Christmas fixtures: everything to play for

Boxing Day marks the mid-point of the season – and from title race to relegation scrap, the league's key battles are wide open. Glenn Moore looks at the scores to be settled in the next seven days



Title race: Banana skins await Arsenal and Chelsea


This is traditionally the period in the season when the big clubs pull away. With the Champions League off the agenda for two months, and no international calls, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal will each look to build up a head of steam for the spring run-in, ideally beginning with maximum points at Christmas.

However, United have a defensive injury crisis, Chelsea look strangely vulnerable and are about to lose key players to the African Nations Cup, and Arsenal have lost Robin van Persie.

With fewer games played the old saying, "You can't win the title at Christmas, but you can lose it", is no longer true, but the holiday programme should provide some clues. Leaders Chelsea have a pair of fixtures which look much harder now than when drawn up in the summer. Birmingham are on a fine run and Fulham, as well as being local rivals, will be on a high after thrashing Manchester United. The defending champions will themselves be grateful that their makeshift defence will be tested only by Wigan and Hull (who have scored 37 goals in 35 games between them), though both opponents may decide the best way to play United is to have a go at them. Which leaves Arsenal. They have a pair of tricky matches, Villa at home and Portsmouth away, but since they finally play their game in hand on 6 January (at home to Bolton), what price a couple of points separating these three teams come the full resumption on 9 January?

Key Matches

Birmingham v Chelsea (Boxing Day, kick-off 12.45pm)

With none of the other top four teams playing on Boxing Day, this is Chelsea's chance to open up a seven-point lead but to do so they will have to rid themselves of their recent jitteriness and beat one of the Premier League in-form sides. On such results are title challenges built.

Arsenal v Aston Villa (Sunday 27 December, 1.30pm)

Victory for Martin O'Neill's side would firmly establish them as challengers for a Champions League place and, with Villa having already defeated each of the other three sides in the "big four", maybe more.

Arsenal have quietly got themselves back into the title race, but will need a victory to reassure supporters that they can stay in touch with leaders Chelsea.

Battle for European places: Liverpool face top-four fight

Bill Shankly's view was that "second was nowhere", but that was before it was worth £20m plus. Rafael Benitez would be delighted to come fourth this season even if it earns only a place in the Champions League qualifying round which, as Everton and Newcastle will attest, is not always negotiated. Nevertheless this rather bizarre, thoroughly modern ambition is genuinely gripping this season – if only because we know that failure, for Liverpool and Manchester City in particular, will lead to the mother and father of post-mortems.

Usually the crisis-torn big club comes through (see Arsenal last season) and the pretender falls away (see Villa last season). But Villa have the benefit of that experience, a deeper squad, and are without the distraction of the Europa League.

Liverpool are lumbered with the Europa League, beginning with a long slog to Romania, and Benitez will feel he must take it reasonably seriously. They are also desperately low on confidence and overly reliant on Pepe Reina, the half-fit Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. The clubs' meeting at Villa Park could be hugely significant, though Villa's home advantage may be balanced by having to play at Arsenal two days' before while Liverpool have hosted Wolves (or Wolves' reserves).

Meanwhile, in the shifting sands of Eastlands, Roberto Mancini will start his English management career by facing Stoke, which he will not have been prepared for at Coverciano, Italy's fabled coaching university, followed by Wolves. Tottenham (with due and genuine respect to over-achieving Birmingham and *Fulham) the fourth contender for fourth, have a pair of contrasting derbies with Fulham and West Ham from which they ought to be pleased with four points.

*If Fulham win both holiday games, and their game in hand at Stoke, they will be regarded as contenders.

Key Matches

Fulham v Tottenham (Boxing Day, kick-off 1pm)

Roy Hodgson's men are in good form of late, qualifying for the Europa League knockout stage and humiliating champions Manchester United at Craven Cottage. They meet a Spurs side who appear unsure whether they're genuine contenders for a Champions League place. This game may go some way to providing an answer.

Aston Villa v Liverpool (Tuesday 29 December, 7.45pm)

Liverpool's season, and arguably Benitez's future, hang in the balance. A poor Christmas period may leave the seemingly loyal Liverpool fans and owners no option but to part company with the Spaniard. Yet, victory against high-flying Villa may go some way to appease the Kop and offer a route to a Champions League spot.

