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United shows weaknesses in draw

FOX Soccer's crew analyze Sunday's action from the Barclays Premier League.
FOX Soccer's crew analyze Sunday's action from the Barclays Premier League.
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Warren Barton

Warren Barton draws on 16 years of professional soccer experience as a studio analyst for FOX Soccer. With more than 350 Barclays Premier League appearances, Barton starred for Wimbledon before rising to prominence with Newcastle United and the England national team. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHRISTMAS PRESENCE

Relive the best images from week 18 of the Barclays Premier League.

What a weekend! Some super games and lots of things to chat about. That’s the best gift any commentator can have, right?

This is a very tough period: you either rack up wins and pick up some confidence – or you go entirely the other way. It’s a challenge as a player and a manager. While it’s great for the fans, players feel a lot of pressure at this time of year. It’s also foolish to pick a winner at Christmas; too many things can happen, and with the African Nations Championships coming up, some teams are going to lose some big players at exactly the wrong time.

That said, most experts picked Manchester United and Manchester City to battle for it – and I do think those two will peel away from the pack in the spring – but the fact that Chelsea and Arsenal are three and four as we head into Christmas tells you a great deal about the league this season.

Chelsea and Arsenal simply have more depth than the likes of Everton, Tottenham or West Brom. They’ve also been helped by Liverpool and Newcastle’s indifferent play so far. As such, these two London clubs been able string a run of bad games and still recover in the standings. You can see the London clubs going on a run, picking up four or five wins in a row. Can you say the same about Everton? Probably not.

It’s depth and talent that keep ahead, and right now the two London giants still have both.

Door left open

Let’s talk about United for a moment. Swansea played a great game against the Red Devils on Sunday, and that’s why I was left disappointed to see Ashley Williams’ actions against Robin van Persie.

Under Michael Laudrup, Swansea have been a breath of fresh air; playing penetrating and positive football with ambition and purpose. And Williams goes and takes the gloss off that with what can only be called a cheap shot. It’s disgraceful to see a professional treat a colleague like that. Williams’ reaction afterwards also spoke volumes. If you’re going to have a go at an opponent, be a man and do it when he’s standing up. Don’t mess when your opponent is on the floor.

United will be rightly upset about that, but long term they have to sort their defense out over the winter transfer window. Down the stretch, that back four is the Achilles’ heel of this team. Patrice Evra has to provide better cover, and the group as a whole has to be better on set plays. United might have a lot of confidence, but Sir Alex Ferguson will have to work on the obvious holes because they cannot keep digging themselves out of deficits for the rest of the year.

On the other side of town

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City, in contrast, have the defensive aspect really sorted out. Vincent Kompany or Pablo Zabaleta are rarely out of position and are both solid pillars for City. The defending champs have nailed that part of the game down, and when you have done that, it is much easier to win close games. Obviously, City got this one against Reading on the last header of the game, but they put themselves in that situation and exploited a weakness – which is what good teams do.

Gareth Barry – excellent all day – saw Nicky Shorey bent over, and just rose right above him for the winner. Shorey’s head was not in the right place on that play; he’d just come in as a sub, and you cannot bend down and allow an opponent that kind of space. Maybe Reading thought Barry would be penalized, but Shorey had to defend better there and City got what they earned.

Goals, goals and more goals

That Chelsea game is the scoreline of the season so far, an 8-0 Sunday thrashing over Aston Villa. The funny thing is that neither Brad Guzan or Villa played that badly – it was just that Chelsea were near perfect. They did everything right. I was in a game like that, when Bobby Robson returned to Newcastle. We were in real trouble before that, and then beat Sheffield Wednesday 8-0. Our confidence was through the roof and Chelsea will surely feel the same way after Sunday.

Let’s give credit to Rafael Benitez. Three things here: Benitez has Juan Mata playing closer to Fernando Torres than Di Matteo did, and it’s paying off. Torres has the smile coming back and a bit of the swagger which is good for the Blues – and bad for the rest of the Premiership. The average age of Villa’s team is just shy of 24. Well, you look at youngsters Chelsea has – Mata, Oscar, Eden Hazard, and Victor Moses – and you see the gap in quality. It’s not just youth it’s talent and coaching as well. And maybe the time away on the road helped them regroup as a team. Chelsea probably benefited from getting out of the spotlight while also having private chats with their new manager.

Holiday treats

With this exciting weekend on the books, Boxing Day is going to be interesting. We’ve got some very good games on, with Villa now having to rebound against Spurs and Norwich hosting Chelsea. You really have to join us and see what transpires. And then don’t miss a single minute on New Year’s Day – some real blockbusters are coming up.

As always, thanks for watching and chatting with me on Twitter. I do really love that, so if you haven’t started following me, do so at @warrenbarton2. Or ask a question anytime at the main account, @FOXSoccer. We do read them all.

I hope you have a very happy holiday with your family and your loved ones. From all of us at FOX Soccer, merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Former England international Warren Barton is the lead analyst for FOX Soccer Match Day, Goals on Sunday, and UEFA Champions League coverage.

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