If you are yet to tune in to the English soccer season so far, you are missing out on what may be the most intriguing title race for years.
The upper reaches of the Premier League table are shaping up as a study in contrasts, featuring Manchester City's dazzling attack and the stout defense of Manchester United, a youthful Tottenham Hotspur and an aging Chelsea team, with perennial powerhouses Liverpool and Arsenal positioned alongside one of the biggest surprises in years, Newcastle United.
But if this year's championship plays out like most others, the Premier League title race will likely be determined by one of the few things these disparate clubs have in common -- December.
"This month will have a major impact," Andre Villas-Boas, the Chelsea head coach, said at a news conference. "For our Premier League challenge to be alive, we need to make the most of the December games."
December has long been the most merciless month in English soccer. Just as the temperatures begin to drop and the rain lashes down, the season hots up, the stakes get higher and the schedule goes haywire.
For our Premier League challenge to be alive, we need to make the most of the December games.
- Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea head coach
While other professional leagues like Italy's Serie A or Spain's La Liga take a break during the winter months, the Premier League continues to storm in the other direction, doubling its fixtures during the holiday season.
The result? A gargantuan program of 58 games across 27 days, including a crippling stretch in which most clubs will play on Dec. 21, Dec. 26, Dec. 31 and again on Jan. 2 -- a period of four games in 12 days.
No other leading professional league squeezes as many games into such an absurdly short period. By way of comparison, there will be 42 Serie A games in December this year and just 29 in La Liga and the Bundesliga.
Every year, some team will meet the test, while others crumple with exhaustion. Since the 1995-96 season, only six of the 16 teams that led the Premier League table heading into December have gone on to win the title.
Last season, Chelsea trailed Manchester United by two points at the start of December, but the Blues won just one of their four league games that month. By the time the team played its first game in January, it had fallen seven points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's United side and ended the season nine points adrift.
Manchester City looked like title contenders heading into December in the 2007-08 season. The club was in third place, just four points behind Arsenal and one point off second-placed Manchester United. But the team's challenge began to unravel when it won just one of its six December games and City ended the season in ninth place.
One of the most epic collapses took place during the 2000-01 season, when Leicester City reached the middle of December running comfortably in fourth place before a five-game run without a victory sparked a dismal second half of the season, which ended with the club in 13th place, just five spots outside the relegation zone.
"It's this time of the year when you find out who you are as a team," according to Tony Cottee, a former England international and now a soccer analyst. "It's a long old season, but often you'll find that the championship is won and lost in December."
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