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Butler: The Premier League's 12 days of Christmas

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Noel Butler
12/21/2012 3:04:58 PM
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Following another absorbing weekend of football, Europe will hang up its boots and balls to take its traditional festive break. That's mainland Europe. There is no holiday for England's over pampered footballers - the WAG's need to shop after all.

Whilst the Bundesliga won't reconvene until Jan. 18, Barclays Premier League clubs are bracing themselves for their annual Pantomime season. Starting Saturday, clubs will play four league matches over a 12-day period that will stretch the playing resources of even a team like Manchester City. 

Chief villain Mario Balotelli started the week finalizing his case ahead of a scheduled appearance in a Tribunal Court Wednesday morning. The City attacker was appealing against the club fining him two weeks wages - approximately $550,000 for his unruly behavior last season. On Tuesday night, he came to an amicable arrangement with the club.

At his pre-match press conference, Mancini offered Balotelli an olive branch. Don't hang it on your Christmas tree, Mario.

Not selected to play or on the bench when City defeated Newcastle so comprehensively last Saturday this season, Balotelli is not even a shadow of his maverick self (the one that so lit up the EURO 2012 stage). 

As a result of avoiding the Tribunal and factoring in Mancini's bon Mario mots over the holiday season, Balotelli will likely spend little of his spare time agitating for a move away from the Etihad. The four matches should provide enough playing time to remind the boss of his unbridled talent.

The holiday season also signifies the midpoint of the season.

Following all the huffing and puffing that Arsene's Emirates home about to fall down, the most shocking surprise when you look at the table is the red half of North London are only two points out of a Champions League position.

Conversely, after a wonderful previous season that began with an 11-match unbeaten streak and saw them push the so called bigger clubs all the way the greatest disappointment to date has to be Newcastle, who stand a perilous two points and a couple of places away from the drop zone. 

Things will get worse. Worryingly for the St. James' park faithful, Demba Ba - who has accounted for more than half of Newcastle's output this season - looks to be on his proverbial push bike in the New Year. And if so, Mike Ashley has finally got his transfer wheeling and dealing comeuppance.

The Newcastle United owner looked like a genius extracting £35 million ($55 million) from Liverpool for Andy Carroll, but he must have still been feeling euphoric side effects when signing his replacement. As inserted into Demba Ba's contract is a £7 million release clause, which works out at $1 million for each of the 11 goals Ba has tallied so far this season.

My, how Liverpool could do with a goal scorer with the highly polished strike rate of a Demba Ba? It says much about the sizeable football cliff that the Merseyside greats have fallen from when they are hardly mentioned in the conversation regarding the cluster of clubs hovering for the services of the Senegalese striker.

Arsene Wenger is thought to be leading the pack of hounds sniffing round for a player who, in this era of inflated transfer fees and values, offers without doubt the most exceptional value. A return on investment of the highest grade.

Merseyside's second best team this season have already played their festive season Joker card - the same one they dealt to Fulham with such ruinous effect in the summer. Low balling the London club for Clint Dempsey? We all know how that ended up, Mr. Rodgers.

This time round, it is one of English football's grandest of clubs who were the recipients of their festive prank. It's reported that Liverpool offered only £4 million to Thomas Ince, a bid Blackpool immediately rejected out of hand.

As frighteningly for Liverpool, Ince is a player they developed and who came through their academy until doubting Thomas, the son of Paul Ince. Moving the younger Ince to Blackpool a mere 18 months ago for the unprincely sum of £250,000.

Reverse Moneyball, indeed Mr. Henry. Your bankers must be ecstatic.

The five time European Champs are also in the market for a reliever. A pinch hitter for the overworked Luis Suarez - the BPL's most sensational player. Suarez is a true kid of the streets and in sole possession of the craftiest and most cunning of football brains.

One-time Euro champ Daniel Sturridge, who has failed to cement himself in various Chelsea managers' thoughts since upping sticks from the Etihad a few seasons back, heads Liverpool's list. 

Abysmal Chelsea began their season with opportunity to claim an unprecedented record haul of seven trophies. But by the end of August, that number had already shrunk to five - as Manchester City and Atletico Madrid claimed the Community Shield and the UEFA Super Cup, respectively.

Out of the Champions League with the possibility of drifting a few time zones and upwards of 16 points behind Manchester United before taking to the Stamford Bridge Sunday afternoon, they can't be taken seriously as BPL title contenders no matter how much Benitez doth protest that catching his old nemesis Sir Alex.

Miracles only happen once in a football lifetime, Rafa, and that night in Istanbul back in 2005 was certainly yours.

Chelsea may well go on to make an appearance or two at Wembley in the domestic cups, but not sure even making European history by following up their debut Champions League crown by claiming a first Europa Cup is what Roman had in mind when he rode so majestically round the Stamford Bridge streets in an open top double decker bus parading the Champions League trophy the morning after that magical Munich night.

Perhaps Abramovich will console himself this holiday season by splashing the cash on some very fine Columbian fire power during the January sales.

No matter how much cash you have, not the Sheik nor Roman could buy a seat at Harvard which is where we know now Sir Alex spent part of his summer delivering his secrets to football success.

Ferguson and his methodology the subject of a study undertaken by a professor at Harvard Business School? Eat your heart out, Bill Belichick.

Sir Alex will certainly need the BPL's joint top scorer RvP to continue delivering the goods over the festive season. North American fans it seems, can't get enough of the Dutchman who leads the jersey sales league table this side of the Atlantic - with Rooney and Torres filling out the podium.

These next 12 days of the BPL as the festive season traditionally dictates will yet again be crucial in seeking out who are true runners and riders are.

Will Harry work his Houdini type magic again as QPR attempt to turn their first league victory into a relegation battle vanishing act? Speaking of vanishing, will Rafa survive into the January transfer window?

Can Steve Clarke and Michael Laudrup continue to motivate their talent to perform at the levels no one dared imaginable back in August?

Who really is this Jeckyl and Hyde type Aston Villa? Has AVB found a club that believes in him fully?

Will David Moyes cash in his Fellaini chips and the global rights to the grandest locks in world football as the Scotsman gambles all on securing Champions League football to the blue half of Merseyside?

The last word has to go though to a young Irishman who took over at Carrow Road following Paul Lambert's abrupt departure to Villa Park.

Everyone's sack race fall guy with a seven-game winless streak to kick off their campaign, now only one other club in all European football has a longer unbeaten league streak - Barcelona.

Norwich City is now much more than a club fighting relegation. Having seen off in recent weeks, Fergie and Arsene, Europe awaits.

Raise your festive glass to Chrissy Hughton.

You can reach and follow Noel Butler at:
Noel.Butler@BellMedia.ca
@TheSoccerNoel
 
Manchester City vs. Reading from the Etihad airs across the TSN and TEAM Radio Networks this Saturday, with coverage kicking off at 10am et/7am pt.

Wigan vs. Arsenal is live on TSN2 – Saturday at 7:30am et/4:30am pt.


Mario Balotelli (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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