The holiday season takes its toll; when owners turn on their teams

Sunday December 29th, 2013

Samuel Eto'o (right), Willian and their Chelsea teammates are dealing with a brutal holiday schedule.
Juian Finney/Getty Images

The Holiday Season

As David Luiz was being interviewed after Chelsea beat Liverpool, 2-1, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, his own manager started to heckle.

José Mourinho shouted from off camera that Luiz had deliberately earned a yellow card in the game. The Special One then moved into view. Luiz, Mourinho said, had wanted to be suspended so he could have a few days off in Portugal. Then the happy Mourinho hugged Luiz and exited. Luiz pulled an innocent face and said: "I had no idea I was on four yellow cards."

It might be understandable to want a break from English soccer's holiday season. This was Chelsea's third game in six days. It plays again on Wednesday and then next Sunday. The Blues are not alone.

The Christmas period is pivotal in the English season, in part because teams can pick up, or drop, a lot of points in a very short period. Liverpool was top on Christmas Day. By Sunday evening, after two one-goal losses on the road against its two of its chief rivals, it was in fourth, six points behind Arsenal. It played well against Chelsea, but was fading before the end.

So many games so close together take a toll on the legs as well as in the table. Mourinho said he was happy Chelsea led at halftime.

"In [the] second half, both teams were obviously very tired," he told Sky TV. "The team that is winning can control the game."

He went on to say that he was confident that his defense would be able to handle Luis Suárez in the second half because he had rested players while "Luis is accumulating every minute of every match."

Tired players get injured. And with games so close together they miss more of them. Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic limped off before halftime. That will be a worry, and he wasn't the only one. Kieran Gibbs went off hurt as Arsenal won, 1-0, at Newcastle. Paulinho of Tottenham limped off after a dazzling hour as Spurs beat Stoke, 3-0.

The problem is worse for teams with shallow squads. West Ham ended Saturday's draw with West Brom with one fit central defender, and Sunderland has a similar problem.

The most important thing for any manager after any game at this time of year is triage.

As Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, told Sky after the game: "We're disappointed with the result of course, but we're just really more worried about the group and nursing injuries and seeing where we are at tomorrow."

Vincent Tan, He's A Fan

It's a good rule of life to pick your battles.

On the one hand, Vincent Tan probably shouldn't have taken on the fans of the club he owns. He needs them, and their money. Whatever his belief about the power of red, the fans feel Cardiff's identity is blue. They can wait and hate. Cardiff will one day be the Bluebirds again.

On the other hand, a soccer club manager probably shouldn't take on his owner. Malky Mackay, with, as Tan pointed out, some rather unappealing grandstanding, may have won the PR battle when he took on Tan, but he lost the war. All the power was with Tan. Mackay was fired.

The media, and fans, tend to side with the manager in battles with club chairmen. The fact that Tan is very visibly a foreigner only encourages ridicule. On Saturday morning, just as the Fleet Street sports pages were lampooning Tan, who is Malaysian, the front pages of the same newspapers were reporting a discussion in the ruling Tory party on whether to dial back political attacks on immigrants.

On Saturday, flanked by minders in black coats as he stood in the presidential box at Cardiff to watch his team play Sunderland, Tan -- in his dark glasses and black leather gloves and performing Cardiff's own goal celebration, the "Ayatollah," -- looked every bit a narco-dictator celebrating regime capture and demanding fealty.

At the final whistle in a match Cardiff dominated, led by two goals and somehow ended up drawing 2-2, TV showed Tan joining in the booing. We are not used to seeing chairman jeering their team, but is it so unreasonable that he should react just like any other fan? Maybe he was booing the decision by Dave Kerslake, the caretaker manager, to introduce Andreas Cornelius. The Dane, whose summer acquisition seems to have been a particular source of tension with Mackay, came on in the 82nd minute with Cardiff two goals up. One minute later, Steven Fletcher scored to start the fight back.

Cornelius cost a club record £8 million. He has been injured but when he has played, he hasn't looked good. Of course, if Tan expects every signing to succeed, he is being unreasonable. But Cornelius is symbolic of a bigger problem.

