Festive football is back and, boy, was it needed! This week, we have discovered a new strain from the coronavirus and Boris Johnson has introduced a new level of restrictions to large parts of England. Only a few weeks ago, fans were steadily returning to certain stadiums across the country.
The optimism of a slow return to normality has now been put on the backburner. Nonetheless, with many people forced to stay in their own homes over Christmas, Premier League football represents a genuine source of escapist entertainment!
Game of the week
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Emirates Stadium, Saturday 17.30 (Sky Sports)
Will Arsenal get relegated? Imagine uttering such a sentence just a few months ago!
Mikel Arteta was the next coming according to many Arsenal fans; he had won two trophies, despite being in charge for less than a year! It’s quite unbelievable just how far his stock has fallen in just a few months. This probably won’t be the type of game that gets Arteta sacked, but he will need to find some answers quickly as the Christmas fixture list approaches.
The Spaniard’s lack of managerial experience is now being brought into question by many doubters. His open and honest demeanour in press-conferences has been a little naive, at times, and it has illustrated an anger that seems to be simmering under the surface. After working under Pep Guardiola for many years, it is understandable that he seeks perfection. But his group of players are simply not on the same level as those that he worked with at Manchester City.
Elsewhere, Frank Lampard admitted that Chelsea weren’t at their fluent best against West Ham United but they were rewarded for their efforts with three goals. Tammy Abraham grabbed a brace and Thiago Silva scored a thumping header to complete a convincing win over their in-form London rivals.
Jorginho returned to the team for the struggling Kai Havertz. Chelsea started the season with Jorginho playing alongside N’Golo Kante and the duo can provide a strong defensive shield for the Blues. The Italian had been in the shadows in recent months, with Lampard preferring the more offensive-minded attributes of Mateo Kovacic and Havertz. But back-to-back defeats had forced the Chelsea manager to shake up his starters.
However, Lampard will be without Ben Chilwell, Hakim Ziyech and, potentially, Reece James. That is a lot of creativity out of the equation. It means that, should Arsenal sit deep and look to play on the counter, Chelsea might struggle more than people think. They have struggled in terms of creation without Ziyech so to be without the two attacking full-backs would be a huge blow.
The visitors could field an eleven that is severely lacking in craft but Arsenal are simply down in the dumps at this moment in time. Morale is at an all time low. This is the toughest fixture in the Christmas schedule and Arteta’s head will not be on the line if they close this encounter. However, he had better hope that his players find the goods in the following fixtures.
Leicester City vs Manchester United: KP Stadium, 12.30 (BT Sport)
Leicester City are the yoyo team. Win. Lose. Win. Lose. An excellent 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur reminded people that they are still a legitimate player at the top-end of the table. The return of Wilfred Ndidi has been timely and, although it might not cure them of their inconsistencies, it is a step towards a brighter future.
Manchester United, who have suffered similar inconsistencies, will now be full of confidence. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had his ups and his downs during his managerial tenure at Old Trafford but those moments of adversity have always been swiftly countered. This month, the Red Devils lost their final two Champions League matches, squandering the opportunity to get to the knockout stages of the prestigious competition. But, since then, they are unbeaten in the league and they have just made it to the Carabao Cup semi-finals.
Interestingly, these two teams have the best away records in the league. United have won all six matches on their travels while Leicester have won six out of seven. It is because both teams love to play on the counter. At home, Solskjaer and Rodgers have struggled, with their teams sitting 10th and 12th, respectively, in terms of their home form. It makes sense to plump for the away side.
Aston Villa vs Crystal Palace: Villa Park, 15.00 (BBC Sport)
Aston Villa have three clean sheets in their last three Premier League matches; they now have the most shutouts in the division. That impressive feat is largely down to two things: showing more defensive discipline than they did last season and the arrival of Emi Martinez. Martinez is an excellent all-round goalkeeper. He is a great shot stopper, a fine distributor and a commanding presence between the sticks.
