Sebastian Larsson, whom even the most partisan Sunderland supporter would never describe as “industrious,” had just run the length of the Stadium of Light pitch twice: once on a counter attack, and then back to his own penalty area to help in defense. It was the 92nd minute of Sunderland’s game against Premier League leader Manchester City on New Year’s Day, and the match was tied at 0-0.
The third time up the field, Larsson finally cried farbror. After picking up a deflected Sergio Aguero shot deep in his own half, the Swede galumphed back up the field with the ball at his feet. After passing the halfway line, Larsson dumped a pass off to fellow Black Cats midfielder James McClean and, perfectly mirroring the kind of hernia-baiting exhaustion most people feel after making a post-turkey-dinner turkey sandwich, doubled over.
While Larsson was watching his life flash before his eyes, the Stadium of Light came to life. McClean passed to winger Ji Dong-Won, who played a one-two with Stephane Sessegnon, rounded City keeper Joe Hart, and nudged a shot into the goal. Right out of the Barcelona playbook (except imagine Barcelona getting most of its goals in a state of delirious fatigue and from an offside position).
Sunderland’s home fans went hammer, Dong-Won letting one of the supporters go as far as to plant a big, sloppy, Northeast kiss on his face. But despite seeing the stadium in hysterics, the table-toppers defeated, and new Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill jumping up and down like a 14-year-old listening to Blink-182 alone in his room, I felt more like Larsson. I was crying farbror.
While most of the big European leagues go on break for the holidays, allowing their players and managers to mentally and physically recuperate, the English Premier League doubles down, offering matches nearly every day, from just before Christmas through the first week of the new year, with clubs sometimes playing two matches in three days.
With so many points up for grabs in so few days, and with players possibly distracted by the season’s merriment (holiday parties are a fairly regular occurrence for English sides, and are often breathlessly documented by the tabloids), there was a possibility that we could enter 2012 with a league in a state of upheaval. Tottenham could be in first! Villa could be in the relegation zone! Dogs and cats living together! Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, we are faced with a league in desperate need of a nap.
Whenever one club opened a door, another seemed to slam shut a window. As of this writing, United and City are tied on points at the top of the table, but neither can feel particularly great about their form or some of the murmurs coming out of their locker rooms. Lucky for them, the rest of the league went out of their way to not take advantage of opportunities.
With the campaign more or less officially halfway done, let’s take a look at the table and try to make sense of all these nonsensical results, especially those impacting the title race and the four Champions League positions.
Hungover in Manchester With the Blackburn Blues Again
Sir Alex Ferguson got what he wanted for his 70th birthday: To be top of the table (or joint top) at New Year’s. Sidebar: I’m not shy about calling someone I only just met “dude,” but for some reason am religiously compelled to include the “Sir” in Alex Ferguson’s name almost every time I write it. Something for my therapist, for sure.
Anyway! Yes, Fergie (take that!) celebrated his 70th year not only hauling back his Manchester neighbors, but also miraculously trimming the goal difference between the two sides, which at one point saw City with a 17-goal advantage in the beginning of December. However, like most birthdays, it was a mixed bag for the indomitable Glaswegian, who saw his side lose in a thrilling and bizarre match against Premier League punch line/punching bag Blackburn. It did so without the services of Wayne Rooney, who was benched and fined 200,000 pounds for “training issues” (a.k.a. buying out the bar with his wife and few friends allegedly) .
Rooney had been an integral part of United’s five-game win streak, scoring once in the Red Devils’ 5-0 defeat of Fulham and chuckling heartily from the bench as Dimitar Berbatov burned Wigan to the ground, scoring three in another 5-0 thumping a few days later. He was, presumably, going to play against Blackburn, but was left out of the side by Ferguson, a man who is never shy about putting players in their place.
It’s not the first time Rooney and Ferguson have rattled sabers at one another (see: Rooney’s transfer request from October 2010). But the timing couldn’t be worse. By necessity, Ferguson’s lineups have had something of a collage-like feel, with fullback Patrice Evra deputizing at center back and players like Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson coming in from the cold. Rooney was the heartbeat of the team, playing an increasingly steady, creative role in the attacking midfield. And, had Rooney played against Blackburn, United might be three points clear at the top of the table.
That’s because Manchester City had a bit of an end-of-the-year stumble. What became abundantly obvious over the past week or so is just how much City relies on David Silva. The Spaniard has played in all 19 of City’s Premier League games this season, and his creative brilliance and safe-cracker ability to unlock defenses have made him a Player of the Year candidate. He could be hitting something of a wall, though, looking a bit sluggish in a draw against West Brom and making little difference as a sub against Sunderland. With disappointing seasons (so far) from Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson, manager Roberto Mancini has relied on Silva (who has eight assists this campaign) to get the ball in to Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, and Mario Balotelli. They’ll need him to regain his form or for someone else to pick up the slack in 2012; it sounds like there will be no January reinforcements, as Sheikh Mansour’s wallet is closed for business for the time being.
