"I think Paul is the right person [to lead Aston Villa]," said the Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas, after his team defeated Villa 4-0 on Boxing Day. A second successive battering and sympathy quotes from the opposing manager say only one thing -- Merry Christmas, Paul Lambert! Spurs scored only half as many as Chelsea did just a few days earlier, but they dominated Aston Villa in a similar manner. Recent and convincing wins over Norwich City and Liverpool seem like distant memories for Villa after the club's goal difference plunged deep into the negatives during this Christmas season.
"We have to take it on the chin and move on," said Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who managed to impress with several saves among 12 goals conceded. "We just continue to try and get better. That's what it's all about. We stick together. We are confident about what we're doing as a team and as a club."
The New Year double-header could make for interesting, if through-the-fingers, viewing. First Wigan Athletic arrives at Villa Park desperate for a win; they've taken just one point from the last 18 available, a run that has dropped it from 12th to 18th spot in the table -- even if the manager Roberto Martinez is right to think his side might have had two more from just the past two matches (frustrating defeats to Arsenal and Everton). Then to the Liberty Stadium, a ground where Swansea City has lost only to the two sides (Everton and Norwich) who managed to dominate the home side front to back for a sustained period.
Against Spurs, Villa started conceding goals the second the team tried to do more than defend en masse, but Lambert's side dominated and beat Swansea 2-0 at Villa Park earlier in the season, a result that had the manager leaping about on the pitch afterwards, fists aloft. Can his team repeat the feat before the expected reinforcements arrive in January?
Against Aston Villa, Frank Lampard made his 500th Premier League start and scored the kind of low-dipping, long-range goal that's been his trademark. It lifted his Chelsea goals total to 190, three short of Kerry Dixon and 12 behind the club's all-time top-scorer Bobby Tambling. By Boxing Day, reports said Lampard -- 34 years old and out of contract in the summer -- had been told to find a new club in the January transfer window, and he watched most of Chelsea's 1-0 win over Norwich from the bench, his name being chanted loudly from the stands.
They don't let go of old favorites too easily at Stamford Bridge, and with Mikel John Obi and Victor Moses travelling to the African Cup of Nations next month, there is reason to suspect Lampard might stay at Chelsea for the sake of numbers. Lampard has been among those talking up David Luiz's recent performances in a box-to-box midfield role, and in Rafael Benitez, Lampard does not have a boss in any position to fight his corner. "It is a private conversation between Frank and the club," was pretty much all that the interim manager would say.
The rumor mill has whirred in to overdrive: MLS! China! QPR! So will appearances against Everton and Queens Park Rangers end up being among the last for Lampard at Chelsea?
Before Manchester City arrived at the Stadium of Light, the Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet described his opposite number as the best in the world. Joe Hart would probably say the same about himself, yet his fumble allowed Adam Johnson to score a winning goal for Sunderland, opening up a seven-point gap in the title chase.
While City stuttered on 39 points, Manchester United did what Manchester United does: they came back from behind
"It hasn't changed," said the City manager Roberto Mancini, who claims that it did not matter if the gap was seven or four points. "At this moment, United are better than us, they are at the top, but we have time to recover." That much is true, and though Mancini criticized his team's "soft attack", Mignolet and the woodwork were significant in keeping City scoreless. In the coming days the title-holders visit Norwich and host Stoke, fixtures that they won at a canter last season, though neither City nor their opponents are as predictable as all that. (Did you see Stoke's excellent performance against Liverpool?)
"As I always say about December, it is a month that tells you everything," said Sir Alex Ferguson, who just about resisted a leaping heel-click as he made his way to the tunnel after beating Newcastle. West Bromwich Albion follows on Saturday, and then United goes to Wigan. "Hopefully when we come to 1 January, after that game at Wigan, we are still top of the league."
United has dropped only two points in December, but has conceded an average of two goals per game. Visitors have scored more goals at Old Trafford so far this season than in the entire 2010-11 campaign. Can United continue to bank on points rescued from losing positions? Even Ferguson says no.
Reading and Queens Park Rangers are already six points from safety, and neither has meetings with the teams around them during the rest of the holidays to help them quickly to bridge the gap. QPR, rock bottom, might fancy an upset when they visit Loftus Road of Liverpool on Sunday, but that would depend on Liverpool being as poor as they were against Stoke on Boxing Day, and on the R's being significantly better than against West Brom the same day. And then they go to Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea hasn't been beaten in two months.
Reading was on the back foot for much of this week's game against Swansea, but got stronger for the introduction of Adam Le Fondre -- late on, it took a goal line block from Chico Flores to keep the score at 0-0 for Reading's first clean sheet of the season.
"We were much more resilient," said the manager, Brian McDermott, who had seen his side concede 14 goals this month. "We have got a point and a clean sheet and we are off the bottom of the table."
Now they face West Ham United for the first time since the two were promoted in the summer, with West Ham having sat out Boxing Day thanks to a Tube strike and Carlton Cole suspended following his sending off against West Brom; last season's 3-0 win is unlikely to be repeated, but a share of the spoils is not unrealistic. It will be the very least Reading can afford if the New Year's Day trip to Tottenham goes as the form guide suggests.
After scoring against Southampon on Wednesday, the Fulham forward Dimitar Berbatov upset his manager and sent a nation in to a swoon by peeling off his shirt and revealing the message: "Keep calm and pass me the ball." As a Spurs player Berbatov was usually excused from defensive exertions and at Manchester United was used as a luxury, like a splash of expensive perfume. At Fulham he has been asked to lead the line with a more rounded game, especially in the absence of Bryan Ruiz. Berbatov has performed superbly but has at times been an isolated spot of quality in the Fulham side. Swansea (h) and West Brom (a) present Fulham -- one win in the last 10 matches and sinking like Newcastle -- with a challenging bank holiday weekend. Will the return of Ruiz be the tonic Martin Jol is hoping for?