It is not quite as sunny in Philadelphia for Crystal Palace. They had revived their shaky form with a 5-1 win against West Bromwich Albion being followed up by draws with Tottenham and West Ham United, two in-form teams. However, that momentum was destroyed, last Saturday, when upon their 7-0 massacre at home to Liverpool. Bizarrely, the first-half was quite an even match but Palace's clinical opponents managed to storm three goals ahead. It was all over from that point.
Roy Hodgson will have delivered some reminders of how to defend after the Liverpool horror show. He is a pragmatic manager who builds from a solid defensive structure. His plethora of attacking options almost demand a rethink to the team’s mindset but Hodgson will probably go back to what he knows best, in the hope of eradicating further embarrassments.
Fulham vs Southampton: Craven Cottage, 15.00 (Sky Sports)
Fulham were bitterly unfortunate against Newcastle United, conceding a dubious penalty before being reduced to ten-men. They outplayed Newcastle, even after losing a man, but they had to settle for a point. It was the third draw in a row for Scott Parker’s men, which is a signal of their improvement after a tough start to the campaign.
The measure of Southampton’s progress has been the close nature of the matches when they lose. Their efforts against Manchester City were commendable but their opponents were able to see out a 1-0 victory. Equally, they came close to upsetting Man United but crumbled after the introduction of Edinson Cavani. Ralph Hasenhuttl has made his team a dangerous outfit that is more than capable of challenging for a Europa League spot.
Parker will be hoping that this is the match in which his team can turn a point into three but the Saints will mark a stern test. They play with tenacity and speed, in and out of possession, and it’s difficult to see the promoted outfit managing to get a result.
Manchester City vs Newcastle United: Etihad Stadium, 20.00 (BT Sport)
It was a big win for Man City against in-form Southampton, a match that many thought they might slip up in. In truth, they could have won the game by three or four goals; their wasteful finishing has been a regular occurrence over this Premier League campaign.
By contrast, the negativity at Newcastle United shows little sign of disappearing. Steve Bruce has never been liked by the club’s supporters and their midweek Carabao Cup defeat to Brentford has done little to counter that anger.
Newcastle are due a spanking and the fans will agree. Bruce sets up to be defensively organised, compromising their attacking play, but the defence simply isn’t organised. They have been big beneficiaries of Karl Darlow’s heroics and wasteful finishing. City have struggled for big hauls, of late, but they do have a good history in this fixture and they will be smelling blood.
Sheffield United vs Everton: Bramall Lane, 20.00 (BT Sport)
There were mixed emotions for Sheffield United at the AMEX. Despite going down to ten-men, they took the lead against Brighton & Hove Albion before missing a glorious chance to put the game to bed. Their opponents then fought back and equalised through Danny Welbeck. Brighton then rattled the post in injury time. Two points dropped or a rare point gained? It depends on your perspective!
There is little perspective needed on Everton's league form. The Toffees made it three wins in three with their 2-1 success against Arsenal. The absence of James Rodriguez and Lucas Digne has forced the Toffees to be more pragmatic in their style. In turn, that has yielded two clean sheets in those three victories, and Arsenal’s goal was a penalty!
Carlo Ancelotti’s men have transitioned from an attacking powerhouse to a resilient unit. The goals of Dominic Calvert-Lewin have started to dry up but the team have managed to find the necessary goals in other ways. They will fancy themselves to narrowly overturn an opponent that will have a little more belief after recent matches.
Leeds United vs Burnley: Elland Road, 12.00 (Sky Sports)
People have been coming out in defence of Marcelo Bielsa after some people were labelling Leeds United as naive. Leeds were thumped 6-2 by Man United but their efforts in the game still received a lot of praise. The game could have been any scoreline and Bielsa’s players could have had another two or three goals themselves! Such an attacking philosophy will open the door for heavy defeats such as this but, if they can stitch together enough victories then it simply will not matter. Quite how anybody would want to compromise such an exciting style of football is anybody’s guess; they’re 14th in the league, not 20th!
