The Premier League is a week away from its winter break, but a feast of football awaits us before then, along with fantasy point-scoring opportunities.

Leaders Manchester City head to Southampton and will look to extend their 12-game winning run in the competition, at the expense of opponents who are unbeaten in their last seven league games at St Mary's.

Manchester United have a tricky assignment against David Moyes' West Ham, and you might consider a Hammers forward to break down Ralf Rangnick's defence at Old Trafford.

If the time is right to back your strong start to the season, there are proven fantasy league performers to choose from here among this week's picks, and a strong case to be made for others you may not have considered.

EDERSON (Southampton v Manchester City)

Pep Guardiola's trusted City goalkeeper has kept more Premier League clean sheets (12) and faced fewer shots on target per 90 minutes (2.2) than any other goalkeeper this season.

City have faced 50 shots on target across 22 games and have conceded only 13 goals, so another shut-out must be a realistic proposition on the south coast.

Ederson has played in all but one of those Premier League assignments for City this term, and although Southampton have won three and drawn four of their last seven 2021-22 home league games – their best record since going nine unbeaten from March to October 2016 – it is the visitors who start this clash as strong favourites.

JOAO CANCELO (Southampton v Manchester City)

City's defence has been close to watertight this season, but Cancelo's role at full-back is more than just about stopping the opposition.

Only the Liverpool duo of Trent Alexander-Arnold (10) and Andrew Robertson (6) have provided more Premier League assists among defenders this season than Cancelo (5).

He has also had 44 goal attempts, with 15 of them finding the target, and his tally of one goal scored will surely grow soon enough.

DAVINSON SANCHEZ (Chelsea v Tottenham)

Can Tottenham be trusted to keep a clean sheet against Chelsea, in Sunday's headline game? This choice would represent a gamble, albeit one that can to an extent be rationalised by data.

Since December 1, Sanchez has been involved in a Tottenham defence that has kept four clean sheets in seven Premier League appearances. Indeed, only Manchester City's Aymeric Laporte (5) has kept more clean sheets during that time among top-flight defenders. New boss Antonio Conte is making a difference at Spurs, no doubt about it.

The counter-argument here comes with the fact Chelsea have won five of their last six league games against Spurs (D1), and beat them in both legs of the EFL Cup semi-finals.

RAPHINHA (Leeds United v Newcastle United)

Leeds United have woken from their slumber in the Premier League, winning twice in a row to climb to 15th place, just three points behind Leicester City in 10th spot.

Last time out it was Jack Harrison who was the hero, with a hat-trick at West Ham, but Raphinha is their Mr Consistency.

The Brazilian set up Harrison's match-winning third goal at the London Stadium, and since the beginning of the 2020-21 Premier League season, Raphinha is one of just five players to have registered 10 or more goals, 10 or more assists and created over 100 chances in the English top division.

JARROD BOWEN (Manchester United v West Ham)

Former Hull City forward Bowen has been involved in 13 goals in the Premier League this season (6 goals, 7 assists) and opponents Manchester United will be wary of his quality.

Indeed, only Mohamed Salah (25) and Bowen's West Ham team-mate Michail Antonio (14) have been involved in more Premier League goals this term.

To strike a slight note of caution, Bowen only has an expected assists (xA) total of 2.94, meaning West Ham have made more of his chances created than they would ordinarily be expected to, while Bowen is slightly lagging behind his expected goals (xG) total of 8.29. That said, the Red Devils will surely not underestimate his threat.

ROBERTO FIRMINO (Crystal Palace v Liverpool)

With Salah and Sadio Mane still away at the Africa Cup of Nations, Brazilian forward Firmino again looks set for a starting role as the Reds travel to Selhurst Park on Sunday.

Firmino has been involved in six Premier League goals against Palace in his last five appearances (4 goals, 2 assists), having been involved in just two across his first seven games against the Eagles in the competition (2 goals).

Starting with a double in a 7-0 win in this exact fixture last season, each of Firmino's last 10 Premier League goals have all come away from home. Liverpool have won their last six Premier League away games against Palace.

ALLAN SAINT-MAXIMIN (Leeds United v Newcastle United)

Can Newcastle beat the drop? Their best hope before the transfer window opened up a new world of possibilities appeared to lie with the fast feet of Saint-Maximin, and he remains their star attacker for now.

The French winger has scored in each of his last two Premier League appearances, with those goals earning 1-1 draws with Manchester United and Watford.

Now here lies the problem with trusting such form: he has never scored in three successive appearances in the competition. However, Saint-Maximin did score in the reverse fixture against Leeds in September, another 1-1 result for the Magpies.

The futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, arguably the two most sought-after players in world football, could be determined by the end of the January transfer window.

While the forwards look set to stay at Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively this month, moves away at the end of the campaign look increasingly likely.

And despite intense competition from fellow heavyweight clubs, Real Madrid are determined to win the race for both players.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID TO PUT ASIDE €350m FOR HAALAND

Madrid had two bids knocked back for Mbappe last year but, according to Marca, they remain in pole position to sign the France international in six months' time.

Landing Haaland could prove to be a little more complicated, though, given he will still have two years to run on his contract at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

However, the Spanish publication reports that Madrid are willing to spend big on the prolific striker, who is thought to have a €75million release clause in his deal.

