Christmas gruel for busy Premier League players
LONDON (AFP) –
Christmas lights and festive shop displays foretell a season of indulgence in Britain but for Premier League footballers they herald the arrival of the most gruelling period of the year.
Uniquely among Europe’s major leagues, England‘s footballers are granted no winter break and must cram in an energy-sapping sequence of fixtures while the rest of the country is tucking into the traditional roast turkey and mince pies.
There are games in the Premier League on the weekends immediately before and after Christmas Day on December 25, as well as the traditional Boxing Day fixtures on December 26.
The New Year brings no let-up, with a full round of league games on January 1 and 2 followed by the FA Cup third-round fixtures the following weekend.
It is an arduous routine and woe betide any team with ambitions of progressing in the cup competitions as Britain’s winter months take hold.
Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benitez has already presided over eight games since taking charge at Stamford Bridge on November 21.
Commitments in the European Champions League, the Club World Cup in Japan and the English League Cup have been piled on top of the league programme, stretching the squad to its limits.
After losing 1-0 to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final in Yokohama on Sunday, Chelsea faced a 13-hour return flight and then had only 48 hours to prepare for their League Cup quarter-final at Leeds United on Wednesday.
A shock had been on the cards after Leeds took the lead in the 37th minute but the Blues battled back to win 5-1, easing the pressure on Benitez.
But starting on Sunday, last year’s Champions League winners face league games with Aston Villa, Norwich City, Everton and Queens Park Rangers — all in the space of just 11 days.
Benitez, though, says he cannot complain about the scheduling if he wants his team to amass as much silverware as possible.
“We have to win every competition if we can,” said the Spaniard, whose side’s victory against Leeds adds a League Cup semi-final to their heaving schedule.
“Christmas time is a crucial period because you can play so many games that will change everything.”
Boxing Day fixtures traditionally pit teams against their local rivals to spare fans the inconvenience of long journeys on a day when many public transport providers run restricted services.
Chelsea’s fans nonetheless face a 240-mile (386-kilometre) round-trip by road to the eastern English city of Norwich, which could take over six hours, while the match at Everton four days later will necessitate a 442-mile hike.
Managers have long campaigned for a change to the calendar over the Christmas period, amid claims it puts English teams at a disadvantage in European competition and tires out England players for major tournaments.
“It is not just to give the players a rest — it is to get rid of all the little injuries they carry,” said Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson last season.
“It would also freshen everyone up mentally, including my staff, because they could do with that break as well.
“But somehow they just will not listen to the people who really matter in the game: supporters, players, staff and coaches.
“That’s when maybe you think TV has too much power.”
Benitez and Ferguson could be forgiven for casting envious glances at Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and his West Ham United counterpart Sam Allardyce.
Their sides’ Boxing Day clash has been postponed due to a proposed strike on the London Underground transport network.
It will mean more fixture congestion in January, but just for once, their players might be able to enjoy a second helping of pudding and an extra glass of wine on Christmas Day.