Season of goodwill to all men? Not in the Premier League, mate. In fact, the arrival of Christmas and New Year is greeted by every Premiership coach with about as much enthusiasm as Napoleon’s staff officers contemplating the onset of the Russian winter. Starting Saturday December 22 when Wigan and Arsenal kick off the early fixture at 7.45 am Eastern (ESPN2), the league’s 20 clubs will play a grueling four games over a 12-day period, the strength and depth of their squads stretched to the limit by the strain on limbs, lungs and minds of a series of high-stakes clashes in the bone-chilling (and injury inducing) cold of England’s midwinter.
So brutal is the schedule that by season’s end, Arsenal and West Ham may owe a substantial debt to Aslef, the trade union representing the drivers on London’s subway system, whose planned strike on Boxing Day has prompted cancellation of their matchup, thereby buying some precious recovery time for both squads. (The game will be played later in January.)
The holiday fixtures typically shake out the field and end the top-four ambitions of teams who’ve made improbably great starts, but lack the staying power to sustain their challenge for those lucrative four slots for the European Champion’s League. The same set of fixtures also puts the writing on the wall for relegation candidates. And the festive fixtures could be particularly decisive in a season in which only two teams have really broken away from the pack thus far.
Manchester United’s 42 points may have already put them beyond the reach of all but their derby rivals, Manchester City (on 36), but immediately below those two, the league table shows just seven points separating third-placed Chelsea from Liverpool languishing in 12th.
There are certainly some unlikely contenders among the ten clubs vying for third and fourth — none of West Brom, Norwich, Stoke, Swansea and newly promoted West Ham have the financial resources, and therefore the deep bench, to have been on anyone’s list of contenders at the start of the season. Arsenal and Chelsea have held season tickets to the Champion’s League elite for years now, while Spurs have lately eclipsed Liverpool’s claims to a seat at the top table. Everton are perennial close also-rans, making their coach David Moyes probably the Premiership’s most consistent overachiever by measure of his comparatively tiny budget.
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But the conventional wisdom, which says that Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs will fight for the remaining two Champion’s League spots, with Liverpool and Everton getting an honorable mention, will certainly be tested in the coming 12 days. But competition will be even more ferocious at the bottom end of the table, where the potentially ruinous (financially and in football terms) prospect of relegation to the lower league Championship looms for the clubs that finish in the last three places. Reading’s tenure in the top flight appears to be doomed — you wouldn’t bet on them getting a single win in visits to Chelsea and Spurs, and even in home games against West Ham and Swansea. But Queens Park Rangers began what their fans hope will be a sustained run to get them clear of the drop zone by beating Fulham 2-1 last weekend. If talismanic coach Harry Redknapp is to save QPR’s season, he’ll do so over the next two weeks, starting with a visit to struggling Newcastle, followed by home games against West Brom and struggling Liverpool (Sun Dec 30, 11am Eastern FSC), before a visit to Chelsea where victory would be a shock — but might keep the Rs in the top flight.
If QPR manage a run of positive results, that will be terrible news for the five clubs above them, who are separated by just five points, and all of whom face tough matches against teams at the top of the table. Going out on a limb, I’d say there’ll be little change in the order of the bottom seven clubs, but QPR might have racked up a few invaluable points that put survival within reach.
United faces difficult fixtures away at Swansea (Sun Dec 23, 8.30am, Eastern, Fox Soccer Channel) and relegation-threatened Wigan (Jan 1, 10am Eastern, FSC), although home games against Newcastle (Dec 26, 10am Eastern, ESPN2) and West Brom (Dec 29, 10am Eastern, ESPN2) are unlikely to trouble the league leaders. United’s biggest challenge may be keeping their deadliest weapon, striker Robin Van Persie, from succumbing to injury as he has done so often in previous seasons.
City, at home to Reading (Sat Dec 22, 10am Eastern, FSC), away to Sunderland and Norwich (Sat Dec 29, 10am Eastern, FSC), and then home to Stoke, are unlikely to lose their grip on second place, even without injured midfielder Samir Nasri.
Chelsea ought to be favorites to best Aston Villa at home on Sunday (11am, Eastern, FSC), although they could face a fatigue problem from last week’s trip to Japan for the Club World Cup and Wednesday’s League Cup exertions in the rain up at Leeds. That, together with the impressive defensive discipline and counterpunching that saw Villa trounce Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield last week could make this a complicated one for Chelsea. You’d fancy them to bring all three points back from Norwich on Boxing Day, but their visit to Everton on December 30 (8.30am Eastern, FSC) is definitely the toughest game of their holiday season. And QPR’s visit on January 2 (2.30pm Eastern, FSC) could be a wild-card, particularly if the R’s Moroccan midfield maestro Adel Taarabt decides to turn it on in the hope of upstaging Chelsea’s own gifted number 10s, Juan Mata (who literally wears that number) and Eden Hazard.
Spurs are unlikely to emerge with all 12 points on offer in home games with Stoke (one of the league’s stingiest defenses, though their away record is nothing to write home about) and visits to Villa (Wed Dec 26, 12.30pm Eastern, FSC) and Sunderland (Sat Dec 29, 8.00am, Eastern, FSC), although the home game against Reading oughtn’t trouble the Londoners.
Arsenal could face a tough fight at Wigan on Saturday, but hosting the more expansive Newcastle on the 29th (12.30pm Eastern, FSC) — particularly after their Boxing Day union-built bye — should be an easier win, as should a New Year’s Day visit to the equally expansive Southampton.
Everton’s prospects over the holidays have been cruelly sabotaged by their best player this season, Belgian midfielder Marouane Fellaini, who last week did a Zinedine Zidane by head-butting Stoke defender Ryan Shawcross and earning a three-game ban. The Blues will miss Fellaini in three very combative fixtures, away at West Ham, and home to Wigan and Chelsea, but they’re a steely lot and could find a way of getting a healthy share of the points from those games, before welcoming Fellaini back for a visit to Newcastle.
Again, going out on a limb, I’d say the same teams will comprise the top six as do today, but Arsenal will draw level with Spurs and Chelsea, therefore taking fourth place on the basis of a superior goal difference — and, crucially, they’ll have a game in hand.
A nightmare for coaches and a season of grim physical and mental tests for the players awaits, but that becomes a feast of televised football for the rest of us. Gorge yourselves, it comes but once a year.
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