’Tis the season for kicking clever

Things are about to get hectic. Any latent paranoia you may have about missing your football fix can be swiftly tossed out the window. This is going to be a long one.

In fact, the congestion of this year’s Christmas period is nearly unpre-cedented. The infamous month-and-a-bit is already known for stretching squads to the limit and flipping form on its head. We’ve all heard the pleas from quarters that maintain a winter break is essential to achieving European dominance. Why can’t England just be like Russia?

The fixture organisers evidently laughed harder than usual at these suggestions and have given us a festive period packed with more action than a Terminator movie directed by George W Bush.

Including last weekend, each team will have played 11 Premier League games by January 3. For context, we’ve had 11 game weeks since the season began … in mid-August. Doesn’t sound that bad? Don’t forget to factor in that there will be EFL Cup, Europa League and Champions League games thrown in for good measure. This is the tail end of the group stages of European competition and pivotal games await for some.

For fans, it’s a treat — watching football is not particularly taxing, after all. The bottleneck is just another excuse to shove down more game-time mince pies.

But it will affect our teams. Playing two to three games a week for more than a month will take its toll. No ifs or buts about it. Don’t be surprised to see players you didn’t know existed take to the pitch as managers roll out the youngsters to ensure the stars retain their freshness. There will be fatigue. So much depends on how effectively the pack can be reshuffled without losing sight of your aces.

This is when leagues are won or lost, when the relegation threat tightens its grip, when clubs decide their own fate. In seven of the past eight seasons, the team atop the tree on Christmas Day has gone on to lift the prize.

Meanwhile, at the other end, only four teams in the competition’s history have finished safe after spending December 25 at rock bottom. Although it’s fair to point out that there was the anomaly of Leicester, who not only defied that stat but went on to be crowned champions the following year.

The writing is clear that a bad month can destroy dreams and annihilate ambitions. Manchester City will be relieved, then, that they have one of the better schedules in the league. Pep Guardiola’s side have swept all before them and are yet to come even close to losing. This is the time when, in theory, it could all come crumbling down: three months of effort undone in a few weeks.

Incidentally, the only members of the top six in their path are Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United — two teams desperate to maintain touching distance with the leaders. Look past those two assignments and proceedings start to take on a distinct look of comfort — seven out of City’s 11 games are against current occupants of the bottom half of the table.

Although injury to John Stones is far from ideal, the City squad should have enough depth to navigate the choppy December waters. If their eight-point lead remains firm in the new year, it’s hard to see them fluffing their lines.

Liverpool are another side with a favourable run. Over the holidays, Anfield will welcome a host of teams either battling mid-table mediocrity or straight-up trying to survive. Last Tuesday was a brutal reminder, however, that they’re capable of brilliance and frustration in equal measure. A trip to not-so-sunny Spain saw them surge to a three-goal halftime lead against Seville before squandering the advantage. If Jürgen Klopp wants to solidify a top-four spot by 2018, he will need to ensure that all such lapses of concentration are firmly rooted out of their game.

This weekend, the Reds face the one member of the “big six” they’re yet to play — Chelsea. Both sides’ performances this season fit firmly into the “can do better” or “improving” categories and it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top.

Last week we were treated to a nostalgia jerker of sorts as Rafa Benítez’s Newcastle United travelled to José Mourinho’s Manchester United. The two managers have had some epic tussles throughout their careers, most notably when the two were at Liverpool and the Blues respectively.

In the first six or so years following the Roman Abramovich take-over, the two would invariably come up against one another in Europe or the domestic knockouts — Chelsea generally coming out on top in the league but losing out to their newfound nemesis in the cups. Many of their fans still bitterly recall Luis Garcia’s “ghost goal” of 2005 that ultimately propelled a Steven Gerrard-inspired side to Champions League glory that year.

Although the rivalry is not at such great heights today, any clash between the two is preceded by a strong sense of anticipation. With both defences appearing shaky in recent times, Saturday evening’s game could come down to a flash of brilliance. Both Mohamed Salah and Eden Hazard have the potential to change the game on their own and how well marshalled they are could ultimately affect the outcome. Find yourself on the losing side and this could be one bumpy Christmas.

Man City’s Christmas fixtures

Sunday November26

Huddersfield vs Man City

Wednesday November 29

Man City vs Southampton

Sunday December 3

Man City vs West Ham

Sunday December 10

Man Utd vs Man City

WednesdayDecember 13

Swansea vs Man City

Saturday December 16

Man City vs Spurs

Saturday December 23

Man City vs Bournemouth

Wednesday December 27

Newcastle vs Man City

Sunday December 31

Crystal Palace vs Man City

Tuesday January 2 2018

Man City vs Watford

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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