Sunday January 3rd, 2016

English soccer’s long-standing habit of cramming extra games into the public holidays around Christmas and New Year is one of the quirks that add to the Premier League’s appeal. It also rewards the clubs with the deepest pockets and the deepest squads.

Elsewhere in Europe, teams catch their breath with a mid-season rest. English soccer celebrates the halfway point in its marathon by sending the players out to play extra games with little rest in the winter wind and the rain. It’s a muddy boot camp for millionaires.

On Sunday, Tottenham’s 1–1 draw at Everton brought to an end a sprint of three games in nine days. None of the 20 teams managed to win all three games. Only Newcastle, which lost all three of its holiday games 1–0, failed to collect a point from Santa. Spurs, West Ham and Manchester City amassed seven points. Stoke and Liverpool both won their first two and then ran out of steam and lost the third.

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Perhaps that shows how inhumanly tough the Christmas period is or perhaps it is more evidence of how balanced the Premier League is this season. On the other hand, the final weekend of games suggested that the biggest clubs are best able to cope with the extra demands.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City all won on Saturday. Chelsea won on Sunday.

Arsenal was awful in the first holiday game at Southampton. It was again woeful in the first half at home to Newcastle on Saturday. But it won, 1–0, after center back Laurent Koscielny showed the instincts of a striker. Somehow, the Gunners have collected six points in the three games and shaken clear of Leicester at the top.

United outlasted Swansea, 2–1, at Old Trafford to end an eight-game winless streak. Wayne Rooney settled the game with one of those increasingly rare reminders that he should be a world-class player: a volleyed no-look back-heel in the 77th minute. United, more aggressive, and Rooney, more effective, seem to have found themselves over Christmas.

City also had too much stamina and depth for brave Watford. Yaya Touré and Sergio Agüero scoring the sort of goals great players can score in the final eight minutes to earn a 2–1 victory.

On Sunday, Chelsea gave its best league display of the season as it overwhelmed Palace, 3–0.

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There’s another tiring burst of three games in nine days coming up (or 10 days in the case of Liverpool), though the first round of those is the FA Cup, when many teams will rest a lot of starters.

For the big clubs this is a crucial time of year. The Champions League and Europa League do not resume until mid-February. Over the next six weeks they play the same number of games (give or take a League Cup semifinal or two) as everyone else. This is a chance to make their strength in depth count. This weekend, the four richest clubs began to do just that.

Hot and Cold Spurs  The final game of the weekend continued a pattern for Tottenham. It started out as if it would blow Everton away at Goodison and finished clinging to a point.

In recent weeks, Tottenham has conceded in the 93rd minute to lose 2–1 to Newcastle and scored in the 90th minute to win 2–1 at Watford. In its first two Christmas games, Everton won one and lost one in added time.

Maybe both teams were happy to settle for a 1–1 draw. It meant both have drawn nine of their 20 league games this season, more than any other teams in the Premier League. In contrast, Arsenal and Manchester City have each drawn just three. The Gunners are six points clear of Tottenham despite losing twice as many games. City is 12 points ahead of Everton even though both have lost five.

Yet Everton might have been more disappointed with the final whistle. In the closing minutes, Spurs narrowly survived a series of close encounters with Romelu Lukaku. Hugo Lloris made his habitual world-class save, this time from Muhamed Besic.

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Tottenham penned Everton back in the first half. Harry Kane hit the inside of a post. Ben Davies hit the underside of the bar. Dele Alli scored with a finish that showed, once again, his impressive mixture of strength, speed, skill, intelligence and determination.

Everton did not manage to get the ball in the Tottenham penalty area for the first 20 minutes. When it did, Aaron Lennon smacked the sort of goal he hit all too rarely in his 267 matches for Spurs.

“The first half was one of the best 45 minutes we have played so far, but we were a bit unlucky that Everton scored,” Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, told the BBC.

The second half was different. It may be that Tottenham’s pressing style tires the players out before the end. It could also be that Everton adjusted.

Roberto Martínez must have known what Tottenham was going to do. Yet it was not until the 60th minute that he made the substitutions that decisively altered the pattern of the game. Having exploited the “immutable law of the ex,” he finally replaced Lennon with the far more considered wing play of Gerard Deulofeo and brought Besic into midfield to disrupt Tottenham by running around kicking people. Tottenham faded away.

Yet again, Tottenham looked a title contender for most of the game and a pretender in the final stages.

Costa Bravo  When Guus Hiddink returned as Chelsea manager on Dec. 19, he probably knew that Diego Costa was the player who held the key to the club’s revival.

On Sunday, as Chelsea won 3–0 at Crystal Palace for only its second away victory of the league season, Diego Costa looked like a man transformed. He was constantly taking up dangerous positions. He was less angry. He also looked a yard faster, which suggests Hiddink really is a miracle worker. Costa has thrown away his mental crutches and started to run.

