Christmas is upon us. The time of giving, of singing Christmas songs, of family and loved ones. The time of the year’s best and most compact sports schedule. That’s right, for all those sports fans out there who need a bit of respite from the Christmas love-in that accompanies the end of December, there is a jam-packed schedule of sport to keep you busy.
Christmas fixtures may be one of the most debated topics among coaches and players, but for fans they offer a spectacular that is matched at no other time of the year. Seemingly continuous coverage of all their favourite sports grants enthusiasts a gift more enjoyable than any stocking filler.
The fun kicks off at 19:45 on the evening of the 22nd, with what promises to be one of the season’s most tantalising fixtures, as Liverpool travel to The Emirates to play Arsenal. With two sides who invariably set up to attack, this promises to be a nail-biter for die-hard fans but a winter-warmer for the neutrals to get them into the mood for the festive season. Hopefully falling before all the aunts, uncles and grandparents decamp for the true Christmas celebrations, sportsters should be able to settle in for the evening and enjoy the spectacle.
The 23rd holds no fewer delights as Sky Sports start their coverage at midday with El Clásico de Navidad, or Real Madrid v Barcelona for the harder Brexiteers among you. With stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Luka Modric and Luis Suarez on the field there are bound to be goals, fireworks and tension to make it one of the highlights of the week.
From 12:30, the two best teams in the world can be interchanged with the English champions, Chelsea’s, trip to Goodison Park where they come up against a struggling Everton team who will be hoping for Sam Allardyce to do his best Santa impression and bring them a turnaround in fortunes and a striker for the New Year.
At 2:30, switch over to BT Sport for a heartier dessert of Rugby Union. The Franklin’s Gardens faithful are sure to be in full voice for the visit of the champions, Exeter, to Northampton. It is an encounter that is sure to be full of big hits, bulldozing runs, and burning passion as two of the league’s best-supported clubs come head-to-head.
One man who will be under the spotlight is Dylan Hartley. The England captain will be doing his best angel impression, hoping to avoid any misdemeanours, like the swinging arm on Sean O’Brien that hampered his Six Nations preparations last year. Such actions this season may result in Eddie Jones sending him a lump of coal instead of his Christmas bonus.
As the waifs and strays begin to arrive on the evening of the 23rd, settle everyone in with the backing track of Leicester v Manchester United. Jose Mourinho’s post-match comments are sure to make for much better listening than Michael Bublé and will provide the perfect appetiser for Match of the Day.
The BBC’s flagship sports show will provide entertainment for the entire family, with its analysis of all the day’s games satisfying the football fanatics while Granny is able to swoon over Gary Lineker, hoping he will appear in his underpants again.
After flirting with the idea of Christmas Eve fixtures, football’s powers-that-be decided that their superstars needed a couple of days off to embrace the festive spirit. It, therefore, falls to rugby to pick up the entertainment mantle. The Premiership does not disappoint as it pitches two of England’s powerhouses against each other.
The formerly-dominant Leicester Tigers host the new kings, Saracens, in what is sure to be a confrontational meeting. The most exciting matchup comes from the wise men at fly-half, as Lions star, Owen Farrell, faces George Ford, the man who is keeping him out of the England number 10 jersey that he so greatly desires. Neither side will be doling out gifts in the fierce battle but spectators are in for a treat that will send them into Christmas fully satisfied.
After the match, the live coverage takes a short break for the viewer to enjoy some time with their family, leaving time for Christmas games or perhaps a sporting quiz. Yet, they are sure to be eagerly awaiting the visit of Father Christmas, wondering which sporty surprises will appear in their stocking. There are countless ideas for presents which are sure to please all sporting enthusiasts.
Top Trumps are a firm favourite among younger aficionados. With editions coming in football, rugby and cricket as well as a whole range of other sports, they make for perfect stocking fillers that will provide hours of fun and stats-learning.
This year has also seen the release of a new wave of videogames from FIFA 18 to Rugby 18 via Ashes Cricket, every sports fan is likely to be satisfied by the chance to play as their favourite players in a whole range of different game plays.
