LONDON: Jose Mourinho has bucked the trend that decreed the league leaders at Christmas rarely win the title so he will be keen to complete the reeling in of Manchester United during the four-match holiday programme.
In the nine years before Mourinho’s 2004 arrival at Chelsea only once, when Manchester United triumphed in 2000/01, did the leaders by Christmas Day go on to take the title.
Liverpool, Aston Villa and Newcastle United were among the sides who enjoyed Christmas dinner with dreams of glory, only to be overhauled by United or Arsenal.
Mourinho’s Chelsea changed that around in his first season, leading by five points at Christmas and staying there to finish 12 clear of Arsenal, and repeated it last season when they were nine clear of United by Dec 25 and the same in May.
Happy to lead from the front, the Portuguese coach must have been slightly concerned to see United eight points in the distance, albeit from an extra game, a week ago.
However, the gap has been cut to two points after Chelsea’s wins over Newcastle United and Everton, as United lost at West Ham United last weekend.
On paper, the top two could reasonably expect to win all four of their holiday games, three of which involve the same mid-table opponents but, with the matches squeezed into 10 days, the likelihood is that points will be dropped.
Chelsea, who won 1-0 at Newcastle United in the League Cup on Wednesday, open up at Wigan Athletic on Saturday before hosting Reading on Dec. 26. On Dec. 30 they entertain Fulham before completing their programme three days later at Aston Villa.
Manchester United start at Villa, host Wigan and Reading and visit Newcastle on New Year’s Day.
Chelsea have taken maximum points from their four holiday games in each of the last two seasons – United have not.
Mourinho’s squad, though expensively-assembled, is not huge and these fixtures will test them. He has already said he is considering shopping for a central defender in the January transfer window to help cover for the injured John Terry.
With Ricardo Carvalho also struggling for fitness it leaves Khalid Boulahrouz as the key man now central defenders Robert Huth and William Gallas have left the club.
United have loan signing Henrik Larsson waiting in the wings but the former Celtic and Barcelona striker will not feature until mid-January.
Ferguson said last week it was far too early to talk about the title but backed his team’s ability to perform when the going gets tough – and the fixtures pile up – in March and April.
After the defeat at West Ham, United’s first away loss of the season, he said: “We just have to gather ourselves and start another charge”.
No amount of charging is going to bring Arsenal or Liverpool back into the title race.
Liverpool are third with 31 points, 11 behind Chelsea and 13 off the lead, with Arsenal fourth on 30.
The main aim of both sides already looks to be holding off the challenge of teams like Bolton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur and even Portsmouth in the chase for Champions League slots.
Arsenal’s four holiday games are Blackburn Rovers (h), Watford (a), Sheffield United (a) and Charlton Athletic (h), while Liverpool’s line-up is Watford (h), Blackburn (a), Tottenham (a) and Bolton (h).
The two teams can then compare notes on their progress when they meet in the FA Cup third round on Jan 6 and in a rearranged League Cup quarter-final tie three days later. – Reuters
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