When Damien Delaney whacked Costa from behind in the 13th minute, Costa did not react. He barely glanced up as Kevin Friend showed Delaney a yellow card. Under José Mourinho, Costa, and his teammates, would have been screaming at the referee.

Costa only managed two shots but one went in and he helped create the other two Chelsea goals.

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After 29 minutes, he opened up the Palace with a sharp, quick run behind the back four then selflessly set up Oscar to score. On the hour, Costa came deep to collect the ball and played the ball off to Oscar who set up Willian. Six minutes later, when Wayne Hennessey, the Palace goalie, could only parry another Willian shot Costa was lurking at the far post to score the sort of tap in good strikers sniff out, but which never came his way earlier this season.

Chelsea has looked like the defending champion this season once, when it beat Mourinho’s old enemy Arsène Wenger and Arsenal in September.

Costa’s increased effort might simply be a reaction to the time of year. The transfer window has opened and Hiddink has reportedly urged owner Roman Abramovic to pull out his check book.

On Sunday, Costa was not alone in looking sharper and more direct. Even though it lost Eden Hazard after 16 minutes, Chelsea was dominant against a team that has given it problems in the past. Costa provided the cutting edge.

Leicester Regresses  After Leicester won, 3–2, at Everton on Dec. 19, the Foxes were top of the Premier League and were, by some distance, the joint top scorers in the division.

In the three matches since, Leicester has failed to score and slipped to second place. In the first of those matches it was outplayed at Anfield and lost, 1–0. In the second it went toe to toe with Manchester City and could be satisfied with a goalless draw. But the 0–0 draw at home to Bournemouth on Saturday suggested a worrying trend.

For much of the fall, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez scored when they wanted. On Saturday, the law of averages caught up with them.

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​Vardy was still menacing. He forced one excellent diving save from Artur Boruc and pounced on a close-range chance only to smash his shot off the inside of the post. A month ago every shot he took seemed to nestle just inside the post. This flew out to safety. Vardy also won a penalty. The offender, Simon Francis, was sent off. 

At Everton, Mahrez had coolly converted two penalties. This time he put the ball exactly where Boruc would have wanted. The goalie pawed it away.

Even against 10 men, Leicester could not score.

Leicester is in uncharted territory. The single point for the draw took it to 40, its often-stated target for the season, with 18 games left. The question, which manager Claudio Ranieri has said he would put to his squad when they reached that total is: what do they believe they can achieve? There is no law that says a smaller club cannot challenge for the title, but Leicester needs to have faith that it can overcome the odds.

Bad Brad — Saturday was not a good day for the Americans in the Premier League.

Geoff Cameron aimed an irritated slap at the back of the head of the irritating Claudio Yacob. The Chilean went down as if he’d been rabbit punched by Mike Tyson. Cameron was sent off. Stoke then conceded an injury-time goal to lose 2–1 at West Brom. It was a rare bad afternoon for Cameron and Stoke.

The Stadium of Light brought together two Americans for whom this season has been much more of a struggle. DeAndre Yedlin did not leave the bench as Sunderland ended its losing run with a 3–1 victory over Aston Villa. At least he had a better afternoon than Brad Guzan.

If Petr Cech is the chief reason that Arsenal, despite its injury problems, is nine points and five places better than it was after 20 games last season, then Guzan’s struggles are one reason Villa is bottom, winless since opening day and 11 points off safety.

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Guzan’s problems are not all of his own making. He is playing behind a team that cannot score, cannot defend and does not work hard enough. The collective lack of confidence is compounded by sloppy ineptitude.

Guzan is as guilty as anyone. He can still stop shots, though not as many as the best goalies in the league. Guzan was left falling the wrong way when Micah Richards deflected Patrick van Aanholt’s optimistic long-range daisy cutter for Sunderland’s opener. The goalie looked bad again when Jermain Defoe, who had been allowed to turn, drilled a shot just inside the near post.

Guzan’s confidence cannot be helped by stories that Remi Garde, the Villa manager, is in the market for a replacement. The goalie’s uncertainty is most visible with the ball at his feet. His long clearances are poor and when he opts instead to play the ball short his judgment and accuracy are woeful.

After Villa’s Leandro Bacuna took a throw in and gave the ball straight to the nearest Sunderland player, the home team attacked. Villa recovered the ball and Guzan attempted a short pass to Aly Cissokho who wasn’t looking. It was ugly. Lee Cattermole intercepted but opted to jog to the corner flag where he won a throw. Villa had another chance to clear but failed. The ball reached Defoe. His shot seemed to surprise Guzan, who was again going the wrong way as the ball flew into the net.

It was a horrible, inept sequence that summed up Villa’s problems. Guzan is a big part of them.

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