Tan gave Mackay and Ian Moody, the club's "Head of Recruitment," a £35 million, or almost $58 million, budget in the summer. They spent £50 million. Mackay insisted Tan should have known there would be "agents fees", a phrase that should ring alarm bells for any soccer club chairman, and other "add-ons".

Tan believed they had overspent by more than 40 percent. He cuts a faintly ridiculous figure. He looked out of place in Cardiff on Saturday evening -- and that's generally a bad time and place to look different. But if I thought someone had spent £15 million of my money without my say so, I'd fire them. So would you.

Altidore Needs To Learn To Rebound

There is one crucial difference between offensive rebounds in soccer and in basketball and one important similarity.

The difference is that a soccer striker doesn't need to worry about reaching a lot of rebounds. All he should care about is reaching the ones that drop right in front of the goal. The similarity is that the player should start moving as soon as a teammate shoots. If he's onside when the ball is hit, he will stay onside.

On Saturday at Cardiff, there were two glaring examples of Jozy Altidore spurning what would have been tap-ins because he stood spectating until after David Marshall, the Cardiff goalie, had parried shots across the unprotected face of the goal.

Altidore did reach one, after a shot by Ki Sung-Yeung, but, lunging and lacking conviction, clumsily scuffed the ball wide.

Altidore is in a drought and playing for a struggling team. But he does not think goals. He will only score easy tap-ins if he goes looking for them. He must learn to rebound.

Anelka Shows How It All Went Wrong

In 1999, at the age of 20, Nicolas Anelka, was voted the young player of the year in English soccer and bought by Real Madrid for more than £20 million. He had it all: pace, power, skill and an eye for goal.

He played just 19 games for Real. Since then he has played for an awful lot of clubs most of them for rather short periods. He spent four seasons at Chelsea, shorter spells at Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain and cups of coffee at Juventus and Liverpool (as well as a cup of tea in Shanghai). But there have also been the spells of reputation rehab at Bolton and Fenerbahce.

Since joining West Brom this season, he's missed a lot of games with injury and for family reasons. He threatened to retire once. On Saturday, he returned to the first team and scored twice in a 3-3 draw at West Ham. The first, in particular, showed why so many clubs have coveted his talents. At 34, he's still capable of a well-timed burst of pace, a deft touch and a wonderfully cool finish.

What he did after scoring it, though, showed why clubs have so often found Anelka more trouble than he's worth. He stretched his right arm straight down and put his left hand on his right bicep. The gesture is known in his native France as a "quenelle," a jokey name that means "dumpling." Anelka said he did as homage to his buddy Dieudonné, a comedian who has trademarked the gesture and who is having a few difficulties.

Dieudonné is a good friend of the extreme right wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. That might seem like the definition of stupidity for someone who is part Cameroonian, but Dieudonné is an obsessive anti-Semite. He ran for the European parliament on an anti-Zionist ticket. He has been convicted seven times in France of anti-Semitic crimes.

On Friday, after a TV station had secretly filmed Dieudonné's stage act in which he said he wanted to reopen the gas chambers for his Jewish critics, Manuel Valls, the Interior Minister, banned his performances as a threat "to public order." Valls made clear that he believed the "quenelle" was an adaptation of a Nazi salute and intended as an anti-Semitic gesture.

On Sunday, after French Sport Minister Valerie Fourneyron called Anelka's celebration a "disgusting anti-Semitic" gesture, Anelka played innocent. Yet Anelka must know his friend's views. Since he knew Valls had banned Dieudonné, he should also have known what Valls said about the "quenelle." He did it anyway.

If Anelka is asking those who have followed the bumpy path of is career to believe that he is neither a jerk nor dense, he is asking a lot.

Muelensteen Coins A Cliche

After Fulham had conceded half a dozen goals in 35 second-half minutes to lose 6-0 at previously punchless Hull, their manager offered some tactical insight.

"I didn't see that coming," René Muelensteen told the BBC. "And the players didn't see that coming."

Thank goodness for that. Some managers like Mourinho do claim to see everything coming (though his teams rarely lose 6-0). Yet it begs the question: if Muelensteen had seen it coming and his team had still lost, 6-0, would he be a better coach or a worse one?

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.