Think of a typical football month and you’d have four league games in mind for each of the weekends and a couple of mid-week Cup games. That’s six games at best and yet in the said month, you will probably still get comments from managers moaning about fixture congestion and the need to rotate/rest players. Now, add three games to those six and you’ll start to get the picture of how December can often make or break a season. That the footballing authorities always manage to find space to fit nine fixtures in the space of four December weeks remains a British football wonder.
In the premier league alone, 21 points are at stake! If you somehow manage to bag the lot, your season suddenly has a different outlook from the one you had before the month. A 21 point swing in a month is quite a bounty. And yet United should not feel overawed by such expectation. A look at the fixture list reveals that but for a testing start to the month, all fixtures therein are pretty much negotiable.
United start the month away at the Emirates against an Arsenal side that seems to have turned one of many corners under Arsene Wenger. Victory in London on Saturday evening will be the first defeat the Gunners have suffered at home in the league since the start of the year. 12 straight home wins. And yet the context of the title race requires that United have to win if only to keep up with the leaders and retain interest in the derby, the following weekend.
The build up to the Manchester derby will be briefly interrupted by a small matter of a final Champions League group game at Old Trafford against CSKA Moscow (H). Defeat in Switzerland on Matchday 5 meant that incredibly, United have not yet secured their passage to the last 16. Even though qualification remains a formality, United will want to keep winning momentum going ahead of the derby. Team selection will however reflect the weekend’s assignment.
And then, to the one the world has been waiting for. Perhaps the biggest indication of progress under Jose Mourinho in his second season is that the Manchester derby is back to being talked about in the same breath as a title decider. United’s eight point deficit effectively makes them the more desirous of all three pints on offer and yet City will want to finally put away their last realistic challengers to the title. Because so much of what is left of this season depends on this game, this fixture is unlikely to disappoint in ways big games often do.
Should United emerge victors, the rest of the month’s league assignments against Bournemouth, at West Brom, at Leicester, at home against Burnley and Southampton will carry an expectation of going on to mount a serious claim to the leadership of the league ahead of the second half of the campaign. If it all goes South in the derby, then United will have their work cut out between now and the end of the season to make more of their domestic season.
United also have the small matter of a League Cup fixture therein the month against Bristol City. Given the fixture congestion in the month, the team news for that one will be something from among the U23s and the first team bench.
Ultimately, December will thrill for the sheer amount of football on offer, and yet opportunity prevails throughout the month to make significant marks on the season. Ironically, despite the 9 fixtures over the month, so much depends on THAT one fixture that it’s difficult to evaluate the month as a whole before that game. Few derbies in the recent past have mattered as much as this one will.