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
Wednesday 23 December 2009
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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
Arsenal v Aston Villa (1.30pm)
Hull City v Manchester United (4pm)
Monday 28 December
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)
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
Aston Villa v Liverpool (7.45pm)
Bolton Wanderers v Hull (8pm)
Wednesday 30 December
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.
Scored this season, already one more than the entire last campaign.
7 points between 11-20th
The smallest gap in the last decade.
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