A common remark made after England fail at a major tournament is that the Premier League should adopt the European approach of having a festive break. There have been, and will continue to be, lots of innovations and alterations to the modern game but this is one I’ll never take to. As a fan I love the crowded festive fixture list. I’d hate to see it removed for invalid reasons – let’s face it, one year off wouldn’t prepare the England players any better for a World Cup. Festive football is as seasonal as A Christmas Carol and the Queen’s Speech.
From previous blogs (“The Magic of the Cup”) it’s no secret I’m a bit of a traditionalist. But I’m also a realist, so not living an entirely romanticised version of football events. If lessening the fixture congestion served a purpose that enhanced the overall product then I’d be a fan. The truth is that it won’t, nor will it serve the national team in its efforts. The foreign players that compete in the Premier League seem to cope okay in major tournaments. Those partaking in the African Cup of Nations always appear fresh, or certainly no worse off for the endeavour.
Even if I was to accept – hypothetically speaking now – that the winter period drains players come the end of the season, I’d still rather we kept the set-up as it is. If it’s tiring for the players – apparently a modern professional requires 78 hours between games to make a complete recovery, I’m wondering if these figures have been mixed up with common Christmas hangover periods – it’s more tiring for the fan. I spend Christmas Eve tossing and turning in the hope Santa is bringing me presents. That means I’m up early to check if I have been a good boy (only once in living memory was I deemed bad, that was the year I didn’t get a PlayStation 1 but all my mates did) and in bed late that evening (hopefully) celebrating.
It doesn’t stop there. I rarely sleep due to excitement on Christmas night, too. The prospect of a full Premier League fixture list on Boxing Day is enough to keep me awake. I barely get over that before we head to the normal fixtures that week. All the time the New Year’s games are waiting. If new to football the Christmas period would provide the perfect crash course; for veterans it’s the season to be jolly, for sure.
In what has been a great season for the unpredictable, the games squeezed together at the end of December and the start of January will provide us with a marker of how things are likely to go as the league moves into its second half. Eventually form will be established – good or bad – and determine the fate of the teams. December is the start of that new phase.
The December 21st to 23rd games provide the first examination of how the top could go. Arsenal face Chelsea on Monday the 23rd at the Emirates. The Gunners need a win to prove they are genuine contenders and that they can turnover a top side after two defeats in Manchester, albeit one of those Manchester sides is now a mid-table team. Before that we’ll discover if Manchester City’s away form has steadied when they face a Fulham side starting to show signs of life. At the lower end a nervous Sam Allardyce takes his Hammers to Old Trafford. He’ll tell his players a win is possible, and point to United’s home form as proof, but it’s unthinkable that Moyes will face defeat there again so soon.
The Boxing Day games provide further examination of how genuine each team’s league position is. Everton face a stern test at home to a Sunderland side that has just beaten Chelsea in the League Cup. These are the sort of games a team needs to collect three points from if they are serious about securing European football. The aforementioned West Ham face Arsenal at home, by Boxing Day their predicament could have been worsened, Mr Wenger may well have a belated gift Big Sam doesn’t really want.
The tie of the day sees Liverpool travel to the Etihad. City is scoring for fun there at the moment. During the mauling of Arsenal, one fan in earshot jokingly remarked he was upset if they didn’t score five nowadays. At the time City had “only” managed four but his pains were rewarded with a couple more before the final whistle. Liverpool themselves handed Spurs a defeat that demonstrated they were far from being pretenders this year. It’s a shame we’ve been robbed of watching Aguero and Suarez on the same pitch but there’s enough talent to make this a mouth-watering game. If Liverpool take a point in Manchester it’d show they need to be taken seriously; failing that conceding less than five will do.
December 28th/29th matches will see Man City at home against a Crystal Palace side that, with all due respect, they will feel safe rotating players against. Liverpool face another tough away test at Chelsea. West Ham/West Brom; Hull/Fulham; Cardiff/Sunderland are a trio of ties that pit teams in six pointers in the relegation battle. Everton hosting Southampton gives us insight into two teams fighting it out for a top six spot.
The first game of 2014 sees Man City travel to Swansea and in the last game of the day Man United host Tottenham. In between these games clubs in close proximity to one another face-off – Palace/Norwich and Fulham/West Ham – whilst Arsenal and Liverpool will be expected to win their respective home games against Cardiff and Hull Tigers. The biggest factor may well be the strength in the squads rather than the preferred starting eleven.
At the end of this cycle big teams and strugglers alike will have dropped points. The crazy season may finally have started to settle. The teams then don’t play a league game for ten days. By my calculations that’s a big enough gap to squeeze a 78 hour rest in, especially if you want to skip some cup football.
And they say they need a winter break?