It’s the most wonderful time of the football year – over the Christmas and New Year period, there are so many fixtures that the games comes thick and fast for fans. This is great for the spectator – there are matches scheduled for December 20th, 21st, 22nd, 26th, 27th, 30th, 31st; January 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th – then FA Cup Third Round weekend is upon us (AKA the best two days in the English football year). All the clichés come out for the festive season: the title can be lost, but not won, during the deluge of fixtures; the team that was bottom on Christmas Day has only avoided relegation once in the Premier League era – West Bromwich Albion in the 2004/5 season. That latter statistic gives added significance to tonight’s game between Bolton and Blackburn, since the loser will find themselves anchored in 20th place when Santa Claus makes his rounds.
At the weekend, Manchester City bounced back from their defeat to Chelsea to overcome a previously rejuvenated Arsenal side – although the Gunners losing by just a single goal marked an improvement from their last trip to that city,when United beat them 8-2. Last minute goals earned West Brom a win away at Blackburn and Wigan a draw at home to Chelsea; Everton also scored late on to share the points with Norwich in their game at Goodison Park; and Newcastle and Swansea played out a goalless draw in the North-East. Tottenham earned a routine home win over Sunderland; Fulham beat Bolton 2-0 at Craven Cottage, and Manchester United and Liverpool both matched that scoreline in their away victories over QPR and Aston Villa respectively.
Last week, 3-7; season 59-70
Wolves vs Norwich – The last time these two sides met in the league at Molineux, it ended up 3-3 – but that was back 2008/9 and in the Championship. Norwich are yet to keep a clean sheet in the league this season, but they have also only failed to score in two games – so goals can be expected. Wolves, who narrowly escaped relegation last year, sit precariously just above the bottom three and have lost their last two matches – they need to start picking up points and their next fixture is away to Arsenal, making this game all the more vital for them to return to winning ways. Prediction – Home win
Blackburn vs Bolton – The Lancashire derby that will, as mentioned above, determine who will be bottom of the Premier League on Christmas Day. With managers Steve Kean and Owen Coyle both at risk of losing their jobs before the calendar hits 2012, both sides will be eager to get one over on their local rivals. The combined record of these two teams: Played 32; Won 5; Drawn 4; Lost 23 – is there any chance both teams could lose this one? Prediction – Draw (Bolton’s first of the season)
Aston Villa vs Arsenal – The last time Villa beat Arsenal at home in the league, their scorers were Julian Joachim and Dion Dublin – a massive thirteen years ago. Having won their previous three away games, the Gunners succumbed to a single goal defeat to Manchester City on Sunday. They will be confident of getting back to winning ways as Aston Villa will be without their main striker, Darren Bent, due to a thigh strain and will also be without Emile Heskey. Arsenal’s Dutch striker, Robin Van Persie, has scored 33 league goals this calendar year and has Shearer’s record of 36, set in 1995, in his sights. Prediction – Away win
Manchester City vs Stoke – A repeat of May’s F.A. Cup Final, this is a game between two in-form sides. Mancini’s men have won all eight of their home games in the Premiership this season, while Stoke have beaten Wolves, Tottenham, Everton and Blackburn in their last four league matches. Tony Pulis gives opposition managers something completely different to prepare for and I can see his side getting something out of this game. Prediction – Draw
Newcastle vs West Brom – When I heaped praise on the job Alan Pardew had done with Newcastle, it was inevitable that his side would suffer a prolonged slump. A team that was unbeaten in their first eleven games, they have now failed to win any of the last five and have picked up just two points during that time. United’s defence has been depleted by injuries and they will consider themselves lucky to be facing the third lowest scorers in the division in West Brom, who have managed just a goal per game in their 16 matches. Roy Hodgson’s team picked up their third away win of the season against Blackburn on Saturday – but I do not think they will get anything at St. James’ Park. Prediction – Home win
Everton vs Swansea – Both sides picked up a point in their respective fixtures at the weekend and will be looking for a win to push themselves further away from the relegation zone. Swansea are yet to win a game in England this season – all of their victories have come at home in Wales. On their travels they have also leaked goals, 18 in 8 games – compared with just 2 allowed in 8 matches at the Liberty Stadium. Everton are just four points above the bottom three and will hope to continue their record of never having lost to Swansea – though it has been nearly 30 years since the two clubs last met in a league game. Prediction – Draw
Fulham vs Manchester United – During his time at Spurs, Martin Jol never managed to lead us to a win over Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea. Oftentimes a promising first-half would be undone by negative tactics after the break as he would try to defend a lead – something that played out again this season when his Fulham team lost their lead against Arsenal and could only manage a draw. United have not won in any of their last three league games at Craven Cottage, but seem to be finding their form again since their Champions League exit. Ferguson’s men are still unbeaten away and he has put pressure on them to overtake Manchester City during this Christmas period. Alex Ferguson + Pressuring his Players = Success for Manchester United. Prediction – Away win
QPR vs Sunderland – Queens Park Rangers have only got one win at home all season – against their local rivals, Chelsea – while Sunderland have managed to pick up just five points in eight games away from the Stadium of Light. The Black Cats will be a different proposition with Martin O’Neill in charge rather than Steve Bruce, but it will take him time to mold his squad to fit his vision – that opportunity will come in the January transfer window and for now, he has to make do with what he has. With both sides having won just one of their last seven games, a draw seems a likely outcome. Prediction – Draw
Wigan vs Liverpool – Wigan have managed to push themselves off the bottom of the league having won 2, drawn 2 and lost 1 of their last five league games. Having beaten West Brom the previous week, earning a point with a last-minute equaliser at home to Chelsea on Saturday must have felt like a victory to Roberto Martinez’s men. Liverpool have been in good form of late and have pushed themselves up to be just three points behind fourth place Chelsea in the race for a Champions League berth next season. Just like in their glory days of the 1980’s, Dalglish’s side is built around a solid defence – Liverpool have the meanest back line in the Premiership this season, having conceded just 13 goals in their 16 games thus far. Prediction – Away win
Tottenham vs Chelsea – If I proved anything with last week’s predictions, it’s that being a pessimist works for us Spurs fans. When Tottenham beat Chelsea on November 5th, 2006 – it was the first league win over their London rivals since February 1990. That match, which I consider to be the best game I have ever attended in person, opened the floodgates for Spurs and in the nine Premiership matches with Chelsea since then, they have won a massive…two. If they were to prevail this time around, Tottenham would sit five points above the Blues in third, still with a game in hand. However, without the speed on the wings of Bale and Lennon, both likely to miss out through injury, it will be difficult for Redknapp’s side to break down Chelsea’s defence – who might have the added bonus of being without John Terry who was injured in training. Having said that, it would not be the first time the second-rate defender (and twentieth rate human-being) made a surprise come back after initially being doubtful for a game. He is like the Ben Rothlisberger of English Football – both in his hero complex returns from injury and his likeability. Prediction – Away win – because I’m still a pessimist.