ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action
It may a festive time of year when many people look forward to their football, but there’s something of a cloud hanging over our national sport with the developments of the past week involving Luis Suarez and John Terry.
Perhaps the most incredible development is this strangely intemperate statement made by Liverpool and their players. You can quite understand a club operating in an ‘all for one and one for all’ style siege mentality, but that appeared a slightly blind response that ignored the realities of the situation. Obviously there will be an appeal to follow and we’ll see what happens with that, but I’m not sure the reaction has done a usually very proud club much credit.
Kenny Dalglish’s side will certainly miss Suarez badly for those eight games if any appeal is unsuccessful, and given he may well face further retribution for his one-fingered gesture at Fulham earlier in the month, it’s possible he could end up missing over a quarter of the Premier League campaign – without wanting to pre-judge whatever punishment may be forthcoming for the second charge.
Some of Liverpool’s results this season – particularly at home – have been a bit underwhelming, and given these latest developments and with Arsenal and Tottenham finding form and Chelsea also in the mix, it’s almost impossible to see Liverpool finishing in the top four.
Liverpool will look to bounce back from a disappointing draw at Wigan when they host Blackburn Rovers on Boxing Day.Rovers are the basket cases of the Premier League; bottom of the table, five points adrift of safety and two wins from 17 games this season. While the general feeling was that the home defeat by Bolton would be the end of Steve Kean, extraordinarily it hasn’t been and he and Blackburn limp on, and at the moment it seems that they’re limping towards relegation.Even with all the off-pitch distractions, Liverpool will be far too strong for Blackburn, especially with Suarez currently still available.
Chelsea, of course, will have to wait to learn the fallout of the John Terry situation, but as far as matters on the pitch are concerned, I saw them at Wigan last weekend and they seemed to slip back in to being their struggling early-season selves. They’ll soon lose Didier Drogba to the Africa Cup of Nations, and then we’ll see whether Fernando Torres is really up to taking up the mantle.On Monday they’ll host Fulham in a West London derby that is often rather engaging. It may not be a rivalry as fierce as, for example, Tottenham against Arsenal, but they are often matches which produce good football, and in recent years Fulham have often seemed to play above themselves.So even though the Cottagers are coming off the back of a 5-0 home defeat to Manchester United, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them give Chelsea a really testing afternoon at Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United are probably about where they’d want to be around this time of year, just tucked in behind the leaders ready for a big surge in the second half of the campaign. But there’s a fair bit of balderdash spoken about exactly how well United do in the second half of a season – yes, historically they’ve done well in the second half of a season, but if you look at recent campaigns it’s not actually been the case, so it will be interesting to see how they develop as the season wears on. Nonetheless, they’ll be happy that it’s Wigan Athletic visiting Old Trafford on Boxing Day. The Latics have ground out two good draws against Chelsea and Liverpool in recent days, but the nature of the modern day points system is such that they would have been better off winning one and losing the other. They are now just one defeat in six and played very well against Chelsea last weekend, but you still watch them and worry that perhaps they aren’t quite pragmatic enough. That could well prove their undoing against the champions.
It’s difficult to see anything other than a Manchester City win away to West Bromwich Albion. That’s despite the Baggies earning an impressive three points at Newcastle in midweek and currently sitting in the top half of the table – where you’d imagine they’d be delighted to be come the end of the season. But the key is that twice as many of their wins have come away than at the Hawthorns – four on their travels and just two at home – and I don’t see that improving against a fairly rampant City.
Bolton battled to a job-preserving win for their manager Owen Coyle at Blackburn on Tuesday evening, and will next face a Newcastle side on something of a slump after their impressive start to the league season. The Magpies have now not won in six and it’s probably just as well that they’ve already got 27 points to their name, as it’s a struggle to see them picking up quite so many points in the second half of the season. They’ll give Bolton an awkward Bank Holiday afternoon, despite being so besieged by injuries, but if Bolton are to have any chance of turning their season round they’ll need to build on that win at Ewood Park, and that means beating Newcastle.
Sunderland have secured two wins in three under their new manager Martin O’Neill, while their festive opposition Everton are having something of a binary season – six of their games have finished 1-0 one way or the other. The Toffees have to take whatever they can get these days, given their financial restraints, so to be 11th place with 20 points to their name isn’t so bad, even though usually by this stage of a season they’d expect to be halfway towards European qualification rather than halfway towards safety.David Moyes will certainly wish this fixture had come along a month ago when Sunderland, under previous management, were struggling to score and struggling to win games. While O’Neill hasn’t yet been able to change the personnel, what he has done is instil a bit of confidence in the players, and that has shown in their performances thus far.
Overall Stoke will be happy with where they are at present – in eighth place with more European football to look forward to in the New Year. A 3-0 defeat away to Manchester City doesn’t say a great deal about a mid-table side as most sides will lose at the Etihad Stadium this season, and they’ll view Monday night’s fixture at home to Aston Villa as a great opportunity to get three more points on the board, given the visitors look so bereft of confidence. It pains me to say it but I think Villa are the dullest side to watch in the Premier League at the moment. They rarely seem to be able to light up a game, and it looks like being a long season for their season ticket holders, though I don’t see them struggling against the drop.
Arsenal have won eight of their last 10, though most of those have been against sides they’d expect to beat, and they’ll be expecting that run to continue against Wolves in Tuesday’s rescheduled match, with Mick McCarthy’s side winning just two of their last 15 Premier League games. Arsenal have turned things around very well without ever suggesting their going to unsettle the top two in the table, though the top four looks within their grasp. Wolves will look around the bottom end of the table and see three sides below them they will feel they have a good chance of staying above, and a few above them who they may fancy could slide.
One of those sides could be Swansea, who host fellow Premier League newcomers Queens Park Rangers on Tuesday evening. The Welsh side have now claimed just one win in seven and are 14th in the table, with the points they’ve won largely coming at the Liberty Stadium – they’ve taken 15 from 18 so far this season and against Neil Warnock’s side I’d expect them to make it 18 from 21, with QPR really still needing to strengthen.
Tottenham have always enjoyed going to Norwich and there have been significant links between the two clubs down the years – Norwich’s great team of the early 90s featured several Spurs old boys including John Polston, Ian Crook and current assistant manager Ian Culverhouse.Those links continue today, with full-back Kyle Naughton on loan at Carrow Road from Tottenham, but he’ll be unavailable for Tuesday’s match due to both a suspension and Premier League rules.Of all the matches over Christmas, this is perhaps the most attractive, and if I was to lay out £35 for a ticket anywhere on Monday or Tuesday, it would be at Carrow Road.
Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of
Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA
Europa League and more. For more information visit espn.co.uk/tv
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