Rants and musings from the magazine team
We normally point out who's had a bad weekend. But for the festive season, Vithushan Ehantharajah thought he'd ignore the puddings and concentrate on the crackers...
SunderlandConsecutive 1-0 wins give Sunderland six points out of a brace of fixtures from which their more sceptical followers would have settled for two.
While the win at Southampton was secured by Steven Fletcher’s eighth goal of the campaign, Adam Johnson temporarily lifted the Scot's scoring burden against Manchester City to surprise Joe Hart – and himself, so much so that he almost forgot to make a point of not celebrating against his former club.
It was Johnson at his best, jinking onto his left foot before thumping the ball at Hart's near post for his third of the season, drawing him level with Stephane Sessegnon as Sunderland’s second top scorer.
Only seven of Martin O’Neill’s players have found the net this season – the lowest number in the Premier League, an issue that needs to be addressed. As Manchester City started to chase the game, Sessegnon, Johnson and James McClean started to exploit the increasing amount of space between City’s holding midfielder Javi Garcia and their back four.
But Sunderland couldn't find that second goal, through a combination of hot-headedness and poor decision-making – McClean particularly guilty of both, thrashing a shot wide of the near post as Sessegnon bust a gut to break into the penalty area unmarked. Given City’s propensity for late goals this season, Sunderland can thank their lucky stars that their profligacy didn’t cost them.
Phil NevilleBecoming only the seventh player to make 500 Premier League appearances, the younger Neville marked the occasion with a faultless display at right-back on Boxing Day.
While the Everton captain’s delivery on to the head of Phil Jagielka would prove to be the decider against Wigan, it was his diligence in the defensive third that was ultimately the difference between the two sides.
With the score still 1-0 and the Everton defence being pulled to the left by a Wigan break, Neville tracked Arouna Kone’s run to the near post, blocking his effort inside the six-yard box.
His pure footballing ability has often been mocked, but the former Manchester United man has proven his worth to David Moyes – in defence and midfield. Indeed it was at Old Trafford in December 2002, in one of the many fierce encounters against Arsenal around that time, where Neville first showed his worth in the middle of the park.
Positioned by Sir Alex Ferguson in the gap between United’s injury-ravaged midfield and defence, slightly on the right to quell the threat of Thierry Henry and Robert Pires, he stopped Arsenal’s creativity at the source with challenges, interceptions and an air of authority that few United fans had seen in him before, but many Everton fans have enjoyed since.
Manchester United went on to win 2-0 (on their way to securing their eighth Premier League title at the end of the season) and Neville was given the man of the match award. He might not have as much energy as he did that day, but there’s no denying he is a better footballer.
Juan MataQuite the disparity between Chelsea’s two matches across Christmas, both in the scoreline and the resistance offered by the respective opponents.
The 8-0 demolition of Aston Villa saw a return to the ruthless Chelsea who displayed such an insatiable appetite for goals that, were it not for the final whistle, you’d wonder if it could ever be satisfied.
Against Norwich, they had to battle Wes Hoolahan’s attempts to coax the door open and Grant Holt’s desire to bash through it. The defence stayed resolute, though an unmarked Sebastian Bassong could’ve added to his already impressive goal tally at the buzzer.
Mata’s sixth goal in his last eight games settled the tie – his seventh overall, an improvement on last season’s tally. The romantics will peddle Michu as player of the season – and they have every right to – but his smaller, more beardsome compartiot has been at the heart of all of Chelsea’s good work.
As Eden Hazard’s early form tailed off and Oscar began to grow, Mata has drifted about to all three angles of Chelsea’s supplementary attacking trident with the sort of purposeful mastery that makes a mockery of the league’s barnstorming bravado.
It may be puerile use of stats, but without his goals or assists, Chelsea would be 12 points worse off in the league. Rafa Benitez still has work to do to get the defence at Stamford Bridge to what he deems as acceptable – although two successive clean sheets is a good start – but he can do so in the meantime knowing Mata is taking care of business at the other end.
West Bromwich Albion Given the winter programme, West Brom’s two defeats in the beginning of December seemed ominous, particularly the defeat to Arsenal – a game which, for once, had Steve Clarke at odds with what he wanted to set out to achieve at the Emirates.
Given Arsenal’s strife and the visiting side’s form, there was scope for an away win which very few would be able to label an “upset”. The aftermath was as close as West Brom fans have come to dismay at Clarke’s methods, but a deserved win at the Hawthorns against Norwich was followed by a fairly routine, albeit fortuitous, win at QPR.
As one difficult period is being overcome, another begins, as the excellent Youssouf Mulumbu reports for Africa Cup of Nations duty with the Democratic Republic of Congo from the first week of January. Together with Claudio Yacob, he has played an integral part in West Brom’s solidity with all-action displays at the centre of Clarke’s plans – qualities exhibited by Chris Brunt who has ably deputised in the middle in the absence of Yacob.
Gareth BaleThe Welsh wide man celebrated his first Premier League hat-trick, albeit against a battered, inexperienced and overawed Villa side.
There is a large amount of bile toward Bale, seemingly brought about by what many perceive as an over-rating of his talents by a British-biased media, and sustained by his theatrics on and off the ball.
His “diving” irks – even if yesterday provided a clear example of what many players have described as “jumping out of tackles”, when Fabian Delph nearly snapped his knee ligaments with a horribly misjudged tackle – but mostly it seems to be (to steal a term borrowed by Raheem Sterling) his “swagger”.
At Villa Park, the “swagger” was in abundance, even in a frustrated first half in which the only moments of note were long-range efforts from one of the most cultured left feet around.
Villa set up to stifle, but with Bale drifting in from the left, he was always likely to find space in the inside channels. Ashley Westwood, Delph and Karim El Ahmadi struggled as Mousa Dembele darted in an around them while Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor took turns to drop off and find a way through what was frequently a flat back five.
Defoe broke the deadlock, and thus Villa’s resolve, as Paul Lambert implored his young side to take more risks. Bale found more space, this time further forward, and broke through in between Adebayor and Defoe to cash in. Thrice.
Stoke City defending from the topThe effectiveness of Stoke’s pressing was accentuated by Liverpool’s persistence in playing their way out of defence, particularly during a passage of play near the end of the first half where it looked like the visitors' defence were passing through fear rather than ethos, as every touch drew an opposing player closer and closer.
Much is made of the way Tony Pulis lines his sides up but one must marvel at just how he manages to extract every ounce of effort from his players. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to assume that a trial at Stoke City is much like an NFL scouting combine – a week-long showcase where measureable qualities such as size, speed and strength of college football players are analysed – such is the emphasis Pulis puts on a footballer’s raw qualities.
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