/ 20 December 2018

The nightmare of Christmas

Airborne: Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin
Airborne: Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin (right) heads the ball past Manchester City midfielder Fabian Delph. (Paul Ellis/AFP)

Wayne Rooney once joked in an interview that he had to restrict his Christmas pudding intake thanks to having a game early the next day. It’s amusing to believe that his personal struggle was more dire than he led on.

Football acknowledges no war or holiday. Those who play the modern game will have learned early in their careers that family is overshadowed by tradition.

South Africa, Australia and New Zealand play Test cricket on Boxing Day; the English play football. Year after year, no matter what day of the week, a ball will be kicked. (At least it beats NBA players taking to the basketball court on the 25th itself.) This unwavering following of tradition has played a not insignificant part in jam-packing the December-January period with an inordinate amount of sport.

It’s the same movie every time we turn this calendar page: the games hastily blaze past our screens, players fall victim to fatigue and managers moan until we can no longer bear it. Trying their hand at cow tipping would have as much utility.

Here are some numbers: Premier League teams in the League Cup quarterfinal, such as Tottenham Hotspur and leaders Manchester City, would have played six matches across three competitions between this week and the first Saturday of January. That’s an 18-day period. If we count from last Tuesday. On average that’s a game every three days. Madness — no other way to put it.

December is football’s equivalent of a relay baton change. The race could be going as comfortably as a Sunday stroll, but at some point you’ll have to tag in your teammates; teammates that may not be as esteemed or might be a little slow off the pace. Even City could have a Nesta Carter lurking in their ranks.

But it’s their cross-town rivals that will probably monopolise the bitching and whining. After the sacking of José Mourinho this week, more obligations to watch Romelu Lukaku do whatever he does on the field is the last thing the Manchester United fans ordered for Christmas.

The pre-festive traffic jam could hardly have gone worse for the Red Devils and the injury casualties have already begun to roll in. Alexis Sanchez is out until the New Year and will be forced to think about his recent life choices, and new star Anthony Martial had some niggles to contend with. Last weekend’s embarrassing loss was an advert for how not to defend, brought about by the absences of Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw.

Paul Pogba, despite not being afflicted with a medically recognised condition, keeps them company on the sidelines.

It’s hard to see Rooney’s alma mater enjoying any pudding at all with such a stretched and demotivated squad.

A far more intriguing question to answer is how Liverpool will respond to the rush. England’s only unbeaten team have been on a nonstop high this season — one that has left Jürgen Klopp visibly intoxicated on the sidelines. But what happens when Divock Origi is asked to play a little more football? When Daniel Sturridge has to put his frail legs to the test? Brilliant they may be but Klopp has certainly been fortunate in his fitness luck — most notably, he’s almost always been able to call on the Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino triumvirate. Take just one out and all of a sudden the bite softens.

The German manager was universally praised for bringing on match-winner Xherdan Shaqiri last weekend, but in truth he didn’t have any other players on the bench that might be relied upon for such a high occasion.