer Scrooge impression, did we learn anything from the weekend, aside from the fact that the Premier League encroaching on the NFL on Sundays isn't the best idea in the world. Here are my observations in easily digestible nugget form.
Home Star Gunner -- Arsene Wenger, for one night, can channel his inner Hannibal Smith, sitting back, kicking up his feet and loving how a plan comes together. Arsenal deserves a victory lap after disposing an utterly abject Chelsea Monday, 3-1, at the Emirates.
Arsenal did it their way, call it "Barcelona-lite," passing the ball around the slower, ball-watching Blues, utilizing the wide area with Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott, essentially running circles around Chelsea, who were left chasing at shadows.
Robin van Persie made it through the match unscathed and brought a different kind of creativity in front of goal, allowing others to pivot around him as he held up the ball, playing passes to his teammates. Walcott re-emerged as a pacy threat on the outside, capitalizing on two Chelsea errors to put the game out of reach in a quick five-minute blitz after the break.
It wasn't a total five-star effort for Arsenal, as Branislav Ivanovic leapt over Laurent Koscielny as if he wasn't there, to at least get Chelsea on the scoreboard cashing in Didier Drogba's free kick. Chelsea barely had the ball, so Arsenal's usual defensive frailties wasn't put under the microscope.
All-and-all, a fine win for the Gunners who can at least quiet some of the talk they can't hang with the top of the league. The bigger question is if Arsenal can keep it up over the winter (sigh, repetition) to keep the pressure on Manchester United, which it trails by two points having played one more match. Arsenal faces Manchester City on Jan. 5 then doesn't have a "top" matchup until the end of February with Tottenham, so there's plenty of water that will be under the bridge until the April 30 assumed showdown against United at the Emirates.
Not to be a total skeptic, but Arsenal have to back this win up. The Gunners didn't break their nearly five-year (and counting) trophy-less spell on Monday, but they did offer hope.
We'll see it, yet again, it's no more than false hope. Beating Chelsea, however weakened the Blues might be at the moment, certainly signals this might not be the same old Arsenal cock-tease.
Dagger in Chelsea? -- The bigger revelation from Monday is the total disaster that is Chelsea, yet again reinforced for all across the world to see it's once-mighty body slowly atrophying.
Cue up the Karen O, because heads will roll. Maybe.
Roman Abramovich isn't going to sit by and watch this club fritter away the season, although he might not want to do a total shake-up with the team very much alive in the Champions League -- the Russian's Holy Grail.
It's fairly clear Chelsea's summer plan isn't working, this season at least. Nothing wrong with jettisoning Michael Ballack, Deco, et al., though it hurts in a match like Monday when you're down a goal and all you have to bring on to create a spark is Gaël Kakuta. It's smart long-term planning, but in games like Monday it can come back to bite you, although it's not the reason Chelsea lost. Nor is the dismissal of Ray Wilkinson a couple weeks ago.
There are a couple ways to look at Chelsea's malaise, which began with a Nov. 4 loss at Anfield to Liverpool. The Blues are a mere 1-3-4 (W/D/L) since then in the Premier League, with the lone victory a 1-0 at Fulham on Nov. 10. That's a miserible run of form. If not for the amazing start, Chelsea might be sub-Liverpool at the moment.
The Chelsea problem is two-fold. The players are all the same, at least they look similar to the group that was destroying the League in August-October routinely by 6-0 scorelines. How did a system that was laying the opposition to waste go so thoroughly off the rails? How did this team all of a sudden become a zombie version of itself? Do you just keep trying the same thing? Sticking the same 4-3-3 and hope to restart the fire?
For me, Chelsea's decline -- specifically a lack of response by the players -- is akin to the first round of the NCAA tournament where a top seed is struggling against some unknown Southwestern State so-and-so in a half-empty arena at 12:31 p.m. We've seen it a million times. The favorite is dazed, looking around the court for answers, hoping to have it all click for them. They came into the game expecting to win, the underdog had other ideas and the favorite doesn't know how to fight back. Sometimes the upset is avoided and the favorite snaps out of it, otherwise they're left wondering what went wrong.
Playing the old, "off-and-on" switch game in sports is a dangerous game.
Chelsea, you expect, to turn it on eventually. With Frank Lampard and Michael Essien returning to fitness you almost expect it ... but it still hasn't happened. The road gets much easier for the Blues in January, with home games against Aston Villa and Blackburn with road trips to Wolves and Bolton. The Blues are only six points off the pace, too. Perhaps Flourent Malouda -- awful vs. Arsenal -- regains his early season form. Maybe Salomon Kalou contributes something meaningful, instead of his usual tack-on goals.
