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Festive footie heats things up

chris_dring

Arsenal v Aston Villa is the choice fixture from the Christmas weekend ties, with Martin O’Neill’s lads looking to grab another victory at the Emirates.

Photo by: AFP
Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa have crept up into fourth position again, but can they avoid another late season collapse?
Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger will probably be forced to sign a striker in the upcoming January transfer window.

With England suffering its coldest weather in a decade, can Britain’s top global export, the Premier League, slice through the deep freeze and heat things up, as we enter a packed festive period of football? And will Mark Hughes be the only big name coach to be shown the door as the pursuit for glory gets turned up a few notches?

Aston Villa, under Martin O’Neill, has crept into fourth spot. Last season they threatened to break into the top four, only to collapse after showing so much promise. They travel to Arsenal in the pick of this weekend’s fixtures.

Villa came up short last season because of a lack of depth within their squad, but this time around they have bought well and have genuine competition for places. They always pose a threat from set plays, and with serious pace on the counterattack, the Gunners might have to be patient.

Arsenal as always will dominate possession, but without a target man they can be a little one-dimensional and will find it tough to play their neat brand of football through a well-organised Villa. Van Persie’s injury should bring Wenger’s cheque book out in the January sales. Until then Arshavin, Nasri and Fabregas will painstakingly attempt to break down the opposition with precise one-twos, as they look to walk the ball into the net.

Arsenal’s only major embarrassment this season came at the hands of a powerful Chelsea. Villa have taken notes and will attempt to repeat their triumph at the Emirates last season. This should be a tight game and despite Arsenal’s obvious talent and flair, this is the kind of game they’ll have to grind out, the hard way. Arsenal are ominous at home, but Downing, Young, Milner and Agbonlahor offer a real cutting edge on the counter attack, and I fancy a thrilling draw.

Man United got truly torn apart at Craven Cottage last weekend. Scholes looked a shadow of his former self as Sir Alex’s patched-up defence leaked three goals without reply. United has an enormous squad, but the list of sidelined defenders will be a real concern. They travel to Hull for a game you’d normally expect them to win at a canter.

Hull fans already know they’re in for another perilous season. There certainly couldn’t be a better time to play the Red Devils, but Hull are such a poor side that I’d find it almost insane to back them.

Ferguson would have been smarting inside and expecting a reaction from his players. Up front, Rooney needs a partnership, but both Owen and Berbatov seem incapable at present. Man United over the years have won many a game without playing well or with conviction. I doubt Sir Alex will care how they win, just as long as they take the three points back to Old Trafford.

Birmingham host Chelsea on Saturday and seem to have distanced themselves from the relegation zone. They are confident and seem to have luck on their side, which they’ll need for the daunting task of beating Ancelotti’s Blues.

Chelsea threw away two points against West Ham last week, and know this is the time to put some distance between themselves and the chasing pack.

Birmingham might lack a cutting edge and haven’t scored as frequently as manager Alex McLeish would have liked, but defensively they’ve been solid and will be difficult to break down. Chelsea lacked width at Upton Park, and I expect Ancelotti to tinker slightly with his formation. Drogba will want to have his side firmly established at the top of the table before he departs for the African Nations, along with three other team mates. This is unlikely to be the beautiful game at its best, but sparks might fly as two sides take battle on a cold December afternoon in England’s second city.

Defeat at home to Wolves this weekend would be nothing short of catastrophic for Liverpool. Benitez is likely be the only man in England feeling hot under the collar this weekend. Wolves have had a few good results of late but they’re still going to be scraping for survival at the end of the season. They usually don’t have enough quality to take something away from Anfield.

Three points for Liverpool should be the enough to spark a revival. Torres and especially Gerrard need to lead by example and deliver an overdue Christmas present. If Benitez’s players can get an early goal then it could be a rout, but the longer the game remains goalless, the more anxiety and tension could be unbearable for all Liverpool fans.

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