Rugby fans can be kept quiet on Christmas with a copy of the British and Irish Lions: Uncovered DVD, which will allow them to see the workings behind this year’s exhilarating tour to New Zealand and relive all their favourite moments. Away from digital entertainment, classic sporting board games such as The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game and Subbuteo, offer great gift options to be enjoyed by all the family, offering older generations the chance to show off their well-trained skills and teach the youngsters a lesson. These joys are sure to keep everyone happy throughout Christmas Day and hopefully avoid any of the family disputes synonymous with Monopoly.
Just as the sensible are winding down and tucking into bed, the classier fan may enjoy settling down with some good cheese and a nice glass of wine to restart the sporting bonanza with the Ashes. While viewing the whole day’s play may be ambitious after a day of feasting that is sure to leave you sleepy, the first few overs of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne never fail to disappoint as one of the world’s great sporting events.
England will be hoping to still be in with a chance in the series after their disappointing defeat in Brisbane left them a mountain to climb. If they are, then hopes would start to grow of sneaking a gloriously unexpected victory to rid the nightmares of Mitchell Johnson’s whitewash four years ago.
While Boxing Day means country walks and five-a-sides for much of the country, the Premier League returns with two of the more underwhelming fixtures of the period. Liverpool will be expecting to secure an easy home win over Swansea, but while the same should be said of Tottenham against Southampton, their recent barren run causes some doubts. The Saints will be hoping to play on this and, inspired by the festive atmosphere, they may be able to spring a surprise.
Manchester City fans will be hoping to continue their free-flowing run through the bleak midwinter and power Pep to his first English title. But, don’t bet against Jose’s United playing the pantomime villains and sneaking it from under their nose.
City return in Newcastle on the evening of the 27th, aiming to break down Rafa Benitez’s well-drilled side, who will be wanting an improved run of their own to keep off relegation fears. Barring a shock, City should continue their superb form into the New Year with a flourishing performance.
Arsenal follow them on the 28th, travelling across London to Crystal Palace hopeful of sparking their usual mid-season upturn in results. They should heed the example of Chelsea though and be wary of Roy Hodgson’s men at their Selhurst Park home. Yet, they would be disappointed, if not surprised, to suffer a loss and should travel home celebrating three points in the bag.
The 30th holds the feistiest battle north of the border as the Old Firm makes its final appearance of the year. Celtic are yet to lose to their city rivals under Brendan Rodgers and will be expecting another victory. Derbies are rarely so clear-cut, however, and Rangers are bound to fight tirelessly and test any festive hangover to produce a Christmas cracker to warm the winter hearts.
In Scotland’s other major sporting rivalry, Edinburgh play Glasgow in the Pro 14 on the same day for the second time in a week. While Edinburgh’s form has improved markedly since some early struggles under Richard Cockerill, Glasgow will head into the match as favourites. With players of the class of Stuart Hogg and the departing Finn Russell they should have too much firepower for the Edinburgh backline and come away with a win.
Tottenham v West Ham and West Brom v Arsenal close the footballing year on New Year’s Eve. With both West Ham and West Brom having made managerial changes, they will be hoping that Christmas has been kind to them and they can secure wins against the North London sides, but are likely to be made to wait even longer for an upturn in results.
That brings us merrily to January. The matches continue as the season rolls on. Football managers will be hoping their owners land them the proper gift of a star player in the transfer window. England will, hopefully, still be dreaming of Ashes glory in Sydney and rugby players will start to eye up Six Nations selection. Sports fans will return to normal life in eager anticipation of the joys the year ahead holds, warmly satiated by the joys of the festive schedule.
While Christmas is a special time, shared with family, regaling stories of old and spreading festive joy, don’t forget that there is an alternative. When Grandpa’s stories or your aunt’s advice become too much, take a break and immerse yourself in sport’s winter wonderland: it will be full of entertainment.
Illustration Courtesy of Suye Xu