On top of triggering that, it is claimed that Los Blancos will have to set aside cash for Haaland's father, agent Mino Raiola and a hefty salary for the player himself, which could total around €350m.

 

ROUND-UP

- Madrid may be considered the frontrunners to sign Mbappe and Haaland, but they already have a back-up plan in place should either of those moves fail to materialise. According to El Nacional, Fiorentina's in-demand Dusan Vlahovic is also on the Spanish giants' radar.

- CalcioMercato reports that Milan have joined the queue to sign Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen. Christensen, who comes out of contract at the end of this season, is being chased by Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

- Newcastle United could beat Manchester United in the race for RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara, with The Mirror reporting that the newly-rich Magpies are set to make an offer.

- The Everton board got together on Saturday to discuss manager Rafael Benitez's future in the job, according to Sky Sports. Everton have won one of their past 13 league games and lost to bottom club Norwich City 2-1 on Saturday.

- PSG, Bayern and Madrid are among Kalvin Phillips' suitors. El Nacional reports that Leeds United have a battle on their hands fending off interest in the midfielder, who has been capped 19 times by England.

- The Mirror reports that Chelsea are considering a move for Inter's Ivan Perisic. The Blues are in the market for a versatile player who can play at left-back while Ben Chilwell recovers from a long-term injury.

 

The first heavyweight tussle of the new year in the Premier League did not disappoint as Chelsea and Liverpool played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues were held at home for the fifth time in six league games, a run that includes three straight draws in the top flight for the first time since February 2016.

But Thomas Tuchel's side can be happy with a point after recovering from two goals down as they extended their unbeaten run against the Reds in the league to four matches.

While there was nothing to separate the sides sitting second and third, Brentford, Brighton and Hove Albion and Leeds United were all victorious on Sunday.

Here, Stats Perform unpacks the pick of the Opta data from another eventful day in the Premier League.

Chelsea 2-2 Liverpool: Blues hit back after Salah strikes again

Sadio Mane opened the scoring in a Premier League game for the 37th time since joining Liverpool in 2016-17 – only Tottenham's Harry Kane (40) has done so on more occasions.

However, some will argue that Mane was fortunate to be on the field at that point after catching Cesar Azpilicueta with his elbow after just six seconds.

Mane was instead issued a yellow card with 15 seconds on the clock, making it the earliest booking in a Premier League game since Opta started recording such data in 2006-07, nine seconds faster than the previous quickest caution for Scott McTominay against Newcastle United in December 2019.

Mohamed Salah went on to double Liverpool's lead with his fourth league goal against Chelsea, which is the joint-most any player has scored against the Blues after playing for them, along with Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne.

Chelsea responded brilliantly with two goals in the space of 245 seconds through a Mateo Kovacic stunner and Christian Pulisic's well-taken strike, ensuring they remain a point above their opponents having played a game more.

This was the fourth occasion in this season's Premier League that a side has failed to win a game in which they have led by two goals, with Liverpool accounting for two of those occasions, having also drawn 2-2 with Brighton in October.


Leeds United 3-1 Burnley: More Maxwell magic not enough

Leeds scored three times in a Premier League game for the first time this season on their way to ending a four-game run without a victory, putting distance between themselves and Burnley in the final relegation spot.

Previously with just one win to their name in the competition since the end of October, Jack Harrison squeezed home for Leeds to open the scoring at Elland Road before Maxwell Cornet equalised through Burnley's first direct free-kick goal since Boxing Day 2017.

That was Cornet's sixth Premier League goal in 10 appearances, the most by an African player in their first 10 games since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Arsenal in April 2018 (also six).

Stuart Dallas restored Leeds' advantage on his 250th appearance for the club in all competitions, becoming the first United player to reach that tally since Lucas Radebe in November 2003.

The much-needed victory was sealed by Daniel James in added time, meaning Leeds are unbeaten in 10 Premier League games against sides starting the day in the relegation zone (W8, D2) since returning to the top flight last season.

As for Burnley, they have now won just one of their last 20 Premier League matches and are winless in 11 on their travels, their worst such run on the road since 17 without a victory between August 2016 and April 2017.


Everton 2-3 Brighton and Hove Albion: Mac Allister inspires soaring Seagulls

The highest-scoring game of the day in the Premier League took place at Goodison Park, where Everton suffered defeat in their opening league game of a calendar year for the fifth year running, their worst such streak since a run of seven between 1957 and 1963.

Brighton's opening goal via Alexis Mac Allister after two minutes and 43 seconds was the Seagulls' fastest-ever away from home in the competition, and their third-fastest overall.

Dan Burn doubled the visitors' lead on Merseyside, shortly before the returning Dominic Calvert-Lewin became the 22nd different player to miss a Premier League penalty for the Toffees – only Arsenal (23) have more.

Anthony Gordon scored his first senior goal to give Everton a bit of hope, only for Mac Allister to register for a second time as Brighton moved to 27 points after 19 games – their joint-best return at this stage of a top-flight campaign alongside 1981-82.

It was another afternoon to forget for Rafael Benitez, however, with Everton having now picked up only 19 points from 18 games, which is their worst return at this stage since accruing 17 from 18 matches in 2005-06.