Neither club is playing its best football, but Manchester — what with Rooney getting bombed with his missus, Balotelli smoking cigarettes, Rio Ferdinand live-tweeting darts (#darts!), and the triumphant return of Dimitar Berbatov’s slacker goal celebrations — is still the most interesting place in English football.
We’re No. 4!
Is there any other professional sports league in the world in which the battle for fourth place is the most compelling and entertaining storyline? This would have been a perfect time for Tottenham to pull away from the pack, and after its Gareth Bale-fueled victory over Norwich on December 27, it looked like Spurs had made some kind of jump, proving themselves to be the kind of club that dismantles lesser opposition without a lot of fuss. Then Scott Sinclair happened.
Despite Spurs playing with the kind of lethargy all too common in the end-of-year games, I thought Swansea and Spurs was kind of a barn-burner. Up-and-down action with the ball being kept on the grass. Where Norwich allowed Bale way too much runway to get his jets going, Swansea pressed Spurs high and never let them get too much momentum, even after Rafael van der Vaart scored a very “van der Vaarty” goal (in the sense that it seemed to cause the most possible emotional devastation to the opposing support) to put Tottenham up, 1-0.
It will be very interesting to see whether Harry Redknapp comes up with a “Plan B” for Spurs over the next few weeks. Everyone (besides Arsenal fans) has been impressed with Tottenham’s swashbuckling, attacking style, but Brendan Rodgers might have shown how you beat North Londoners: Press, cut off the supply from Luka Modric, and pray you get a late leveler or winner.
I’ve generally been impressed with the style (if not always the level) of play in the league this year; it seems like more teams than ever are at least making an effort to play good football. But something occurred to me both during this match and during West Brom’s wild, boring draw with Manchester City: As relegation fears swallow up more than half of the league, expect things to get really practical out there.
Some quick-hit thoughts on the other Champions League contenders:
• Given the (albeit constant) injury crisis he’s facing in defense, Arsene Wenger bringing in club legend Thierry Henry on loan for the next month or so is kind of like finding out your house is sinking into the earth and immediately going out to buy a flat-screen television. Or better yet, rebuying the television you had in 2004 on eBay. Perhaps no side seemed more fried by the end of the year than the Gunners.
• I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Luis Suarez’s eight-game ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, but all I’m going to do is mention it. There’s a 115-page report the FA published to support their ban, and Suarez certainly doesn’t come out looking good in it. The Reds’ New Year’s Eve day victory over Newcastle was the kind of comprehensive and competent win over lesser opposition they’ve been unable to produce all season. And while players like Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll have shouldered the brunt of the blame for Liverpool’s inconsistent performances, it was interesting to see how well the Reds played without Suarez in the side. Perhaps he had become too much of a focus, both on and off the field.
• Chelsea: I haven’t seen more tension between old and new guards since William Holden’s cowboys got mowed down by machine guns at the end of The Wild Bunch. Also, I really hope this rumor about John Terry playing in China is true, and I hope Werner Herzog makes like three documentaries about it if it happens. For what it’s worth, Chelsea’s home loss to Aston Villa isn’t unprecedented in recent memory; sometimes these guys just don’t show up to work. In fact, that match was very reminiscent of the Blues’ home loss to Sunderland last season, and Chelsea recovered just fine from that result.
• Some people find Neil Warnock to be an entertaining character, but I’m getting a little tired of his Yorkshire-man-screams-at-the-bus-schedule routine. “You feel at times that you’re not getting the rub of the green, that you’ve run over a dozen black cats,” moaned the QPR manager following a controversial loss to Norwich. Hey, maybe Warnock takes his Aston Martin out cat hunting every weekend, I don’t know; but it could also have something to do with the fact that every time he opens his mouth, it’s to start, continue, or sum up some folksy jeremiad against referees. These guys do have televisions, Neil.
• Credit to Newcastle, which is having a defensive medical crisis that makes Arsenal look like a group of immortals; it remains competitive and feisty. If it can withstand bids for its key players in January (Cheick Tiote seems a little less world-beating ever since he was linked with Chelsea and Man United), it should finish in the top 10.
• If Wigan had any fans, would they have any hair left? Draw with Liverpool and Chelsea and then lose to Manchester United and Stoke? Roberto Martinez might have pulled off something of a midseason great escape right when it was being rumored that his job was in jeopardy. And Victor Moses is starting to show some of the same flashes of brilliance that he displayed at Crystal Palace.
Goal of the Week:
Cameron Jerome, Stoke City
(0:40 into the video) My New Year’s resolution is to be nicer about Stoke City.
Quote of the Week:
Roberto Mancini, Manchester City
On Mario “Marlboro Man” Balotelli: “For me it is not OK, but I am not his father. If he were my son, I would give him a kick up the arse, but he is not my son.” Happy New Year, Bobby.
Chris Ryan is a staff writer for Grantland.
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