It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as the Premiership has three round of fixtures between December 26th and January 1st, followed by the third round of the F.A. Cup in the first weekend of the New Year. With such a busy festive period, clubs have the opportunity to make their move up the table; can find themselves drop out of contention in the title race; or for some, drift closer towards relegation out of the top division. This year, it is a particularly crucial time for those competing for the Premiership crown, since the top five teams are currently separated by two points and the current leaders, Liverpool, face the teams in 3rd (Manchester City) and 4th (Chelsea) inside three days.
The Reds reached the top of the Premiership table on the back of more brilliance from Luis Suarez, who had two goals and an assist – which entailed him giving up an easy chance to allow Rahim Sterling to finish into an empty net – in their 3-1 win over Cardiff at Anfield. Incredibly, that takes the Uruguayans tally for the season to 19 goals and we are not even at the half-way point, meaning he is on target not only to break the scoring record for most in a 38 game Premiership season (held jointly by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo, who found the net 31 times apiece in the 1995/6 and 2007/8 seasons respectively) but also the mark of 34 set by Andrew Cole (1993/4) and Shearer (1994/5) back when there were 42 fixtures in each campaign. What makes this all the more remarkable is that even though Liverpool have had 17 league matches this season, Suarez was suspended for the first five and thus has managed his 19 goals in just 12 games – I’m not saying I was wrong to make Gareth Bale the most valuable player in the Premiership back in January – and the transfer fee he commanded and subsequent performances for Tottenham and Real Madrid justified that selection – but since the Welshman has departed, there is no question of who is now number one and Brendan Rodgers will be relieved that his star man has signed a new contract with the club. Following their defeat to Liverpool, there was some good news for Cardiff supporters, who had shown their support for their manager throughout the game and afterwards, the ultimatum that owner Vincent Tan had put on Malky Mackay – that he should resign or be sacked – was lifted and it appears the Scotsman will remain in charge of the Welsh club at least for the time being.
On Monday night, Arsenal had the opportunity to move back to the top of the Premiership, but instead had to settle for second place on goal difference after they were held to a goalless draw by Chelsea at the Emirates. The match was so bad that I do not want to dwell on it too much, but Arsenal had a strong case for a penalty in the first half when Theo Walcott was felled in the box by Willian, in a move that came straight after a bad foul on Mikel Arteta that could have seen John Obi-Mikel sent off, but instead went unpunished by referee Mike Dean. Jose Mourinho – who remains unbeaten in ten meetings with Arsene Wenger – had set up his side to be tough to break down and their resilience earned them both a point and the ire of the home crowd, who were chanting “Boring Boring Chelsea” in the final few minutes. To be honest, neither side really went for the other and at the end of it, it felt like 90 minutes I could have better spent doing anything other than watching that game.
At the opposite end of the excitement stakes were the matches at Fulham and Southampton over the weekend, which saw a total of 11 games between them. At Craven Cottage, the home side were beaten 4-2 by Manchester City, but only after they had made a contest of it by recovering from 2-0 down to bring the scores level heading into the final 20 minutes. However, strikes by Jesus Navas and James Milner ensured that City moved to within a point of the leaders in the Premiership, with two fixtures at the Etihad – where they still boast a 100% record this season – coming up next. At St. Mary’s, Southampton faced a Tottenham side being led by Tim Sherwood in his first experience being in charge of a top-flight league match and it was the Saints who struck first, as Adam Lallana turned and shot from 25 yards and found the bottom corner. However, Sherwood had restored Emmanuel Adebayor to the starting lineup and had him playing alongside Roberto Soldado in a very attacking Spurs lineup that also featured Erik Lamela, Christian Eriksen, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembélé, with the forward-focused Belgian nominally being used as a defensive midfielder. It was Adebayor who made the biggest impression however, as he was scored an equalizer by converting a fantastic cross by Soldado, who had been played into space on the flank by the Togolese striker and, after the two sides had traded goals at the start of the second-half, it was Adebayor who scored the winner for Tottenham, picking up a loose ball in the area and stroking the ball into the Southampton net. Following that win, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy made the decision to appoint Sherwood as manager on an 18 month contract, taking him up until the end of the 2014/15 season, though the feeling must be that if he fails to perform over the remainder of this campaign, there will be yet another new man in the dugout at White Hart Lane next August.
Elsewhere at the weekend, Everton racked up another impressive victory, this time beating Swansea 2-1 at the Liberty Stadium; Manchester United put their recent Old Trafford woes behind them by dispatching struggling West Ham, 3-1; Newcastle kept in touching distance of the top four with a 3-0 victory away at Crystal Palace; Stoke edged Aston Villa 2-1 thanks to a winner from Peter Crouch, though the 6’7″ striker appeared to use his hand to control the ball before he scored; managerless West Brom earned a late draw against Hull; while Sunderland and Norwich ended goalless at the Stadium of Light.
From Thursday to Sunday, every club has either two home or away matches and on Boxing Day, the biggest fixture is Liverpool’s trip to the Etihad where it will not be so much the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object, rather two unstoppable forces competing to end up on top, as Luis Suarez (19 goals in 12 Premiership fixtures) attempts to outscore Manchester City (35 goals in 8 home league matches); and then the Reds face another tough away game on Sunday as they play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Before that, Mourinho’s men have a visit from Swansea, while Tottenham have two games at White Hart Lane, against West Brom and Stoke; while Arsenal have to travel across London to face West Ham, then up to the northeast to play Newcastle United. Manchester United’s attempt to get back into the title race conversation sees them head to Hull on the day after Christmas, then three days later go to Norwich; Everton have home fixtures with Sunderland and Swansea; and Manchester City’s game after Liverpool is against Crystal Palace.
Last week, 5-5; Season, 92-78
Home team listed first
Hull vs Manchester United – Away win
Aston Villa vs Crystal Palace – Home win
Cardiff vs Southampton – Draw
Chelsea vs Swansea – Home win
Everton vs Sunderland – Home win
Newcastle vs Stoke – Draw
Norwich vs Fulham – Away win
Tottenham vs West Brom – Home win
West Ham vs Arsenal – Away win
Manchester City vs Liverpool – Home win
West Ham vs West Brom – Draw
Aston Villa vs Swansea – Away win
Hull vs Fulham – Away win
Manchester City vs Crystal Palace – Home win
Norwich vs Manchester United – Away win
Cardiff vs Sunderland – Home win
Everton vs Southampton – Draw
Newcastle vs Arsenal – Home win
Chelsea vs Liverpool – Away win
Tottenham vs Stoke – Home win