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Wheeler's Midweek Musings: Festive period winners, losers

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Gareth Wheeler
1/6/2014 9:57:02 PM
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The festive period is officially over.  Back to work and back to reality for the masses.  While most of us were obliging in the gluttony of the holiday season, the Barclays Premier League was in full swing. 

The festive season is the busiest time of the year and often times determines where things go from here.  Some take a step forward.  Others take a step back. 

Here's what you missed while you were eating, drinking and being merry: the winners and losers of the festive period.

Winners

Chelsea - Thorough.  Calculated.  Successful.  The season has been an example of process for Jose Mourinho and Chelsea.  Step by step, a steady build and team execution.  The holiday season was a clinic for Chelsea.  After conceding seven goals in three matches against Premier League lesser likes, Chelsea put on a defensive clinic over the last fortnight, shutting out Arsenal, Swansea City and Southampton.  The Blues also picked up a win against tricky Liverpool, capping off a momentum-building period.  Mourinho's side doesn't have the natural team goal-scoring prowess of Manchester City.  But Mourinho's approach and the players' implementation put Chelsea in prime position for a genuine title push. Through squad rotation and proper substitutions, Chelsea is a team on the rise.

Emmanuel Adebayor - A managerial change and new tactics can do wonders.  Adebayor was cast a misfit with his Spurs career predicted done and dusted under Andre Villas-Boas, but Tim Sherwood and a preferred 4-4-2 has given the Togolese opportunity to shine.  Adebayor has rewarded his new manager with three goals in four games over the festive period, helping Spurs pick up 10 points out of a possible 12.  It's an incredible turnaround for the 29-year-old, who had only one previous appearance on the league season.  The movement has been top and so has the finishing.  Four starts in four games, Adebayor returning to form gives goals to a Spurs team in desperate need.
 
Tom Huddlestone - The feel good story of the holidays.  The Hull City midfielder refused to get a haircut until he broke his scoring drought.  The curly, afro-like mess had entered Marouane Fellaini territory.  Two and a half years and 54 games since Huddlestone last scored, on his 27th birthday, the goal finally came.  A 67th minute belter against Fulham ended the streak, allowing Huddlestone to chop off the hair he grew to despise. The haircut started on the field with a razor to the mop as part of the celebration.  The notoriety of the hair and ensuing goal ended up raising thousands of dollars for Cancer Research UK.  Huddlestone has revitalized his career with a standout campaign thus far.  And now has a sharp, new do for good measure.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - It was a bold move to take over a team owned by Vincent Tan.  But the baby-faced tactician did just that and immediately impressed in his introductory press conference.  He seems a man wise beyond his managerial years and was clearly ready for the move to the Premier League.  His likeable demeanor and dedication to become a top manager suggest a long and prosperous career ahead.  In like fashion to his playing days, Cardiff City played spoiler in his managerial debut, coming from behind with late dramatics to defeat Newcastle at St. James's Park in the FA Cup.  Solskjaer provides the stability Cardiff needs.  And Solskjaer will likewise take advantage of the opportunity in South Wales as a proving ground for future, more prestigious jobs.  The decision to join Cardiff was a calculated one.  In Solskjaer, we trust.

Manchester City - No Sergio Aguero, no problem.  City had to make the winners list as the only team with a perfect 12 points in four holiday matches.  The only blemish, an FA Cup away draw at Blackburn.  It wasn't whom they beat, but how they won over the holidays that was most impressive.  Pulling away late with quality ball movement in a 4-2 win at Fulham, and coming from behind to beat Liverpool were matches destined for dropped points where three points were salvaged.  It's a trademark of champions to win when not at your best.  City is certainly looking very much the part.  The next month's schedule is tricky.  But with the return of Aguero near and just one point back of league leaders Arsenal, City are the clear odds-on favourite for the title.

Wojciech Szczesny - The Arsenal number one posted three clean sheets and conceded just one goal in four matches.  Questions about goalkeeping stability have been the dominant narrative at the Emirates for years on end.  Szczesny's standout season has silenced the calls for reinforcements.

Ross Barkley - Barkley for England.  A stunning match-winning free kick against Swansea to open the period was a testament to the 20-year old's special ability.  Barkley has been a driving force all season, playing beyond his years.  Everton picked up points in every game he started over the holidays, and the Englishman capped off the festivities with a goal and an assist in a 4-0 FA Cup thrashing of QPR. 

Gossip Pages - The January transfer window is open and the silly season is upon us.  Proceed with caution with your transfer rumours du jour.

