Monday, 20 December 2010

Festive Football Forecast - Who will be snowed under this Christmas, and who will plow through their rivals to reach the top of the tree?

Scottish football supporters might well be accustomed to having their Christmas and winter schedule decimated by excessive snowfall and adverse weather conditions. However for those of us south of the border the mass postponements which affected 32 fixtures across all four divisions were both unprecedented and unexpected. Only three Premier League fixtures, miraculously including tonight's game at Eastlands, went ahead. Thus the table is currently rather skewed, with Manchester United currently sitting top of the three by two points, following the failure of their neighbours City to capitalise on the weekend's postponements, suffering a shock 2-1 home defeat against Everton. Following tonight's result, United are in a remarkably strong position going into the Christmas period. City will struggle to close the gap going into 2011, facing a tricky trip to Newcastle United on Boxing Day, despite very much winnable home ties against stuttering Aston Villa on 28 December and Blackpool on New Year’s Day. United also face a Christmas period which shouldn't be all too taxing, with Sunderland the visitors on Boxing Day, followed by a jaunt around The Midlands to face Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion in the space of five days. City's form so far this season has been patchy to say the least, but with Roberto Mancini's side unbeaten in the Premier League since 30 October, and two of three festive fixtures at Eastlands, they cannot be ruled out despite tonight's result. United meanwhile, have been buoyant in recent weeks, the 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn Rovers a consummate mauling which, combined with Chelsea's stuttering recent form, has instilled a sense of belief amongst the United supporters and players alike that they can open a gap at the top once their games-in-hand come around in January. Chelsea and Arsenal are by no means spectators in this title battle; The Gunners indeed are United's closest challengers, but only on goal difference. Chelsea lie a point behind, and the winners of this Monday's colossal showdown at The Emirates will likely emerge from the Christmas period as the main competition for Sir Alex's side during the remainder of the season. United's tendency to up their game in the second half of the season, plus Arsenal's disposition to implode sometime in the final few months of the season, means that Chelsea and Manchester City will need to find some form and quick, to prevent the league leaders running away with things and pressing home their advantage.

Outside the top four positions, the top flight is as open as it has been for a while. Tottenham Hotspur, enjoying a vintage season in European competition, having won their Champions League group against all odds, currently occupy fifth place on 27 points. However with this season's overachievers-so-far Sunderland equal on points and goal difference, and Bolton just a point behind, Harry Redknapp's side must put their European exploits to one side and take advantage of the Christmas period to put some distance between them and their less-illustrious challengers. Spurs have a fairly simple sequence of games between now and 2011; a trip to Aston Villa and a couple of home games against Fulham and Newcastle all that stand between Tottenham and a full festive points haul. Bolton, for their part, have been in exceptional form; Owen Coyle has transformed the Trotters into a side playing football the right way, combining a ruthless determination to succeed with an egalitarian flair that has seen them win plaudits across the footballing spectrum. Sunderland's rise has been rather more inconspicuous, but Saturday's victory against Bolton illustrated the quiet effectiveness with which Steve Bruce and his side have firmly cemented themselves as challengers for a Europa League place. The Trotters will be up against West Bromwich Albion, who themselves have over-achieved under Roberto Di Matteo, on Boxing Day. However away games at Chelsea and Liverpool will provide a far stiffer test of the Terriers' mettle, and they will do well to maintain such a lofty position by 6pm on 1 January. For Sunderland the festive matches shouldn't be quite so troublesome; few supporters will be expecting a victory at Old Trafford on Boxing Day, particularly in light of the ease with which Blackburn were taken apart just a few weeks ago. However with Blackpool and Blackburn themselves visitors to the Stadium Of Light, a veritable fortress where the Black Cats have been unbeaten thus far, Sunderland may well be right on Spurs' coat-tails in a fortnight's time.

