For many people, the Christmas holiday period is a time for rest and relaxation after a hectic 12 months of work. It is a chance to give the body a break and recharge the batteries in view of fresh challenges in the New Year. All of Europe’s major football leagues adhere to this theory, allowing their clubs to hibernate for two to three weeks and reappear in January with renewed vigour for their title battle, fight against relegation or attempt to reach continental competition.
All bar one, that is. In England, Christmas and football have become inextricably linked, with a full set of Boxing Day matches being a landmark of the season and one of the first dates checked by supporters when the fixture lists are revealed. Indeed the action does not end on 26 December either, as the campaign continues throughout the week leading up to New Year and beyond.
This 2011/12 Premier League season is no different. A total of 30 games are scheduled for the ten days beginning with Boxing Day, with football to be played on eight of those dates. Each team will navigate three encounters and, with the table taking shape as the halfway mark approaches, every side is more than aware of the importance of a successful run to warm their fans’ spirits. FIFA.com gives you all the details of the Premier League’s busiest period.
The big game
Manchester City-Liverpool, Tuesday 3 January, Etihad Stadium
For the first time in 82 years, Manchester City gave themselves the gift of being top of the league on Christmas Day. Roberto Mancini’s side recovered from their only defeat of the season, against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, by impressively claiming back-to-back victories over Arsenal and Stoke City. That form will need to be maintained, however, as they face potentially tricky trips to West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland before hosting Liverpool in what looks like the most mouth-watering fixture of the next fortnight.
When the two sides met a month ago at Anfield, City were fortunate to escape with a point despite initially taking the lead through inspiring captain Vincent Kompany. Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool are struggling for goals but hold the meanest defensive record in the division and, having already beaten Arsenal and Chelsea on their travels this season, will pose a real threat to City’s 100 per cent home record.
The title challengers
City’s closest challengers are their local rivals and reigning champions Manchester United, who are attempting to win their 20th title in 2011/12. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have lost just once in the league this season, the humiliating 6-1 thrashing by City, and have won every Premier League match but one since that embarrassment. The Red Devils will expect to take six points from two home games against relegation-threatened Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers, while a trip to Tyneside to take on Newcastle United might not cause the same concern it would have done before injuries beset the Magpies.
Given their run to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals in 2010/11, it would seem strange to describe Tottenham Hotspur as a surprise package. But nobody quite expected Spurs to produce the kind of consistent form they have so far this campaign, especially given their pre-season fears that influential midfielder Luka Modric would leave the club. The White Hart Lane outfit will be confident of adding to their points tally even further when they meet newly-promoted sides Norwich City and Swansea City then host West Brom.
While it is clear to see that a transitional period is underway at Chelsea, with Andre Villas-Boas integrating new ideas as well as recent additions to the side such as Raul Meireles and the stuttering Fernando Torres, the Blues have recovered from their 5-3 hammering by Arsenal to regain their place in the top four. The Portuguese will pit his team against Fulham, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers knowing that maximum points could see his side enter 2012 in much better condition.
Remarkably, given the 8-2 demolition they experienced at Old Trafford in August, Arsenal cannot be ruled out of the race either. Fired by the phenomenal goalscoring form of Robin van Persie, who has scored 34 league goals during the calendar year, the Gunners have steadied their ship. More steel at the back and in midfield has helped and Arsene Wenger will be hoping that fixtures with Wolves, Queens Park Rangers and Fulham will allow his team to improve on their current fifth-placed position.
The relegation battle
While much attention is focused on the challenge for the championship, the fight to merely remain in the division holds just as much interest, with as many teams if not more involved in the scrap for survival.
After losing their crunch meeting with Bolton Wanderers earlier this week, Blackburn currently sit bottom of the table, five points from safety. Pressure is growing on manager Steve Kean, with fans making their displeasure audibly clear during every match, and the Scot will not be looking forward to away days at Liverpool and Manchester United before hosting Stoke. Difficult though those fixtures appear, both Kean and the club are in desperate need of some seasonal cheer.
The same can be said of Bolton, who will feel slightly more comfortable after defeating Rovers but themselves remain a win away from clambering out of the relegation zone. Owen Coyle can anticipate eminently more winnable fixtures than his countryman, as the Trotters host free-falling Newcastle and fellow strugglers Wolves ahead of a short journey to Everton.
Occupying the final relegation position at present are Wigan, who enter the Christmas congestion in their best form of the season. Having lost eight consecutive Premier League matches at one stage earlier in the campaign, Roberto Martinez’s men have bounced back brilliantly, taking eight points from their last five games, which included creditable home draws against Chelsea and Liverpool. The Latics take on Manchester United, Stoke and Sunderland as they seek to close the one-point gap keeping them from security.