There is no winter break in England and Christmas is the traditional time to play six matches in eight days! There is a desire to watch football over the break but the schedule of live TV matches is uninspiring and includes no blockbuster matches. The thinking might be that there is a captive audience and it’s the football more than the quality of the matches that matters. However, fans loyalty should not be taken for granted and that huge bubble that is live football could be about to burst.
In the past a match shown live on television had a massive scarcity value. Before the arrival of dedicated sports channels there was a maximum of five matches live on television. The Cup Final was a huge occasion because it was a rare match that could be viewed in its entirety as it happened. There was a strange habit of football fans trying to avoid the score so they could watch 20 minutes of highlights as though live. An episode of Whatever Ever Happened To The Likely Lads captured it perfectly – they spent all day avoiding the score and the match was postponed!
There are four Premier League matches live on television from Monday to Wednesday and in terms of relative league positions Southampton’s home match against Tottenham is the pick. That’s hardly likely to get the juices flowing in the bars and pubs of Manchester and Liverpool where there is a massive hunger to see their teams play during a holiday. Viewing figures for football are in decline and they are unlikely to receive a boost by what is on offer during Christmas week when the highlight is Spurs’ trip to the south coast on Wednesday.
Southampton are on the periphery of challenging for a Champions League spot but they are well placed to qualify for the Europa League again. The Saints have scored just one goal more than they have conceded and that record over half a season suggests they are competent at the back but struggle with goals at the other end of the field. They keep changing coaches and selling their best players but that strategy seems to be working again.
No side has lost fewer games than Tottenham and only Chelsea have conceded less goals. However, they have rarely played with the intensity which took them close to the title last season. Tottenham will get in the mix to qualify for the Champions League again but the window of opportunity to win the Premier League has closed, despite Harry Kane proving he is more than a one-season wonder. This fixture against Southampton has a draw written all over it and not an avalanche of goals.
The first live match after Christmas Day brings together Watford and Crystal Palace Monday. Watford were one of the biggest overachievers last season but over the first half of this they have found their level. There is some money behind the club which has allowed Watford to secure mid-table security, unlikely to be challenging for places in Europe but safe from relegation worries. Walter Mazzarri replaced Quique Sanchez Flores as manager and this seems to be one appointment of an overseas coach that has some substance as well as style.
Crystal Palace reached the Cup Final last season and despite a poor run of form in the league after Christmas were relatively safe in 15th place. Ahead of this season a lack of goals was seen as a potential problem but that has not transpired Despite being 17th in the league only the top five teams have scored more goals. However, no other side has conceded more so it’s obvious where the problem lies. Watford can confirm their current league position be recording a home win.
The away banker of the schedule must be Manchester City at Hull on Monday. The home side have the worst goal difference in the Premier League. No team has scored fewer than Hull’s 14 and they have won just six points from their last 15 games. Hull are worthy favourites to finish bottom and return immediately to the Championship after winning the playoffs last season. There is turmoil off the field and without significant investment in the January transfer window Hull are booked for the drop.
Manchester City are one of the four teams to have been at the top of the Premier League during the current season. However, they are now seven points off the pace due to Chelsea’s 11 match winning run. City began the campaign with 10 straight wins so can put a string of victories together. The key is whether Pep Guardiola can get his defensive ideas across and if so City’s squad can earn them second place and that process can begin with a win at Hull.
The home banker must be Liverpool to beat Stoke at Anfield. Liverpool are the leading scorers in the Premier League this season to date. However, they have looked nowhere near as effective during Philippe Coutinho’s recent absence. Another key player is Adam Lallana and only five points were collected from the four games he missed. Liverpool sneaked a late win against Everton but were not much better than their average local rivals.
Stoke are the epitome of a mid-table outfit and are currently 11th after winning five matches, losing six and drawing six. However, they have conceded five goals more than they have scored which suggests their current position flatters them. In the last three seasons Stoke have finished ninth and won between 50 and 54 points. Stoke have only ever finished between ninth and 14th since moving in to the Premier League in 2008 and that run looks likely to continue this time despite a defeat at Liverpool.
Teams in the Premier League play too much football but the Christmas fixture pile-up is a tradition. However, as we embark on the second half of the season an epic title race is unlikely to develop and Chelsea could have it done and dusted by Easter.