Just two points separate the teams from eighth-14th place, and for any of those within these particular parameters, two wins from three over the Christmas period may just be enough to entrench a top-half position. Overachievers Blackpool, Newcastle, Blackburn, Stoke, Everton and West Brom may not face the wrath of their supporters should they fall out of this closely-packed group, but for Liverpool and Aston Villa, ninth and 15th places respectively won't be enough to impress fans used to far higher league placings, and may just cost Roy Hodgson and Gerard Houllier their jobs. As for the final five, particularly bottom of the table West Ham United, it will be anything but a Happy Christmas. Hammers boss Avram Grant was allegedly handed a simple equation recently by the board at Upton Park; win one of the next three games, or face redundancy. Having secured a battling 1-1 draw at Ewood Park against a wasteful Blackburn, Grant may well argue that fans have already seen an improvement. Of course, the alleged 'ultimatum' may simply have been an invention by the press, but the old adage of there being no smoke without fire may well ring true in this scenario as well. Failing to achieve victory in either their trip to Fulham and a home showdown against tonight's heroes Everton, and the Hammers may well have lost likely the most proficient manager they could ever hope to have in such a predicament. For Wolverhampton Wanderers and Mick McCarthy, excuses of misfortune, which are indeed justified, will only wash for a certain amount of time. West Ham, Wolves and Wigan, all of whom have vastly inferior goal differences to the sides above them, face an uphill struggle to dig themselves out of the relegation slush. Fulham's position is almost equally precarious; the West Londoners lie just outside the relegation zone, level on points with third-bottom Wigan, and spared the ignominy of being in the bottom three at Christmas solely by dint of the abysmal goal difference of Roberto Martinez' side. A tricky trip to Stoke City and London Derby at Spurs will be difficult to gain any points from, so the pressure is on for the Cottagers to put another nail in the coffin of West Ham United on Boxing Day. Expect a gritty, determined performance from both sides, and a nervy, yet expectant crowd. One can only hope that even if the Hammers fail to triumph, as I expect them to, the West Ham board keep the faith with Avram Grant as he tries to unite a disparate, underachieving squad, and trim the fat accumulated by his predecessors as well as improve on a lacklustre season to date.

England's second division, The Championship, unlike its more illustrious counterpart, remains unpredictable, exciting and surprisingly resilient against the festive freeze. Just two games failed to go ahead at the weekend, although league leaders Queens Park Rangers will have wished that their trip to Elland Road had fallen victim to the snow and ice. The R's slumped to a dismal 2-0 defeat, Max Gradel scoring twice to condemn Rangers to their second defeat in a row. Things aren't set to get any easier for Neil Warnock's side, despite returning to Loftus Road on Boxing Day. A scorned Swansea City, 1-0 losers against Sheffield United on Saturday, will provide another test of QPR's promotion credentials, which have already been subject to significant doubt by supporters and pundits alike. Cardiff City will be hoping to get their season back on track with a home game against high-flying Coventry City on Boxing Day. Expect the Bluebirds to re-establish themselves as QPR's main challengers over the festive period, with poor home performers Watford and Bristol City unlikely to be capable of coping with a resurgent City side, featuring the attacking weight of Craig Bellamy, Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Michael Chopra. Leeds United, meanwhile, who achieved what Cardiff were fundamentally unable to at the weekend, could well reach the summit themselves. Home matches against underachievers Middlesbrough and mid-table Portsmouth are the best Simon Grayson's side could have hoped for going into a 2011 which may just see Leeds reclaim their often exaggerated 'right' to play in the Premier League. Dark horses for the next few games could be Norwich City, who will play two of three festive games at home, one against faltering QPR, Reading, and Hull City, who look to be finding some sort of momentum to drag themselves away from the relegation dogfight. Leicester are another side to watch, with their 3-0 away defeat to Ipswich during Saturday's blizzard in Suffolk likely to be a blip for Sven Goran Eriksson's improving side. Doncaster are also worth a mention; having stopped the rot following a last-gasp comeback victory against Middlesbrough on Friday night, and facing visits from underperforming Ipswich and second-bottom Scunthorpe United, and lying in 11th place, just four points off the play-offs with a game in hand, Sean O'Driscoll's side look set to force themselves into the top six come the New Year. Whatever the results over the next two weeks, the onus is on the bottom four and the top six to ensure that the crucial gap from those above and below them remains. For those in the middle, the time is now to ensure whether it will be a festive flurry, or a case of brand new year, same old form.

Photos courtesy of (in order): Purse And A Glove, Who Ate All The Pies?, Football

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