Home Football Chelsea still impressive as Liverpool chase; woe for Swansea and Leicester

Chelsea still impressive as Liverpool chase; woe for Swansea and Leicester

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Iain Macintosh casts his eye over the best and worst of the action from the Premier League after Boxing Day and the start of the festive period.

HEROES
It’s going to take more than a few absences to stop Chelsea, isn’t it? Without Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante, they romped to victory over Bournemouth on Boxing Day, taking their run of consecutive victories to 12 and all for the loss of just two goals. That’s encouraging for everyone else, isn’t it? The season is young, and there are many games still to be played, but Antonio Conte’s team are in such incredible form that you really have to make a point of reminding yourself of that every week.

If anyone’s going to stop them, Liverpool look the most likely. They came from behind to wallop Stoke City at Anfield, and though they retain an awesome capacity for self-destruction, they are not exactly short on firepower. Daniel Sturridge’s strike at the end of the night was the 100th league goal under Jurgen Klopp’s reign, a terrifying tally to amass in such a short space of time. With him fit and Adam Lallana continuing to impress, they might not miss the injured Philippe Coutinho and the Africa-bound Sadio Mane as much as we thought.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s strike against Sunderland is an immediate goal of the year candidate.
There isn’t a word to describe what Henrikh Mkhitaryan did against Sunderland on Boxing Day. It hasn’t been invented yet. You could call it “a clever flick,” but that would be like calling the Mona Lisa “an interesting painting.” It’s certainly accurate, but it undersells it a little. In shape, it’s closer to Rene Higuita’s “scorpion kick” than anything else, albeit a more languid and far more meaningful version, but again, that comparison doesn’t do it justice. Higuita was showboating. Mkhitaryan was winning the game. This was in a class of its own.

Slaven Bilic has clearly been a good boy this year. This Christmas, he found piles of gift-wrapped points under his tree, enough to propel West Ham United up the table and out of immediate danger. Three from Burnley, three from Hull and, most emphatically, three from Swansea. Bilic was one of the bookies’ favourites for the chop in mid-December. As the month draws to a close, he has West Ham just four points off Everton in seventh place. How quickly things can change.

He can’t pass like Mesut Ozil or dribble like Alexis Sanchez, but as an aerial force, there’s nothing quite like Olivier Giroud in the Arsenal squad. No other player could go head to head with Gareth McAuley, hold him off and nod the ball into the back of the net in the dying moments. It seems as though he has found his perfect role within the Gunners squad: an option from the bench rather than the spearhead of the attack. Whether he’ll want that to be the case for much longer is another matter, but while he’s there, Arsenal have more than one way to crack a nut.
Ian Darke feels sympathy for Bob Bradley after his sacking at Swansea City but says the club’s move is justifiable.
VILLAINS
It was the nature of Swansea City’s wretched performance against West Ham that did Bob Bradley in. There were so few positives that it was increasingly difficult to make a compelling argument for his retention. But the manager can do only so much. These players need to take responsibility for their own failings. They have been shambolic in recent weeks, and on this evidence, there are few managers currently available who will be able to do any better with them than Bradley. A dramatic improvement is required in 2017, or the Swan’s fairytale rise from the edge of extinction to the top flight will have a very unhappy ending.

Whatever else had gone wrong, at least Leicester City had their home form. Now even that has deserted them. The champions have won just one of their past four games at the King Power Stadium, and if they don’t beat West Ham there on New Year’s Eve, we can officially sound the panic alarm. Claudio Ranieri’s side are just three points above the drop zone now. They’re making mistakes at the back, they aren’t bright enough at the front, and they aren’t working hard enough across the team. No one wants 2016 to end with Ranieri getting sacked. That, after all we’ve been through this year, would be too much. But it will happen if they keep losing.

Football is a nefarious, nasty sport replete with tales of corruption and intimidation. Villains of all shapes and sizes lurk in the shadows of the game. Some of them might represent your team. Some of them might be your heroes. But we know now that one of them is a grown man in a fluffy insect costume. Sam Allardyce is right: Harry the Hornet, in demonstrating a wry sense of humour by diving at the feet of Crystal Palace’s gravitationally challenged Wilfried Zaha, must be punished severely by the authorities. We cannot allow this sort of thing to spread unchallenged. People might start believing that football is fun.

No one will need to tell Victor Valdes that he should have done better on Boxing Day. His reaction said it all. Having weakly parried Andre Gray’s shot into his own goal, the former Barcelona goalkeeper scooped up the ball and furiously head-butted it away. Manager Aitor Karanka, who had seen Valdes frustrate his Real Madrid side often enough in years gone by, mounted a staunch defence of his stopper after the game. But deep down, he will know that he cost his side a point at Turf Moor.

After a number of impressive Premier League campaigns from Southampton, there’s a growing feeling that 2017 is going to be a distinctly mediocre year. Out of Europe because they didn’t seem to be taking it quite seriously enough, a battering at the hands of Spurs indicates that they won’t be getting back in next season. That it was Spurs who dispensed such a beating will only intensify the pain at St. Mary’s. They wanted to show up their former manager, Mauricio Pochettino, and indeed their former midfielder Victor Wanyama. Ultimately, it was very much the other way around.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN

This article was adopted from espnfc.com

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