Brentford 2-1 Aston Villa: Bees bounce back again

Comeback experts Brentford hit back to beat Villa late on thanks to goals from Yoane Wissa and Mads Roerslev after Danny Ings had opened the scoring in west London.

Only West Ham (12) and Everton (11) have won more points from losing positions in the Premier League this term than Brentford, who have now recovered nine points in total.

That is in complete contrast to a Villa side that have lost more games in the competition since the start of last season after scoring first than any other side (eight).

Ings has now opened the scoring in more different English top-flight games since the start of 2019-20 than any player (18), but that early strike was not enough for Steven Gerrard's men.

Wissa's equaliser was Brentford's first Premier League goal from outside the box and full-back Roerslev, who set up that strike, completed the turnaround to become the second Bees player to score and assist in the same game in the competition for the club after Ivan Toney.

Reigning champions Manchester City end the year as hot favourites to win the Premier League again, but how many of Pep Guardiola's players should make it into a team of the year?

Do any of the Manchester United players Gary Neville described as "whingebags" deserve a place in an elite XI? And is there a case to be made for any players from beyond the 'big six'?

The answers to those questions are: a) five, by our estimations; b) yes; and c) yes.

Using Opta data, Stats Perform selected a dream team for 2021, packed with standout performers from the calendar year.

Safe hands? It has to be Mendy

Chelsea's Edouard Mendy had a save percentage of 74.36, which put him fourth among goalkeepers with five or more Premier League appearances. Curiously, his Blues club-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga headed that list with an 81.82 per cent record, but he only played five Premier League games: the Spaniard's previous inconsistency and propensity to make expensive errors cost him a regular place.

Mendy has demonstrated reliability and Chelsea's upturn in form under Thomas Tuchel, highlighted by their Champions League triumph, owed a lot to the man at the back. He had 18 clean sheets in 38 Premier League games and in this team of the year he edges out the likes of Arsenal's former Sheffield United shot-stopper Aaron Ramsdale, and Wolves' outstanding Jose Sa (80.28 per cent save percentage in 18 games – a half-season wonder so far).

Risk-takers on the defensive flanks, no-nonsense in the middle

Top of the defenders' league for assists (13) and ball recoveries (308), Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold remains a sensational presence at right-back. He is much closer to the bottom of the league when it comes to duel success (46.77 per cent), and being dribbled past by opposition players (34 incidences), but his strengths are such that Liverpool can put up with those figures. The playmaker at full-back might be prone to an occasional error, but his service from the flanks has often been a match-winning ingredient in the Reds' mix.

Similar can be said for Manchester City's Joao Cancelo, a first-class operator on either defensive flank. He has three goals and six assists in the league over the year and has created 39 chances from open play, putting him in the top five among defenders in the latter metric (Alexander-Arnold's 67 leads the way). Cancelo has a healthy tackle success rate of 66.27 per cent, but he has also been dribbled past 53 times by opponents, more than any other defender and has made three errors leading to shots (Harry Maguire tops this list, with six errors). Cancelo is imperfect, but also often quite brilliant.

In the centre of defence, Chelsea's Antonio Rudiger might be in his last season at Stamford Bridge, amid speculation linking him with Real Madrid and others. He has been largely formidable, developing a strong alliance with Thiago Silva. Only three defenders with more than 20 Premier League appearances across the year managed to top 60 per cent for duel success (Rudiger: 63.75) and 70 per cent for tackle success (Rudiger: 73.08) while being dribbled past no more than 10 times (Rudiger: 10). Surprisingly, one of those was Newcastle's Ciaran Clark. The others were Rudiger and Silva, and you could have either in a team of the year.

Ruben Dias has been the Rolls-Royce engine in Manchester City's defence: powerful and classy, surely built to last. His passing accuracy of 93.28 per cent has been beaten only by one defender in the league – team-mate Aymeric Laporte (93.91) – with Dias also managing three goals and two assists in 2021, his first full year in English football. City are no longer crying out for a Vincent Kompany replacement: Dias, 24, could be the cornerstone of their defence for many seasons to come.

Midfield marvels... from Manchester

Is Bruno Fernandes a maestro or a "whingebag"? Neville used the latter description after Manchester United's draw at Newcastle, but he would doubtless concur on the former too, given it has not been all shoulder shrugs and finger-pointing from the mercurial Portuguese this year. In 2020, Fernandes had 18 goals and 14 assists, alongside 60 open-play chances created. He has played more games this year (39, compared to 29 in 2021) and finished up with 13 goals, eight assists and 79 open-play chances created. His 21 goal involvements lead the way among midfielders, and even if those have dried up in recent weeks – he had just one goal and one assist in his final nine league games of the year – he had already done enough.

Across Manchester, Ilkay Gundogan was a revelation for City, particularly during a purple patch last season. He ends the year with 15 goals, the most of any midfielder, adding five assists from the 44 open-play chances he created, and had a princely passing accuracy in the opposition half of 90.09 per cent. Among Premier League players with more than 30 games, that accuracy was only beaten by Gundogan's City team-mates Bernardo Silva (90.23) and Rodri (90.74).

Of course Bernardo Silva makes the team too, a flagrant example of recency bias after the Portuguese's five goals in five league games from early November to early December. With his nine goals and seven assists across the Premier League year, and his determined dribbling (109 dribbling attempts - second only to Burnley's Dwight McNeil among midfielders), the ever-elegant Bernardo just edges out Manchester City team-mate and previously perennial all-star Kevin De Bruyne.

