I’ve looked at the fixture list, checked it twice, and expounded on who’s been naughty and nice in the run up to this year’s festive feast of football.
Back to their barnstorming best in Saturday’s sojourn to Tyneside, Roberto Mancini’s charges are poised to make merry over the festive period with appetising away ties at Sunderland and Norwich sandwiched between homely helpings of Reading and Stoke. Whilst the loss of Samir Nasri to a groin injury somewhat vitiated the City verve in the second half at St James’ Park, Mancini’s embarrassment of attacking riches should be more than sufficient to supply the deficit going forward. David Silva’s happy union of attacking threat and guaranteed pitch time is sure to earn points, whilst Yaya Toure’s goals in successive games look set to reignite the debate over his Fantasy merits – particularly if Nasri’s absence allows for his employment in a more advanced role. Up front the picture is plainly more problematic, and whilst Mario Balotelli’s latest fall from grace will be welcome news to owners of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, Mancini’s paternal instincts towards City’s prodigal son have dissolved his judicial rigour in the past. Defensively City remain top of the pack, but with Joe Hart the only ever-present at the back this season, potential investors will need nerves of steel and a strong bench to stomach the risk outfield.
Four wins and two clean sheets in the five games since Moussa Dembele’s return see Spurs flying high in fourth. Playing host to Stoke and Reading in between trips to Aston Villa, Sunderland and QPR, Andre Villas Boas will be anxious to make hay whilst the solstice sun shines on the schedule. Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s return to the fray will throw another cat amongst the pigeons in defence – but Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen look likely to remain safe bets: the former now claiming a share of dead balls, the latter more than capable of cutting the mustard in both boxes.
Six points clear of the pack and with five wins on the bounce, United greet the hectic Christmas schedule from their traditional berth in the box seat. Visits from Newcastle and West Brom, and trips to Swansea and Wigan comprise a menu poised to be greedily devoured by Sir Alex’s attack. Robin Van Persie has now topped the Striker rankings longer than Meatloaf topped the charts. The returns of Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones should demonstrate whether their early season frailties are the exception or the rule.
On the up after a shaky start, Brendan Rodgers’ side will be looking to put last weekend’s hiccup behind them and get back to winning ways over a run of games that sees them playing host to Fulham, Sunderland and Norwich, and paying visits to Stoke, QPR and United. Whilst the schedule isn’t without its challenges, the home games should provide ample opportunity for returns at both ends of the pitch. Luis Suarez’s explosive potential is as obvious as his regular failures to deliver are frustrating – without a goal since Gameweek 12, few would bet on the Uruguayan incrementing that statistic much further. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique have both been fruitful from the flanks of late, and three clean sheets in their last six demonstrate the potential for double digit returns from the Liverpool fullbacks.
West Bromwich Albion
Stopping the rot last weekend in the wake of three successive defeats, Steve Clarke’s West Brom entertain Norwich, Fulham and Villa over the next six, whilst taking trips to QPR, United and Reading. With five clean sheets from their nine home games so far, their mid-price back line has been an effective early season option. With Ben Foster on the verge of returning to fitness, his promise as part of a keeper rotation duo will likely re-enter consideration, whilst Gareth McAuley remains the most popular option from the outfield rearguard. Although James Morrison has gone off the boil somewhat since his opening flurry, the Scot is still getting into dangerous areas, and former Fantasy favourite Chris Brunt makes a recent case for consideration on the left. Shane Long’s five goals and five assists mark him out as the most fruitful candidate from the Baggies’ ranks but, goalless in five, he represents a brave pick on current form. Seldom completing 90 minutes, he will surely be vulnerable to competition from Romelu Lukaku over the coming weeks.
Whilst the likes of Robert Snodgrass and Sebastian Bassong have emerged as popular picks over Norwich’s recent run of strong performances, the fixture list now suggests their assets might best be admired from afar. Chris Hughton’s troops are firmly on the naughty list over ther next few, with a trip to the resolute West Brom immediately followed by visits from Chelsea and Man City. The schedule does ease a little into January, but even then visits to West Ham and Liverpool are no picnic. Norwich will doubtless take comfort from the fact that they’ve already beaten Arsenal and United at Carrow Road this season, but even two swallows don’t make a summer and the odds will be heavily against the Canaries well into the New Year.
Playing host to Arsenal and United, and with trips to Everton and the resurgent Aston Villa in between, the season ticker resembles a gruesome crime scene for the Latics. With four defeats in their last five and one foot in the relegation zone, Roberto Martinez’s men will need to summon the spirit that lifted them to salvation in the dying days of last season if they want to get anything out of their Christmas schedule. A stubbornly unpredictable outfit, Fantasy managers are rightly wary of their assets even when the going is good – it will take something of a leap of faith to anticipate an early epiphany at the DW.
With six defeats in their last seven, last season’s heroics are a distant memory for Newcastle and, with an already long injury list lengthening by the day, a tough run of fixtures isn’t the ideal Christmas present. Whilst QPR’s visit this weekend should give Demba Ba a good chance to add to his impressive tally of 11 for the season, it’s decidedly downhill from there. Back to back away games at United and Arsenal won’t earn the schedulers any thank you letters from Alan Pardew, and a visit from Everton promises to be a gritty scrap in Marouane Fellaini’s first game back from suspension. Things do improve into January with Norwich and Reading on the agenda, but Newcastle’s slump seems set to get worse before it gets better.