Now this is not really cricket, is it? All season Sunderland have hummed around with such innocuous, harmless fluff that we all rather forgot they existed, and a gentle away point (or three) beckoned. Until now. Two days before they entertain our lot they go and beat the blinking champions, and what had not so long ago seemed about as harmless as a neutered kitten is now likely to require cunning and nous and graft and quite possibly He-Man’s Sword of Omens. Bother.Still, the laws of physics simply prevent any team for whom Danny Rose is a luminary from posing any greater threat than a particularly reticent snow-flake, so there is certainly hope for our heroes. After his exploits on Boxing Day our handsome young Welshman will presumably be afforded even tenderer tender loving care than usual, so someone else within our mob may be forced to don a thinking cap and provide a little ingenuity going forward.
AVB has shown little inclination to rotate so far this yuletide, beyond a little mixing and matching of Daws, Gallas and Naughton, but Parker, Hudd and Sigurdsson will presumably be primed for action, and Dempsey may be involved again. In theory, with Reading at home to follow, a point at Sunderland should be handy enough – but come now, how many planets would E.T. have conquered if he had adopted that meek and mild attitude? We’ve just won 4-0 away from home, let’s jolly well outscore this lot too.
(Don’t hold your breath for a match report on this one, AANP is absconding for a day or two)
I suspect few other teams could labour quite so much en route to a 4-0 win as our lot did in what will go down in history as The First Half of A Thousand Corners, but by the end it was a certified cakewalk, and for eventually carpeing the diem with such aplomb our heroes deserve all sorts of credit and an extra yuletide tipple.
Men Against Boys
Last time I checked Villa had plenty chaps old enough to know how to handle a razor – the likes of Dunne and Melberg (admittedly the latter was not one with too great a penchant for the razor – and jolly impressive he looked for it too) but it seems the current Villa policy is to raid the nearest primary school nativity play cast-list and hope for the best. Consequently some sort of world record was set, as for the first 43 minutes the ball did not cross halfway, only three Villa players actually touched the ball and at one point Lloris leaned up against a goal post and fell asleep. A tough lesson for the assorted eight year-olds in claret and blue, yet they survived to half-time unscathed. Indeed, the first half was one we have viewed aghast a thousand times at the Lane, as unscrupulous visitors arrange an eight-man defence and open their Alamo Do-It-Yourself handbook.
Handily enough, the much-needed Christmas miracle turned out to be Villa hoisting themselves by their own petard, their gamble of actually trying to come out and attack in the second half neatly backfiring as they consequently sacrificed the eight-man defence that had done such a sterling job in the opening 45.
No doubt about it, life become a jolly sight easier once Villa left gaps at the back and our heroes duly cut them to ribbons, with Bale rather conspicuously abandoning his flank and bludgeoning his way straight down the centre.
Subtlety in the Centre (or Lack Thereof)
Back to that first half though, if I may, and the lack of lock-picking ingenuity down the centre. I certainly would not utter a word of dissent to the faces of either Sandro or Dembele, for the pair of them are like genetically-engineered man-beasts, ripped into shape thorugh the regimented approach undertaken by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. Which is all well and good for snapping back the neck of an Italian stallion with a single punch under the imposing gaze of Brigitte Nielsen, but perhaps lacking the requisite subtlety for the dissection of an eight-man defence. Instead, naturally enough, the first half drill was to set Bale off on a left-wing gallop. ‘Tis a problem that has bedevilled us for several years now, and I’ll be darned if I see a solution in the offing.
Pardon the digression. The second half, by contrast, was oodles of fun, as the schoolboys abandoned the very notion of ‘formation’ and instead ran around in little circles and bumped into each other, while our heroes fizzed neat little one-twos forward and backward until we were four up and away over the hills. Particular credit is due to young Master Naughton for an absolute dream of a first-time weighted pass into Defoe for the opener (who knew the boy had that in him?). Elsewhere on the pitch Monsieur Lloris enjoyed one of the more straightforward clean sheets of his career, Vertonghen gave a glimpse of what a beautiful future might look like when he steps forward to intercept from centre-back, and somebody somewhere deserves a rasping thump on the back in recognition of the masterstroke that was kitting out our heroes in navy blue shorts.
Fours points represents an adequate haul so far for the yuletide foursome, and fourth place satisfactory at the halfway stage of the season. Downhill all the way now.
A rather queer bucket of nuts, the Christmas fixture list. Umpteen fixtures crammed into about a week, and before you’ve separated your gin-based aperitif from your post-dessert port you find yourself rubbing shoulders with Swansea and West Brom in a mediocre scrambling for Europa places, while Chelski disappear into the distance ensconced in third, with l’Arse hot on their heels. Heavens above, don’t we know that particular feeling a little too well? The run of four winnable festive fixtures got off to an inevitably underwhelming start, and we really need at least two wins from the next three. (Well, not strictly true – I suppose we could lose all of these festive fixtures and then win every ruddy game remaining, and there were would be few complaints – but you get the gist: these three Christmas games are made for winning.)