Still, there's a lingering sense that Chelsea as we know it, the team assembled by Jose Mourinho, with the backbone of Petr Cech, John Terry, Lampard and Didier Drogba -- who clearly can't carry this team every 90 minutes any more-- might be on its last legs. We'll probably look back at last year's title run as the last hurrah. The group had a great run, three Prem titles and that oh-so-close night in rainy Moscow.
Chelsea, at least for the next five months can try to apply some band aids and limp into the station in May. Long term, this team needs a serious blood transfusion.
In the words of George Harrison, "all things must pass."
Is Manchester United, "good"? -- Still can't answer this accurately. When Dimitar Berbatov guided in Wayne Rooney's lofted cross inside of five minutes, it figured to be a romp over Sunderland on Sunday... except it wasn't. Yes, the game ended 2-0 thanks to Berbatov's brace. And true, United looked pretty good on the ball in the first half, playing without Nani no less.
United are indicative of the League. They don't do anything especially great, but they don't have any glaring weaknesses either. Sir Alex Ferguson has the Red Devils chugging along like one of those Neilsen rating chart-topping CBS procedurals, which don't win the hearts of critics, but have the numbers where it counts atop the table.
Call it CSI: Manchester.
Manchester City's AYSO Approach -- It's hard to accurately acess any match when one team is up 2-0 inside of five minutes. That was what happened in Manchcester City's 3-1 at Newcastle, started by Tim Krul gifting a goal to Gareth Barry set up by a head's up play from Carlos Tevez, who shortly there after scored himself.
Up 2-0, City had the game taken to them by Newcastle. It almost got interesting, too, when Andy Carroll made it 2-1 with 20 minutes left. Before it could, Adam Johnson made a nice feint, threaded a pass to Tevez, who shot it off the back of compatriot Fabrico Colocinni. Game over.
City continue to baffle and confuse, playing almost two different games at times. Roberto Mancini seems to have the defense figured out. The Italian manager still wants to shoehorn Yaya Toure into the creative midfielder role, not sure it's a great long term plan.
More often than not City seem to be like that local youth team at the park which has one super awesome kid, who's better than everyone else. You know the teams. Everyone else stands around and waits for that kid to take over the game and make a play. Most of the time it works when the team names are Ladybugs or Wildcats. Remember that old Fernando Torres youth clip from Atletico Madrid?
In the EPL? We'll see. Tevez has been able to come through more often than not.
Eric Lichaj has balls -- Unfortunately for Aston Villa, he's about the only one on the team that seemed to play with them for any stretch of time in Sunday's 2-1 home loss to Tottenham. Not worried if his long term future for the USMNT is right back or in the center. The kid looks like a player with some moxie, with the skills to back it up. Maybe this is just a simplistic American, rah-rah, go get 'em way to look at it, but there's nothing wrong with a little fire.
Lichaj did a good job tracking Gareth Bale, too, a job that's about as easy as catching sand falling through an hourglass.
Bale just waited for the young American to move away from him, as he latched onto a pass from Luka Modric, cut inside -- leaving Carlos Cuellar with his pants on the ground -- laying it off to Aaron Lennon, who one-touched it over to Rafael van der Vaart for his second goal of the day.
Lumps of Coal in the Underwear -- Tough Christmas in order for Blackburn, Wolves and Fulham. Each club lost at home on Sunday to less than imposing opposition. Each club now has the fans openly questioning if the manager is the right man for the job.
Blackburn lodged a limp, indifferent performance losing to Stoke 2-0 as about 50 fans protested the new Indian owners outside Ewood Park. Rovers will be an interesting test case. Sam Allardyce did assemble a side that should be competitive in the Premier League, but if the players are reading the writing on the wall that their services might not be required much longer there's a good chance they mail in the rest of the season. Venky's didn't extend Allardyce any loyality, so perhaps the players are following suit. If I'm a team with a little cash available in January, I'd start sniffing around about Morten Gamst Pedersen.
Wolves? The team, at least for a while, was trying hard. Problem is Mick McCarthy assembled a group of Championship-level scrappers. Eventually talent is going to win out, and there's not a ton to go around in the mustard colored shirts. Teams that want to stick around and cash in on the Premier League millions don't go down to Wigan 2-0 in the first half hour at home. Wolves would be smart to retain McCarthy, since who exactly is going to whip this collection into shape? It's a risk, but take the relegation and try to bounce right back like West Brom or Newcastle.
As for Fulham? A 3-1 loss to West Ham? At Craven Cottage no less? Really hope my Internet amigo "30f" didn't wake up at 4 a.m. West Coast time to watch it live. There's a lot of regret swirling around Fulham. Roy Hodgson probably wishes he stayed. Mark Hughes probably wishes he waited a few weeks for Martin O'Neill to leave Aston Villa. Problem for Fulham, you can't go home again. The bigger regret is that the club probably peaked last May in the Europa League final, only to be undone by Diego Forlan. A club in a crossroads, which needs to get on his war armor and figure out a way to grind out a 17th place finish and regroup over the summer.
