Chelsea try to avoid festive blues

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 December, 2004, 12:00am

Mourinho will be hoping to stop his charges 'going missing' over the hectic holiday season, as they have in the past

Chelsea fans might experience some queasiness as they tuck into their Christmas lunch, even though their team sits atop the English Premiership with a five-point lead over Arsenal.

A testing nine days lie ahead, with home games against Aston Villa and Middlesbrough, either side of tricky trips to Portsmouth and Liverpool, and Chelsea fans have learned not to take anything for granted at this time of year.

Like Santa's reindeer without Rudolf's red nose to guide them, Chelsea usually go missing over the hectic holiday season. They have won on Boxing Day in only three of the past 10 seasons and the balance of points won over the festive season has been in their favour on only four occasions. It is a dismal record, and it may be no coincidence that it dates back to the first influx of foreign players to Stamford Bridge in the early 1990s.

England is the only major European football nation that crams so many games into such a short period and, for many players unused to turning out over Christmas and the New Year, it is probably a shock to the system.

Chelsea's squad has been overloaded with foreign stars for most of the past decade and their record suggests that, collectively, they have not adapted well enough to the demands of England's festive programme. Arsenal's multi-national squad has achieved good Christmas results, however, so it would hardly rank as a Christmas miracle if the highly motivated Jose Mourinho could get the current Chelsea squad to perform much better than they have in previous years. He has the advantage of strength in depth, which will allow him to rotate the team as he wants over the coming week, but it will take all his guile to ring the changes at the right time.

This year's schedule is even busier than usual, with most teams playing four games between December 26 and January 3.

Three is the usual number, but last season there were only two (December 26 and 28) before a break until January 6.

Chelsea are among the group that must play four times in the space of nine days and they are at a slight disadvantage against their big-time rivals Arsenal and Manchester United, whose final games in the holiday period are a day later, on January 4.

Rafael Benitez, the Spaniard plotting his first Christmas campaign as Liverpool manager, admitted recently that the quick sequence of matches required a different mindset from both coaches and players, and it will be interesting to see how he and Mourinho cope with this unfamiliar problem.

Claudio Ranieri, the 'Tinkerman' who preceded Mourinho in the Chelsea hot seat, never got to grips with it. Ranieri was in charge at Chelsea for four Christmases but never managed to win on Boxing Day and gathered only 11 points from a possible 30 in Christmas and New Year games.

A repeat of those lacklustre performances this year might well allow Arsenal to catch up, given that all four of Chelsea's opponents over the holiday season are in the top 12, while on paper Arsenal have a much easier set of games. The champions are one of only four teams who do not have to play a top-six side in this period - the others being Everton, Blackburn and Crystal Palace.

For those prepared to take the chance that Chelsea's Boxing Day jinx will continue, Villa are big odds to cause an upset.

It is worth remembering that they held Chelsea 0-0 at Villa Park in September - though the visitors were denied a legitimate penalty late in the game - and were unlucky to lose 1-0 at Stamford Bridge last season. The new Chelsea are a different proposition, however, and Villa's away form is untrustworthy this season, so the away win is still a long shot.

It is also worth noting that Villa's Christmas record is little better than Chelsea's - just one point more in the 10 games played over the past four seasons. The two teams have met at Stamford Bridge in a holiday game during that period, with Chelsea winning 1-0 on New Year's Day, 2001.

The best Christmas performer over the past four seasons has been Manchester United, with 28 points out of a possible 33. Arsenal are next, with 23 out of 30, and the fact that those giants have outstripped their main rivals is proof that a good Christmas is a vital element in a championship-winning season.

Charlton, who have also accumulated 23 points out of 30 over the past four seasons, head the list of teams who generally over-perform at Christmas.

They are the only team to have beaten Arsenal during that period and they also defeated Chelsea 4-2 on Boxing Day last year. Charlton's holiday games include visits to struggling Southampton and Blackburn, with home games against Everton and Arsenal sandwiched in between, so they will be hopeful of another good showing.

It might not be all plain sailing at Southampton because the south coast side are next in the list of top Christmas performers with 19 points out of a possible 30 over the past four seasons.

The other teams that stand out are the regular Christmas under-performers.

Top of this list are Everton (six points from a possible 30) and Spurs (eight from 33). Blackburn, Bolton and Birmingham have also performed poorly, though they have played fewer games than most over the past four Christmases.

Plenty of punters will latch on to the big three teams at short odds, but the folly of that approach has been outlined here before and it is worth emphasising again. One of the key Christmas football statistics is that only one team have won every game during a three-game holiday period in the past four seasons - Manchester United in 2001 - so banking on the big teams every time is a betting strategy doomed to failure.

The flipside to this statistic is that, of the teams still in the Premiership, only two have failed to win at all during one of those recent three-game Christmas periods - Spurs and Everton, again in 2001.

With form more unpredictable at this time of year, the safe bet is to stick with home advantage in the Boxing Day games, especially as the handicap is set at zero in most cases.

For those with a little money left over from the Christmas shopping, the usual $1,000 wager could be extended to $1,200 to cover a $200 handicap bet on all the home teams in the Premiership, bar Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and West Brom.

There is not much to choose between the other six home teams, but the one I have chosen to leave out is Birmingham, simply because they are pretty short odds and Middlesbrough are undoubtedly a strong team on the road.

Even bottom club West Brom have a good chance of avoiding defeat at home to Liverpool, whose away form has left a lot to be desired this season, but only the handicap HAD is available on that game.

Best homes: Crystal Palace, Everton.

High goals: Arsenal v Fulham, Norwich v Tottenham.

Low goals: Chelsea v Aston Villa, Birmingham v Middlesbrough.


Each week our expert tipster Nick Pulford suggests his pick of the fixtures to offer the best return-to-risk ratio on a $1,000 bet.

This week:

$200 handicap Southampton, Blackburn, Crystal Palace, Everton, Norwich.