by Paul O'Donnell
Kicking off the busy holiday period the round produced the same number of goals as those of Round 17 (32) despite 7 teams failing to find the net. Yet another demonstration of why we see Man United and Chelsea leading the way in this round that marks the halfway point of the season. With Boxing Day’s revelry looming on Tuesday what should be the best match of the day will see a resurgent Newcastle visiting the Reebok with a chance to break into the top 10. As usually happens the crush of games (most EPL sides will play 4) during these ten days will be pivotal up and down the table.
For some teams the winter transfer window could be a difference maker such as Pompey of last season with a $20 million spending spree. For others that don’t have those deep pockets their fate will be sealed in other ways. One thing for certain the most demanding stretch of the season is underway and when its over some teams will not have enough games remaining to recover while others will get the second half of the season off to a running start.
Looking back on the first half perhaps the most stunning change was the dismissal of Alan Pardew at West Ham. A candidate for EPL Manager of the Year for leading the newly promoted side to a 10th place finish and a stern challenge to Liverpool in the FA Cup Final struggled to get his team back on track this term. Frankly, it is likely there is much more to the story than the turmoil over debt, the ownership change and the addition of two Argentine World Cup stars that many feel upset the team. Christmas Day will be long remembered by Pardew as it tops two weeks of turmoil as he was named the new head man at Charlton, their third manager this year. His first match in charge of the Addicks recovery campaign will be at home at the Valley against Fulham on Wednesday.
Newcomers Reading have made a terrific start to their first ever campaign in the top flight after over 125 years of club competition in England. They are beginning a slide down the table but the Royals have been an inspiration so far with their young stars leading the way.
Man United and Chelsea are clearly the class of the league as the results so far have shown. SAF does have a problem however as his team is very thin. An injury to almost any of his first 11 could be a difference maker. Chelsea, with its embarrassment of riches has no such problem but do seem unable to regain their impressive and dominant style of the past two seasons. If they should hit their stride there will be no holding them off. That being the case the pressure is on SAF to hold serve and his two point lead at this stage is not likely to get the job done. As good as United are it is not likely that they can win out in this league which is what they may have to do to keep Chelsea behind them. If Carrick’s injury is significant SAF may recall some of his on loan players during the winter window. Reinforcements will be important to United if they are to hold off Chelsea and Larson will not be enough though he should see Allan Smith getting back on the pitch soon. The addition of Larson is a bit surprising because scoring goals has not been an issue for United as they have notched 41, 8 more than star studded Chelsea.
Despite all the noise about Hargreaves (Bayern Munich) coming back to England (Man United) the big prize of the winter window may be Sean Wright-Phillips (Chelsea). Does he go back to Man City who need him desperately? Or, is he attracted to Blackburn Rovers and Mark Hughes where his partnership with Bennie McCarthy could change the landscape in a big way at Ewood Park? I still hold out hope that Tottenham will make a serious bid to bring him across town to White Hart Lane.
Does Liverpool recall their on loan French failure, Djibril Cisse (Marseille) or do they sell him off now that their scoring goals again? Do some EPL clubs raid the top performers in the League Championship such as Birmingham City (currently top)? Watford needs a dependable striker if they are to have any chance of survival and Warnock has promised wholesale changes at Sheffield United despite their good form of late. Look for some surprising moves in January; some will work while most will fail to provide the decisive change in form desired (more often than not the actual result).
This season could be a record breaker in another way too. Since the inception of the Premier League only one team has been relegated that managed 40 points or more. We could see that happen again this year. We could also see two of the three promoted sides survive, which of course means that two you wouldn’t expect are relegated (the two I picked for relegation candidates before the season started were Blackburn and Fulham). If neither strengthen their team in the winter window we could see that happen.
Fulham 0:0 West Ham
A lively and competitive match despite the scoreline with close calls from either side. The most pivotal was Marlon Harewood hitting the post from six yards on what would have been the match winner.
Arsenal 6:2 Blackburn
An early penalty conversion by Nonda (2) put Rovers in the lead but it wouldn’t last. Gilberto’s answer for Arsenal in the 9th
Aston Villa 0:3 Man United
Villa held United in the first half before Ronaldo’s brace (57 and 84) and Scholes submitted his entry for goal of the year in the 63rd. United continues its dominance both on the road and at Old Trafford.
Man City 0:2 Bolton
A classy brace from Anelka (7 and 24) ruined the day for his former side.
Liverpool 2:0 Watford
The Hornets frustrated Liverpool at Anfield in the opening half before Bellamy posted his goal in the 47th and Alonso settled the issue in the 87th. Liverpool’s 7th consecutive clean sheet since their resounding 3-0 loss at the Emirates.
M’Boro 2:0 Charlton
Yakubu and Arca netting either side of the break at the Riverside postponed the Addicks revival. This would be Les Reed’s final match in charge at Charlton.
Portsmouth 3:1 Sheff United
Rob Hulse (3) put United on top early and they held that line until the break. Then an OG (Kozluk, 47) got Pompey level before Sol Campbell headed in his first ever for Portsmouth (53) for the match winner before Pamarot added another (67). A nice fightback and well deserved win for Harry’s guys to start the holiday period on the right foot. Did Neil Warnock’s announcement about a pending cleaning house move during the window affect his team? Time will tell but to publicly say such things after his team has had a nice run and have left an impression on nearly every opponent of late you wouldn’t be surprised that it had the opposite affect Warnock was hoping for.
Reading 0:2 Everton
AJ ended his 12 match run with no goals in the 13th minute before McFadden closed down the match just after the break (46). The win slips the Toffees past Reading to 8th.
Newcastle 3:1 Tottenham
Newcastle’s strong run continued with Dyer (2), Martins (6) and Parker (33) finding the net. Murphy got Spurs close in the 14th before Parker’s strike. Martins goal was his 3rd consecutive match winner after he had been singled out by supporters for failing to take the lead for the injury riddled side. Roeder has done a wonderful job getting them through the very difficult period with a crippling injury list that only a month ago had his head on the chopping block according to the media. Looking ahead a strong performance at the Reebok would put that sort of criticism aside for good.
Wigan 2:3 Chelsea
The Blues again showed why they’re the champions racing to a dominant 2-0 lead before Heskey’s header got Wigan back in it in first half stoppage time. After the break the Latics were on the front foot and Heskey got them level in the 75th to complete the stunning rebound before Robben’s heart breaking stoppage time winner ended the celebrations at the JJB. It was one of those where you almost hate to see the good guys lose which even Jose alluded to after the match when he said “we didn’t deserve to win it” and he was right. Champions find a way and the Blues did just that. Again!
Inter won its 11th consecutive league match and enters the winter break with a well deserved 7 point margin over Roma. Even better news for Inter was Adriano’s goal, his first for the club in nine months.
The League Championship
Back in England Championship leaders Birmingham City hold a 5pt advantage over Preston and Derby County (44pts). Former leaders Cardiff City have slipped to 6th tied on points (40) with Stoke and Southampton. All have played 24 at this stage one match beyond halfway. The Saints have risen steadily to get into the fight at the top and close on their heels is West Brom. The top two earn automatic promotion to the EPL with the third side to go up determined by a playoff among those finishing the season in 3rd through 6th. Preston has been in that playoff in each of the last two seasons only to be bounced out in the final match. followed by Hleb (22) and Adebayor (penalty, 26)had the Gunners up 3-1 at the break. Nonda got Rovers close before the late rush of goals by Arsenal with Van Persie getting a brace (84 and 87) and Flamini in stoppage time.