The fans love it. Managers and players have ample reasons for hating it. But the Premier League's festive season is here.
Over the span of a week, between Thursday's Boxing Day extravaganza and the conclusion on Jan. 2, there will be 30 matches played, some of which could have a heavy influence at both the top and bottom of the table and all of which will be colored by the looming specter of the winter transfer window.
You'll hear plenty bemoan the schedule congestion, even with the introduction of something resembling a winter break in February. With Euro 2020 on the horizon after the season and seven Premier League clubs still competing on European fronts–never mind the four still alive in the League Cup and the Premier League teams' forthcoming entry to the FA Cup–there will be no shortage of reasoning for complaints about the lack of a breather.
The sprint is a joy for the supporters, though, so here's a closer look at the Premier League's festive season, the key matches and the biggest storylines to watch (all times Eastern).
Boxing Day (Thursday, Dec. 26)
7:30 a.m. - Tottenham vs. Brighton (NBCSN)
10 a.m. - Bournemouth vs. Arsenal
10 a.m. - Aston Villa vs. Norwich City
10 a.m. - Chelsea vs. Southampton (NBCSN)
10 a.m. - Crystal Palace vs. West Ham
10 a.m. - Everton vs. Burnley
10 a.m. - Sheffield United vs. Watford
12:30 p.m. - Manchester United vs. Newcastle (NBCSN)
3 p.m. - Leicester City vs. Liverpool (NBCSN)
Leicester-Liverpool is the obvious headliner, a match between the top two teams in the table and one of the few genuine threats to Liverpool's Invincible season. The Reds could be ripe for the picking, after their travels to Qatar for a successful run at the Club World Cup are followed by one of their most challenging road matches this season.
The extra spice is provided by current Leicester manager and former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, who has re-molded the Foxes into a genuine top side in England. If they're to have any thoughts of mounting another title challenge, though, they'll need a win, as Liverpool is 10 points clear with a game in hand. Even a loss, considering Liverpool's overall form and sustainability, wouldn't be catastrophic for the leaders and would remove the sometimes overwhelming pressure that accompanies going for an unbeaten season.
The 10 a.m. slate is most intriguing for the debuts of two managers, with Mikel Arteta overseeing his first Arsenal match and Carlo Ancelotti doing the same for Everton. Both hirings came with intrigue and an element of rolling the dice, and both clubs will be eager to get off to winning starts to build immediate momentum. After both witnessed Everton and Arsenal's drab 0-0 draw on Saturday from the stands, they, too, will be eager to ramp up their respective clubs' efforts.
Elsewhere, Man United and Tottenham are in need of rebound performances after both suffered disappointing 2-0 losses over the weekend. Man United was abysmal at a Watford side sitting in last place, while Tottenham fell short at home to Chelsea in a Jose Mourinho-Frank Lampard showdown that was overshadowed by the latest alleged incidents of fan racism.
Regardless of the competitive nature of the title race, each time slot comes with an element of intrigue.
The Boxing Day Outlier (Friday, Dec. 27)
2:45 p.m. - Wolverhampton vs. Man City (NBCSN)
The two sides get their own showcase after being exempt from Boxing Day. It's a rematch of one of Man City's lackluster and costly defeats, a 2-0 result in October that Wolves won in Manchester on the strength of a late Adama Traore double. Nuno Espirito Santo's side now improbably finds itself in a battle for the top four and will be confident of pulling the season sweep despite a recent run of mixed results.
Remember, it was last season's festive fixtures when Man City stumbled heavily, and there's been a surprising amount of evidence to suggest it's not immune to a repeat.
Last Weekend of the Year (Sat. Dec 28-Sun. Dec 29)
Sat., 7:30 a.m. - Brighton vs. Bournemouth (NBCSN)
Sat., 10 a.m. - Newcastle vs. Everton (NBCSN)
Sat., 10 a.m. - Southampton vs. Crystal Palace
Sat., 10 a.m. - Watford vs. Aston Villa
Sat., 12:30 p.m. - Norwich vs. Tottenham (NBC)
Sat., 12:30 p.m. - West Ham vs. Leicester City
Sat., 2:45 p.m. - Burnley vs. Man United (NBC)
Sun., 9 a.m. - Arsenal vs. Chelsea (NBCSN)
Sun., 11:30 a.m. - Liverpool vs. Wolves (NBCSN)
Sun., 1 p.m. - Manchester City vs. Sheffield United
The cream is clearly at the end of the weekend, with an Arteta-Frank Lampard managerial showdown in the London derby, another test for Liverpool's unbeaten season and a sneaky challenge for Man City.
Don't overlook the battle at the bottom, either, with Watford-Aston Villa being Villa's second straight match against a team in the drop zone after the Boxing Day battle vs. Norwich. It could be a do-or-die run of matches for Dean Smith's side considering the six-point swings up for grabs.
New Year's Day (Jan. 1)
7:30 a.m. - Brighton vs. Chelsea (NBCSN)
7:30 a.m. - Burnley vs. Aston Villa
10 a.m. - Newcastle vs. Leicester City
10 a.m. - Southampton vs. Tottenham (NBCSN)
10 a.m. - Watford vs. Wolves
12:30 p.m. - Manchester City vs. Everton (NBCSN)
12:30 p.m. - Norwich City vs. Crystal Palace
12:30 p.m. - West Ham vs. Bournemouth
3 p.m. - Arsenal vs. Manchester United (NBCSN)
Pep Guardiola matches wits with Ancelotti at the Etihad, while Arteta gets another challenge at the Emirates, looking to pull one over on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to open 2020. Leave your "resolution" and "2020 vision" puns aside for how to put these results in proper context and just enjoy the action in what should be two of the better matches of the holiday run-in.
The End (Jan. 2)
3 p.m. - Liverpool vs. Sheffield United (NBCSN)
The third straight challenge for Liverpool, which plays the second-, fifth- and sixth-placed teams entering the festive slate, comes at Anfield against the league's surprise package.
Chris Wilder's Blades may not be able to score with the likes of Liverpool. Their 22 goals put them in the bottom half of the Premier League. Their stingy defense, though, is the ultimate neutralizer. Only Liverpool and Leicester City (14) have conceded fewer goals than Sheffield United's 16 entering the festive slate. Squad depth and tired legs could be other factors in this finale, and provided a meeting with Man City three days earlier doesn't take everything out of the visitors, this could be a rousing edition of David vs. Goliath to put a cap on the weeklong madness.