Dubai: Following a six-week break to accommodate the FIFA World Cup in Qatar the English Premier League returns to action on Boxing Day.
The enforced hibernation has allowed several clubs to rest key players with one such beneficiary being Manchester City and their striker Erling Haaland.
Since his country Norway did not qualify for the tournament, he has been able to utilize the time off midway through the season to recharge his batteries. But, the scary thing is the 22-year-old did not even need a rest. This is a guy in top form. He had already banged in 23 goals in all competitions for Pep Guardiola’s side since his summer arrival before the league stopped.
Now, having enjoyed the imposed break with his feet up, there is no telling what damage he will do. He leads the goal scoring charts with 18 and is 6 clear of Tottenham’s Harry Kane. And, he wasted no time in proving how advantageous the pause was for him as he got on the scoresheet during City’s 3-2 win over Liverpool in the last 16 of the Carabao Cup earlier this week.
Sure, it was a pity that the world never got to see the Premier League’s most potent attacker in Qatar, but Guardiola will have been delighted. City players played more World Cup minutes than any other Premier League club but the fact Guardiola was able to wrap his talisman in cotton wool during the break will have been extremely pleasing for him. And, when he got back out on the pitch, the striker wasted no time in maintaining his explosive form against the Reds with a well-taken strike.
City are targeting domestic and European success and much of that will depend on the fitness and freshness of Haaland. But, the Etihad club now also have Argentinian Julian Alvarez back as a World Cup winner and the striker will be riding on the crest of a wave. Fellow attacker Riyad Mahrez is also raring to go after his Algeria team failed to qualify. This all bodes very well for City but, spare a thought for league-leaders Arsenal.
They appear vulnerable now following the loss of their key man Gabriel Jesus. The Brazil striker’s tournament ended prematurely after a knee injury and he will be missing for the Gunners for several weeks. Mikel Arteta’s side are currently five-points ahead of City but with a challenging sequence of matches to come for the North London club, Guardiola will feel confident they can be caught. Arsenal face Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United before the end of January. Arteta knows how vital it will be for the team to collect maximum points in their next two games against West Ham and Brighton.
Tottenham’s top-four ambitions will rest on Kane but with the Englishman missing a penalty against France in the quarter-finals coach Antonio Conte will be hoping his star man is not suffering any emotional burnout. Conte could also rue Richarlison picking up yet another injury after impressing for Brazil, while Son Heung-min’s struggles for form continued in the Middle East. But in defence things look better what with Cristian Romero’s status as a world champion, and French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris’ run to the final.
Meanwhile, Harry Maguire produced arguably his best form of the season for the Three Lions in Qatar and Manchester United coach Erik Ten Hag will be desperate for the centre back to replicate that in the league. He could form a robust partnership in the heart of the defence with Argentina’s World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez what with Raphael Varane - who helped France reach the final – prone to injury.
Elsewhere, Liverpool, languishing in sixth, will be optimistic that Egyptian attacker Mohamed Salah’s absence from the tournament will have allowed him time to get back to his sharpest best after a sluggish start to the season.
It will be interesting to see how players’ physical and mental health is impacted by the busy schedule considering many will not have had sufficient recovery time. And with a long season ahead, many could find themselves picking up injuries and this could cost their clubs - whether they be in the hunt for trophies or the battle to avoid the drop - dearly.