Premier League form elusive in the short term
The pressure in the English Premiership is intense over the Christmas and New Year holiday period and history suggests that the quick run of games, starting tonight, is no place to rediscover form.
Most of the teams that had experienced a bad run of form going into the holiday period last season were also among the worst sides over the three games from Boxing Day (four of the six teams with the worst four-match runs before Boxing Day were also among the worst six over the holiday season, and the same pattern was evident the previous season).
The worst six teams on current four-game form are, from the bottom, Wolves, Portsmouth, Manchester City, Charlton, Birmingham and Spurs, so they are teams to oppose in the coming days. Unfortunately for punters, most of those teams face each other tonight, with Birmingham v Manchester City and Portsmouth v Spurs. Draws look the best option in those games.
That leaves just Charlton and Wolves, who face tough tasks against Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. Arsenal might well cover a -2 handicap at home to bottom club Wolves, who have lost by two goals or more in five of their nine Premiership matches this season. They have leaked 15 goals in their last four away games, which include a 5-1 defeat in the Carling Cup earlier this month to a largely second-string Arsenal side. However, it is worth remembering that they lost only 1-0 at Manchester United earlier in the season after a similar run of heavy defeats.
Chelsea did the double over Charlton last season, but the Premiership record between the clubs is pretty even (four wins each from eight meetings, evenly split home and away). Charlton looked unlucky in last week's home 0-0 with Newcastle and on overall form cannot be dismissed as no-hopers against Chelsea, whose reliance on 1-0 wins remains a worry against good attacking sides.
It is also worth noting that Chelsea have been bang in form going into the holiday period in the past two seasons but gathered only one point from nine last year and three from nine the season before.
Fulham v Southampton should be a close game now that the visitors have bounced back to form with four wins and a defeat at in-form Bolton from five games in all competitions in December. However, Southampton's away form remains weak (they have scored in only one of their last seven away games against top-level opposition) and Fulham have the attack to come out on top.
Graeme Souness described Blackburn's 2-0 home defeat by Aston Villa as the worst display during his managerial reign at the club and a reaction should be expected from his team at home to Middlesbrough. Blackburn have won three and drawn two of the six previous Premiership meetings at Ewood Park, but there has never been more than a goal between the teams and another tight game looks likely.
A low-scoring draw looks the best bet. In-form Bolton travel to Liverpool, where they won 3-2 in the Carling Cup earlier this month. A similar result could be on the cards because Liverpool have lost since at home to Southampton, while Bolton have won at Chelsea and drawn at home to Arsenal.
Newcastle were lucky to come away from Charlton with a point, but they are worth sticking with for their visit to Leicester. Leicester have improved in recent weeks, but their home record still shows just one win from their last six and their two home wins have come against teams also in the bottom five (though they have drawn against Arsenal as well as high-flying Southampton and Charlton). Newcastle rarely draw a blank on the road, so they always have a good chance against lesser opposition. Manchester United are fancied to steamroller Everton on their current form and can be relied on to cover the -1 handicap as they like to put on a show for the festive crowd at Old Trafford.
You have to go back to the 1996-97 season to find a Christmas home fixture in which United failed to win by at least two goals.
Leeds United and Aston Villa, two of the top four teams on four-game form, clash at Elland Road. Home advantage might just give Leeds the edge, especially as Villa's away form remains suspect despite last week's 2-0 win at Blackburn.
Best homes: Fulham, Leeds, Manchester United.
Best aways: Newcastle, Bolton.
High goals: Manchester United v Everton.
Low goals: Blackburn v Middlesbrough.
Expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the Boxing Day fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio for a $1,000 bet.
$500 win Manchester United (-1)
$250 win Bolton (+1)
$250 win Newcastle.