What a year it has been for Phil Foden, another City star to make this team. Granted, it would have been better had City won the Champions League final on his 21st birthday, but the young man from Stockport has continued his growth at Premier League level, bagging 12 goals and seven assists and another title. Those goals have come at an average of 0.53 per 90 minutes, and the assists at one every 0.31 per 90. He is top five in both per-90 aspects among midfielders, but is Foden still truly a midfielder? The twinkle-toed local lad has been deployed in the frontline frequently, looking at home wherever Pep Guardiola decides he should be slotted.

Standout Salah, remarkable Raphinha

Where would Leeds United be without Raphinha? Rumours of Bayern Munich interest surfaced in December, and his numbers tell us why the German giants might fancy the Brazilian. His 20 goal involvements (12 goals, eight assists) put him joint-fifth among Premier League forwards, with only Mohamed Salah (35), Michail Antonio (24), Harry Kane (23) and Son Heung-min (22) ahead of Raphinha. The former Rennes player attempted 194 dribbles (only Adama Traore, 252, and Allan Saint-Maximin, 238, tried more) and he also played far more passes into the final third than any other forward (198 – Leandro Trossard second on this list with 136). Raphinha got stuck in too, making 50 tackles (only Jordan Ayew, with 60, attempted more among forwards).

Mohamed Salah became the first player to score 20 or more goals in five consecutive seasons for Liverpool in all competitions since Ian Rush from 1981-82 to 1986-87 (six in a row). That is the remarkable level he has reached, and with his own long-term future still somewhat in doubt, Liverpool will be making every effort to retain the Egyptian. In the year when Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the Premier League, the Portuguese was resoundingly outshone by Liverpool's star forward. Salah had more touches in the opposition box than any other player in 2021 (383), and he made good use of those. He created 67 chances from open play, and the goals and assists hauls were both league-highs among forwards.

Leeds United winger Raphinha is drawing plenty of attention.

The Brazilian debuted for his country in October and has scored two goals in five caps.

Raphinha joined Leeds from Rennes on a four-year deal in 2020.

And, having seen his career hit new heights since that move, he does not appear to be desperate for another switch.

TOP STORY - RAPHINHA NOT PUSHING FOR LEEDS EXIT

Brazil international Raphinha will not push for a January move away from Leeds United according to the Mirror.

Raphinha has been linked with moves to both Liverpool and Bayern Munich during the January transfer window.

The 25-year-old's agent has spoken about his ambition, but he is content at Leeds who are battling relegation.

 

ROUND-UP

Inter are angling to sign Germany international Matthias Ginter as a free agent in the middle of next year claims Fabrizio Romano. Ginter confirmed on Tuesday he would leave Borussia Monchengladbach when his contract expires at the end of this season.

- Gerard Moreno reports that Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta has reached an in-principle agreement to join Barcelona in the close-season.

Sevilla are considering a bid to sign Barcelona defender Mika Marmol, according to Diario Sport.

Everton want to land Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley on loan in January, says The Telegraph.

- Sky Sport Italia claims MLS club Toronto are in advanced talks with Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne and Torino striker Andrea Belotti.

Newcastle United are set to flex their financial muscles during the January transfer window.

The Magpies are struggling in the Premier League drop zone even after claiming a 1-1 draw with Manchester United.

But following a change of ownership they have funds available to bolster their squad.
 

TOP STORY - MAGPIES KEEN ON BARCELONA'S UMTITI

Cashed-up Newcastle are considering a move for Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti according to The Sun.

The 2018 World Cup winner has fallen out of favour at Barcelona, who are looking to offload players due to their financial issues.

Eddie Howe's side have conceded a league-high 42 goals and want to shore up their backline to aid their case to avoid relegation.

 

ROUND-UP

- Bayern Munich have ramped up their bid to sign Leeds United's Raphinha, claims The Sun. Leeds remain hopeful of keeping the Brazil international.

- Chelsea have also entered the race to sign Raphinha according to the Express, who also claim they will allow Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech to depart.

- Tottenham are leading the way to secure the signature of Milan midfielder Franck Kessie with the two parties in advanced talks, reports the Express.

- Ex-Liverpool forward Philippe Coutinho's preferred new home is Arsenal,  with Barcelona keen to offload the Brazil international according to Sport.

- Milan, Napoli and Fiorentina are all on high alert with Torino's Italy international striker Andrea Belotti set to exit the club when his contract expires at season's end, reports Calciomercato.

Leeds United's home clash with Aston Villa on Tuesday has been postponed due to ongoing COVID-19 problems coinciding with injury issues within Marcelo Bielsa's squad.

Leeds fielded a depleted side in a 4-1 loss against Arsenal last Saturday before the Premier League announced Bielsa's side would not face Liverpool on Boxing Day due to having an insufficient number of first-team players to fulfil the game.

Villa were set to be Leeds' next opponents at Elland Road, but the league have accepted the Yorkshire club does not have the "required number of players available for the match (13 outfield players and one goalkeeper)".

Leeds confirmed there had been no new positive tests within the playing squad. However, the majority of those who tested positive before the Liverpool game remain in isolation.

