The Premier League At Christmas

It’s almost Christmas which surely means one thing! No no no, not Santa, presents and food! It means there’s a whole host of Premier League fixtures for football fans to look forward to.

As the season approaches its midpoint, it is Chelsea and Manchester City leading the way, with the rest of the pack playing catch-up. Meanwhile, it is new-comers Leicester propping up the table, having taken just two points from 12 games. In between, there’s high-flying West Ham, disappointing Liverpool and an Austin-inspired Queens Park Rangers side.

Chelsea began the season as favourites to win the title, and so far have been almost faultless. Mourinho’s men have played some emphatic this season, with summer signings Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa pioneering a remarkable start to the season, which sees them sitting top of the tree at Christmas. Costa has adapted to the Premier League with ease, having notched up a tidy 12 goals so far. His Spanish team-mate, Fabregas, has made 11 assists already, three more than anyone else in the league.

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Fabregas (left) is forming a formidable partnership with Costa (right) – bola.net

With Thibaut Courtois continuing his impressive form from La Liga and a solid defence in front of him, it is no wonder that Chelsea have only conceded 13 league goals this term. However, one of their most influential players has been Nemanja Matic, who has magnificently shielded his back four whilst providing further class passing to his side’s attackers, as well as added height in both boxes. Oscar has taken on Frank Lampard’s famous number 8 shirt, and has started this season incredibly well. It is, though, Eden Hazard who has stolen much of the limelight, with his excellent dribbling ability consolidated by his sound goal tally of six to date.

Having drawn level on points with Chelsea with a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday, closing a gap that some labelled ‘impossible.’ With Sergio Aguero, the league’s top scorer and by far City’s best player this season, out for around three months, as well as injuries sustained by Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic, the champions might be wary entering the festive period without a recognised, fit striker. However, the recent rejuvenation of David Silva and return of Samir Nasri have been welcome at the Etihad, along with on-loan sensation Lampard adding plenty both on and off the pitch. Despite a shaky start to life in England, Eliaquim Mangala has started to justify his hefty £30m price tag, with some more solid, assuring performances of late in the absence of captain Vincent Kompany. Following some nervy periods towards the start of the season, with defeats to Stoke (h) and West Ham (a), City have now their last eight matches, including two historic Champions League victories sending them through to face Spanish giants Barcelona once again. With a long way still to go this season, it looks increasingly likely that this will be a two-horse race, fought bitterly right up until the line in May.

At the wrong end of the table, though, sees Leicester City, who are without a win in 12 and struggling massively. A fantastic start to the season, with draws against Everton and Arsenal before consecutive wins at Stoke and then the famous 5-3 drubbing of Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United side at the King Power Stadium, is where it has peaked so far for the Foxes. The goals and the points have dried up, with the Midlands club on 10 points at Christmas, five adrift of safety, with home draws against Burnley and Sunderland their only points since the win over United over three months ago. Argentinian signings Leonardo Ulloa and Esteban Cambiasso have provided some cheer for the Foxes faithful, with glimpses of excellence from the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and Jeffrey Schlupp; the players can’t seem to replicate the quality and mastery they displayed so exceptionally in last season’s record breaking campaign. It would be completely unfair to fault the players’ effort, with a combination of lacking cutting-edge, some hard luck and occasional misfortune seeming to pile the pressure on Leicester boss Nigel Pearson, who himself has been disciplined by the FA following an altercation with a supporter in the defeat to Liverpool in early December. A recent metatarsal break to goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has only worsened the situation for the struggling side, who need something to change soon otherwise it will be an immediate return to the Championship for Pearson’s Foxes.

The two undoubted surprise packages of this season to date have been the impressive starts by West Ham United and Southampton. Despite Southampton’s mass exodus in the summer transfer window, Ronald Koeman’s side have flourished this season, with new signings Fraser Forster, Sadio Mane, Dusan Tadic and Graziano Pelle all proving to be valuable and successful signings for the Saints.

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Fabregas (left) is forming a formidable partnership with Costa (right) – bola.net

Pelle has taken the Premier League by storm, racking up eight goals in the league, and 11 in total, including an outstanding bicycle kick against QPR earlier in the season. There was some genuine concern among a selection of Southampton fans at the beginning of the season after the wholesale changes, but they could not have been proved more wrong as Southampton are emerging as genuine qualifiers for a Champions League place. West Ham, meanwhile, have been in sublime form under Sam Allardyce’s management. After bringing in nine players in the transfer window, including Alex Song, Mauro Zarate and Cheikhou Kouyate, the squad appears tightly knit and are playing more attractive football, more 21st century stuff rather than last season’s “19th century football.” The goals have been flying in also, with summer signings Diafra Sakho (7) and Enner Valencia (3) contributing to one third of the Hammers’ goals so far. Another player who has been in scintillating form for West Ham has been Stewart Downing. Playing in a more central role, Downing is enjoying his best season to date and is thriving in this new position, with the 30-year-old notching up four goals and six assists so far, as well as a massive 88 crosses. However, it is the goalkeeper, Adrian, who for me has been West Ham’s best player this season. Time and time again, he has proved unbeatable, saving his team. Despite only having four clean sheets this season, Adrian has made over 60 saves and has been one of the best ‘keepers in the league this season, helping West Ham to maintain their lofty league position.