In the other camp, Burnley have found themselves again. Aside from their dismal 5-0 loss at the Etihad, November and December have been months of steady improvement for the Clarets. The return of Ben Mee gave more solidity to a shaky defence and Sean Dyche has built from the basic principle of keeping out the opposition. Their recent win over Wolverhampton Wanderers was a sign of their progress; a convincing display in defence and attack.
Leeds may be without a recognised centre-half and all of Burnley’s wingers are doubtful. But the Burnley grit is back and they are facing a team that struggles to keep clean sheets at the best of times, let alone with an injury crisis in defence.
Patrick Bamford and Chris Wood are both legitimate goal-getters and both will be desperate to bag against their former clubs. You wouldn't bet against them getting on the score-sheet with that added motivation, especially Bamford. The 27-year-old was given a tough time by Burnley fans during his disappointing stint in East Lancashire.
West Ham United vs Brighton & Hove Albion, 14.15 (Sky Sports)
West Ham weren’t terrible against Chelsea but they were on the wrong end of a 3-0 defeat. All the goals were a little sloppy from David Moyes’ point-of-view and it was simply a reminder that the Premier League is ruthless. Still, they are having a very good season and they are certainly not burdened by the worries of their opponents.
Brighton’s form is cause for concern. Graham Potter has improved a number of players during his time at the AMEX but his style of football can make life difficult for the Seagulls. Like Leeds, they try to play in an entertaining manner as they bid to win matches. Unlike Bielsa’s boys, Brighton have struggled to convert excellent performances into victories and, recently, their level of performance has also dropped.
It’s another game without Tariq Lamptey and Brighton just aren’t as dangerous when he doesn’t play. An attack that is struggling to score the necessaries and a defence that isn’t keeping clean sheets. Lamptey offers a bit of reassurance in both departments. Otherwise, there is a little bit of predictability about Brighton; they can be good to watch but they wouldn’t scare you.
Liverpool vs West Bromwich Albion: Anfield, 16.30 (Sky Sports)
Liverpool hit seven against Crystal Palace. As good as they were, though, Hodgson’s men capitulated. A mixture of wonderful attacking football and cataclysmic defending made for a scoreline that was rather extravagant. Mo Salah was on the pitch for less than 40 minutes and the Egyptian still managed to grab two goals and an assist! They will be in buoyant mood ahead of this clash at Anfield.
It was a baptism of fire for Sam Allardyce in his return to Premier League management. His team were thumped by local rivals Aston Villa; the first-half dismissal of Jake Livermore didn’t help proceedings. The scale of the task was made plainly clear and the survival specialist is already talking up the need for January investment.
The Reds are coming into form at the right time but Albion can be a resilient bunch. Allardyce will set up to stay in the game for as long as he can and, without any red cards, he will hope that his tactical plans can keep the score from getting embarrassing.
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Tottenham Hotspur: Molineux (Sky Sports)
Nuno Espirito Santo launched a stunning attack on referee Lee Mason after his side slumped to a 2-1 loss at Burnley. Quite simply, Wolves just weren’t very good! Their attacking play was too slow, despite playing in their traditional back-three system. At the other end, their goal-shy opponents could have found the net three or four times in the match.
Tottenham have slipped up in the league after back-to-back defeats but their 3-1 cup win against Stoke City was a welcome boost for Jose Mourinho. Spurs are now in the semi-finals of the cup and he will be eyeing up some more silverware. But he will also be eager to get his team back on track in the league. Two weeks ago, they were title challengers and now they have slipped onto the edges of the Champions League.
Without Raul Jimenez, Wolves have a quandary. Fabio Silva is an alternative option but he’s still a young player who needs to develop. Nuno seems reluctant to start the big forward but the diminutive duo of Daniel Podence and Pedro Neto simply do not offer the same threat, especially when you compare them to the likes of Heung-min Son and Harry Kane.