The Christmas period, which encompasses Game Weeks 18 to 20, is often a telling time for football fans up and down the country. The festive spirit in many households is largely dictated by the results which roll in during the deepest, coldest evenings of the year.
With the halfway mark of 2015/16 all but reached, the Premier League table has now taken a meaningful form, and words such as ‘relegation’ and ‘safety’ will figure ever more prominently in yuletide dinner conversations.
It has been a largely unpredictable season to date, and here are five matches that have the greatest potential to produce a shock and make all the difference, offering a huge chance for fantasy managers to score an impressive tally this Christmas.
1. Stoke v Manchester United
26th December – 12.45pm
Only two of last season’s top six are playing away on Boxing Day, making it difficult to pick some less obvious players for GW 18.
Having presumably maxed out on the priciest Manchester City players (at home to Sunderland), fantasy managers may find that funds are running short for the midfield. On the evidence of their recent 2-0 win over Manchester City, the current Stoke team has the ability to win a midfield war with City’s neighbours United on Boxing Day, offering an affordable solution to this conundrum.
United remain vulnerable in defence due to the recent injury crisis, and a trip to the Britannia Stadium is the very last thing that an under-strength backline needs.
The Red Devils may have the better overall calibre of players, and a few pacy outlets, but that has counted for little on several occasions this season.
Key players: Arnautovic & Walters (STO), Depay (MUN)
First goalscorer: Arnautovic
2. Tottenham v Norwich
26th December – 3pm
This will not be an easy game for Tottenham. Though Norwich remain in dire danger of relegation, the Canaries have seldom lost without putting up a darn good fight.
However, the North Londoners have occasionally lacked composure when playing in a winning position, and there is the overriding feeling that Pochettino’s squad is still missing that standout player required to break into the top four again.
Key players: Kane & Eriksen (TOT), Redmond (NOR)
First goalscorer: Eriksen
3. West Bromwich v Newcastle
28th December – 3pm
After starting December with back-to-back wins, Newcastle supporters and players alike have been given new hope, with the Magpies facing a fraught battle to avoid relegation in the New Year.
Though West Brom will be the favourites for a majority of neutrals, Newcastle’s newfound hunger under Steve McLaren could far outstrip that of their hosts, leading to another opportunity to claim a priceless away win.
Key players: Cisse & Sissoko (NEW)
First goalscorer: Cisse
4. Sunderland v Liverpool
30th December – 7.45pm
The game plan for Sunderland will be basic, but far from easy for Liverpool to negotiate. In the face of adversity, Sam Allardyce is remaining true to himself, setting his squad up to avoid defeat rather than chase victory.
For all the self-evident class of Klopp’s charges, the Liverpool team of 2015/16 has occasionally struggled to break the resistance of ‘lesser’ teams, and there is a real danger of Sunderland’s combative style giving the reds a nasty surprise in the North East.
One Sunderland player that may not figure largely in Klopp’s play book is 21-year old attacker Duncan Watmore. Though he is by no means a talisman yet, the youngster has often played with gusto until the final whistle, even when all is lost and the remainder of the squad is reflecting on another defeat.
Ultimately, it will be this fighting spirit that galvanises the team throughout the second half of the season.
Key players: Watmore & Fletcher (SUN), Lallana (LIV)
First goalscorer: Fletcher
5. Watford v Man City
2nd January – 5.30pm
Manchester City’s inconsistency and Watford’s stern resolve on the counter makes this game very difficult to predict. Though City won the reverse fixture at the Etihad Stadium, Watford have improved significantly over the past several months, and the first Vicarage visitors of 2016 can have scant room for complacency.
The more optimistic of Watford supporters would consider their team to be real candidates for a Europa League place in May, but survival remains of utmost importance until the theoretical ‘safety’ mark of 40 Premier League points is reached. In a similar scenario to Liverpool’s aforementioned visit to Wearside, City may be frustrated at their inability to break a Watford side that has claimed some unlikely clean sheets over the past few weeks.
Having exerted their energies on breaking Watford’s resistance in trying to re-establish themselves as title frontrunners, City will be vulnerable to the dreaded ‘sucker punch’ as the game wears on.
Key players: Ighalo & Capoue (WAT), Silva & Toure (MCI)
First goalscorer: Kolarov