Premier League: 10 things to look out for in Boxing Day and festive fixtures

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1) Leicester without Vardy aim to party like it’s 1963
Every year for more than half a century folks have been hoping for a repeat of the Boxing Day fun of 1963, when the 10 top-flight fixtures produced a record tally of 66 goals. We can’t get an exact repeat of that this year because half of the teams who were in the First Division back then are now in the lower leagues (although, as it happens, Ipswich and Fulham are meeting in the Championship this Boxing Day so Mick McCarthy could point to progress if his team do better than the 10-1 defeat that Jackie Milburn’s side suffered against Fulham in ’63). But this year’s Boxing Day fixture list has thrown up an identical pairing to the ’63 schedule, as Leicester host Everton. Back then, Everton, rather than Leicester, were the defending champions and they lost 2-0 in what turned out to be the lowest scoring match on that record-breaking day. Both Leicester’s goals were scored by Ken Keyworth, who we are going to describe as the Jamie Vardy of his time if we can specify that we only mean he was his team’s most prolific striker. Vardy, mind you, has not been prolific this season but he did score a hat-trick in his last home match and would have been hoping to resume where he left off if he had not gone and jumped into that tackle on Mame Biram Diouf at Stoke. His suspension spares Everton’s sluggish central defence from having to cope with his speed, but Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slimani could pose different challenges. Leicester could find their other suspensions more problematic: the club did not recruit adequate defensive cover in the summer so the absences of Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs give Everton an opportunity to recover from their Merseyside derby disappointment – and avenge the defeat of ’63. PD

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2) The omens are good for Liverpool against Stoke
This is this year’s other repeat of the 1963 Boxing Day schedule, or rather it would have been if this year’s match had not been pushed back to 27 December. Fifty-three years ago a 6-1 home victory over Stoke helped Liverpool on their way to their first top-flight title in more than two decades and, eventually, a glorious era of domestic dominance. The parallels are obvious. Right? Well, let’s see what Joe Allen has to say about that. The Welshman returns to Anfield in splendid, free-scoring form and will undoubtedly be instrumental in Stoke’s attempt to gain their first league win at Liverpool since 1959. But Glen Johnson could be even more important, and so too will Bruno Martins Indi, who has become the fulcrum of Stoke’s defence since joining the club in the summer, especially with Ryan Shawcross still seemingly struggling for maximum fitness. Meanwhile, if Daniel Sturridge is capable of lasting 90 minutes, then he should start for Liverpool in place of Roberto Firmino, who has looked in serious need of a rest in recent games. PD

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Daniel Sturridge
3) Arsenal and West Brom hope not to fuel old arguments
For a while it looked like this, at last, would be the season of goodwill towards Arsène Wenger. But then his team lost two tough away matches in a row and lo, Arsenal fans will again spend Christmas Day bickering about their manager and the way he plays his version of monopoly. The second half of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal has not all been about property development, there has also been some team building, but the question remains as to whether the manager has laid sturdy enough mental foundations. Beating West Bromwich Albion at home would not resolve that argument but it would at least deliver Arsenal fans the gift of momentary respite from in-fighting. Back in 1963 the squabbling was all in the West Brom camp before their Boxing Day meeting with north London opponents: their players went on strike in the run-up to the game in protest at being told by their manager, Jimmy Hagan, that they had to train for it in shorts despite the freakishly cold weather (it is not clear whether the freezing conditions also precluded naked headbutting but Hagan eventually reached an understanding with the players, who went on to draw 4-4 with Spurs). The more recent past provides a better pointer for West Brom’s visit to the Emirates, of course. And judging by West Brom’s approaches to their big away games so far this season, we can count on Pulis trying to make this a difficult match for Arsenal and a harrowing watch for everyone. PD

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4) Moyes and co could make life difficult for Manchester United
Let us stop with the 1963 comparisons now. In fact, let us not mention the past at all, lest we bring a tear to the eye of David Moyes. But if we must mention the Scot’s previous experiences at Old Trafford, let us concentrate on the wins he enjoyed there during his 11 years as Everton manager. Eh? Oh well. Tell you what, let us just look back to Sunderland’s triumphant last match, a 1-0 victory over Watford inspired by Adnan Januzaj, who, alas, is ineligible for the forthcoming match against his parent club. Poor Moyes cannot catch a break when Old Trafford is involved. But his job is to make his own luck no matter the weak hand he is dealt, and on Monday that will entail choosing a suitable replacement for Januzaj. Chances are Moyes will plump for John O’Shea. Don’t laugh! The Irishman did well in a back three when Sunderland made life tough for Chelsea a fortnight ago and redeploying that system seems like Moyes’s best chance of inflicting misery on Manchester United supporters, again. PD

