Much like the majority of football’s more sensible leagues, this column has taken a little break over the Christmas period. However, for better or worse, in the Premier League it was business as usual with plenty of talking points. This predictably brought calls for a winter break and numerous complaints by Premier League managers concerned that three ninety minute matches is too much for professional athletes, as well as attempts to add weight to their excuses by predicting that the lack of break will harm England’s World Cup chances.
Although the claims that professional athletes need an extended break in order to be competitive are certainly debateable, a winter break obviously has its benefits. Time spent with family and friends must do wonders for morale, and the opportunity for training camps and friendlies provides coaches the invaluable time to address weaknesses and develop tactics. However, for all of these positives for coaches and players, for fans, December and early January is so often the most exciting part of the season, the manic schedule playing havoc with form and providing the perfect environment for excitement and unpredictability to reign. This season didn’t disappoint, with several intriguing stories developing, and the battles at both the bottom and the top intensifying.
Despite all the doubters, Arsenal are keeping pace at the top, only two points of Manchester City and with a game in hand. With money to spend in January, the Gunners will hope to be able to avoid their traditional post-January slump and finally end their long wait for silverware. Wenger’s side will be watching the Citizens with some concern, with Pellegrini’s side looking ominous now that the Chilean has addressed City’s away form. Liverpool have struggled against the top sides so far this season, and losses to both City and Chelsea set the Reds back somewhat over the holiday period, but with Suarez relentlessly brilliant and Sturridge returning to form, Rodgers will be confident that his side can retain the Champions League place they currently occupy.
The winter period really has seen the title race finally narrow somewhat. With so many teams so tight, for so long, it is now looking like a three horse race. With Mourinho finally impressing his will back upon Chelsea, the club join their London rivals Arsenal, along with Manchester City as favourites for the Premier League crown. Although Manchester United will be sure to make the opposition work hard to claim their title, the Red Devils’ poor first half to the season means that only a miracle could see the Premier League trophy stay at Old Trafford come May. Tim Sherwood has Tottenham finally scoring, but balance remains a real issue and Champions League football has to be Spurs primary target. It will be Liverpool that will remain dark horses for the title.
At the other end of the table, it really is a tousle between the bottom five. With the Vincent Tan – Malkay Mackay dispute finally ending in the Scott’s tenure at Cardiff City, with former Manchester United super sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer taking the reins. Having excelled as United reserves manager and then at Norwegian sleeping giant Molde, Solskjaer has made a mixed start to life in Wales. At the time of writing, Cardiff find themselves in the bottom three. However, Tan has already backed his man in the transfer window with the signings of talented United graduates Magnus Wolff Eikrem and Mats Møller Dæhli, and with only three points separating the Bluebirds and their Welsh rivals Swansea in 13th, Solskjaer will be confident in his ability to guide Cardiff to safety. Another former member of the Manchester United backroom staff will most likely not be feeling so confident, with René Meulensteen failing to stop the rot at Fulham. Only one point off the relegation zone, Fulham have suffered recent costly and heavy losses to both Hull and Sunderland.
There is almost no balance to this Fulham side, with none of the team’s traditional solidity and far too many inconsistent, luxury ‘creative’ players that quite frankly aren’t delivering the goods. Meulensteen will need the backing of his chairman in the January window, with the London club crying out for significant personnel changes. Crystal Palace are another London club with survival anxiety, with their temporary renaissance under Tony Pulis very much over. Palace once again look down and out, rooted to the foot of the table. The squad is in desperate need of an overhaul. However, Ian Holloway’s reckless summer recruitment way come back to haunt Pulis, who now faces the prospect of trimming a squad with a real dearth of quality before he can spend. If there is one relegation threatened team that can take some positives from the winter period its Sunderland. Di Canio’s summer signings are now starting to settle, and some big results will see Black Cats fans and manager Gus Poyet filled with some real hope to escape the drop.
Two managers found themselves under real pressure over the past month, however, both Sam Allardyce and David Moyes earned somewhat of a reprieve this week. For Allardyce and his West Ham side, both have suffered for having placed all of their summer transfer window eggs in an Andy Carroll shaped basket, and with the big Geordie out injured, goals have been this issue. The Hammers this week however, have been able to halt their slide down the table with a win over relegation rivals, and with the backing of board, players and fans, Allardyce can now dare to look up with Carroll returning to match day squads. There is no hiding the fact that Moyes had made a very poor start to life as Manchester United boss, and the winter period saw United crash out of the FA Cup and facing an uphill battle to remain in the League Cup also. However, the Tottenham loss aside, United’s league form hasn’t matched their disastrous cup form, and the Red Devils remain in the hunt for those Champions League places, five points off rivals Liverpool. With the January window approaching and United linked with every player going, the management team at United have their work cut out identifying the right targets, with a top four finish vital and the Champions League still to play for.
