Please put something in your bag
- In Store
- Running & Fitness
The festive schedule is a feast for the football neutrals. Teams can win three games in a week and catapult their way up the table, whereas those who have had too many mince pies may find themselves looking over their shoulders at the relegation zone.
Managers routinely complain about the congested fixtures, suspensions and injury pile-ups and often, there are some memorable clashes to warm the soul like a fine cup of mulled wine.
The FA and Carabao Cups may be taking centre stage this week but the main course that is Premier League returns on Saturday.
So who had a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and who embodied the sluggish nature of the festive season?
They simply cannot be ignored. Pep Guardiola has this mercurial Manchester City side singing. He has added a ruthless dimension to the possession-based tactics that have so long been his trademark and their 15-point lead at the top of the league already looks unassailable.
Coupled with the stuttering performances of Manchester United, who were keeping pace earlier in the campaign, Guardiola’s free-scoring Citizens are the league’s scorers and have shipped the fewest goals.
Unsurprising, given their Premier League record currently reads: played 22, won 20, drawn 2, lost 0.
Despite their extraordinary 18-game winning run ending with a 0-0 draw at Crystal Palace, City finished off their festive fixtures with a routine 3-1 win over Watford and swept Burnley aside 4-1 in their FA Cup third round tie at the weekend.
Antonio Conte’s reigning champions have been overshadowed by the relentless juggernaut that is Manchester City, and Manchester United’s early season form left the west Londoners well short of the top spot which they occupied for so much of last season.
However, they have quietly and efficiently racked up the points in recent weeks, reining in United, with only an injury-time equaliser from Hector Bellerin denying them a win at Arsenal on January 3.
Many noses were turned up at the prospect of Roy Hodgson turning around a Crystal Palace side short on ideas and leadership.
But the Croydon-born manager has instilled a resoluteness about the Eagles, who lost their first six matches this season without scoring.
They ended City’s winning run at Selhurst Park with a 0-0 draw on New Year’s Eve and came from behind to secure a terrific 2-1 triumph at misfiring Southampton.
The Reds’ now-famous fab four of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and the irrepressible Mo Salah fired on all cylinders over Christmas before Coutinho departed in a blockbuster transfer to Barcelona.
Some may consider the loss of such a player as a negative but with £142m in their back pocket, Liverpool may argue otherwise, especially given their excellent form.
Since a disappointing draw to West Brom on December 12, Jurgen Klopp’s side have won five in six, scoring 18 goals in the process.
They have only lost two games all campaign, the last being a 4-1 reverse at Tottenham at the end of October, and battling 2-1 triumphs over Burnley and Leicester suggest the Anfield side might be mastering the art of winning ugly.
Their leaky defence has been significantly bolstered with the big-money capture of commanding centre-half Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, who scored on debut to progress Liverpool to the fourth round of the FA Cup courtesy of the 2-1 win over Everton.
Jose Mourinho’s trademark sulking scowl has been cranked up to full-on grimace after United dropped points against Leicester, Burnley and Southampton, while also crashing out of the Carabao Cup against Championship outfit Bristol City earlier in the month.
Across the city, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are spectacularly breaking new ground as they maraud towards the Premier League title.
And with Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool all hitting their stride, United must turn around their fortunes quickly, although a solid 2-0 win at Everton on New Year’s Day could give them that platform.
Alan Pardew took the Baggies reins from Tony Pulis but has so far failed to register a league victory for under-performing Albion.
The West Midlands outfit will also be wary of a potential turn in Swansea’ fortunes under new boss Carlos Carvalhal, while Crystal Palace are much-improved in recent times under Roy Hodgson, as are West Ham under David Moyes.
Albion won their first two league games of the season. They haven’t won in the Premier League since and conceded a last-minute goal at West Ham to round off a miserable festive run with another defeat.
The Saints are far from marching in, with Mauricio Pellegrino’s stuttering side winless in the league since a 4-1 victory over Everton at the end of November.
While mid-table for most of the season, they have far from inspired and have also lost in-form top-scorer Charlie Austin to both injury and suspension.
For a notoriously goal-shy team, it could be a long old slog until the end of the season for Southampton, who are now above the relegation zone on goal difference only after losing 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace.
Mark Hughes was typically brusque and defiant after Stoke’s defeat at home to an inconsistent Newcastle United on New Year’s Day.
His choice to field a much-weakened side in the previous fixture – a 5-0 defeat to Chelsea – to focus on the Magpies clash, backfired spectacularly with the defeat and left the former Wales boss clinging to his job.
Seven defeats in ten matches left the Stoke board questioning Hughes’ suitability for the hot seat and the final nail in the coffin came in the FA Cup with a 2-1 defeat to League Two Coventry City.
Hughes was removed from his position just hours after that defeat, with first team coach Eddie Niedzwiecki now in temporary charge.