Friday December 26th, 2014

Arsène Wenger must have felt Christmas had come twice when Queens Park Rangers turned up at the Emirates on Friday with a back three in defense anchored by Rio Ferdinand. But it was a gift Arsenal had a lot of trouble unwrapping. After a match spiked with seasonal ill-will and in which both teams seemed intent on giving each other presents, the Gunners hung on for the win, 2-1.

QPR's defense looked hungover, heavy-legged and confused from the start. Ferdinand seems quite bemused by his loss of pace. Arsenal, particularly Alexis Sánchez and Tomas Rosicky, was lively and hungry.

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Arsenal's first good chance was a gift. For no logically explicable reason, Armand Traoré, an ex-Gunner, hacked down Sánchez as he was running away from the goal. Perhaps Sánchez was embarrassed, though. He sheepishly returned the gift, like the son-in-law sneaking into the department store with the unwanted pink sweater, passing his penalty kick tamely to Rob Green.

Traoré wasn't done. In the 37th minute, he stood politely aside as Sánchez raced past, then watched from a safe distance as the Chilean, who is just 5-foot-5, headed the opening goal unchallenged at the far post.

Arsenal was in charge, but it seemed determined to hand back the initiative. After 53 minutes, Olivier Giroud, pushed over by Nedum Onuha, stood up, turned round and — with the referee, Martin Atkinson, standing a yard away — butted Onuha.

"He didn't control himself," Wenger told BT Sports. "It gave us a mountain to climb."

Against 10 men, QPR might have felt able to compete, but its defense was still a mess. In the 65th minute, Sánchez ran 40 yards straight up the middle with the ball, and when the defenders finally reacted by all charging at him, Sánchez passed to Rosicky, alone in front of goal, who scored easily.

It was the first time Wenger had started the Czech in the Premier League this season. "Perhaps he can use me more," Rosicky told BT Sport.

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The gifts continued to flow. Junior Hoilett came on and immediately terrorized both Arsenal's right flank and the fans sitting 20 yards behind the goal. He repeatedly beat his defender, only to smash his cross high and wide. Even so, rather than let Hoilett waste another ball, Mathieu Debuchy reached in and tripped him. Charlie Austin blasted the penalty kick straight at Wojciech Szczesny, who dived out of the way.

QPR laid siege, but this week, Arsenal held out. Against a team that has lost every single one of its away league matches, Arsenal managed to eke out a one-goal victory.

It was Wenger's 400th league victory and his 600th overall as Arsenal manager. It should have been much more enjoyable. But as Santa might tell Wenger, it is not enough possessing great gifts. You also need to deliver.

Short Corners

Relaxing Chelsea — Chelsea management are reportedly talking to the club's fans about finding ways to liven up the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge. Displays like Friday's against West Ham won't help. Against one of the hottest teams in the Premier League, Chelsea utterly dominated, as it won 2-0.

The result was never in doubt. Chelsea scored once in each half. Fans could sleep off Christmas overindulgence, safe in the knowledge that they would miss little.

"When you look at Chelsea, you admire in my position the qualities they've got and you admire their team work rate in terms of shutting you down," Sam Allardyce, the West Ham manager, told the BBC.

White Christmas — In the days before under-soil heating, clubs kept orange balls for snow-covered pitches. As a second-half blizzard turned the Hawthorns into a seasonal snow globe, it did seem reasonable to wonder whether referee Mark Clattenburg, who looked rather cold, had a spare can of orange spray for marking out free kicks.

Manchester City scored three first-half goals before spending the second half hoping Clattenburg would not abandon the game. Despite a late goal by Brown Ideye, City beat West Bromwich Albion, 3-1.

City, again without a fit striker, benefited from one of Ben Foster's gifts to the opposition, as Fernando scored after the goalie dropped the ball. Then David Silva and Yaya Touré struck, as City stayed on Chelsea's heels.

Red Christmas — For the English soccer professional, Christmas is no holiday. It brings an endless diet of matches and training sessions, interrupted only by visits to children's hospitals for photo ops. Louis van Gaal, however, broke with tradition when he gave his Manchester United squad Christmas Day off.

"I think one training session is not so important," Van Gaal told the BBC. "And [especially] when it is a special day, an important day for family."

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His players responded by giving him an emphatic 3-1 victory over Newcastle, with Wayne Rooney scoring the first two and Robin Persie the third. Juan Mata and Radamel Falcao glittered. Ashley Young was excellent at wingback.

"Fantastic Christmas," Van Gaal told the BBC. "Dominating 90 minutes, and you know I like that."

Just in case anyone might start to confuse him with Santa, Van Gaal made clear that he was taking back Christmas.

"All the substitutes are training now," he said after the game. "It's not as if they have free days."

Blue missed — The traditional British Christmas pantomime appeals to those with a cruel sense of humor. Tottenham's 2-1 victory at Leicester was pure panto.

After taking a first minute-lead, Tottenham gradually unraveled. Leicester leveled when one Algerian World Cup player, Riyad Mahrez, robbed another, Nabil Bentaleb, and passed to the near post, where Argentina striker Leonardo Ulloa was too quick for Argentina defender Federico Fazio. That was nice, but Leicester had 21 other goal attempts and could not score.

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Goalie Hugo Lloris was Tottenham's best player, followed by the woodwork. Ulloa hit a post with a close-range header. Mahrez hit the bar with a free kicker. Finally, Wes Morgan, no one's idea of a natural goal scorer, seemed to slip on an invisible banana skin when faced with an empty net.

Tottenham won when Christian Eriksen shot from a long-range free kick, surprising Ben Hamer, the Leicester goalie, who seemed to have made up his mind that the Dane was going to cross and dove a little too late.

"Look behind you!" is what children shout at the pantos. It's good advice for Hamer, but useless for his team. Because of its inability to take chances, Leicester is the Christmas turkey, last in the Premier League, six points away from safety.

Santa brings the sack — Strangely, not a single manager has yet been fired in the Premier League this season. It could be that a lot of anxious chairmen are waiting for someone to pull the trigger first. So the BBC amused itself on Friday by spreading some seasonal cheer and asking fans which manager should be fired. The answer: just about everyone.

Friday was a bad day for several of the bookmakers' favorites: Alan Irvine at West Brom, Roberto Martínez at Everton, Nigel Pearson at Leicester and Alan Pardew at Newcastle.

Habitually, the season of good cheer is prime sacking time. Will the pink slip come wrapped in Christmas paper?

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