If there is anything worse than losing 8-0 it is presumably losing to a team that has itself just lost 8-0, and the pessimists amongst us would wager that this game has ‘Villa bounce back’ etched all over it. Never mind the three points – imagine the ignominy. Villa took just about every opportunity to let Chelski score the other day, but while they will presumably have had the basics of ‘For’ and ‘Against’ drummed into them by the great and the good of Brummie-land, but one would expect Bale, Defoe et al be capable of leading them a sufficiently merry dance, particularly if they show any hint of ambition on their own turf, and thereby provide our lot with that most gratefully-received yuletide gift: space into which to gallop on the counter.
‘Tis the season for a strained hamstring or two (with Aaron Lennon the AANP hot tip to start feeling the back of his leggings around the half mark), and I confess to being rather curious about the extent to which AVB believes in squad rotation at this juncture, particularly given his insistence in going all guns blazing at the Europa League. Parker, Sigurdsson and Hudd are presumably fronting the list of rotational candidates, should such a list exist within the Villas-Boas cranium, and one wonders whether young Master Defoe might be told to put his feet up this evening, for one reason and another. Whatever the team selections however, this really ought to be a straightforward three points. (Because that always happens with our lot.)
‘Twas ever thus, against that particular bunch, and AVB can hardly be lambasted for drawing a blank where countless others have done similarly. If anything this was further frustrating proof that this particular Levy-endorsed project is a long-term one, and still at its nascent stages. Teams will set out to defend with their lives at the Lane, Stoke will set out to DESTROY FOOTBALL everywhere, and ‘tis hardly revelatory to note that our heroes rather lack the necessary je ne sais quoi to slice open a defence with a 10-yard diagonal pass so cunning it can conjure up in its right hand the very cravat that surely sat around your neck just a bally second ago.
Stubbly, gravelly of voice and still disgustingly young he may be, but alas, ‘alchemy’ is notably lacking from the AVB CV. The poor blighter did what he could at the outset, for there was sense in the selections of Daws at the back, and both bona fide strikers in attack. That said, Sigurdsson might have been given a bit longer to set off on his customary dash hither and thither (although the poor lamb does seem destined to become master of the near-miss) and young Master Townsend might have been employed to have a fresh-legged scuttle at the Stoke back-eight.
Instead, we were treated to nothing more novel than the swapping of Lennon and Bale for a fruitless half hour, which seems to have become the mid-game masterstroke of choice amongst the Brains Trust. The move always elicits a rather bemused shrug around these parts. Harmless enough I suppose, but there’s the rub – it is indeed generally quite harmless. I suppose it gives the opposing full-backs something new to ponder, and changes the scenery, and maybe benefits an unscrupulous spot-fixing syndicate in some unholy outreach of the globe, but in terms of genuinely blowing up our skirts and leaving bewildered opponents clawing out their own eyes, I struggle to remember it ever having truly noted it in awestruck tones as a game-changer par excellence. But ‘tis just an idle musing, and it might as well be attempted when a game threatens to peter out to 0-0 as early as the opening five minutes. The point remains that the VDV- and Modric-shaped holes have yet to be filled, and creativity lacketh accordingly.
Elsewhere, Vertonghen again had the air of a man with whom you would want to share a tumbler of whiskey to soothe the nerves on a particularly fraught festive afternoon, and Monsieur Lloris has himself another clean sheet, but Dembele and Sandro increasingly looked like they would rather be playing football than Stoke. Understandably enough. However, in the ‘Small Mercies’ column we did at least avoid concession of some criminally undeserved, scrappy set-piece goal, which at various stages of the second half appeared to be all that was missing from the whole, sorry, eye-bleedingly frustrating experience. Still, if we can erase the episode from our collective memories, it turns out that our heroes are in action again in just a day or two, when happier times – or at least grumbles of a different ilk – await.
Merry Christmas one and all, do allow yourselves a moderate celebration.
What ho! AVB has clearly been a good boy this year, with all manner of presents to snatch from the tree and wave excitedly at the parents. Parker, BAE and Kaboul are all at various stages of restored health, and Daws and Bale are apparently fit to go this very afternoon. Our brief bout of Balelessness was not as bad might have been feared, featuring the late debacle against Everton and slow grind against Swansea last week, but our heroes certainly look a lot more mortal without the handsome young Welshman galloping hither and thither, so hearty cheers have been cheered in this corner of the interweb at the news of his return.
Our heroes – and indeed our glorious leader, from whom the order presumably emanated – are to be lauded for the ankle-biting approach adopted last week, that had us pilfering possession in dangerous areas with some frequency. We may not be the same free-flowing purists of recent seasons but there is much to be said for the effectiveness of the kids-on-sweets-and-E-numbers approach of buzzing around opponents with manic enthusiasm. The principle attacking threat will presumably come from Bale, but the return of Parker also raises the intriguing question of whether Dembele might take a more attacking role, at some point over the festive period.
Who can possibly fail to love a visit from those lovable rogues from Stoke? Well AANP, for a start. Season after season that uncouth mob make the blood boil in a manner beyond even l’Arse or Chelski, with their negative, guileless, anti-football approach that borders on ABH. A recall for Daws may be in order today, as their last three or four visits to the Lane have seen them exhibit a principal tactic of lobbing the ball skywards and sharpening their elbows for its re-entry. My goodness I hope we stuff them something rotten today.