"The league is aware that the decisions this week to postpone matches will disappoint supporters, and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games," the Premier League's statement said.

"The league aims to provide as much clarity as possible, but unfortunately postponements sometimes have to be made at short notice, as safety is our priority. 

"Where possible, the league will endeavour to keep supporters updated if matches become at risk on a matchday."

Villa's meeting with Chelsea on Sunday remains set to go ahead, though they will be without manager Steven Gerrard after the former Liverpool midfielder tested positive for COVID-19.

The board reiterated its stance for their Premier League schedule to continue as intended following an emergency meeting between clubs on Monday, despite coronavirus ravaging fixtures throughout the top four tiers of English football.

"The board assesses applications to postpone matches on a case-by-case basis, based on existing rules and adapted COVID-19 postponement guidance, implemented in light of the new Omicron variant," the statement continued.

"While recognising a number of clubs are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, it is the clubs’ and the league’s collective intention to continue the current fixture schedule where safely possible.

"The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority and the league will continue to monitor and reflect public health guidance, always proceeding with caution."

In total, 14 games across England's top flight have been postponed in December.

Christmas Day is a chance to ungracefully stuff our faces with turkey and all the trimmings, but top-flight footballers in England have to show some restraint. 

That's because Boxing Day football is a festive tradition, one where supporters can watch games with tighter-than-normal belt buckles. 

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic meant it was all a bit different last year, with the majority of supporters viewing the action from home – for a while, it looked like this year's action might be under threat as well.

Rightly or wrongly, Premier League clubs opted against shutting the competition down over Christmas despite a recent spate of postponements, meaning we get to look forward to gorging ourselves silly on Sunday – and then watch the football.

Consistently one of the more exciting dates on the Premier League calendar, Boxing Day is sure to entertain.

So, ahead of the 2021 games, take look at some of the best Boxing Day Opta facts from previous years.

NO FOWL PLAY FROM ROBBIE

Fowl – whether turkey, duck, pheasant or possibly even partridge – is a fixture for most dinner tables up and down the United Kingdom on Christmas Day, so perhaps it's rather apt that Robbie Fowl-er (we couldn't resist...) has the best record in terms of Premier League goals on December 26. 

The Liverpool legend has netted nine times on Boxing Day, one more than Newcastle United great Alan Shearer, ex-Tottenham striker Robbie Keane and current Spurs star Harry Kane – who is the highest scorer among active Premier League players on this day. 

Thierry Henry (seven) and Jermain Defoe (six) have also produced plenty of festive cheers in the past.


PUT ON YOUR CHRISTMAS HAT…TRICKS

Some players just love producing crackers at Christmas. 

The aforementioned Fowler is among those to have scored a hat-trick on Boxing Day, doing so for Leeds United against Bolton Wanderers back in 2001. 

Henry (2000 for Arsenal), Kevin Phillips (2000 for Sunderland), Dimitar Berbatov (2011 for Manchester United), Gareth Bale (2012 for Spurs) and Kane (2017 for Spurs) have also taken home belated presents in the form of a match ball.


A DEVIL ON TOP OF THE TREE?!

It is custom to place an angel, or perhaps a star, at the top of the Christmas tree. However, in terms of the Premier League Boxing Day table, there is a team of devils – Red Devils no less – in Manchester United (yes, a tenuous joke, but by this stage is there any point in apologising?) who sit firmly on top. 

When looking at teams to have played at least 10 Boxing Day fixtures in the Premier League, United have 67 points – 17 more than anyone else. They also boast the highest win rate, a rather impressive 77.8 per cent.

Liverpool (62.5 per cent), Arsenal (60.9 per cent), Tottenham (58.3 per cent), Manchester City (55 per cent) and Chelsea (44.4 per cent) all unsurprisingly feature highly.  

West Brom, at 8.3 per cent, have won just once in 12 Boxing Day fixtures in the Premier League, while Leicester City (13.3 per cent) and Fulham (14.3 per cent) have also struggled on the date.

BARRY A FESTIVE FIXTURE

For almost two full decades, Gareth Barry just loved getting his 'Claus' into a festive fixture (Claus, as in 'Santa Claus', not claws... get it?) 

The former Aston Villa, Manchester City, Everton and West Brom midfielder has played on Boxing Day in the Premier League on a whopping 18 occasions. 

Chelsea legend Frank Lampard is not far behind on 17, with Ryan Giggs, Steven Gerrard, Aaron Hughes, Sol Campbell, Michael Carrick and James Milner all on 14 – the latter of course still going strong with title-hopefuls Liverpool.


FIVE GOAL-D RINGS

The pun to headline this section is punishment enough, so we'll spare you a gag straight out of a Christmas cracker this time around. 

There have been seven occasions when a team has won by five goals on Boxing Day, which is the biggest margin of victory on the date in the Premier League era. 

Liverpool have done so twice (5-0 versus West Brom in 2004, then again when facing Swansea City in 2017), while Everton, West Ham, Manchester United and Spurs have also triumphed by the same scoreline. 

In 2000, Arsenal actually went one better than scoring five, though they also conceded during a 6-1 rout of Leicester.


NOT THE CARDS YOU WANT TO RECEIVE…

Sending Christmas cards, complete with the sort of witty wisecracks we have provided throughout this Christmas treat, is a long-running staple of the festive period. 

