Debate on mid-winter break for English Premier League soccer
Calls for a mid-winter EPL break are ringing round stadiums again, but what would we do without the excitement of all those games?
As regular as a yuletide hark, calls for an English Premier League mid-winter break are once more echoing around the tinsel-festooned stadiums.
During a potentially season-defining period of five games in 15 days, merits of a winter sabbatical are a main dressing-room talking point. Players in England look on in envy at their peers in Europe's other top leagues - such as Spain, Italy, Germany and France - who have put their feet up and are lightly toasting them in front of the hearth, recharging their physical and mental batteries with their families.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini are two of the many vocal managers who want to rest their squads ahead of the second-half toil of chasing a championship crown.
England national team officials are also in favour because it has long been argued that the Three Lions perpetually do badly at international tournaments because the players are so worn out from the frenetic English season.
Willpower rather than fitness propels players through a crazy 48-hour period between Boxing Day and today's encounters. Sports medical specialists claim two days' recovery is far from enough; high-performance sportsmen need at least 72 hours to recover, they say.
There is currency in the observation that after today, the quality of the EPL takes a nosedive as players start to feel the effects of the schedule - which demands two more battles next week.
Then there is the weather to consider and the pitches which suffer because of it. Ground staff struggle to cope and the poor turf conditions affect play. And what about the road-weary fans, who are called upon to travel great distances to see their teams at a time when family gatherings - plus manic shopping sprees - should be priorities?
It comes as no surprise that Aston Villa boss Paul Lambert is among those in favour of a winter break - after all, it takes time to get over an 8-0 thumping by Chelsea and a 4-0 hammering by Spurs. Lambert knows all about the benefits of a winter shutdown from his time with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga during the mid-1990s.
"I absolutely loved it. If you were feeling tired at certain stages of the winter, a break helped," he said just before the Christmas routs. "If you are carrying an injury it gives you that time to get back. The funny thing is I never felt tired over there. It definitely helps you."
Premier League bosses routinely stage preliminary discussions on the subject and Germany's Bundesliga is annually held up as a good example. In the eyes of the overworked in England, German football is seen to offer a good balance, allowing players the desired amount of rest time during their six-week break over December and January. Players get to relax at Christmas with their families - and are then required to join a mini pre-season training schedule before resuming the league campaign.
Those against a winter break claim the EPL schedule slows down considerably for most teams in the spring, when the latter FA Cup rounds are staged.
They also argue that the Christmas madness makes the EPL special from other leagues as the scramble can decide destinies. It ratchets up the nerves, expectations and excitement and sets the edge-of-seat scene for the back half of the season.
Stats also show that those national teams whose leagues do enjoy a break fare little better at international tournaments than the bruised, battered and whacked-out English. And when you look at the total amount of games Spanish and German squads play throughout the season, there is little difference.
Also, let's not forget EPL players have the very best medical and physio available to them on tap, 24/7. They play on carpet-like pitches most of the time. They are given perfect diets and training regimes. Most teams have expansive, rotating squads. Life is made as easy as possible for them.
In the eyes of the fans who pay a fortune to watch them, players appear to enjoy a cushy part-time and pampered vocation, for which they get paid insanely.
Many are declaring 2012 an annus horribilis. Racism, missile-throwing yobs, diving cheats and inconsistent refereeing - to name a few shameful incidents - have plagued the last 12 months.
Not only would a sabbatical offer rest, it could serve as a period of reflection as the year draws to a close. Managers, players and their agents, sponsors and the Football Association could convene to discuss how to rein in the gluttonous behemoth, and discuss burning issues such as wage caps.
You'd think a winter break makes perfect and common sense. But soccer has never pandered to such concepts.
Instead of hibernating players, the EPL witnesses goals aplenty in the driving rain, passes to take your breath away in the howling wind, controversy by the Santa sackload and excitement and unpredictability that a Christmas TV schedule could never offer.
A recent study added to the anti-winter break argument. It suggested the average UK family has at least five domestic arguments over the festive period, with the first meltdown starting around 10.13am on Christmas Day.
Winter football is unquestionably a force for good. It can save Christmas.