Leicester City faces runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool on Boxing Day knowing their title hopes are considerably within the balance.
Thursday’s match will see the second-placed Foxes, the shock 2015/16 champions; begin 10 points adrift of Liverpool, who will arrive within the East Midlands fresh from winning a maiden Club World Cup title following a 1-0 victory over Brazilian side Flamengo in Qatar.
One of the more remarkable statistics in English football is that it’s nearly 30 years since Liverpool were last crowned domestic champions in what was then the First Division.
But Premier League silverware is now in view following a successful 2019 that has also seen Liverpool take the Champions League and UEFA Super Cup trophies back to Anfield also because of the Club World Cup.
One of the enduring peculiarities of the English game that has not changed, however, is that the packed programmed of matches that happen during the Christmas and New Year holiday period.
The congested schedule is again causing headaches for managers, with Foxes boss Brendan Rodgers saying the fixture list may be “nonsense”.
Leicester begins against Liverpool at 2000 GMT on Thursday before they play West Ham on Saturday.
They then complete four games in 10 days with a visit to Newcastle on new year Day, before hosting Wigan within the FA Cup on January 4.
This presents Rodgers with a drag about how often to field Jamie Vardy, the league’s leading scorer thus far this season, given the striker is now aged 32.
It’s about the welfare of players, insisted Rodgers, himself a former Liverpool manager who added that Vardy, for all he has scored 16 goals this term, had “no chance” of being involved throughout the festive period.
This season sees the Premier League experimenting with a ‘winter break’ which will see all teams get a weekend off in February.
But that pales into insignificance compared to the Bundesliga’s long-established winter break.
The German top-flight closes down for several weeks in December and January, with Rodgers saying English break was a “let’s pretend” version.
Liverpool is going to be without Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after the midfielder suffered an ankle injury against Flamengo as Jurgen Klopp’s side, unbeaten within the Premier League this season, bid to travel 13 points clear and all but end the title-race before by the halfway stage.
“If anyone wants to think things are over before they’re over we cannot stop them doing that, though it’s not important to us,” said Liverpool manager Klopp.
“As a group, we are pretty good at shutting the doors all around us to stay out the noise from outside,” the German added.
Fourth-placed Chelsea, fresh from a 2-0 win away to Tottenham Hotspur marred by the allegation of racist abuse, is a reception to Southampton while Spurs are going to be without the suspended Son Heung-min for the visit of Brighton after the South Korean’s red card against the Blues.
Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager starts away to Bournemouth, while new Everton boss Carlo Ancelotti is in charge at home to Burnley.
Newcastle, managed by former Old Trafford favorite Steve Bruce, will look to finish a league double Manchester United with each side presently level on 25 points and searching to interrupt into the highest six.
Sheffield United faces Watford, still bottom despite last week’s convert Manchester United.
We’re halfway through this season and that we knew this season was getting to be a season of some ups and downs, said Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Meanwhile reigning champions Manchester City are away to Wolves on Friday.
Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated):
Thursday Aston Villa v Norwich, Bournemouth v Arsenal, Chelsea v Southampton, Crystal Palace v West Ham, Everton v Burnley, Leicester v Liverpool (2000 GMT), Manchester United v Newcastle (1730 GMT), Sheffield United v Watford, Tottenham v Brighton (1230 GMT)
Friday: Wolves v Manchester City (1945 GMT)