Boxing Day fixtures: always screwy, and traditionally a way of telling which players had been right on the drink over Christmas.
Hungover players may have vanished, but there’s still something slightly ooky about Boxing Day games that tend to lead to either right hammerings, 5-5 draws or 90 minutes of deathly tedium to make supporters yearn for staying home with Scrooged and a blanket.
Analysing Boxing Day games as if they’ll bear any relation to teams’ normal form is thus often irrelevant. But we’ll have a go – having allowed for December 26’s spectral pull…
Stoke v Manchester United (12:45pm)
All the rumours seem to suggest Louis Van Gaal has been given two games to save his job. Of all the places to go… And yet, the tradition of the Britannia Stadium being the last place fancy dan sides want to play at has changed since Mark Hughes was determined to get Stoke playing Proper Football. The joke is, Stoke now wouldn’t want to go to Stoke on a freezing Tuesday. Hughes routinely lost against Fergie’s United, but has had more luck since his mentor vanished. If Xherdan Shaqiri turns up, Stoke to win 2-0. If not, 0-0. The fact United now seem destined to play at the same tepid level no matter what is probably the most damning thing to say about Van Gaal’s reign.
Aston Villa v West Ham (3pm)
Forget taking over at Manchester City, if Pep Guardiola really wants to prove himself as a great manager, get him to take over at Villa. They’re no longer safe from relegation because there were always three even worse teams in the Prem. And so far, Villa have singularly failed to have any new manager bounce under Remi Garde. It’s not his fault – since Benteke left, where are the goals coming from? Why do they persist with haunted wasp Brad Guzan in goal? All that said, West Ham’s traditional post-October malaise is in full swing, winless and clueless for seven games now. Villa to somehow play like a team for a change and win 3-1. Won’t stop them being relegated, obviously.
Bournemouth v Crystal Palace (3pm)
Who can’t love Bournemouth killing off Mourinho and suddenly looking like they’ll have a second top-flight season as cuddly seaside buccaneers? What do you mean “shady oligarch”? Ssh now. The visit of the brutally efficient Palace will be a real test for Eddie Howe, given their excellent away form. 1-1, with Glenn Murray equalising for Bournemouth against his old team and irritating everyone by pointedly not celebrating.
Chelsea v Watford (3pm)
Chelsea fans to continue chanting for Mourinho and remaining aghast as Fabregas, Hazard, Oscar and Ivanovic wake from their season-long slumber. Yes, it’s annoying for anyone not a Chelsea fan that relegation won’t be a possibility since the doctor-baiting loon was dethroned, but Watford and their League Of Nations charabanc can do one as well. Quique Flores is an excellent manager, Odin Igalho and Troy Deeney are a superb old-school strike duo. But the way Watford abused the spirit of the loan system to get out of the Championship was a disgrace. Both teams to lose 4-0, please.
Liverpool v Leicester (3pm)
Will it be too early for “Klopp out” chants to start up if Leicester continue to cheer up all Fantasy Football managers and nick a win? Look, we’re all expecting Klopp to prove he’s more than the German Ian Holloway and show substance behind his forced zaniness. We’re all wondering at what point reality or an injury crisis hits Leicester’s squad and the table suddenly says they’re eighth. Until then, let’s enjoy it and hope for a 2-1 win for Leicester. Who will concede first, obviously, probably to a Benteke header.
Manchester City v Sunderland (3pm)
Oh come on, if this doesn’t have “Oddball Boxing Day result” written all over it. City will either win 7-0 or lose 1-0. Sam Allardyce looks like he’s suddenly realised just what a bunch of lazy swine he’s inherited, Manuel Pellegrini will want to prove he’s worth keeping in a job for another season. So it’ll surely be a battering. But it’s Boxing Day, so we’re exchanging our Amazon Christmas vouchers for William Hill tokens and going for a 1-0 away win, with James “Buster” Douglas to score the winner in the seventh round. Er, hang on a minute…
Swansea v WBA (3pm)
“Marcelo Bielsa for Swansea manager” is rapidly becoming as drawn out and tedious as “Klopp for Liverpool” was earlier this season. And look how that’s turning out. Swansea might be better off managerless, like a post-election country rolling on perfectly fine without a government. Certainly, they couldn’t wish for easier opponents right now than West Brom, who look as if Tony Pulis has forgotten how to grind out results. Two of the division’s lowest-scoring sides, start saving those angry tweets at Gary Lineker to Drafts now about it being last on Match Of The Day, even though it’ll be 0-0.
