Premier League

Does being top at Christmas mean anything?

 • by Matt Gault
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So, Liverpool are top of the lot.

At the start of the season, many assumed Manchester City would spend the season looking down on the rest like they did for most of the 2017/18 campaign.

However, the Reds have not acquiesced to the idea that Pep Guardiola’s champions are unstoppable and, having accumulated 48 points from a possible 54, it is Jürgen Klopp’s men setting a blistering pace at the summit.

Leading the way at Christmas has always been seen as a significant accomplishment (even though the invariably hectic Boxing Day programme can alter the landscape just 24 hours later).

But how often do the leaders at Christmas go on to clinch the title? We’ve looked back over the years of the Premier League to find out.

Recent history bodes well for Reds

Let’s start with the most recent. City thumped Bournemouth 4-0 on December 23 last year to ensure they enjoyed a 13-point advantage over Manchester United at Christmas.

Of course, the margin only widened as the season wore on and, despite United beating Guardiola’s men at the Etihad to deny them the satisfaction of clinching their crown in the derby, they eventually finished 19 points ahead. Like Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams, City were supremely competent pacesetters.

Likewise, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea stormed into Christmas during the 2016/17 season, winning a club record-equalling 11 games on the spin to surge six points clear of Liverpool. The Blues proved too hot during the Italian’s first year in England, finishing seven points above Tottenham to clinch their fifth Premier League.

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Leicester City held a two-point lead over Arsenal back in 2015 and Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes, much to the astonishment of the footballing world, captured the title by a whopping ten points in one of the greatest sporting stories in the modern era.

Liverpool’s return to the throne wouldn’t be quite as seismic but, seeing as the Reds haven’t lifted a league title since 1990, it would certainly be one of the biggest days in the club’s history.

And, as we’ve seen in the cases of City, Chelsea and Leicester, recent history is very much in Klopp’s favour. In fact, the last team to be top at Christmas and not win the title was Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, who were unable to convert their slender one-point lead in the 2013/14 season, eventually losing out to City.

The Reds have been top at Christmas three times in the Premier League era. Before the 2013/14 term, Rafael Benítez’s side led the way during the 2008/09 season. A 1-1 draw at Arsenal meant the Reds held an eight-point lead over the Gunners heading into the festive period.

Despite losing just once after Christmas, they were denied their first Premier League success as Sir Alex Ferguson’s United clinched top spot on January 17 and stayed there. Liverpool thumped United 4-1 at Old Trafford in March but Fergie’s Red Devils won eight of their last nine games to complete a hat-trick of championships.

Liverpool’s first taste of being top at Christmas was back in 1996. A 1-1 draw at Newcastle United left Roy Evans’ side looking down on the rest but Fergie’s United again proved the tormentors of Anfield. Third on December 25, United claimed top spot for the first time since September with a 2-1 away to Southampton on February 1 and remained there. Liverpool were also top at Christmas during the 1990/91 season and eventually finished behind Arsenal.

There have been occasions, of course, when even a comfortable Christmas lead hasn’t been enough. Famously, Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle squandered a 12-point lead during the 1995/96 season as United stole in to win their third Premier League crown.

At Christmas that season, the Magpies were sitting pretty with a ten-point lead over United. A convincing 3-1 win over Nottingham Forest gave Keegan’s ‘Entertainers’ a commanding cushion before travelling to Old Trafford for a massive top-two clash with the Red Devils.

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Andy Cole and Roy Keane scored as United ran out 2-0 winners and, although the Geordies responded by winning their next five games, a run of just one win in six games between February and April saw the title slip through their grasp as Fergie got under Keegan’s skin and United reclaimed their title after losing it to Blackburn Rovers a year prior.

But United themselves have suffered the ignominy of letting a seemingly unassailable lead evaporate too. They raced into a four-point lead at Christmas during the 1997/98 season and increased their advantage to 12 points by March. However, Arsenal who, in Wenger’s first full season chased their first league triumph since claiming the old Division One in 1991, reeled United in, chipping away at their lead before a momentous 1-0 win at Old Trafford in March.

Back-to-back draws against Newcastle and Liverpool in April further handed the advantage to Arsenal, who captured the first of three championships under Wenger.

The most dramatic downfall having led at Christmas belongs to Aston Villa. John Gregory’s side pipped United and Arsenal to first in 1998 but capitulated during the second half of the campaign to eventually finish sixth, 24 points off United.

The thought of this current Liverpool’s title challenge disintegrating so spectacularly, however, is faintly ludicrous. Now into his third full season in the Anfield dugout, Klopp has built a remarkable team, one which looks more than capable of challenging City’s supremacy.

One of the most telling indicators of their title-worthy resilience has been the frequency with which they have ground out results. Not always at their scintillating best, Klopp’s side have continued to win: historically, that’s a hallmark of champions-in-the-making.

Overall, in 26 seasons of the Premier League, 14 of the teams who have topped the table at Christmas have proceeded to win the title. It’s worth noting, too, that clubs have successfully seen it through more frequently since the turn of the millennium. Before the 2000/01 season, just two of the eight teams had managed it. Since then, 12 out of 18 have maintained their position.

Essentially, it means little to Liverpool. There is half of the season still to play and, considering City’s firepower, delivering their first title in 29 years is going to be an enormous challenge for Klopp regardless of history.

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