But receiving a card on Boxing Day is not always what you want for your team, right? 

Chelsea, Newcastle United, Stoke City and Wimbledon have all had three players dismissed in games staged on December 26, but Aston Villa are top of the pile with four.

Liverpool's home clash with Leeds United and Watford's trip to Wolves on Boxing Day have both been postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

Injury-hit Leeds managed to field a weakened team in a 4-1 defeat against Arsenal last Saturday, but five positive coronavirus cases within the first-team squad and staff have left Marcelo Biela's side unable to fulfil Sunday's game.

Leeds have subsequently closed their Thorp Arch training ground, with the positive cases all asymptomatic currently, while Watford continue to have insufficient numbers to visit Wolves on the same day.

Claudio Ranieri's side have already had to postpone games against Burnley and Crystal Palace due to an outbreak of the virus at the club, but Watford are expected to fulfil their fixture against West Ham on Tuesday with numerous players out of isolation.

"The board today was able to make its decisions in advance of Boxing Day to give clarity to clubs and their supporters," the Premier League's statement said on Thursday. "We apologise for the inconvenience and disruption caused to those fans' festive plans.

"The league is aware that the decision to postpone these two matches will disappoint supporters and understands their frustrations at a special time of year when fans look forward to attending and watching football games.

"The league aims to provide as much clarity as possible, but unfortunately postponements sometimes have to be made at short notice, as safety is the priority. The league will endeavour to keep supporters updated if matches become at risk on a matchday."

The postponement of the two early kick-offs on Boxing Day follows the calling off of six of the 10 scheduled Premier League games last weekend, though Wolves, Liverpool and Leeds were all in action.

An emergency meeting between top-flight clubs followed on Monday to discuss the challenges brought on by COVID-19, but the league confirmed scheduled fixtures would continue across the festive period.

The league said applications for postponements are being considered on a case-by-case basis with emergency measures reintroduced in light of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in England.

"The board will assess a number of factors, including the ability of a club to field a team; the status, severity and potential impact of the COVID-19 outbreak at the club; and the ability of the players to safely prepare for and play the match," the statement continued.

"The board must also consider the wider risks to the opposition and other people the club representatives may come into contact with.

"The health and wellbeing of all concerned remains our priority and the League will continue to monitor and reflect public health guidance, always proceeding with caution."

In the United Kingdom, 106,122 people tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, taking the seven-day rolling figure to 643,219.

Manchester City made history by putting Newcastle United to the sword and Arsenal also set a Premier League record in their thrashing of fragile Leeds United.

Rampant City ran riot at St James' Park on Sunday, hammering the relegation-threatened Magpies 4-0 to ensure they will be top of the table at Christmas.

Pep Guardiola's side took their tally of top-flight victories in 2021 to 34, bettering a record they had shared with Liverpool.

Depleted Leeds handed out far too many gifts in the season of goodwill, dishing out a 4-1 drubbing as Marcelo Bielsa's side were blown away in the first half at Elland Road on Saturday.

Second-placed Liverpool had to settle for a 2-2 draw at Tottenham in an eventful game for Andy Robertson on Sunday.

The fixture list was hard hit due to COVID-19 outbreaks, but there was no shortage of quirky Opta facts from the matches that went ahead.

 

No presents from Pep for struggling Howe

City can celebrate Christmas at the top of the tree for the first time since 2018, with Liverpool having been at the summit in the last three seasons.

It has been another memorable year for the champions, who not only set a record for number of top-flight wins but have also scored the most goals in a year by a Premier League team.

Not forgetting that football was indeed played before 1992, City's total of 106 goals in the top flight in 2021 sees them match a figure last set by Liverpool back in 1982. Aston Villa, however, hold the all-time top-flight record with a staggering 120 in 1930.

It has been a very different story for Newcastle, who conceded 79 times in the league this year, matching an unwanted record Ipswich Town set in 1994.

Eddie Howe will be glad to see the back of City, as the Newcastle head coach has lost all 11 matches against them – the worst 100 per cent losing record by any boss against one club in the history of the competition.

Ruthless Arsenal make Leeds suffer 

Leeds were thumped 7-0 by City in midweek and they gift-wrapped Arsenal three points with a naive display, even if injuries must be taken into account (all nine of Bielsa's substitutes were aged 21 or under, with 15-year-old Archie Gray among them).

The Gunners extended their winning run to three matches after dominating the first half, Gabriel Martinelli scoring twice and Bukayo Saka putting them 3-0 up at the break.

It could have been worse for the Whites, as Arsenal had 11 shots on target in the first half – the most on record (since 2003-04) by any side in the opening 45 minutes in a Premier League match.

With Emile Smith Rowe also on target, it was the first time Arsenal have had three players aged 21 or younger on the scoresheet in a Premier League game (excluding own goals).

Kalvin Phillips was once again sorely missed by Leeds. The Yorkshire club have lost 12 of their 15 Premier League games when the England midfielder has been absent.

Robertson turns from hero to villain

Liverpool are three points behind City after they were held by Spurs, having come from behind to lead 2-1 in the capital.

It was an eventful match for Robertson, who was unable to complete the 90 minutes after being shown a red card for a tackle on Emerson Royal.

