FOX Soccer Exclusive
Arsenal, Man City big holiday winners
Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea rounded out the holiday fixtures as the big winners, winning the games that matter and putting fresh distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. City, who collected maximum points in the period now trail leaders Arsenal by just a single point; the London clubs’ only blemish was a dire 0-0 draw they played out against one another.
And let’s start there, with the biggest losers. On Wednesday, United lost a game they had to win, bowing meekly to Spurs at Old Trafford. United’s fans will, predictably, look to blame everyone but themselves for this loss; whether it is referee Howard Webb, the injury to Robin van Persie, the weather, or heck, perhaps even the price of a dozen donuts at Randy’s. The fact is that Spurs, playing an old-fashioned 4-4-2 spearheaded by Emmanuel Adebayor, simply out-punched them, then defended with grit when they had to. In fact, United didn’t seem much interested in playing at all until they were down 2-0 and the Stretford End had begun to bay.
Spurs are now unbeaten in their league games under Tim Sherwood, and look a team that is coming out of the long funk suffered under Andre Villas-Boas. United? They’ve lost six league games in twenty and wins over Hull City and Norwich -- purportedly signs of awakening from their slumber -- were a signal that while United can grind it out against bad teams, they are no longer among the elites.
Arsenal’s win over Cardiff City was wholly expected. Despite the fact that they have been hit hard by injuries -- with striker Nicklas Bendtner the latest man out -- they are not being given room to make excuses. Guess what? They’re also not making any, and they overwhelmed the managerless Welsh side with a relentless wave of attacks that culminated in a deserved 2-0 win.
Arsenal’s weakness, however, continues to be up top. Without Olivier Giroud in the lineup on Wednesday, the Gunners labored to score, and it wasn’t until the introduction of the gleeful Tomas Rosicky and the much-maligned Bendtner, that they broke the game open. Perhaps fittingly, the big Dane scored the winner, but even in triumph, he cannot catch a break: he rolled his ankle in a collision with the keeper and is now out for an undetermined amount of time. If Arsene Wenger is able to find value in the transfer market, he would be wise to take it, for despite their slim lead atop the perch, they are being hounded by a team that can score goals at will.
That team, of course, is Manchester City. They shook off a fierce effort from Swansea to seal the points on the road and further cement their grip on a top-three slot. City’s win was a clinical one as Manuel Pellegrini’s side waited for a desperate Swans side to expose themselves at the back and then pounced. To be sure, Swansea have only won two league games at home this season, but gave the Citizens all they wanted in the first half before succumbing. City look to have all the tools needed to win this league: style, depth and character. They have shaken off the early hiccups and have to be considered the favorites to win this whole thing.
Jose Mourinho would agree with that assessment. In fact, he has been steadily ratcheting up the pressure on City by saying just that, as often as possible. That shouldn’t fool anyone as his side has as good a chance of winning as anyone. Wednesday, his team looked very professional against a sagging Southampton side in pitiful conditions. They look, well, like the Manchester United of old, a team slowly and steadily gaining in power. That’s got to be a worrying sign for everyone else in this league -- no matter how much the Special One tries to downplay it.
Oh, there is drama at the bottom of the table as well: Fulham got a critical win that may have West Ham’s Sam Allardyce perusing Craigslist by week’s end while Sunderland were abject again. Both of those teams look set for the trapdoor and the only question is which of a possible eight other teams will join them. The margins there remain slim: there are only six points between Crystal Palace and tenth-place Hull. No one in the bottom half is safe.
Next up is a trap weekend, as the FA Cup gets underway with the big boys. City must travel to Blackburn; Chelsea visit Derby and Liverpool host wee Oldham. Arsenal and Tottenham? They get no respite: they face off Saturday against one another in the clash of the round (live, FOX, 12:15 p.m. ET).
But as the New Year opened, one thing remained the same: Arsenal opened up 2014 atop the table. "We were rewarded for our intelligence because we didn't concede a goal and that got us the three points we deserved," said Wenger after the match. "There is a special spirit in the side and we will fight until the last minute of the game."
Right now, despite the doubts, this race is Arsenal's to lose.