Relegation scrap: A key six-pointer

Premier League history suggests any club bottom at Christmas is doomed. Even Bryan Robson's West Bromwich, the one club to have mounted a Great Escape (and market the concept), were relegated the following season. Portsmouth, however, have the players to buck the trend, which they can underline by winning at equally troubled West Ham on Boxing Day. Both clubs then have such difficult fixtures (Arsenal and Spurs respectively), so neither are likely to be out of the relegation zone by the new year, but the winner will have other imperilled clubs looking nervously over their shoulders.

The pair immediately above, Hull and Bolton, meet on Tuesday. This is unlikely to be as aesthetically pleasing as the Upton Park showdown, but could be terminal for any losing manager, especially if the first holiday game has gone badly. Five clubs follow, currently separated by two points. Logic suggests Everton will pull clear as players return to fitness but the other four will all feel the need to pick up at least three points at Christmas. Wolves face the most difficult fixtures – Mick McCarthy's Anfield selection on Boxing Day will be much pondered over, by him and others.

There is a match which, in August, looked as if it would be the epitome of a relegation six-pointer, but now appears an insignificant mid-table scrap. And won't Tony Pulis and Alex McLeish be delighted at the lack of ghoulish attention on Stoke v Birmingham on Monday. Both managers know there is a long way to go, but full credit for their achievements to date.

Key Matches

West Ham v Portsmouth (Boxing Day, kick-off 1pm)

Both sides gained good results over the weekend against two of the "big four" and will need to build on them as they battle to avoid being bottom going into 2010.

Burnley v Bolton (Boxing Day, 2pm)

Burnley's home form has been very impressive so far this season, and they will need to continue to deliver at Turf Moor in this North-west derby as their away haul, one point from 27 is appalling. This is the first of two relegation six-pointers for Bolton over the Christmas period they also face Hull at home on Tuesday – and they will want to maintain their recent improvement on Boxing Day.

Match previews by Max McLaren

Christmas fixture list

Saturday

Premier League (3pm unless stated)

Birmingham City v Chelsea (12.45pm)

Burnley v Bolton Wanderers (2pm)

Fulham v Tottenham (1pm)

Liverpool v Wolves (5.30pm)

Manchester City v Stoke City

Sunderland v Everton

West Ham v Portsmouth (1pm)

Wigan Athletic v Blackburn Rovers

Championship

Cardiff City v Plymouth Argyle (1pm)

Coventry City v Doncaster Rovers

Crystal Palace v Ipswich Town (1pm)

Derby County v Blackpool

Leicester City v Sheffield United (6pm)

Middlesbrough v Scunthorpe United

Preston North End v Barnsley

QPR v Bristol City (1pm)

Reading v Swansea City

Sheff Wed v Newcastle (12.45pm)

Watford v Nott'm Forest (12pm)

West Brom v Peterborough

Sunday

Premier League

Arsenal v Aston Villa (1.30pm)

Hull City v Manchester United (4pm)

Monday 28 December

Premier League

Blackburn Rovers v Sunderland

Chelsea v Fulham (Fulham's Bobby Zamora,)

Everton v Burnley

Stoke City v Birmingham City

Tottenham v West Ham (12.45pm)

Wolves v Man City (7.45pm)

Championship

Barnsley v Middlesbrough

Blackpool v Sheffield Wednesday

Bristol City v Watford

Doncaster Rovers v Leicester City

Ipswich Town v QPR

Newcastle United v Derby (5.30pm)

Nottingham Forest v Coventry City

Peterborough United v Cardiff City

Plymouth Argyle v Reading

Scunthorpe v West Bromwich Albion

Sheffield United v Preston North End

Swansea City v Crystal Palace

Tuesday 29 December

Premier League

Aston Villa v Liverpool (7.45pm)

Bolton Wanderers v Hull (8pm)

Wednesday 30 December

Premier League

Manchester United v Wigan (8pm)

Portsmouth v Arsenal (7.45pm)

The most thrilling start to a season in years...

2.97 goals per game

An increase from 2.48 of 2008-09 and 2.64 in the previous campaign.

23% games drawn

Forty draws in 176 games, down on 26% in each of the last two seasons.

19 big four defeats

Before Christmas, equalling the record for a 20-team Premier League.

523 Goals by christmas

The 500th goal of the season was scored earlier than ever before.

14.2% four+ goals

Games where a side has scored four or more, up from 9.5% last season.

7 hat-tricks

Scored this season, already one more than the entire last campaign.

7 points between 11-20th

The smallest gap in the last decade.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system