Unfortunately, as well as excellent, exciting football, the winter period has been overshadowed by two topics, one that has been wearingly over discussed, and another that has been worrying downplayed. The first topic is of course diving, with Chelsea and Manchester United players particularly in the spotlight. It seems everyone has had their say on the matter, with numerous managers condemning the practice and even Sepp Blatter weighing in and encouraging referees to issue harsher punishments. The issue that was underplayed was racism in the game, most notably Nicholas Anelka’s use of the quenelle in celebrating a goal. Now, diving is of course deplorable, it is involves deceiving officials and cheating fans. However, what is worth remembering and perhaps sometimes gets forgotten is that every foul is also cheating, hence why it is punished. Of course the intentional deceit involved in diving makes it a worse offence than a simple foul, but no worse than many other acts that occur in nearly every game, every week. Fouling a player and then falsely accusing a player of diving, perhaps preying on a reputation is cheating, and involves just as much deceit as diving. Sneakily pulling a shirt, or obstructing a players run is also cheating, especially when combined with intentional attempts to block the referees views of such incidences.
So often these actions go completely ignored, or are simply tolerated, yet diving is demonised. Dives are replayed over and over across highlight shows and web forums, deplored as if it is the worst sin on earth. Of course diving should not be tolerated, of course it should be punished severely, post-game if necessary, but so should so many other incidents that are no less cheating than diving is. What is particularly ridiculous about the level of anger towards diving is that so often the most vocal critics of the act are managers who encourage their teams to systematically cheat in a different way. The likes of Tony Pulis so often accuse players of play acting, yet set their sides up to systematically cheat: encouraging fouling of key players, holding and pinching players from set pieces, obstructing opposition runs from set pieces, obstructing the referee’s view of these actions and falsely accuse players of diving. So often these tactics are ignored, yet far beyond one individual choosing to cheat in a single instance, sides such as Stoke under Pulis had an entire team philosophy that involves encouraging, training and practicing cheating. Furthermore, the hyperbolic discussions that surround diving distract from much more serious concerns in the games, with Anelka’s use of the quenelle a case and point. Anelka’s actions caused a little thoroughfare, but were defended by himself, his manager and his club, quickly falling out of the media as everyone returned to discussing whether Adnan Januzaj fell down just a bit too easy.
The quenelle is a gesture created by comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala and effectively means “up yours”. As well as being a comedian, Dieudonné is a vocal anti-Zionist, who is opposed to the existence of a Jewish national state such as Israel. Given anti-Zionism’s lack of relevance in domestic French politics, and the gestures obvious similarities with an inverted Nazi salute, Dieudonné’s claims to not harbour anti-Semitic sentiments are very much questionable. Regardless of Dieudonné’s intentions, the quenelle has become an anti-Semitic symbol and has coincided with a rise in anti-Semitic acts in France. Those in defence of Anelka’s actions have largely centred around pleas of ignorance, that Anelka did not know the gesture would cause offence or have anti-Semitic connotations. Such claims do not hold up to too much scrutiny. Anelka has admitted that he used the gesture in support of his friend Dieudonné, who is having his act repressed by the French government due to perceived anti-Semitic content. Through this admission, Anelka is also admitting that he knows the quenelle has caused much offence to many people, in particular to Jewish communities and that it has anti-Semitic connotations. An FA investigation is rumbling on, and a ban will most likely follow, maybe a fine, however, the ban will most likely be less than five games, and the fine unlikely to be more than even a week’s salary. It seems that once again, an incidence of racism in the Premier League will go under punished by the FA and ignored or even defended by the player’s club. Given that the footballing world is currently patting itself on the back for accepting Thomas Hitzlsperger for coming out as gay, now may be a time instead to take a look at why the former Aston Villa player didn’t feel comfortable being open during his career, and why there are almost no openly homosexual footballers currently playing. The real problem with discrimination in football is complacency, people no longer really believe issues such as racism and homophobia still exist in the sport, but they do, and it is every player, manager, official and fan’s responsibility to kick it out.