As Santa dusts off his red suit and prepares to make every football fan smile this Christmas, the hectic Premier League festive fixtures will have a big say in where the title ends up next May.
Liverpool, Chelsea, Man. City, Arsenal and Tottenham all want to be top of the pile as we tuck into the turkey. Even Man United could rise to the summit like an angel on the tree if they can turn draws into wins.
The Christmas football games are a much-loved sporting tradition in England. While Germany and Spain take a break from league action in late December, Premier League clubs tough it out with six games in total in the two weeks before Chrimbo and the week or so after. It’s frantic, thrilling and fun with results sure to take more twists and turns than Eden Hazard reaching for an orange at the bottom of his Christmas stocking. Take a look at how the big teams are shaping up for the visit of Mr Claus…
Antonio Conte’s Blues shot to the top of the league after their 1-0 win at Middlesbrough on 20 November. Some experts say Chelsea snuck quietly into top spot, but six wins on the spin – and no league goals conceded in that run – was the perfect early present. Among all the title favourites they have the easiest of fixtures in December with winnable games against West Brom, Sunderland, Palace, Bournemouth and Stoke. Chelsea are at home on both Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, with only the trip to Tottenham on 4 January holding any real fear. It could be a merry Christmas indeed at Stamford Bridge.
Being top at Christmas hasn’t always done much good for The Reds. In 2013, 2008 and 1996 they did just that, only to end the season without that elusive Premier League trophy. But 2016 could be a different story, especially if they can get their Christmas party started early with a win at Everton on 19 December. Beating Stoke at home eight days later should be simple enough for Jurgen Klopp’s team before the big clash with Man. City at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. A repeat of last season’s 3-0 win over City will be like pulling a late Christmas cracker and have betting fans reaching for their phones and tablets to back The Reds all the way in 2017.
The joke goes that Arsenal’s championship challenge always comes down with the Christmas decorations. The Gunners will be the ones laughing, though, if they collect a win away at Man. City – a team they haven’t lost to in the league for three years – a week before Christmas and then follow that up with wins at home to West Brom and Palace. Arsenal look in the strongest shape for a long time as they prepare for a proper title charge and they don’t want to lose that by acting like Christmas puddings at The Emirates. Ozil, Walcott, Koscielny, Sanchez and the boys are looking to make a happy return of points in December.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Spurs need to navigate a tricky trip to Manchester United two weeks before Christmas. If they can pull off a league win there, which is something they’ve actually achieved twice in the last four years, then home ties with Hull and Burnley could see them stuff nine points in their festive stockings. Visits to Southampton and Watford could be less straight forward, but with a fully-fit Harry Kane up and running by then the prospect of going undefeated over this period is not beyond them. Tottenham could be dreaming of a Christmas when they white-wash the opposition before they focus on the meeting with Chelsea on 4 January.
City face arguably the fiercest fixture list this Christmas. They travel to below-par Leicester on 10 December, where they should be too strong for the reigning champions, before welcoming Arsenal to The Etihad a week later. Games with Watford and Hull intersperse clashes with The Gunners and title rivals Liverpool, so Pep Guardiola will need to make full use of his quality squad to make sure his top stars are fully rested. Yaya Toure’s back, which is a big boost, and striker Sergio Aguero will be the man hoping to make City fans smile this Christmas.
So, who will be top on 25 December and heading into 2017? The Premier League title race is so wide open this season that you’d be a turkey to predict it. But the smart money could be on Liverpool as they have no European football to distract them and a real feel-good factor generated by the likeable Klopp. Let’s ho-ho-hope it’s going to be a Christmas to remember in the battle for league supremacy.