A fixture list that makes the Premier League unique, this time of the season is the one every fan enjoys. All teams will play their fourth fixture in 10 days on New Year’s Day with the Boxing Day fixtures and the weekend fixtures only separated by a day.
This is also the time of the season that every club starts to assess where they are at because it also marks the halfway point of the League season. And so it did for all Premier League teams this time around too. 19 games in and we still do not have a title favourite, still no certainty on who is odds on to be relegated and if these two matchdays are anything to go by, this season too is going to be one to enjoy.
TheHardTackle reviews the fixtures played out on 26th and 28th December and tries to make sense out of where the clubs are really headed.
Mixed outings for the league leaders
In a perfect demonstration of why Southampton are the team to watch this season, they produced a strong display against Chelsea at home to get a deserved point out of the game. Having taken the lead early on in the game through Mane owing to a rare John Terry misjudgment, the Saints put on a strong rear guard action after Chelsea equalized through Eden Hazard just before halftime. A host of changes for Chelsea followed but to no avail. The Saints’ back four stood tall and managed to hold on.
Coming into that match against the Saints, however, Chelsea looked unflappable against West Ham at home on Boxing Day. They ran out comfortable 2-0 winners thanks to goals from John Terry and Diego Costa with the former scoring the 60th goal of this Premier League career.
What could have been an uncomfortable 2 points dropped against Southampton, in the end it was all back to square one at the top of the table thanks to City’s dropped points.
Opportunity lost for the Champions
Of both their fixtures, if one was to make an educated guess as to where City could drop points, the answer would have been at The Hawthorns. However, as it turned out, they produced a sublime display against West Bromwich Albion on a bitterly cold night to warm the hearts of the City faithful. Three first half goals from the Champions virtually put the game to bed at halftime. Although West Brom did pull one back in the 87th minute through Brown Ideye, it was nothing more than a consolation in the end.
Following that game, a home fixture against Burnley looked like meat and drink for these City players. However, as we have been taught time and again in the Premier League, nothing and by that I mean NOTHING can be taken for granted – least of all against these so-called small teams. Although it did look like normal service during the first half with goals from David Silva and Fernandinho, no one could have predicted a fight back from Sean Dyche’s men in the second half. Having pulled one back early on through the in-form George Boyd, the team from Lancashire grew in confidence and not one to be awed by the occasion, equalized in the 81st minute through Ashley Barnes. Despite City’s best efforts to go ahead, the Burnley back four held fort and ‘stole’ a crucial point away.
A point not only crucial for the visitors but also a certain team from west London – it ensured that the latter go into the New Year as the league leaders.
United continue momentum into New Year
In a streak that now extends to nine matches unbeaten, Manchester United also dropped points away from home but will be reasonably happy that their season is now well and truly back on track. Louis van Gaal also seems to have found a reasonably settled-looking lineup with these two fixtures starting with the same lineup – an achievement considering that predecessor David Moyes never did it. Their Boxing Day fixtures turned out to be the Wayne Rooney show with the Englishman running riot on the Newcastle defence. Two goals before the halftime break by the England captain ensured a comfortable team talk for van Gaal and when Robin van Persie made it 3-0 in the 53rd minute, the three points were all but assured. A late consolation goal from Pappis Cisse wasn’t enough to trouble the United defence as they wrapped up the three points.
Their trip to White Hart Lane, however, turned out to more than a handful as both sides weren’t as clinical in front of goal resulting in a first 0-0 result in the Premier League since the Tottenham-Crystal Palace game on 6th December.
Christmas treat for Gunners and Koppers
Arguably, the winners of the weekend’s fixtures were the side from North London. Arsenal ran out 2-1 winners over QPR and West Ham at home and away respectively. As close as the score line suggests it was, the Gunners would consider themselves lucky to come off with all points intact coming into such a crucial phase of the season. And with teams looking to build momentum coming into the new year, Arsenal’s Premier League vehicle, in a manner of speaking, certainly seems to have a head start on its competition.
Another winner of this mini battle turned out to be Liverpool who chalked up back-to-back wins against Burnley away and Swansea at home. While the latter was a much more convincing performance (4-1 at home), the former result was a scrappy affair (1-0). Liverpool, like Arsenal, will consider themselves to be lucky to get six out the six available points in the busy period of the season.
Around the grounds
In what turned out to be Neil Warnock’s last two games in charge of Crystal Palace, the Eagles managed just one point from the two games, drawing away at QPR while losing at home to Southampton.
Roberto Martinez’s woes also continued as his Everton side lost both their games – one at home to Stoke and the other away at St. James’ Park.
Southampton also managed to stay unbeaten in the two games during this period. The aforementioned draw at home to Chelsea was preceded by a convincing 3-1 win at Selhurst Park.
In-form West Ham lost both of their games, away at Chelsea and at home to Arsenal. As opposed to this time last season though, Sam Allardyce has exceeded expectations and is not under threat about his position as Hammers boss.
Bottom-side Leicester chalked out a 1-0 away win at Hull City while losing 1-2 at home to Spurs on Boxing Day. The latter stopped their streak of winning games 2-1 (6 in the Premier League) with a goalless draw at home to United in their next match.
With absolutely no time to catch breath (the next game being only two days away), these festive period fixtures play a crucial role in building momentum for the teams involved. Of the top four teams, United and City are notoriously better in the second half of the season while teams like Chelsea usually begin to drop points. Also interesting to see is how far West Ham and Southampton will take their brilliant first halves, with Arsenal beginning to catch steam ahead of the battle for fourth place. All in all, with the FA Cup about to begin, the traditional English League fans are in for a treat this time around too.