The crowded Christmas schedule can bring unexpected gifts for patient players. Injuries and fear of the injuries the rush of matches can produce allows forgotten men to emerge from the limbo of the bench to grab a first-team start.
Daley Blind and Wayne Rooney made rare starts as Manchester United won, 2-1, at Crystal Palace. Moussa Sissoko and Eric Dier began in Tottenham’s midfield as Christian Eriksen inspired a 3-0 rout of Hull City at White Hart Lane.
Cesc Fabregas and Willian, after four games on the bench, started for Chelsea in place of the injured Eden Hazard and Nemanja Matic. After 40 minutes, they repaid manager Antonio Conte’s generosity. A neat one-two between them left Fabregas free 20 yards out and he passed the ball into the corner of the net for the goal that earned a 1-0 victory at Sunderland.
Chelsea, yet again, dominated without turning that control into more goals. Sunderland almost profited when Patrick van Aanholt slashed the ball through a scrum of players in added time, but Thibaut Courtois hurled himself high to his right to turn the ball aside with a steely hand.
It was Chelsea’s 10th straight league victory (the Premier League record is 14 by Arsenal in a run that straddled two seasons in 2002), and it moved Chelsea six points clear at the top of the table. Whatever happens at Crystal Palace on Saturday, it will lead the Premier League at Christmas. The three previous times Chelsea has managed that; it has won the title.
It will be a merry Christmas at Stamford Bridge.
Elsewhere in midweek Premier League action:
Liverpool in safe hands after Klopp keeper drama
If only Liverpool had Courtois, although on Wednesday Merseyside’s own Belgian goalkeeper kept a clean sheet, which must have left Jurgen Klopp a relieved man.
One of the more entertaining spectacles on the soccer field is when a keeper drops a cross or butchers a shot, leaps up and starts screaming at his defenders. The more energetically he points the finger, the easier it is to see the butter dripping from it.
This week, Klopp attempted a variation on the routine. He pointed his finger before doing the dropping. Klopp vented at Gary Neville, who has been criticizing Loris Karius on TV. Curiously as Neville pointed out, his Sky partner in punditry, Jamie Carragher, escaped rebuke. But then, Carragher is a Liverpool legend. Neville played for hated Manchester United.
When Klopp did replace Karius with Simon Mignolet on Wednesday, he risked looking weak. Since, as Klopp, and Neville and Carragher well know, Mignolet is also accident prone. The Liverpool manager risked having two wounded keepers on his hands, although against the worst attack in the Premier League, perhaps it was, in the short term, a small risk. At least Klopp, by publicly defending Karius from paper enemies, had attempted to protect the ego of the 23-year-old.
If Klopp is attempting to win while being nice to all his players, his record suggests that he can do it.
At Middlesbrough, Mignolet made a couple of crisp early saves. After that, Liverpool won rather easily. Adam Lallana put Klopp’s men ahead before halftime, In the second half Divock Origi (scoring in a fifth straight game) and Lallana finished glorious Liverpool moves to complete a comfortable 3-0 victory, pulling the Reds even with Arsenal in second place, six points behind Chelsea.
Manchester United's stars shine
Manchester United scored a late victory over Crystal Palace, as Paul Pogba followed a powerful turn with a precise pass to set up Zlatan Ibrahimovic for a neat goal in the 88th minute of a 2-1 triumph.
Earlier, Ibrahimovic had set up Pogba for a scruffy goal that gave United a first-half lead. In between, the unlikely pair of Damian Delaney and James McArthur combined for a goal of Brazilian brilliance. But Man United dominated the game, and its two big summer recruits combined to turn that domination into three points.
All evening, all over the field, Leicester was an inch or two from recapturing last season’s magic. In the best leagues, an inch or two is the distance between greatness and relegation.