The Scotland captain was given his marching orders eight minutes after putting the Reds in front and he also set up Diogo Jota's equaliser. Since Jota's Liverpool debut in 2020, only Christian Benteke (a former Red) has scored more headed Premier League goals than the Portugal forward (six).

Robertson became the first player to score, provide an assist and be sent off in a Premier League game since Aleksandar Mitrovic for Newcastle in May 2016, also against Spurs.

Harry Kane got the opener in an enthralling encounter, netting just his second league goal of the season and his first one at home since May.

That means Kane's last three home league goals for Spurs have all come under different managers – Jose Mourinho, Ryan Mason and Antonio Conte.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's future at Arsenal is murky.

Aubameyang lost the captaincy and was suspended for disciplinary reasons last week.

The 32-year-old has been with Arsenal since moving from Borussia Dortmund in 2018.

 

TOP STORY – JUVE INTERESTED IN AUBA MOVE

Tuttosport claims that Juventus are interested in signing Aubameyang with his future at Arsenal uncertain.

The Gabon international was stripped of the Gunners captaincy last week for disciplinary reasons, creating doubts about his future under Mikel Arteta at Arsenal.

The Bianconeri would be interested in signing the 32-year-old on a six-month loan deal.

ROUND-UP

- Cashed-up Newcastle United are looking to sign Anthony Martial on loan from Manchester United in January, reports the Sun.

- Barcelona have made Manchester United's veteran Uruguayan forward Edinson Cavani their top January target according to Sport.

- Barcelona are also interested in forgotten Manchester United midfielder Juan Mata, claims the Star.

- The Sun claims Leeds United are considering a move for Juventus' US international Weston McKennie who is valued at £20 million.

- AS reports that Manchester United are set to enter into the race for Sevilla's Jules Kounde, Chelsea are also keen on the French defender.

- Manchester City are set to reward Bernardo Silva for his good form, with a lucrative new contract where his salary will be doubled, claims the Sun.

Leeds United have confirmed an investigation has been opened into an allegation that Arsenal players were the subject of racist abuse during Saturday's Premier League match at Elland Road.

Arsenal beat Leeds 4-1 thanks to two goals from Gabriel Martinelli, plus strikes from Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.

However, during the first half, referee Andre Marriner was called to the sidelines after Arsenal substitute Rob Holding held a discussion with the fourth official, with Mikel Arteta and a Leeds representative also listening in.

It was alleged Arsenal's bench had been the subject of racist abuse from the stands close to the dug-out, with Arsenal reporting the incident to the stadium manager.

Marriner then informed Arsenal's players not to celebrate in front of a section of the Leeds fans when Saka put them 3-0 up before half-time.

In his post-match news conference, Arsenal manager Arteta confirmed that allegation of racist abuse had been made.

"Yes, unfortunately I can confirm that," he told reporters. "It was reported to the stadium manager and then the authorities will deal with that.

"It was a player siting on the bench. One of the players heard those comments.

"[I'm] very disappointed because we have done so much in football to try to avoid it. But it is a single person. I don't think that merits that a full stadium pays the price.

"It was a single incident and it has to be reported. It was reported and now the authorities will have to work with the clubs to understand what happened."

Leeds subsequently confirmed an investigation had been opened and that one arrest had been in made in connection to the allegation.

"Racism will not be tolerated at Leeds United and any supporter found to be using racist language will be subject to a lifetime ban for all Leeds United games," a club statement read.

 

Mikel Arteta hailed Gabriel Martinelli's "huge" influence in Arsenal's thrashing of Leeds United, but knows there is more to come from the forward.

Martinelli put Arsenal in control with a first-half double at Elland Road, with goals from Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe - either side of Raphinha's penalty - securing a 4-1 win for the Gunners.

It ended a three-match losing streak on the road for Arsenal, who will head into Christmas four points clear of West Ham in fourth place in the Premier League.

Martinelli's opener took Arsenal onto 7,000 top-flight goals, with the Gunners becoming only the third team, after Everton and Liverpool, to hit the milestone.

The Brazilian's second brought up his first Premier League brace in his 39th such appearance, while with Saka and Smith Rowe also getting on the scoresheet, 14 of Arsenal's 27 top-flight goals this season have been scored by players aged 21 or under.

Indeed, Arsenal had three different players aged 21 or younger score for them in a single Premier League game for the very first time.

At 20 years and 183 days, Martinelli became the youngest player to score a league double for Arsenal since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Crystal Palace in 2014 (20y 171d), and Arteta was full of praise for the attacker's display, even if he believes there is much more to follow.

Asked by Sky Sports for his opinion on Martinelli's impact, Arteta said: "Huge. That's why you have to prepare a player.

"You can't throw in a player when he's not ready. He has so much still to improve. He's very humble. His big passion in life is football."

In an interview with BBC Sport, Arteta added: "That's what he can do. He's getting a level of maturity. He's so willing to learn. You can see that on the pitch."

Martinelli thrived in the continued absence of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has fallen out of favour with Arteta after a disciplinary matter.

"He wasn't involved in today's game. Let's see. There's a privacy matter at the moment that I have to respect," Arteta told Sky Sports, perhaps suggesting Aubameyang's absence was not just down to his previous indiscretion.

