IT’S that most wonderful time of the year.
The action-packed English Premier League Christmas fixtures are upon us.
We have eight matches to tuck into on Boxing Day, with another each scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday.
After a couple of days’ respite, we will do it all again with 20 games in six days between New Year’s Eve and January 5.
Chelsea head into this week’s clashes having already unwrapped the most precious of gifts.
In the last eight years, only one club has failed to win the title after leading the Premier League at Christmas.
That’s Liverpool, who have done it twice: in 2008-09 under Rafa Benitez and in 2013-14, when Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip broke Red hearts worldwide.
Manchester City were the beneficiaries on that occasion, just as they were for some insipid second-half defending from Arsenal last Sunday.
Those two switched places in the lower half of the top four, but otherwise very little has changed in what is now a breakaway top six.
Each of those half a dozen title hopefuls will expect to win over Christmas, although the last few weeks have reiterated in no uncertain terms that there are no sure things in football.
Let’s check out all the Premier League match odds and the team news, value bets and first goalscorer specials for our featured games.
EPL Matchweek 18 betting
All odds provided by Sportsbet.com.au
Watford $2.40 – Draw $3.25 – Crystal Palace $3
Arsenal $1.33 – Draw $5 – West Brom $9
Burnley $2.75 – Draw $3.20 – Middlesbrough $2.62
Chelsea $1.36 – Draw $4.75 – Bournemouth $9
Leicester City $2.50 – Draw $3.40 – Everton $2.75
Man United $1.22 – Draw $6 – Sunderland $13
Swansea City $2.50 – Draw $3.40 – West Ham $2.75
Hull City $9 – Draw $5 – Man City $1.33
Liverpool $1.33 – Draw $5 – Stoke City $9
Southampton $2.87 – Draw $3.25 – Tottenham $2.50
Arsenal vs. West Bromwich Albion
2am AEDT on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at Emirates Stadium
- Draw/West Brom double chance – $3.50 at Bet365
- Theo Walcott first goalscorer – $5
It won’t be a very merry Christmas for the Gunners, who limped into the holidays with back-to-back defeats against Everton and Manchester City.
It wasn’t the result so much as the nature of the defeat at Eastlands that should worry Arsene Wenger and company.
With the exception of Alexis Sanchez, who damn near ran himself into the ground, there was absolutely no urgency from Arsenal after they took a 1-0 lead into the break.
They won’t get away with such a half-arsed approached against West Brom.
Although they have lost to Chelsea and Manchester United in their last three outings, the Baggies are travelling very nicely indeed.
Tony Pulis always produces strong, disciplined and hard-working teams, but this outfit also has a little touch of quality.
Salomon Rondon is a huge threat in the air and could cause an undermanned Gunners defence all sorts of problems if the likes of Chris Brunt and Matt Phillips deliver the goods.
While Albion haven’t won away at Arsenal since 2010, they did rally from behind to beat them 2-1 at the Hawthorns last season.
Chelsea vs. Bournemouth
2am AEDT on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at Stamford Bridge
- Chelsea win/under 2.5 goals – $3.80 at CrownBet
- Pedro Rodriguez first goalscorer – $6.60
The Blues made it 11 on the bounce with a scrappy win in the fog at the Crystal Palace last weekend.
They have had to work hard for the last three victories – all 1-0 results against teams outside the top six.
And the Londoners will have to work harder still on Boxing Day without Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante, both of whom are suspended.
That will mean rare starting opportunities for Michy Batshuayi and Cesc Fabregas against an unpredictable Bournemouth side.
The Cherries have gone loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss in what can only be described as a blatant case of up-and-down form.
That stretch includes a stunning 4-3 victory over title contenders Liverpool and tame defeats to relegation fighters Sunderland and Burnley.
They won’t have Nathan Ake in defence this week, as he is on loan from Chelsea, while Junior Stanislas isn’t expected back from injury until New Year’s Eve.
Believe it or not, the visitors are looking to protect a 100 per cent winning record at Stamford Bridge.
These two had never met in competition until this fixture last season, when Bournemouth triumphed with a late winner from Glenn Murray.
Manchester United vs. Sunderland
2am AEDT on Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at Old Trafford
- Man United 2-0 correct score – $6 at Sportsbet
- Jesse Lingard anytime goalscorer – $3
After months of mediocrity, the Red Devils are now on something of a roll.
They were three full games outside the top four at the start of December, but consecutive wins over Tottenham, Crystal Palace and West Brom have seen Jose Mourinho’s men whittle that margin down to four points.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goalscoring drought is a thing of distant memory, as the Swede has found the scoresheet in five of his last six Premier League outings.
Another who has played a big hand in United’s resurgence is Henrikh Mkhytarian, who should be available for Sunderland’s visit after missing last week with a foot injury.
The Black Cats are an all-or-nothing prospect this season.
They have won four, lost six and drawn not one of their last 10 EPL matches.
Victory over Watford last time out lifted David Moyes’ mob from the bottom of the ladder, but they will need to scrap some results over the holidays if they want to climb out of the drop zone.
They possess fewer avenues to goal than any other team in the division, as Jermain Defoe (eight goals), Victor Anichebe and Patrick van Aanholt (both three) are the only Sunderland players to have scored this season.
Yet the Mackems have made a habit of upsetting the Premier League’s big wigs in recent times, and United have borne that indignity more than once.
Sunderland have downed the Devils three times in all comps since 2014, including a 2-1 league win at the Stadium of Light last term.
Southampton vs. Tottenham Hotspur
6:45am AEDT on Thursday, December 29, 2016 at St. Mary’s Stadium
- Draw/both teams to score – $4 at William Hill
- Harry Kane first goalscorer – $5.50
The Saints are probably the best team outside the Premier League’s top six.
If they just had a bit more quality in the final third, they would be a real worry to the likes of Man United and Spurs.
It doesn’t help that key forward Charlie Austin is recovering from a dislocated shoulder and won’t return until 2017.
But Claude Puel’s men are as difficult to break down as any in the league, due in no small part to the heroics of Dutch centre-half Virgil van Dyk.
Only two teams in the league boast a better defensive record than Southampton, and one of them is the opposition.
Spurs did just about enough to beat Burnley last weekend and thus close the gap on fourth-placed Arsenal to a single point.
Midfield gun Dele Alli netted the equaliser in that game to break a Premier League goal drought that stretched back to October.
Danny Rose – Tottenham’s star man against Burnley – should be right to play after sustaining a minor foot injury, while Toby Alderweireld could make his long awaited return from a back problem.
These two halved their fixtures last term, with Spurs winning 2-0 at St. Mary’s and Southampton saluting 2-1 at White Hart Lane.
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