"Passing" it into the net must stop -- Bring back the stodgy English manly-men snickering about snoods. This obsession with pundits now saying players are passing it into the net to finish off movements is getting out of hand. Or maybe everyone is in teenage puppy-style love with what Barcelona is doing every couple days in Catalonia.
Fantasy Premier League Needs Work -- In fairness, it's impossible to predict the cancelled fixtures due to weather. At the same time, it's going to get especially confusing down the road with teams doubling up in a particular Gameweek. Oh, and just forget about head-to-head leagues in this scenario. As someone that's played fantasy/rotisserie sports for the last 15+ years -- back to the backs of Excel spreadsheets and the USA Today -- I'd be more than willing to offer my services to help improve the format.
Game in Hand -- Set to the tune of The Smith's "Hand in Glove." In short, this is going to get confusing, especially when every commentator is just going to assume Manchester United is going to take full points from it's rescheduled, make-up matches. Fun.
Round 20(ish) Picks:
* Stoke City v. Fulham -- Stoke is a little bit like Fulham last year. Not flashy. Everybody knows their role. Hell, even Kenwyne Jones can fill Bobby Zamora's Trinidadian hitman shoes. Stoke is rolling off a road win. Fulham is reeling off a home loss, and stinks traditionally on the road. If that form doesn't hold, never bet on a result in this league again. ... Stoke City 2, Fulham 1
* West Brom v. Blackburn -- Nothing says holiday cheer like this one. ... West Brom 2, Blackburn 0
* Tottenham v. Newcastle United -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) On paper, at least, this ought to be the most entertaining game of the year, especially the competing comedy shows between Tim Krul and Gomes. Hope Rafael van der Vaart is fit to play on the quick turnaround. This match alone makes the crowded holiday fixture list worth it. ... Tottenham 3, Newcastle United 2
* Sunderland v. Blackpool -- File this away for Blackpool. The club now has three fixtures to make up at home. Squad depth isn't exactly the strength of the Tangerines. Blackpool is also the third-best away team in the league. Is that enough to trigger a backslide? I'm done betting against Ian Holloway, though, in the long term. Sunderland is still great at the Stadium of Light, unbeaten in nine matches, conceding only five goals. ... Sunderland 2, Blackpool 1
* Manchester City v. Aston Villa -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Can Manchester City ever put together a string of impressive, quality results? City almost took flight at the end of September, beating Chelsea, then winning two more League games before being stomped by Arsenal. Aston Villa shouldn't put up much of a fight. Richard Dunne used up all his revenge juice last season. Stephen Ireland probably couldn't even spell revenge if you spotted him the "venge." ... Manchester City 2, Aston Villa 0
* West Ham United v. Everton -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) Let's call West Ham's win over Fulham what it is, a dead-cat bounce. This is the time of the season Everton begins to shine. ... West Ham 1, Everton 2
* Birmingham City v. Manchester United -- (Live, ESPN2, 3 p.m.) Could this be the first banana peel for United? One thing to give credit for is Sir Alex Ferguson is doing a first-rate job managing his entire squad and juggling in players for the right conditions. Seems like he's putting the correct midfield out there more often than not, saving the legs of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs and riding the unexpected resurgence, well more accurately "surgence" since he never really did much for United until now, of Anderson. Maybe this could be a trap for United, but since they could be looking up at Manchester City in the table, Ferguson won't let it happen. ... Birmingham City 0, Manchester United 2
* Wigan Athletic v. Arsenal -- Channeling Ben Kingsley from "Sexy Beast." Nononononononononononono. No way Arsenal stubs its toe at Wigan. None. When have we ever seen that before? (Wait, what's that in the distance, preemptive complaints about an awful pitch?) ... Wigan 1, Arsenal 3
* Chelsea v. Bolton -- Pretty simple for Chelsea. Must. Win. Game. ... Chelsea 1, Bolton 0
* Liverpool v. Wolves -- Driving home Christmas late Christmas night from a night at the bar, the Pink Floyd song "Fearless" came up on my iPod. Definitely the most underrated song in their back catalog. If you've never heard it, it features the Anfield Kop singing, "You'll Never Walk Alone." Until hearing this I kind of forget that Liverpool, the football club, still existed. Weird, pointless stories aside, this is the type of match at home why Liverpool is mired in the middle of the table. Wolves might have a little more grit in them after losing Sunday, but those should be some tired legs and heavy heads. Liverpool is as fresh as it'll be. Hodgson ought to turn the dogs lose and get to get a goodwill result before the New Year. ... Liverpool 3, Wolves 0.
Last round: 4-4