So it is finally out of the way! The final whistle on Tuesday evening signalled the end of the third(!) international break this season and the majority of us will be relieved that we can now return to the usual order of business and a period in which the season intensifies.
Presumably as the result of some form of hidden masochistic streak, I opted to watch not only England’s World Cup qualifier against Scotland; but also the friendly against Spain. Friday night’s game at least had some semblance of atmosphere with Scotland sensing the opportunity to exploit a fragile England team. However as it turned out Scotland’s inability to convert any of the chances offered to them by a shaky England backline; meant that England ultimately eased past them simply as a result of being more clinical in front of goal.
In many ways the friendly against Spain didn’t really matter, the general consensus among the media after Friday was that Southgate had done enough to be given the manager’s job on a full-time basis, if only based on the fact that there was no other genuine candidate. England got off to an encouraging start and were 2-0 up 3 minutes into the second half; only for two late goals from Spain to deny them a victory that would have contributed, in a small way, to starting to rebuild confidence. However the way that they panicked and retreated deep into their own half from the moment Aspas rippled the back of the net reminded us that there is a still a major job to be done.
With the interruptions caused by the international game now out of the way, unless your team has players heading off to Africa in January(!); we now head into a hectic and crucial period of the English game. A few years ago, Michel Platini famously said English players were ‘lions in the winter and lambs in the summer’; whatever your own personal feelings on a winter break, it is undeniable that the period before and through the Christmas holidays is a key time in English football; from this weekend up to the 3rd round of the FA Cup over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of January, each Premier League club will play 9 league games, essentially a quarter of the season’s fixtures in a total of 7 weeks, without even considering League Cup and European commitments.
Already the Premier League title race seems to be shaping up to be the closest witnessed, with at least six, possibly more, teams considering themselves capable of mounting a viable title challenge; with 27 points available in the next 7 weeks and key fixtures involving meetings between Manchester United and Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham and Manchester City and Chelsea, in the next three rounds alone, it will be fascinating to see how things start to take shape.
This coming weekend’s football starts with Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford on Saturday lunchtime; despite United’s recent poor form and the Gunners being six points ahead of Mourinho’s men, there is little cause for optimism amongst us Gooners. Arsene Wenger has managed a grand total of 1 Community Shield victory in 14 clashes with Mourinho-managed teams, never having overcome the Portuguese in a formally competitive match. That factor coupled with Arsenal’s apparent mental block when facing United even in the post-Fergie days, where they have managed one solitary win in six matches against some of the poorest United teams in recent memory; suggests that for Arsenal fans anything but a defeat would be seen as a positive.
Elsewhere in the Premier League, early season title favourites Manchester City travel to Selhurst Park looking to overcome their stuttering recent form; the Eagles sit just above the relegation zone but have a habit, almost a tradition, of raising their game when the big clubs visit. While most would anticipate a comfortable City win, it really wouldn’t be too much of a surprise if Pardew’s side managed to frustrate City once again and nick a point.
Despite being the only remaining unbeaten side, Tottenham find themselves 5 points behind leaders Liverpool; while their visitors form has largely been poor so far this season, it may well be that playing away from the Olympic Stadium, and all its associated issues, will liberate West Ham and they may start to find some form.
Whatever happens this weekend, I for one will be rejoicing in the return of proper football, safe in the knowledge that my normal routine is firmly re-established right up until March.