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Football rolls on... just about: John Brewin's standout matches over the Christmas period

With leagues across Europe on their winter break and some Premier League fixtures being postponed, our weekly columnist chooses five games worth watching this weekend.

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EVERY FRIDAY, FOOTBALL writer John Brewin – who has clocked up countless air miles covering the European game over the past decade – looks ahead to five key fixtures from the Premier League and around the continent. 

As well as explaining why you need to know about these matches, he’ll also pick out a tip for each one along with the latest William Hill prices. 

This week, his focus is solely on English football as the continent’s other top leagues take some time off over Christmas. 

Newcastle v Manchester United, Premier League – 8pm Monday

manchester-uniteds-bruno-fernandes-and-newcastle-uniteds-jamaal-lascelles-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-premier-league-match-at-old-trafford-manchester-picture-date-saturday-september-11-2021 Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes and Jamaal Lascelles of Newcastle United. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

With the rest of Europe sensibly taking a break it’s left to the mad dogs and Englishmen to supply the Christmas action.

It feels like a long time since Newcastle beat Burnley 1-0 and the players and staff cavorted in the dressing room for social media photos after a first win of the season.

That’s because it was back on 4 December. It also feels like a long time since Manchester United actually played football, as a Covid outbreak has prevented them playing since 11 December, a rather fortuitous 1-0 defeat of Norwich.

Despite Newcastle’s own Covid problems – UK press reports suggest the vaccine take-up at both clubs is low – they have been forced to play three matches since. Against admittedly decent opposition in Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester City, they have conceded 11 goals and scored just one.

If time is not yet running out for Eddie Howe – he must have a period of grace – it may well be for a number of his players.

The transfer window approaches apace, and even though the January market is a difficult market, especially if the sellers know you have billions of pounds of Saudi lucre in your bank account, the Christmas glut of fixtures may well be the last stand for a number of Newcastle players.

Meanwhile, Ralf Rangnick has been given something of the winter break he will be accustomed to from Germany by United’s outbreak, if far lower on person-to-person contact than he would like.

soccer-football-champions-league-group-f-manchester-united-v-young-boys-old-trafford-manchester-britain-december-8-2021-manchester-united-interim-manager-ralf-rangnick-reuterscraig-broug Man United interim boss Ralf Rangnick. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

United have become rather mysterious in their absence, the only news escaping from the club the new backup staff brought in to work with Rangnick. Chris Armas, Sascha Lense and Ewan Sharp anyone? The club have a new group of technocrats for the tactics heads to get their teeth into.

Rangnick’s matches so far have been twin 1-0 wins over Crystal Palace and Norwich, and a Champions League draw with Young Boys featuring a raft of youngsters and reserves.

The Christmas Bank Holiday Monday may be something of a coming-out party for the new regime, and Manchester United, should enough of their players have recovered, must fancy following in the footsteps of Leicester Liverpool and Manchester City against bedraggled Newcastle.

John’s bet: Cristiano Ronaldo to score two or more goals @ 7/2

Aston Villa v Chelsea, Premier League – 5.30pm Sunday 

london-uk-sept-22nd-ngolo-kante-of-chelsea-controls-the-ball-during-the-carabao-cup-match-between-chelsea-and-aston-villa-at-stamford-bridge-london-on-wednesday-22nd-september-2021-credit-juan Chelsea's N'Golo Kante and Marvelous Nakamba of Aston Villa. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Chelsea are wobbling and have all but dropped out of the title race. What looked in pre-season perhaps the strongest squad of all the contenders has sagged under the weight of injuries and, lately, Covid-19.

There is a vulnerability and predictability to them that Manchester City and Liverpool do not share, and Thomas Tuchel suddenly looks as if he may soon go the way of all Chelsea managers in the Abramovich era.

Step forward Aston Villa and Steven Gerrard, who has scores to settle with Chelsea from his playing career.

Villa won this fixture last season 2-1 without Gerrard, though admittedly it was in May and Chelsea had their eye on the Champions League final. Villa’s high-energy approach under Gerrard could bring about similar results.

John’s bet: Aston Villa to beat Chelsea @ 9/2

Manchester City v Leicester City, Premier League – 3pm Sunday

manchester-city-manager-pep-guardiola-embraces-ferran-torres-after-he-is-substituted-during-the-premier-league-match-at-the-etihad-stadium-manchester Ferran Torres, who is leaving Man City for Barcelona in January, and manager Pep Guardiola. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Pep Guardiola’s team roll along inexorably. It was at this point last season that they hit a stride that left the others behind. With Liverpool’s match against Leeds having succumbed to Covid cancellation, this is a chance for the defending champions to steal a march on their only credible rivals.

City’s strength is such that they feel able to sell Ferran Torres – a forward of immense promise – to Barcelona, and Leicester, whose only win in their last five matches was beating Newcastle, look like the latest victims.

Jamie Vardy has a better record against Man City than most, having scored nine in 18 matches against them, and was back in the goals in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday.

John’s bet: Man City to win and Jamie Vardy to score anytime @ 18/5

Burnley v Everton, Premier League – 3pm Sunday

28-august-2021-brighton-hove-albion-v-everton-premier-league-evertons-dominic-calvert-lewin-during-the-premier-league-match-at-the-amex-stadium-brighton-picture-credit-mark-pain Dominic Calvert-Lewin's return would be a welcome boost for the Toffees. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

That Turf Moor is one of the fortresses of the Premier League is a great misnomer. Only Brentford and Rochdale have lost there so far this season, and only Crystal Palace, Wolves, Sheffield United and Aston Villa lost in the whole of 2020-21.

Both teams go into this match relatively fresh, give or take the Covid concerns that caused postponements of their last matches.

Everton played the kids at Chelsea on 16 December and escaped with a draw. Burnley have yet to score in December in their three matches so far, and both teams have been short of attacking quality.

Word that Dominic Calvert-Lewin may be back, though perhaps from the bench, tips the balance.

John’s bet: Everton to win at Burnley @ 5/2

Hull v Blackburn, Championship – 3pm Sunday 

blackburn-rovers-manager-tony-mowbray-speaks-to-his-team-during-the-sky-bet-championship-match-at-ewood-park-blackburn-picture-date-saturday-august-21-2021 Blackburn manager Tony Mowbray and his players. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

A glance at the Championship’s top six conjures familiar names but one of the promotion hopefuls drips in Premier League history.

It will be ten years in May that 1994-95 champions Blackburn got relegated from the top tier. Since then, the club’s fans have been through purgatory – and League One – but there are signs of revival under Tony Mowbray, a manager who always likes his teams to play enterprising, passing football.

Mowbray’s team have won their last five matches, without conceding a goal and scoring 12. Fellow former Premier League alumni Hull, in 19th, look the latest victims, though do possess a goal threat.

John’s bet: Blackburn to win and both teams to score @ 4/1

William Hill odds above correct at the time of writing. New online customers get €30 in free bets when they bet €10 with William Hill. Just use the promo code H30. For all the latest prices, visit williamhill.com. 18+, always gamble responsibly. For more information, see gamblingtherapy.org  

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