Title race and relegation battle are bubbling away nicely, when suddenly we are hit by probably the biggest mid-season exodus of players in the history of the English game.
Next month's African Nations Cup in Angola is certain to have a huge impact on the Premier League, at both ends of the table, with 27 players leaving their clubs to compete for national pride. Some clubs, like Manchester United, Liverpool and West Ham, will be unaffected.
But others such as Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Portsmouth will be without some of their best players. Of course, they only have themselves to blame, as they knew all along that these men answer to a higher authority and for one month every two years they have to up sticks and leave their team-mates to fend without them.
Leading managers, who have seen the effects of the African Cup in seasons past, believe the after-shocks of the tournament can be felt for the remainder of the season and can have a profound impact on the rest of the squad. Avram Grant lost four important players with Chelsea two years ago, and faces the loss of another quartet at Portsmouth this time. Grant said this week that being without the players for the duration of the tournament is only part of the problem, as they can take time to adjust afterwards as well.
He said: "We pay a lot of money, especially the big teams, to players who are not with you for two months. Fifa need to think about this. The players go two weeks before and need one or two weeks afterwards to recover." History suggests he has a point. In 2008, for example, Didier Drogba played just 30 minutes for Chelsea in the space of more than two months, thanks to a combination of injury and the African Cup of Nations.
Grant's case is supported by Arsène Wenger who will lose Cameroon's Alex Song and Emmanuel Eboué of Ivory Coast. The Arsenal manager agrees with Grant that the after-effects of the tournament can be felt throughout the rest of the season. Wenger said: "The effects are not necessarily seen during the period that they are out there, but it can have consequences on their form."
Leaders Chelsea and bottom club Portsmouth are the two clubs with the largest contingent of players heading to Angola for the biennial contest – and the most to lose. Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti knew all along he would have to cope in the absence of Didier Drogba, Michael Essien, Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel for up to six weeks. It was exactly the same for Grant two years ago when he was in charge at Chelsea. His solution was to buy Nicolas Anelka from Bolton for £15m and Chelsea promptly won six and drew one in that period.
Ancelotti has insisted he will not sign any back-up players to cover the 2010 tournament, and he will be hugely relieved if his record is anything like Grant's two years ago. One advantage for Chelsea is that the fixture list has been relatively kind, as they take on Fulham, Hull City, Sunderland, Birmingham and Burnley in the league and Watford in the FA Cup during the tournament in Angola.
Ancelotti seems to be holding on to the hope that a combination of changing tactics and giving a chance to young striker Daniel Sturridge, will be enough to see him through this tricky period. Yesterday, he sang the praises of Sturridge and promised him a decent run in the side.
At the foot of the table, Grant faces a difficult situation at Portsmouth, but buying a new player as he did in 2008 is not an option as there is still a transfer embargo in place at Fratton Park over unpaid money, owed ironically to Chelsea. Smiling does not come naturally to Grant, but he must have mustered a quick grin when he heard that Kevin-Prince Boateng, of Ghana, and Nigeria's John Utaka had not been selected. So, instead of potentially having six absentees in January, he is left with four – Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda, Nwankwo Kanu and Aruna Dindane.
It is at small clubs like Portsmouth, and fellow strugglers Hull, who will wave goodbye to Kamel Ghilas, Daniel Cousin and Seyi Olofinjana, that the effect of the competition is felt hardest.
Other clubs can go out and buy replacements. For instance, Roberto Mancini will only be one week into his new job at Manchester City when he will face having to do without £41m duo Kolo Touré and Emmanuel Adebayor. Cynics might say that will be a huge advantage, given the way the y have performed recently, but they remain senior players Mancini will have to replace. At least he can turn to the tried and trusted method of spending his way out of trouble. He will also have the opportunity to give a prolonged run to Roque Santa Cruz, who scored twice in last weekend's 4-3 win over Sunderland.
Three who can shine in Africans' absence
Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)
The loss of Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou will allow Sturridge the opportunity to shine. The 20-year-old was not short of confidence when he signed for Chelsea from Manchester City in the summer, but he has yet to score in five appearances for his new club. Some have questioned his attitude, but a return to the bench recently suggests that manager Carlo Ancelotti has detected a change of heart.
Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal)
Ramsey celebrates his 19th birthday on Boxing Day, and it could also be a moment when he comes of age in the Arsenal first team. Arsène Wenger will be looking for someone to step in when Emmanuel Eboué and Alex Song leave, and the versatile Ramsey has moved ahead of Jack Wilshere as the man most likely to benefit. Ramsey joined from Cardiff in June 2008 and made his debut at FC Twente two months later. This season he has made 21 appearances and scored three goals.
Gareth Bale (Tottenham)
Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, made it clear earlier this week that Bale will be given his chance when Benoît Assou-Ekotto departs with Cameroon. The Welsh defender has not had much to cheer about this season, after undergoing knee surgery in the summer, but he did break his curse of never having won a game at Spurs, which lasted 24 games and more than two years.
Missing list: Players on way to Angola
Arsenal Emmanuel Eboué (Ivory Coast), Alex Song (Cameroon)
Aston Villa Moustapha Salifou (Togo)
Bolton Wanderers Danny Shittu (Nigeria)
Burnley André Bikey (Cameroon)
Chelsea Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Michael Essien (Ghana), Salomon Kalou (Ivory Coast), John Obi Mikel (Nigeria)
Everton Aiyegbeni Yakubu, Joseph Yobo (both Nigeria)
Fulham John Pantsil (Ghana), Dickson Etuhu (Nigeria)
Hull Daniel Cousin (Gabon), Seyi Olofinjana (Nigeria)
Manchester City Kolo Touré (Ivory Coast), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo)
Portsmouth Nadir Belhadj, Hassan Yebda (both Algeria), John Utaka, Nwankwo Kanu (both Nigeria), Aruna Dindane (Ivory Coast)
Stoke City Mamady Sidibe (Mali)
Sunderland John Mensah (Ghana)
Tottenham Hotspur Benoît Assou-Ekotto (Cameroon)
Wigan Athletic Richard Kingson (Ghana)
Blackpool Hameur Bouazza (Algeria)
Middlesbrough Mohammed Shawky (Egypt)
Newcastle Geremi (Cameroon)
Plymouth Reda Johnson (Benin)
West Bromwich Albion Abdoulaye Méïté (Ivory Coast)
Leeds Rui Marques (Angola)
*Scottish Premier League
Celtic Landry N'Guemo (Cameroon)
Hibernian Souleyman Bamba (Ivory Coast)
Rangers Madjid Bougherra (Algeria)Reuse content