Losers

Manchester United - Three league wins to start the festive calendar and all seemed to be going in the right direction.  2014 however has started in disaster.  A 2-1 home loss to Spurs ended any slim hope of title contention and another embarrassment at Old Trafford to Swansea in the FA Cup showed how far the mighty have fallen. 

United have lost the fear factor, most surprisingly at home, with four league losses and just 12 goals in 10 matches.  The short-term transition is a monumental struggle for David Moyes.  You can see it's taking its toll.  The team has holes. Most disconcerting is the negative narrative and unclear directive of the manager, not leaving much room for goodwill or patience.  Whether it be pessimism towards transfer window activity or a lack of confidence, Moyes continues to trip over his own words, making matters worse.  And his actions aren't much better, raising valid questions whether he is suitable to lead the club.  And club officials saying United can financially cope with not qualifying for the Champions League misses the plot.

Excuse mongering and flaky reassurances merely pander to stock market confidence rather than passionate supporters whose expectation is to win.  It's unfortunate a transition within the squad came at the same time as a transition in manager.  Perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson saw this coming.  Regardless, from player acquisition to player performance to the manager, it all has to be better.

Juan Mata - The two-time Chelsea player of the year has endured a frustrating time under Mourinho.  Just 11 starts thus far and no league goals, the Spaniard let his emotions publicly boil over, showing dissent towards his manager after being substituted off against Southampton.  Chelsea publicly says Mata is not for sale.  Unfortunately for the player, he is being kept and under-utilized until Mourinho can get players he prefers at the club in the summer.  Mata is not a Mourinho player and he will remain on the outside looking in.  The less he plays, the more Mata's World Cup chances are damaged. 

Theo Walcott - Having just returned from a long-term injury mid-December, Walcott has gone down again.  Unbeknownst to the extent of his injury, Walcott mocked Spurs supporters being stretchered off in Arsenal's 2-0 FA Cup win.  '2-0' Walcott showed all to see with his fingers as he was carried off.  More importantly, the true score as knee injury -1, Walcott – 0.  All kidding aside, Walcott ruptured the ACL in his left knee and will miss the rest of the season and the World Cup.  It's a more significant loss for Arsenal than England.  The Gunners actually have a chance at silverware.  Walcott's a versatile player for Arsene Wenger, scoring five goals and four assists in limited action this campaign.  Fortunate for Wenger, he has quality options in the attacking midfield positions and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is back training. Surely, Arsenal will need to add another attacking player with the ability to play with his back to goal before the end of the month.

Sam Allardyce - The West Ham manager received the dreaded 'vote of confidence' from club officials after an embarrassing 5-0 FA Cup loss to Nottingham Forest.  In fairness, seven senior players were injured, Kevin Nolan suspended, and a Capital One Cup semi-final tilt lay ahead Wednesday against Manchester City.  Allardyce played an inexperienced, ill-equipped team and they were punished.  Regardless, the result, the festive period was awful for Allardyce with his team picking up a mere point in four matches, and his team now sitting 19th, very much in a relegation battle.  With a lack of goal scoring and a leaky backline, the Hammers are in trouble and Allardyce is a top candidate to be the seventh managerial casualty of the season.

Norwich City - The Canaries were almost as poor as West Ham, picking up just two points in four matches.  Three games were against fellow relegation fodder Sunderland, Fulham and Crystal Palace.  Those were must-win games for a team with mid-table aspirations.  Scoring two goals in those games is appalling.  Norwich has been a massive disappointment on the season after spending considerably in the summer.  

Divers - Whether it be Adnan Januzaj or Oscar, many of the best, young players in the league are deservedly earning the label of 'diver'.  Attempts to con match officials continues to take priority over self-respect.  And managers are failing to get through to their players. This has to change.  Managers continue to wax poetic about how they deal with these issues internally.  But very little is done and nothing changes as the problem spreads.  Mourinho is the biggest hypocrite, saying divers are a disgrace yet failing to acknowledge when his players do so.  With faulty leadership as such, nothing will change.  And the game is worse off because of it.

Fulham Defending - Conceding 12 in four matches, including six at Hull, thanks for coming out.

Mark Clattenburg - The match official has been drawn into more character damaging accusations, this time for inappropriate comments made towards Southampton midfielder Adam Lallana.  The FA has cleared Clattenburg, but Southampton is calling for the official to not be appointed for their matches until the investigation is complete.  Chelsea accused Clattenburg of making racist remarks last season.  Although cleared that time as well, Clattenburg continues to be drawn into the news for all the wrong reasons.  Missed calls and controversial decisions have also hurt the reputation of a true, up-and-coming referee.

@WheelerTSN
gareth.wheeler@bellmedia.ca

Eden Hazard  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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