The night­mare of Christ­mas

Pre­mier League teams play on av­er­age one game ev­ery three days dur­ing the jam-packed pe­riod

Mail & Guardian - - News - Luke Feltham

Wayne Rooney once joked in an in­ter­view that he had to re­strict his Christ­mas pud­ding in­take thanks to hav­ing a game early the next day. It’s amus­ing to be­lieve that his per­sonal strug­gle was more dire than he led on.

Foot­ball ac­knowl­edges no war or hol­i­day. Those who play the mod­ern game will have learned early in their ca­reers that fam­ily is over­shad­owed by tra­di­tion.

South Africa, Aus­tralia and New Zealand play Test cricket on Box­ing Day; the English play foot­ball. Year af­ter year, no mat­ter what day of the week, a ball will be kicked. (At least it beats NBA play­ers taking to the bas­ket­ball court on the 25th it­self.) This un­wa­ver­ing fol­low­ing of tra­di­tion has played a not in­signif­i­cant part in jam­pack­ing the De­cem­ber-january pe­riod with an in­or­di­nate amount of sport.

It’s the same movie ev­ery time we turn this cal­en­dar page: the games hastily blaze past our screens, play­ers fall vic­tim to fa­tigue and man­agers moan un­til we can no longer bear it. Try­ing their hand at cow tip­ping would have as much util­ity.

Here are some num­bers: Pre­mier League teams in the League Cup quar­ter­fi­nal, such as Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur and lead­ers Manch­ester City, would have played six matches across three com­pe­ti­tions be­tween this week and the first Satur­day of January. That’s an 18-day pe­riod. If we count from last Tues­day. On av­er­age that’s a game ev­ery three days. Mad­ness — no other way to put it.

De­cem­ber is foot­ball’s equiv­a­lent of a re­lay ba­ton change. The race could be go­ing as com­fort­ably as a Sun­day stroll, but at some point you’ll have to tag in your team­mates; team­mates that may not be as es­teemed or might be a lit­tle slow off the pace. Even City could have a Nesta Carter lurk­ing in their ranks.

But it’s their cross-town ri­vals that will prob­a­bly mo­nop­o­lise the bitch­ing and whin­ing. Af­ter the sack­ing of José Mour­inho this week, more obli­ga­tions to watch Romelu Lukaku do what­ever he does on the field is the last thing the Manch­ester United fans or­dered for Christ­mas.

The pre-fes­tive traf­fic jam could hardly have gone worse for the Red Devils and the in­jury ca­su­al­ties have al­ready be­gun to roll in. Alexis Sanchez is out un­til the New Year and will be forced to think about his re­cent life choices, and new star Anthony Mar­tial had some nig­gles to con­tend with. Last week­end’s em­bar­rass­ing loss was an ad­vert for how not to de­fend, brought about by the absences of Chris Smalling, Mar­cos Rojo and Luke Shaw.

Paul Pogba, de­spite not be­ing af­flicted with a med­i­cally recog­nised con­di­tion, keeps them com­pany on the side­lines.

It’s hard to see Rooney’s alma mater en­joy­ing any pud­ding at all with such a stretched and de­mo­ti­vated squad.

A far more in­trigu­ing ques­tion to an­swer is how Liver­pool will re­spond to the rush. Eng­land’s only un­beaten team have been on a non­stop high this sea­son — one that has left Jür­gen Klopp vis­i­bly in­tox­i­cated on the side­lines. But what hap­pens when Divock Origi is asked to play a lit­tle more foot­ball? When Daniel Stur­ridge has to put his frail legs to the test? Bril­liant they may be but Klopp has cer­tainly been for­tu­nate in his fit­ness luck — most no­tably, he’s al­most al­ways been able to call on the Sa­dio Mané, Mo­hamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino tri­umvi­rate. Take just one out and all of a sud­den the bite soft­ens.

The Ger­man man­ager was uni­ver­sally praised for bring­ing on match-win­ner Xher­dan Shaqiri last week­end, but in truth he didn’t have any other play­ers on the bench that might be re­lied upon for such a high oc­ca­sion.

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