Arteta confirmed before the match that Arsenal had multiple coronavirus cases among their staff and some players, including midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga.

"Everyone is healthy. We always follow the guidelines," he added.

"Now it's play as you can and we'll play as we can. The Premier League will make the best decision for everybody [about continuing or not].

"We want to play all under the same rules. That's where I think they have to come forward. Whatever they decide is best for the competition, but it has to be explained."

While Arsenal were able to celebrate, Leeds sit 16th with 16 points from their 18 games.

It is the joint-fewest points they have ever earned from their first 18 matches of any league campaign, along with 2006-07 in the Championship, assuming three points for a win.

Arsenal further consolidated their place in the top four as Gabriel Martinelli's double helped them to a 4-1 victory over depleted Leeds United.

In the only Premier League game to take place on Saturday after a raft of coronavirus-enforced postponements, Arsenal ended a run of three successive away league defeats in style as Leeds suffered another hammering following a 7-0 thrashing at Manchester City.

They were helped by a dismal first-half display from Leeds, who allowed 11 shots on target – the most by any side in the opening 45 minutes of a match since Opta records began in 2003-04.

Martinelli's brace and Bukayo Saka's strike punished some woeful defending, and although Raphinha's penalty reduced the arrears, substitute Emile Smith Rowe added insult to injury late on.

Saka drilled wide of an open goal and llan Meslier came to Leeds' rescue in an early Arsenal onslaught, yet the goalkeeper could do little to prevent Martinelli deservedly putting the Gunners ahead after pouncing on Adam Forshaw's error.

Raphinha dragged wide at the culmination of a wonderful run and Leeds were swiftly made to pay – Martinelli racing onto Granit Xhaka's pass and lifting a neat finish over Meslier to make it 2-0.

Meslier made another fine stop from Alexandre Lacazette, but it was 3-0 by the break when Saka's effort deflected in off Mateusz Klich.

Xhaka went in late on Raphinha after the restart, and was fortunate to escape a booking, especially when Joe Gelhardt was carded for a similar foul on Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Saka went close to doubling his tally as Arsenal kept Leeds at arm's length, yet a reckless lunge from Ben White on Gelhardt handed the hosts a lifeline.

Raphinha sent his penalty into the top-right corner, yet any comeback hopes were dashed when Smith Rowe finished first-time from Martin Odegaard's superb pass.

 

What does it mean? The kids are alright 

Arsenal's goal this season is Champions League qualification, and they are right in the mix. Indeed, with so many other games cancelled this weekend, they are assured of being four points clear of fifth place at Christmas. 

They remain a work in process under Arteta, though there is no doubt he is changing the make-up of his squad – indeed, 14 of Arsenal's 27 league goals this season have been scored by players aged 21 or under.

Magnificent Martinelli brings up Gunners milestone

Martinelli was afforded the freedom of Elland Road at times in the first half and he duly made Leeds pay, scoring his first Premier League double in his 39th top-flight appearance, while he has netted as many goals in his last two league matches for Arsenal as he had in his previous 24 beforehand (three).

His opener was also Arsenal's 7,000th top-flight goal, with the Gunners becoming only the third English side to reach that total since the Football League began in 1888, after Everton (7,139) and Liverpool (7,069).

Bielsa losing his spark?

Leeds had to name a bench of nine players all aged 21 or under, meanwhile, with their injury issues really hitting hard. That being said, 11 goals conceded over two games is a more than worrying trend, and Marcelo Bielsa's side need players back, and reinforcements in January, if they are to avoid a relegation scrap.

The Argentine will still carry favour with the fans, but Leeds have already lost eight games and sit 16th, while they are hugely reliant on Raphinha, who has scored eight of their 18 league goals this term (44 per cent). Only Teemu Pukki for Norwich (63 per cent – 5/8) has scored a higher ratio for a side in this season's competition.

What's next?

Doubt remains over whether the season will continue or be paused, but as it stands Arsenal are set to face Norwich City, while Leeds face a daunting trip to Anfield.

Leeds United named a 15-year-old on their bench as Marcelo Bielsa's injury hit side prepared to take on Arsenal in Saturday's only Premier League fixture.

With Aston Villa's clash with Burnley being called off earlier in the day, the meeting between the Gunners and Leeds at Elland Road was the only match to go ahead amid a raft of COVID-19-enforced protocols. 

Leeds, however, are suffering an injury crisis, and Bielsa was once again forced to turn to the team's youngsters.

With Luke Ayling starting at centre-back alongside the returning Robin Koch, 20-year-old Cody Drameh was handed a first Premier League start at right-back, while Joe Gelhardt, who scored against Chelsea last week, was named as the forward.

However, Bielsa has very little experience on the bench, with all nine of the substitutes aged 21 or under.

Those included 15-year-old Archie Gray, the son of former Leeds player Andy Gray, who is the nephew of Leeds legend Frank Gray. Should he come on, Gray will become the Premier League's youngest-ever player.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were able to name an unchanged team to the side that beat West Ham in midweek, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang again left out, as Mikel Arteta confirmed he would be in his pre-match news conference.

However, the Gunners did confirm midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga had tested positive for coronavirus.

Premier League clubs are set to meet on Monday to discuss how best to proceed amid the rising cases of the virus in the United Kingdom, attributed to the Omicron variant.

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