Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Thank God that English football has no Christmas break...

    Christmas time means different things to different people. To some it is about friends, others family, to many drinking, presents or charity. Over-consumption is a popular theme and football is no different to chocolates, mince pies or mulled wine. Between Boxing day and the 3rd of January, we have a staggering fixture list to feast on. 135 games, made up of 20 Premier League matches, 24 in the Championship, 27 in League 1, 32 in League 2 and an extra 32 games with the guaranteed white-knuckle ride that is the 3rd round of the FA cup should leave us all (almost) satisfied. By the 3rd, when the fixture list starts to settle down again, we will all have a much better idea of how our teams seasons are looking. Today I plan to have a little talk about which teams are on a precipice, the fine line between success and failure, and pick out a few for whom this Christmas really is ‘make or break’.

    The temptation to carry on talking about Man City or Liverpool (who could be out of every competition bar the Europa League 3 days into 2010) is massive, but I have decided to resist. Instead, we are going to have a little look a couple of teams who you might not instantly think associate with danger, but for whom a dodgy Christmas could seriously jeopardise very promising starts.

    Lets start in the Premiership, where for me, one of the teams most reliant on coming through Christmas unscathed are Sunderland. Steve Bruce, indisputably an excellent manager, managed to make the Black Cats a tough side to beat for the first month or so of the season. The form of Darren Bent in particular turned the Stadium of Light into a place no-one fancied visiting, and top half clubs like Birmingham City,  Liverpool and Arsenal have lost there, whilst Man Utd couldn’t beat them at Old Trafford. Their upcoming fixtures. a home tie versus Everton, a trip to Ewood Park and non-League Barrow in the FA Cup all look like very winnable games, but Sunderland’s form is abysmal - they have only recorded 1 win since 17th October. This coincides with the absence of influential midfielder Lee Cattermole, who returned on Saturday against Man City in a game that the Black Cats were unlucky to come out of without at least a point. They are sitting in 10th place with 21 points - interestingly the exact same amount as at this stage of last season. That year, they only won 15 more points after Christmas and finished in 16th place, only two clear of relegated Newcastle. In 2010 they must strive to ensure they do not capitulate to the same extent, and this kicks off on Boxing Day against Everton.

    The next side who’s Christmas period I have identified as particularly crucial are Nottingham Forest. 3rd place in the Championship may seem like a dream come true, even for those fans who remember the glory days, but now is the time that Billy Davies’ side must start believing that they deserve to be where they are. Especially as the clubs beneath them, particularly Cardiff, will fancy their chances of picking off the Reds in the second half of the season. This Forest side  are relatively inexperienced in the search for promotion out of the league, only finishing in the Championship play-off positions once since 2000 and securing safety in the latter stages of last season. Therefore, it is crucial for Forest to capitalise away at Watford and at home to Coventry, as Cardiff will be looking for 6 points in games against the bottom two teams in the league. As I previously mentioned, Billy Davies has repeatedly talked down his team this year. However, wins against Boro, Newcastle, Swansea and Preston to name but 4 prove that his side deserve to be where they are. Maybe now is the time for Billy, shrewd man that he is, to start talking up his side and push for an automatic spot rather than risk the lottery of the playoffs.

    Anyway, every football fan in the country will have 3 points on Boxing Day top of the Christmas list. Although the clubs I have picked out find themselves in particular situations, I doubt anyone will be feeling too charitable come kick off on the 26th. Barring any major developments in the football world tomorrow, I will update again on Christmas or Boxing Day- Merry Christmas one and all!

P.S. I thought this made interesting reading, the Daily Mail‘s Premier League “Improvement Table“…

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