For Liverpool, though, it has been a disappointing season so far. With Luis Suarez being sold to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge being injured for much of the season, the goals have really dried up for the Reds. Mario Balotelli has failed to score in the league, whilst Ricky Lambert and Fabio Borini haven’t exactly been in the best form.

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Mario Balotelli has had the most shots this season without scoring – liverpoolecho.co.uk

Despite Brendan Rodgers opting to play Raheem Sterling through the middle, the goals still aren’t flowing at the rate of last season. Liverpool spent a lot in the summer on new recruits, but there has been very little to show from the £116m expenditure. Adam Lallana has been a shadow of the player we saw at Southampton last season, Emre Can’s impact has been minimal, Dejan Lovren has been disappointing as has Lazar Markovic. Alberto Moreno has been sound but not overly impressive and the atmosphere at the club is very dull and dreary with their league form poor, and an early Champions League exit has only dampened the spirits further.

Despite a terrible start under new boss Louis Van Gaal, Manchester United seem to have regained the form and class that has not been evident at Old Trafford since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. United are back in the Top 4 again and looked destined to stay there, with attacking talent in abundance thanks to Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria’s additions in the summer, to accompany Robin Van Persie, Juan Mata and new captain Wayne Rooney. There are still concerns for Van Gaal though, as defensive deficiencies remain prominently and the midfield lacks a strong, no-nonsense player, someone like Yaya Toure or Nemanja Matic. However, one distinct shining light has been David De Gea who is showing real class and confidence at present. He has been more commanding, making more crucial saves and generally proving to be filling the gloves vacated by Peter Schmeichel and then Edwin Van Der Saar.

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Fabregas (left) is forming a formidable partnership with Costa (right) – bola.net

Finally, Arsenal have been consistently inconsistent as they always seem to be. A shaky start has been settled by qualification into the Champions League knockout stages as well as five wins in nine in the league. However, Arsenal have been unconvincing and unappealing, with many fans growing frustrated with the team’s performances, especially early on in the season. Having failed to beat any of last season’s top seven so far, it looks likely to be another mediocre season for the Gunners. Avoiding any repeats of the embarrassing defeats from last season, Arsenal have lost only four games this season but a further six draws have limited the club to 27 points from their opening 17 games. However, the undeniably star player for Arsenal this season has been Alexis Sanchez. After signing from Barcelona for £30m in July, he has scored 14 goals in all competitions already and has been a joy to watch, both for Arsenal fans and neutrals, but a nightmare for Premier League defenders, who struggle to cope with his sublime dribbling ability, quick feet, lightning pace and lethal, deadly end product. The Gunners’ other summer signings, including Danny Welbeck, Calum Chambers and Mathieu Debuchy, seem to have integrated well and have benefited the squad. However, the team really lacks defensive cover, after selling Thomas Vermaelen and having Laurent Koscienly injured, as well as Viera-type midfielder in the middle of the park. There are rumours that William Carvalho is going to be signed, and a welcome sight that would be for Arsenal fans, many of whom believe Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini simply are no longer good enough if Arsenal want to challenge for and win trophies.

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Fabregas (left) is forming a formidable partnership with Costa (right) – bola.net

Overall, it has been a season with glimpses of quality and glimpses of excellence and drama, but for me not as captivating and pulsating as previous seasons have been. However, it is only Christmas and there is still another 21 rounds of matches to come, which promises to deliver more goals, more controversy and more action. I would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I will leave you with my Team of the Season so far…

GK – David De Gea

RB – Nathaniel Clyne

CB – John Terry

CB – Winston Reid

LB – Aaron Cresswell

CM -Nemanja Matic

CM – Cesc Fabregas

RM – Alexis Sanchez

LM – Eden Hazard

ST – Diego Costa

ST – Sergio Aguero

Subs:

Adrian

Ryan Bertrand

Stewart Downing

Christian Eriksen

Graziano Pelle

Wilfried Bony

Charlie Austin

Josh Jones

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