The Christmas season is in some ways a turning point in a footballing year. A good couple of weeks (crammed with games) can certainly be the difference between relegation and a relatively comfortably end of the season, and my five strugglers went in distinctly different directions over the holidays.
Fulham are looking more realistic survivors, for example, while Metz go from strength to strength compared to expectations. Elche and Arminia Bielefeld, though, have slipped into trouble. It’s back to normality this week instead of the big round ups. Here’s how it went down…
Fulham 18th, 1-1 away to Tottenham
Fulham drew their fifth game on the trot away to Tottenham, and it’s kind of working for them, as they slowly but surely close the gap in Burnley and Brighton ahead of them with games in hand, too.
In truth, Tottenham should really have been out of sight in this one, with Kane putting them ahead after numerous decent chances. Spurs have that very Mourinho habit of trying to sit on leads, though, and they did it again here. By the time Fulham got level with 15 to go, they deserved it. A 2-0 away win to QPR in the cup won’t do confidence any harm, either.
I’ve loved watching Spezia. They have exactly the kind of pluck I was looking for when I started this project; an entertaining underdog from a small town looking to put it up to the likes of Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan and Napoli.
Before Christmas they were hovering in about their best case scenario for the season in my view: outside the drop zone, and ahead of a couple of proper Serie A big guns:
Spezia have kind of ground out results when it’s mattered so far this season, and while their Christmas wasn’t a great one, it ended with a real bang.
First up were Bologna, who are one of those kind of hovering teams in Serie A who are beatable but still solid. Spezia should really have won this one, with star man Nzola putting them two up with less than half an hour to go.
Spezia should have been out of sight, in truth, but Bologna fought back in a game they’d been utterly outplayed in, equalising with a lob from just short of the half way line (worth a watch!), before a great stop from a late penalty denied Bologna what would have been a daylight robbery of a win. 2-2.
Metz’ pre-Christmas part to the season has been easily the biggest success story of my ‘long shots’ project: the team, who were an astonishing 1/6 to go down this year, got off to a poor start, though looking competitive, before going on a long unbeaten run. They had lost two before the break, but still looked solid in mid table, as below.
From that position, a team like this should really be looking to consolidate their safety from relegation and then worry about what kind of achievements they can pull off in the remainder of the season. Metz went ahead and did exactly that with their four Christmas games.
Montpellier had won five in six when Metz traveled there in mid December, but Metz are great away and grabbed a win in a scrappy game that kind of suited them. Montpellier didn’t look up to all that much going forward, and Metz got a silly penalty in the second half, and added polish to win 2-0 in the dying seconds.
Germany, of course, famously has a Christmas break in their football season, something that various non-native Premier League managers have been campaigning for en masse for years, usually once they first encounter the mad rush that is the seasonal football fixture list. I’d miss Christmas football, but they probably have a point.
Arminia’s break lasted from December 19 to January 2, which meant they’ve played three games since the table looked like this:
Those games have gone exactly as the table would suggest, and they have helped Arminia a little in what is – below the top few at least – a fiercely competitive league.
First up were Augsburg, who are a side who don’t get a lot of credit or acknowledgement internationally, but have become increasingly competitive in the Bundesliga.
Arminia actually had slightly the better of this game, but conceded late on when they really deserved more. The struggle to score goals continues.
This is the second of my bulky Christmas round ups now that the calm has settled in after the Christmas football binge.
I left Fulham struggling in the relegation zone, though perhaps performing as well as many of us expected. The standings before the Christmas chaos left Fulham three points and some significant goal difference away from safety, as shown here:
As a side note, how bad does that look for Arsenal? They’ve had a massive Christmas.
Anyhow, Fulham have essentially drawn their way through life since, oddly, given they’d had only one draw in the whole season before the Christmas period.
The opening one was a great one to grab, against Liverpool, though in truth they were really unfortunate not to win this one, with Liverpool given a very harsh penalty to equalise late on, and Fulham dominating much of the game and with a decent penalty shout themselves turned down along the way. A bit of a daylight robbery of a draw for the champions, 1-1.
So, five of these are incoming – as much as I’m enjoying the weekly write ups, I couldn’t bring myself to spend my Christmas trying to follow the day-by-day in five different European leagues, so one big bulk review per club in the aftermath it is.
I left Elche here:
Which is, let’s be honest, a hell of a start to the season for relegation favourites in what’s widely considered to be one of Europe’s toughest leagues. Since I left them, Elche have had five league games and two cup games (the second of which is, bizarrely, being played at 11am pretty much as I write this – I don’t know, either!). An exceptionally busy Christmas period that hasn’t gone well at all…
First off was a vibrant contest with Granada, in which both teams created penty of chances, though Granada certainly had the better of them, and deserved to come out one nil winners. Some of the saves in this game are really quite exceptional…
Not a good week for results this week, with a win, a draw and three losses, but with Arminia getting the win, we’re back to no teams in the drop zone (though Arminia are still in the play off relegation spot).
Not bad for week 12…
Bundesliga: Arminia Bielefeld (5/6 on to be relegated) 2-1 at home to Mainz
After seven straight defeats in the league, Arminia badly needed a win, and with a run of mediocre teams coming down the line in their next few fixtures, getting some momentum in the run up to Christmas might be key to their survival this year.
This win dumped opponents Mainz into the relegation zone, and was most notable for a bustling performance from Japanese player Ritsu Doan, who scored a great solo goal and chipped in throughout.
That said, the opener for Arminia was a total fluke and they were fortunate to hold on at the end, but wins like this will be vital, and they’ll take it, especially when it breaks that losing streak.
What’s been most noticeable about this project so far is that, eleven weeks in, it’s been mostly not about losers, but about sides putting up real fight, about clubs that are below average for their league, typically, perhaps, but still performing.
Here’s the latest, with only one set to go down as it stands…
Premier League: Fulham (evens to go down) 2-1 away to Leicester
I didn’t give Fulham a lot of hope against high-flying Leicester away, to be honest, but they definitely are coming to handle the Premier League a bit better, and looking like a side that could be competitive in a few more games. This also closes the gap – that had been substantial – to anyone above 16th.
Lookman has probably been their best player so far his year in my view, and he threatened plenty here, and could have had a couple more. Leicester were dominant early on, though, and while Fulham held their own and eventually took over for periods, they were probably a little lucky.
Still, they’ve been due a bit of luck, and they’re back out of the bottom three. You’d have to assume Sheffield United will come back to life at some point, right?