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5) Memories of Brown team talk provide light relief to stern test
It is precisely eight years since Hull met Manchester City on Boxing Day 2008 and Phil Brown memorably delivered his half-time team talk on the pitch, with his team already 4-0 down. “I thought it was nice and cold and I thought I would keep the boys alive because they looked as if they were dead,” he said, and the novel move kind of worked – they drew the second half 1-1, and the game ended 5-1. City were in the bottom three at the time, while Hull were sixth; by season’s end City were 10th and Hull, who won only one more league game, avoided relegation by a point. Manchester City, who at the time had not finished in the top four since 1978, have only failed to do so once since, when they came fifth in 2010. The knee injury sustained by Pablo Zabaleta in the win over Arsenal means that no survivors of the 2008 game will appear in this one – Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart also played that day and remain on City’s payroll – but Hull may find their task is no less formidable. SB

• Snodgrass rejects new Hull contract and targets January departure
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6) Carroll could have a whale of a time in Swansea
Swansea have been so diabolical away – no, that is not the right word – so sheepish away that it is easy to forget that they have been relatively fearsome in their last two home matches, beating both Crystal Palace and Sunderland. So they are certainly capable of beating West Ham. But that does not seem likely, as Slaven Bilic’s side have shown evidence of tightening up in recent games and, in Andy Carroll, have a forward who could wreak havoc against the softest central defence in the Premier League (again). PD

• West Ham do not want to sell team’s ‘top player’ Payet, says Bilic

Andy Carroll
7) When will Conte’s Chelsea stop winning?
With Diego Costa and N’Golo Kanté suspended, is the end nigh for Chelsea’s winning run? Michy Batshuayi hopes not. Costa’s one-match ban gives the Belgian striker, for whom Chelsea paid £33m in the summer, an opportunity to prove his worth. It is up to Bournemouth, meanwhile, to prove that without Kanté’s protection Chelsea’s defence is far more vulnerable. Bournemouth have been wobbly on the road so far this season but they won at Stamford Bridge last term and Eddie Howe, and fans of a close title race, would welcome a repeat of that result this year. PD

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8) A meeting of frustrating finishers at St Mary’s
Forget about Mauricio Pochettino: what these two teams have in common is an infuriating wastefulness. Both create a lot of chances, both tend to miss most of them. Southampton showed signs of improvement in their last match, that 3-1 win at Bournemouth, when they produced a sharpness that they had often lacked. They will probably need to produce that again, and replicate the intensity and speed they showed at Bournemouth, if they are to inflict a third successive away defeat on Tottenham Hotspur. PD

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Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min
9) Palace seek to stop away rot at Vicarage Road

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Three defeats in their last four games have seen Watford slip from seventh to 12th, but if the feeling of anxiously looking over their shoulders is an unpleasant novelty to them, it has become regrettably familiar to a Palace side which, after losing eight of their last 10 league games (aggregate score 14-24) and sacking Alan Pardew, could drop into the bottom three for the first time since August should they lose at Vicarage Road. Last year’s 1-0 win there came during that part of Pardew’s tenure when Palace were particularly impressive away from home – it was their 11th victory in 14 away games – and although they required a second-half penalty to secure it, their superiority was gently evident throughout. Afterwards Pardew talked happily about how his side were inherently suited to success on their travels – “we’ve got good players for an away team because we’ve got pace” – but though they have not forgotten how to sprint, more recently their running away from home has sometimes been of the headless chicken variety. Talking of runs, they return on one of two victories in their last 19 away games, and three in the last calendar year. And their away fixtures are not going to get any easier: they have already visited every other member of the bottom seven (they are the only team yet to have hosted any member of that group). With Pardew gone, the time has come for a return to winning aways. SB

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10) Home comforts suit Defour as Burnley face big week
Since half-time in the televised 4-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion last month, which he started, Burnley have played 315 minutes (plus stoppages) of football away from Turf Moor and Steven Defour has been on the pitch for six of them. The Belgian has however started every home game he has been available for this season, and is likely to return to the team for the visit of Middlesbrough, the first of two crucial-looking home games for the Clarets over the festive period, with Sunderland due on New Year’s Eve. Given that they have won 16 points at home and just one away, it could be argued that Burnley only really play when on their own ground, but in Defour’s case it is literally true. There has also been a statistical decline in his performances: there were three assists and one brilliant goal in his first five appearances, but none of either in his last seven. Sean Dyche has said that Defour is yet to adapt to the English game. “It’s a different journey through the Premier League. It’s physical, it’s fast,” he told the Lancashire Telegraph last week. “I’ve seen him play at Anderlecht, it’s a different ball game there. It’s slow, it’s methodical, with pockets of good tempo. The Premier League is hard and fast and the stats prove that. It’s finding the right balance to him understanding us and understanding the Premier League.” Word from Belgium is that the player is becoming frustrated with life in England, but active involvement in the next week’s two crucial fixtures could help make his a happier new year. SB

• Barton back at Burnley and in the last-chance saloon

Të ngjashme

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