With Thanksgiving upon us here in the States and the sting of Arsenal's come-from-ahead loss to Spurs fading a little bit due to a 4-0 weekend in NFL and the Eagles beating the Giants on Sunday night, I'm feeling a "things to be thankful for" gimmick coming on. Rather than our usual format, we'll cover each team in the TOP HALF of the Premier League and discuss what they have to be thankful for. We'll close each comment out with a thought about what each team HOPES to be thankful for by the time we get around to our next gimmick column at Christmas. OK, maybe the holiday thing is a bit overdone as a theme (I'm sure you'll see something similar elsewhere about all manner of sports and other topics this week) but the alternative is me bitching and moaning about Arsenal's loss for about 1000 words and none of us want that so here we go.
Chelsea - The crazy lead in points and goal differential that they built up in August, September, and October when they dropped only 5 points in 10 matches. With 9 dropped in their last 4, life would be pretty bleak by Chelsea standards without that store of points built up. They'd better hope that their Christmas thanks include the rapid improvement of their training staff in getting JT, Lamps, Drogs, and Alex closer to their best.
ManYoo - So many things to be thankful for this season between Arsenal's inability to win matches they should win at home and Chelsea's November collapse but the big thing is Sir Alex's ability to get the most out of modest talent while they wait for Rooney to get back to form, the old guys to recover from injuries, and the Glazers to invest some money into talent. Just an incredible job of managing good-but-not-great players to within goal differential of the top after 4 months of play. All of Sir Alex's excellence aside, ManYoo had better hope they're toasting Rooney's 6 goal December come Christmastime - you can only hold an old car together with spit and duct tape for so long.
Arsenal - Chelsea's collapse, ManYoo's financial woes, Nasri's emergence, Fabianski's competence, and depth, lots of depth. 3 or 4 years ago Chelsea and/or ManYoo would have punished Arsenal's home frailties to the point that we'd have ruled them out of the title race already. With Cesc/RvP having made little to no meaningful contributions the emergence of Nasri, Wilshere, and Walcott as significant players instead of being "all potential" has been critical. The reduction of mistakes from Fabianski (compared to Almunia) and depth in the form of Chamakh, Koscielny, Squilaci, and Djourou has been equally important. That said, they'd better hope that Christmas tidings bring news of Cesc being back to his best because he's been mediocre when he's played.
Citeh - I was going to say "Carlos Tevez, Vincent Kompany, and Joe Hart" but after taking a longer look, I'm going to say "Kolo Toure" - the former trio represent City's only exceptional players based on performance thus far but Kolo is the glue that holds them together at the back. For a team that seems intent on playing things close to the vest it's important to have their "glue" guy in. In matches Kolo has started, they've only given up more than one goal once (vs. Wolves) and that was Toure's first match back from injury. Otherwise, when he's been available, it's been all 1s and 0s for the bad guys. Despite their defensive leanings, those at Eastlands had better hope that Christmas finds Silva/Baloteli showing more of the skill that they paid all that money to acquire - they may make the Champions League grinding out points but they won't win the league unless they can score with the big boys (and no, Fulham doesn't count).
Bolton - Owen Coyle and his ability to re-make Bolton's style with cast-offs (MPet), players from unfancied countries (Lee, Holden), unfancied holdovers (Davies), and one big signing finally turned good (Elmander). He may not have signed all of these players but he's certainly turned them into something that the men who DID sign them couldn't - an entertaining, successful side. The three questions that Bolton had better hope they have answers for by Christmas are 1) can they keep us this scoring pace without becoming fragile at the back? 2) can they keep their ambitious manager? and 3) can they keep their best players - specifically Elmander whose contract is up at the end of the season and Cahill who has been rumored to be headed to bigger clubs for a couple years now.
Spurs - There are many things that Spurs should be thankful for so far this season with the primary among them being 1) the second half (see Young Boys, Inter Milan, and now Arsenal); 2) Real Madrid's summer spending the last two years (which made van der Vaart redundant, available, and pretty cheap and could net them Benzema in January); 3) The Glazers' financial bungling (which meant that ManYoo probably couldn't add van der Vaart's wages because he would have been the PERFECT Scholes replacement); and 4) that Bale fellow who is very, very good. With all of those things to be thankful for, Spurs supporters must hope that they will be able to add "Harry Redknapp's revival of the career of one or both of Palacios and Lennon." - they just can't continue to play with only two really top notch players.
Sunderland - There are two people that Steve Bruce and Sunderland should be thanking above all others so far this season - Roberto Martinez for selling Titus Bramble to them so cheaply and the Scheduler (I'm picturing one guy in a dark closet at FA HQ) for putting teams in front of Sunderland when they're at their weakest. They got Citeh when they were still introducing themselves to each other; they got Liverpool at the depths of their dispair; they got Chelsea decimated by injuries and suspensions; and they got ManYoo without Rooney, Valencia, Giggs, and Evra (and starting O'Shea, Anderson, and Owen). With the scheduling luck bound to change Sunderland had better hope that Bramble's injury heals a little early and they can find a third regular goal-scorer beyond DBent and Gyan.
Stoke - Stoke and all of their supporters will be most thankful for the premium that the good people at the Premier League (and other leagues around the world) have put on winning vs. getting draws. Stoke has an exceptional ability to be involved with matches that end in either a win or loss which puts them in the odd circumstance of being in the Top 5 in the league in both wins (tied for 5th) and losses (tied for 2nd). The mathematical difference between the bonus for winning (2 points) and the penalty for losing (1 point) instead of drawing sees Stoke solidly in the top half. That said, Stoke will be thankful if they can start grinding out draws where they are currently losing - they could also do with some surprise results against the better teams - their wins are all against decidedly bottom half teams with nary a point from their matches against the big boys.
Liverpool - The thing that Liverpool should be MOST thankful for is their new owners. Now that they have at least some sense of stability the source of their thanks should be focused on the bunching in the table this season. The parity in the league to date has seen Liverpool go from a relegation spot to top half within a matter of a few weeks despite only modest success during that span. The distance to the Champions League spots is a bit of a bigger ask in terms of distance in the standings but unless injuries cripple both Gerrard and Torres for long stretches of the second half Liverpool should be able to at least contend for a Europa Cup spot and after their start, that's something to be very thankful for. A return to health by Gerrard and a strong second half of December that sees him create some understanding with Meireles, Torres, and Kuyt as a cohesive attacking group would be a fantastic Christmas present.
Newcastle - It's hard to know what Newcastle supporters are and aren't thankful for because they're an odd lot. Ordinarily, a newly promoted team would be thrilled to be in the top half at the end of November but you get the feeling that their history and the quality of their roster leaves them expecting this sort of result. Beyond their results so far, they have to be thankful for getting more than 10 relatively calm matches from Joey Barton before he went crazy and they have the emergence of Andy Carroll as a strong lead striker to be thankful for. With expectations ever the thing at St. James' Park, they'll be hoping that Harper will return soon and the fraying around the edges from Carroll (disciplinary problems), Barton (being Barton), and Collocini (temper/stupid red) is temporary because they're not THAT deep.