Tottenham v Norwich (3pm)
Harry Kane joked recently that he’ll score 21 goals against the Canaries, so that he can equal Lionel Messi’s goals total for the year. There was a brief period when that looked faintly plausible against Norwich, but Alex Neil’s team now have the solidity to underpin his emphasis on attacking football. It should make for an entertaining game. Now that Mauricio Pochettino has apparently stopped Spurs’ decades-long fragility, expect them to still be too strong, just. 3-2, with Kane to get one of his 21 goals.
Newcastle v Everton (5:30pm)
Having scored for eight games in a row, Romelu Lukaku will continue his pursuit of Jamie Vardy’s goalscoring record. (Which isn’t a real record, by the way. You do know “Premier League record” is a meaningless phrase and that Jimmy Dunne scored in TWELVE consecutive games for Sheffield United in the top flight in 1931-32, right? Good. Premier League statistics, honestly.) Where were we? Oh yes. The two most unpredictable Prem teams meet each other at last. Could be an absolute humdinger or both sides to fall apart like clowns’ cars into 0-0 nothingness. Best bet? 2-2, with one totally soft goal from each side, including one for Lukaku.
Southampton v Arsenal (7:45pm)
Ronald Koeman’s mob still haven’t recovered from that absolute shoeing by Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, while Arsenal look as if they can actually cope without Alexis Sanchez. Mesut Ozil is in such imperious form right now, it’s hard to see beyond a 2-0 win for Arsenal. The only good omen for Southampton is that they still have several good players, and Koeman hasn’t shown any signs of weak management despite the dip in form. But this is likely one game too early to recover, so 0-2 it is.
The fact Brighton finally lost a game for the first time this season may actually be a boost in their trip to Brentford, as they’d begun picking up too many draws just to keep the record going.
Wolves look in freefall while new manager Brian McDermott looks to have got Reading in order already. There are some good defenders at Wolves, but can they remember how to play as a unit?
Derby to beat Fulham seems the most certain of the division’s fixtures, while MK Franchise’s slide to relegation will hopefully continue against a Cardiff side who are better than their last few games suggest.
Elsewhere, Middlesbrough manager Ay Caramba to continue his side’s march to the title at Blackburn and bottom side Bolton to be the Oddball Result by doing in Rotherham.
The return of Nigel Clough to Burton seems as if he never went away, in so far as you can judge a last-minute equaliser against Doncaster. Visiting play-off hopefuls Bradford is a real test of whether Burton are properly damaged by Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink joining QPR or not.
If Burton slip, Walsall look in remarkably rude health. They visit Millwall, who are as easy to knock over at the New Den as an inflatable banana these days.
Colchester, who have the worst defensive record in the country, will try to rouse themselves for the local derby against Southend. But Phil Brown’s side will surely see the Us as an ideal chance to break into the play-offs.
The division’s Oddball Result may come at Bury, who have stuttered a bit recently, while relegation-threatened Barnsley have started to pick up the occasional good result.
You know who has the best record in the country after Manchester United for winning on Boxing Day? Oxford. Sorry, Exeter fans, but that’s a long way to go to for a festive beating.
The team with the worst Boxing Day record is Wycombe, which should mean three points for Luton. Also in the Hatters’ favour is caretaker manager Andy Awford, who has done a brilliant job overseeing their unbeaten youth team.
It’s top v second bottom as Plymouth will surely dispose of Yeovil, while at the very bottom Dagenham could be the Oddball Result as they look to impress potential new managers at home to inconsistent Cambridge.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn