The last-minute faxes lay silent. The final checks and fitness tests are complete. Contracts and bonuses have been approved. From here on in, every Premier League is stuck with the men they have in their squad. There are no more ins and outs, with the January transfer window closed for business.
Some clubs have signed bug money players, such as Manchester United, who forked out an initial £46.5m on Sporting Lisbon’s playmaker, Bruno Fernandes. Others snapped up loan deals praying they’ve got a hungry player rather than a hungover one.
Arsenal grabbed a central defender in Pablo Mori, Newcastle took Spurs’ Danny Rose and Kyle Walker-Peters ended up swapping North London for Southampton. We’re about to find out how shrewd all those deals are, and there are some spectacular fixtures that take place in the last weekend preceding the winter break.
Leicester City vs. Chelsea (Saturday 1st February, 12:30 pm GMT kick-off)
The top four clash between the current 3rd best team in the Premier League and the team directly below them is a fascinating match-up, with The Foxes is less than spectacular form yet holding an eight-point lead over The Blues as they go into the game.
Chelsea enter the game six points ahead of Manchester United in 5th place, Tottenham Hotspur in 6th place and Wolves in 7th place, but while that looks a big lead, it’s a couple of losses from a very different outlook for the West Londoners.
Under Frank Lampard, Chelsea have had an interesting first season under their legendary player and young manager, but they have also suffered eight league defeats will 14 Premier League games still to play. This could be one of their toughest fixtures remaining.
Leicester may have been knocked out of the EFL Cup on Tuesday evening, but their league form has been impressive. The only doubt in their mind will be their home form, with several defeats in recent weeks casting suspicions around the King Power that Champions League football may not be completely assured yet. The Foxes are 14 points ahead of the chasing pack and that should be a blanket, but anything could happen in the next few weeks. The winter break may well be crucial come the final shake-up.
Manchester Utd vs. Wolves (Saturday 1st February, 5:30 pm GMT kick-off)
The long-awaited arrival of Bruno Fernandes may be what the United fans wanted, but do they deserve him? The Portuguese star, who has twice won the Primera Liga Player of the Year in the past two seasons is a midfielder with real promise and has apparently dreamed of playing for United since The Red Devils had Cristiano Ronaldo on their books.
That the Old Trafford club has fallen so far since their magnificent number seven is the most disappointing thing for many fans. Sir Alex Ferguson maintained the title-winning habit, but at the cost of his usual regenerative desires to keep the squad ticking over. What followed has been a near disaster, and it has come to the point that a veritable United legend is being given little more than a year to bring the good times back and a vice Chairman can have his home attacked.
The disgraceful scenes of earlier in the week will resonate with many genuine United fans of a time when United were relegated before, and the feeling that a club known for rising from the ashes like a Phoenix from the flames can only truly come back once they’ve been burned to the ground is a persistent one. Can United beat Wolves? Possibly, but the Midlands squad arguably looks more balanced if not as immediately impressive. In Jimenez, Traore and Moutinho to name just three players, they have the talent that would walk into this current United side. That reminder might well see Wolves get the points, even if Bruno will take the headlines.
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City (Sunday 2nd February, 4:30 pm GMT kick-off)
Pep vs. Jose. The impregnable defence against the irresistible machine? Well, maybe not quite. With the absence of Harry Kane and the departures of Danny Rose, Kyle Walker-Peters and Christian Eriksen, Jose Mourinho is already making this Spurs squad look – and more pertinently, play – in his image. Pragmatism defines them, the breaking ball used ruthlessly by messrs Alli and Son to punish weaker defences. Against stronger sides, keep it tight, pounce when the rare chance arrives, then man the battlements and make sure you have lit cannons.
Manchester City, however, are definitely not the irresistible machine right now. Raheem Sterling looks to have lost his early-season form, David Silva seems unable to play 90 minutes and Guardiola looks vexed, so much so that the disgusting habit he has of ‘nearly spitting’ every 30-40 seconds has become something of an obsessive-compulsive act. Someone get the man a drink of water or at the very least a nosebag.
Who’ll win this game? Manchester City, most likely. Who’ll slap each other harder on the back? It’s hard to look past Mourinho’s fabled shoulder grip and rueful grin. City are virtually guaranteed 2nd place. Spurs will be doing very well indeed to fight for anywhere near 4th without Kane. A dead rubber in January.
Gameweek #25 Fixtures:
Saturday 1st February
Leicester vs. Chelsea (12:30 pm GMT kick-off)
Bournemouth vs. Aston Villa (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Crystal Palace vs. Sheff Utd (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Liverpool vs. Southampton (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Newcastle vs. Norwich (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Watford vs. Everton (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
West Ham vs. Brighton (3:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Manchester Utd vs. Wolves (5:30 pm GMT kick-off)
Sunday 2nd February
Burnley vs. Arsenal (2:00 pm GMT kick-off)
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City (4:30 pm GMT kick-off)