Feature

Ten BIG questions ahead of the bumper Christmas schedule

By Alex Keble 5 Dec 2023
Klopp, Arteta, Ten Hag

Can Liverpool come through tough home fixtures? Will Man Utd sort out their stuttering form? Alex Keble looks at all the key topics

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Christmas is almost upon us and with it comes English football’s most famous tradition - a bewildering avalanche of matches strewn across the festive season.

Starting from 4 December, there are 59 Premier League matches in only 29 days. That’s an average of two matches every day between now and 2 January. It will probably feel like more.

But that does not mean eyes will glaze over, nor that matches will get lost. There are simply too many mouthwatering ties for that to happen, and with each team playing for 18 points across the next four weeks or so, the league table could look very different when we come up for air in early January.

Here are 10 big questions about the month ahead.

1. Will Liverpool stay in title hunt after tough home run?

That riotous 4-3 victory over Fulham was exciting for Liverpool supporters, but it did nothing to soothe those concerned by the amount of chaos engulfing their matches this season.

Jurgen Klopp’s side are one point off top spot but unless their matches stabilise, Liverpool are unlikely to stay so close to Arsenal or above Manchester City.

They face some huge home matches this month, all of which threaten to descend into goal fests.

Up until now the Reds haven’t played any of the "Big Six" at Anfield, or even any of last season’s top eight, but over the Christmas period Manchester United, Arsenal, and Newcastle United all visit Liverpool in consecutive matches.

It is a huge test of Klopp’s 100 per cent home record.

The good news is that Alisson Becker is due to return before the first of these, the north-west derby, on 17 December. The better news is that Liverpool won seven points from the corresponding fixtures last season, including a 7-0 victory over Man Utd.

A similar set of results this month will prove that Liverpool can maintain their title challenge for the foreseeable.

Premier League

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
1 Liverpool LIV 26 +38 60
2 Man City MCI 26 +33 59
3 Arsenal ARS 26 +39 58
View More
2. Can Man Utd rise to occasion v Chelsea & Liverpool?

On the other side of that equation, Man Utd may feel they need to get something from Anfield. They certainly cannot afford a result as damaging as the seven-goal defeat when the sides last met in March.

Erik ten Hag is struggling to steady the ship this season and United, more often than not, look confused and disordered. Their 1-0 defeat to Newcastle last weekend could have been much worse - and it isn’t the first time this season we’ve been able to say that.

How Ten Hag could do with a strong month. That will be less likely if Man Utd fail to beat Chelsea at Old Trafford on 6 December and then lose at Liverpool.

Those are the two standout fixtures, positioned, somewhat cruelly, either side of United's crucial UEFA Champions League decider against Bayern Munich, with a home game against AFC Bournemouth squeezed in for good measure.

Aston Villa at home on Boxing Day isn’t any easier, and indeed United’s fixture list doesn’t look particularly kind this Christmas.

But Man Utd, as close to Brentford in 11th as they are to Villa in fourth, must not be overawed by the calendar. They need to rise to the occasion.

3. Will Man City sort form in festive period?

Staying at the top end, Man City haven’t had the best time of late, and supporters will be hoping the gruelling and relentless winter schedule offers the opportunity to gather some momentum.

The chances of that happening seem high, considering the nice run of games they have ahead of them once a midweek trip to Villa Park is out of the way.

Man City exclusively face teams in the bottom half from this weekend, although their schedule is interrupted by participation in the Club World Cup between 19-22 December.

Pep Guardiola’s side have drawn three in a row in the Premier League and taken only 12 points from their last eight league matches. That might be reason enough to prioritise domestic competition, but the chance to be champions of the world is not something Guardiola will take lightly.

4. Will Villa home form survive biggest tests?

Villa have won 13 consecutive Premier League home matches, which is their longest sequence since October 1931.

It has been the bedrock of their climb into the Champions League places; Villa have won only 11 points from eight away Premier League matches.

In other words, their immaculate home form has to survive if Unai Emery is to secure qualification for Europe’s top competition.

Villa face Man City and Arsenal next - the two most difficult home matches any team can play.

If Villa were to win both of these, they would set a club record of 15 in a row, but better yet, they could even find themselves top of the table in mid-December.

Lose them both, and Villa Park might not feel like a fortress any more.

5. Will Sheff Utd or Luton win Boxing Day showdown?

Forget the top end of the table, arguably the biggest match of the Christmas period is down towards the bottom on Boxing Day, when Sheffield United host Luton Town at Bramall Lane.

The Blades’ 5-0 defeat at Burnley was a hammer blow and comes just before a busy run. Worse still, it comes just before some really difficult matches against those in the top half. 

By the time the returning Chris Wilder welcomes Luton, Sheff Utd could be cut adrift at the bottom of the table and in desperate need of victory.

Battle at the bottom

Position Pos Club Played Pl GD Points Pts
17 Nott'm Forest NFO 26 -14 24
18 Luton LUT 25 -16 20
19 Burnley BUR 26 -33 13
20 Sheffield Utd SHU 26 -44 13
View More

Luton are four points better off than Wilder’s side but face a similarly cruel month, beginning this week with home matches against Arsenal and Man City.

On Boxing Day, therefore, we are likely to see a relegation six-pointer between two teams struggling for form and staring into the abyss.

6. Can Arsenal get rare statement Anfield win?

For leaders Arsenal, whose fast start in a 2-1 win over  Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday hinted at a return to their best form with Gabriel Jesus leading the line, December is a month to prove themselves ready to go one step further in 2023/24.

That means a statement win somewhere, and there is no better opportunity than a trip to Anfield on 23 December. Liverpool conceded three goals at home to Fulham at the weekend, somewhat undermining what had been an excellent defensive record, and that gives hope to Arsenal.

Liverpool are now 19 Premier League matches unbeaten at Anfield and it could be 21 by the time Mikel Arteta’s side visit with hopes of ending it.

Certainly with Man City stuttering, Liverpool v Arsenal might become a title-deciding fixture, either at Anfield this month or at Emirates Stadium on 3 February, at which point, following an FA Cup third-round meeting in early January, the teams will have met three times in only six weeks.

The first, two days before Christmas, will set the tone. An away win would give Arsenal a major advantage.

7. Will Newcastle be homesick this Christmas?

That stumble through August and September is firmly behind Newcastle, who are putting together brilliant performances despite an injury crisis unfolding.

There’s just one problem. Fighting through adversity has depended almost entirely on the electric atmosphere of St James' Park – and Newcastle will not spend much time at home this Christmas.

Eddie Howe's side have won only two away matches in all competitions this season, beating Sheff Utd 8-0 in September and a 3-0 EFL Cup win at Man Utd last month.

Only two of their seven Premier League matches during the festive period are at home, against Fulham and Nottingham Forest.

Those might be home bankers, but the Magpies will not enjoy travelling around the country to Everton, Spurs, Luton, and Liverpool in the space of 26 days.

Newcastle have won five points from six matches on the road this season, averaging 0.83 points per game.

If they maintain that same rate and win both home matches this month Newcastle will take nine points from a possible 18. That isn’t quite Champions League form.

8. Is it time for a Chelsea surge?

Man Utd at Old Trafford is next up for Chelsea and if they can survive that one, Mauricio Pochettino will be confident of building a head of steam at last.

All five of their Christmas matches after Man Utd are against teams currently 12th or below, offering the chance for Chelsea to record back-to-back league wins for only the second time this season.

What’s more, Chelsea’s big squad means they can afford to rotate during the busy period more than most, potentially meaning they face Premier League strugglers with fresh legs.

More than anyone else, Chelsea are the ones to watch, the team who, when January brings a break, we might discover have ghosted up the table almost unnoticed.

9. Can Kompany get one over predecessor?

One of the standout games of the month is Sean Dyche’s first return to Turf Moor as an opposition manager.

It will be an emotional day for Dyche, who led Burnley for 10 years between 2012 and 2022, but also a big day in the relegation battle.

The two sides are level on points, and although Everton have won 10 points from their last five Premier League matches, the Clarets might hold the advantage on 16 December.

That’s because it will be Burnley’s first home match since the 5-0 victory over Sheff Utd that emphatically ended their seven-match losing streak at Turf Moor this season.

Finally off the mark, and with fans in full voice, Burnley will need to capitalise on this huge moment in their campaign.

More than that, Vincent Kompany, whose tactical rebrand at Burnley has been called into question following their slow start, will want to best his predecessor.

By doing so, he can prove that his way is progress on the Dyche-ball Burnley supporters know so well.

10. Will Brighton v Spurs determine what 2024 looks like?

Spurs are without a win in four Premier League matches and must contend with an ever-growing injury list. Brighton & Hove Albion have won only one of their last eight in the league.

By the time the two sides meet on 28 December - their respective curtain-closers to 2023 - a lot might have changed.

But looking at those tiring legs, and fairly tough fixture lists, it is likely both clubs will still be searching for a reset.

One thing we know for sure: When Brighton and Spurs go head-to-head it will be a very entertaining game.

Roberto De Zerbi and Ange Postecolgou know no other way to play, and, no matter how hard things get, they will stick to their principles.

The loser, if there is one, may find themselves cut off from the top four and facing a sad end to what has been, whatever happens between now and then, an exciting year of progress in 2023.

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