Jose plays down the 12 points of Christmas

'The biggest challenge is to be champions at the end of the season. Being winter champions means nothing to me'
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The Independent Online

Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes were brought up on it; Steve McClaren thinks there is too much of it; Arsène Wenger has learned to live with it; now Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez, the other managers in the Premiership's top six, must endure for the first time the experience that is British football's festive "trial by holiday".

Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes were brought up on it; Steve McClaren thinks there is too much of it; Arsène Wenger has learned to live with it; now Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez, the other managers in the Premiership's top six, must endure for the first time the experience that is British football's festive "trial by holiday".

A year ago, with no New Year's Day programme, there were a mere three matches to get through, the last of them in the FA Cup. This time, the extra crop of bank holidays has proved too great a temptation for sadists among the fixture compilers, and a majority of clubs are now committed to four League games between now and next Monday. It is a unique test of managerial nous, players' stamina and - with Charlton Athletic, for instance, charging £45 for the match against Arsenal on Saturday - supporters' finances.

So 12 points are available to every team, and a Premiership table that has altered very little all season could take on a significantly different look by the middle of next week. Only five points separate the bottom five sides and the same margin covers seven middling teams, from Birmingham up to Tottenham, in the comfort zone above them. But at the top, of course, that same spread of five points looks more of a chasm, dividing as it does the leaders, Chelsea, from their closest pursuers, Arsenal.

It will be a surprise if Wenger's team can bridge it so soon, though they have the easier programme of the two, beginning with Fulham at home this afternoon, then visits to Newcastle and Charlton before Manchester City come to Highbury for a televised game on Tuesday week. Chelsea must play four sides in the top dozen, hosting Aston Villa and Middlesbrough on either side of trips to two difficult venues, Portsmouth and Liverpool.

A traditionally modest record at this time of year for Chelsea is rightly of no more concern to Mourinho than the statistic which says that surprisingly few of the Christmas leaders have gone on to win past Premierships. The brilliant mind that brought Porto the greatest run of success in their history and could now do the same for Chelsea prefers logical analysis to history: "I like to think the next is more important than the previous. Four matches in such a short period is difficult, but it's not just Chelsea, it's the same problems for everybody. Do you make rotation or keep the same players? Injuries, suspensions? The big challenge is to be champions at the end of the season. Being winter champions means nothing to me. I think the best team will win, and this is a period for teams to prove they are the best."

His squad have done that so far, evolving remarkably quickly from regular 1-0 winners early in the season to big hitters who overhauled Arsenal's vastly superior goal difference as well as reversing their five-point lead between mid-October and the end of November. The key was establishing the exciting formation - whether by design, or, as some believe, by accident - in which the two wingers, Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, are thrilling dribblers and reliable finishers. Behind them, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Tiago form a compact central trio, and John Terry's excellence in defence alongside any partner has helped Petr Cech concede a mere eight goals in 18 games, threatening Ars-enal's all-time seasonal record from five years ago of 17.

A good disciplinary record has minimised concerns about bans, though injuries in the next week would be more of a worry. With Ricardo Carvalho (a highly successful signing), Robert Huth and Celestine Babayaro all out, Mourinho has only Terry and William Gallas to call on in central defence and no reserve left-back. His other concern, since Scott Parker broke a foot against Norwich, is the lack of cover for Makelele as the holding midfield man. That may prompt a move into the transfer market, though not, the manager says, for a super-star. Lampard could do the job if necessary, but it would be a shame to lose his aggressive attacking potential.

Mourinho has every reason to be thoroughly satisfied with his first six months in England and the squad's res-ponse to him. If there is an opposite to "losing the dressing room", he has won Chel-sea's from the start, whether at Stamford Bridge, the rented student digs of the Heathrow training ground or the far plusher new facility in the leafy footballer-belt of Surrey.

"I have great conditions, fantastic working facilities and the players are good," he added. "The club didn't put any pressure on me to win in the first season. We just feel we can do it. What I liked about English football, I [now] like even more: fantastic atmosphere, stadiums sold out, fair play. I'm very happy with my choice."

So are Chelsea, who should remain so whatever the rest of the season brings in the chase for four trophies ("almost impossible" even for him, Mourinho admits). The response to the only setback so far - a narrow defeat at Manchester City - was eight straight wins, the League leadership and qualification for the Champions' League knockout phase. Just about the only questions to be answered now are whether the players and management can muster a rejoinder of equal force if and when they encounter the more sustained blip that Wenger and Ferguson believe will come their way.

Those two managers have been here before and know from experience that leads of this magnitude can be overturned. What they also have to acknowledge is that the Chelsea of 2004 are not, say, the Newcastle United of 1995 (10 points ahead at this stage) and that Jose Mourinho is emphatically not Kevin Keegan.

With much respect to Everton and their minimalist approach, it is not difficult to imagine Arsenal and United chasing Chelsea hardest, while Middlesbrough challenge strongly to upgrade from this season's Uefa Cup campaign to the one European competition which really matters.

Aston Villa are due a return to Europe and David O'Leary deserves the funds to help put them there; Martin Jol has revitalised Tottenham, who could live up to their traditions as a good FA Cup side; if the admirable Alan Curbishley's Charlton are second only to Everton as the season's over-achievers, Newcastle are currently the opposite, but should soon move upwards.

At the bottom, the majority wish would probably be that at least one of the promoted clubs survive, which might be bad news for Southampton, Blackburn or the goal-shy Fulham. Happy "holidays", chaps.

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