Ian Horrocks/Newcastle United via Getty ImagesThe festive season proved yet again why the EPL is No. 1 in drama, as teams like Newcastle pulled off thrilling upsets.
La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga are all great in their own way, but as the events of the jam-packed EPL holiday schedule proved yet again, there really is nothing like the Premiership. The crowds, the players, the tempo of play, the passion for the game are all part of the excitement, but more and more the biggest factor is fear of relegation -- from both the division and the Champions League places.
As we start 2012, nearly every EPL team is looking desperately back over its shoulder at the dark financial abyss of a relegation trap door. Like Bolton Wanderers goalkeeper Adam Bogdan realizing that he's not going to get to the 90-yard punt of his Everton counterpart Tim Howard as it sails over his head, a sense of trepidation grips the Premiership. And it's creating another fantastic, unpredictable season.
As much as I have a nostalgic soft spot for the magic of the FA Cup, I wish it wasn't interrupting the flow of a whacky EPL season this weekend. Who knows what's going to happen next after the results of the Yuletide games? Sunderland took three points from Manchester City and Aston Villa beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Fulham derailed Arsenal's momentum, Bolton did the same to Everton and, of course, Blackburn Rovers turned the so-called Theatre of Dreams into a Manchester United nightmare.
But the Red Devils' worst nightmare might yet be ahead of them -- finishing outside the top four, and therefore missing out on a spot in the Champions League next season. The unthinkable only a few weeks back looks like it might be lurking after back-to-back defeats to Blackburn and Newcastle. Sir Alex Ferguson must be really wishing he'd found a way to sign Wesley Sneijder in the summer instead of David De Gea. For all the talk of the mistakes by the young Spanish goalkeeper, the United midfield has been more out of tune than Pierce Brosnan's singing in Mamma Mia! recently, and the backline resembles the Maginot Line. Sneijder pulling the strings in midfield would have helped both units.
While the Good Knight isn't feeling any heat from his board or fans yet, the same cannot be said for Andre Villas-Boas at Chelsea. The Champions League is Roman Abramovich's holy grail, and while Chelsea still has a shot at that title this season, AVB better make sure the Blues are in the competition again next season as well. The rise of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur has complicated the Champions League equation for Arsenal and Liverpool too. While it seems at times lately that no one wants to win the title, it's clear the Big Six all want one of the four Champions League spots.
Relegation is another matter. It may be harder to replace Champions League cash than EPL cash, but this season, the newly promoted teams are not playing with stars in their eyes and may all escape the drop. If there is one thing EPL fans have always relied on, it's that at least one relegation spot is reserved for a team coming up from the Championship. That may still happen, but new math is confusing things. This season it has got the attention of a lot of teams and fans: a case in point being Sunderland.
Appointing Martin O'Neill manager before the Christmas turkey had been ordered was a stroke of genius on the part of the Sunderland board. A team that was sinking rapidly is now rising like a souffle in a microwave oven. And it's likely the Black Cats will keep climbing the table. And no one else is prepared to give up their grip on at least the 17th rung of the EPL ladder without a very big fight.
And that can mean only one thing: from top to bottom of the league virtually every game will have meaning the rest of the season. In the EPL, almost every team has something very big to play for and something very big to lose.
So relax and enjoy all the reserves, back-ups and youth team starlets playing in the dear old FA Cup this weekend. Then get set to buckle your armchair seat belt when the real thing returns next week, because unlike any other league in the world it's going to be an EPL white-knuckle thrill ride for everyone all the way to May.