AS near as makes no difference, the Christmas-New Year period traditionally represents the half-time whistle in the Premier League season.
It’s when everyone takes stock: players gird their loins for the hectic schedule ahead, managers brace themselves for an assault on the honours or a fight against relegation, chairmen get impatient and do daft things and fans hope their clubs will be buyers, not sellers when the transfer window opens.
And, as West Brom’s Steve Clarke and Spurs’ Andre Villas-Boas were the latest to discover, it’s not only Santa who gets the sack. Football at the summit is an increasingly ruthless place to work.
Good theatre, though, has always needed a mix of storylines, and it is the controversy and crazy unpredictability as much as the dazzling football and spectacular goals that have made the Premier League what it is: a cash-drenched, global crowd-puller with a world-class cast list and as many hiss-boo characters as the best pantomimes.
Enough fixtures have been played for the main contenders for the championship and the European places to have emerged, and there are few major surprises: Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle and Southampton have all done a little better than predicted, while Tottenham and, most of all, Manchester United have done worse.
And while no-one can win the Premier League by the halfway mark, it really does look as though United – reigning champions and the dominant force in the game for years – have lost it. They’re miles off the summit and not performing well enough to bridge the gap.
Arsenal have confounded the pundits by setting a scorching pace at the top and, with shrewd investment in January, may last the course, but Manchester City, who handed them such a hammering at the weekend, are showing the sort of scintillating form that makes them favourites to regain their crown.
If City, the world’s richest club with the most star-studded playing squad the English game has ever seen, can translate some of their home form to their away games, it’s hard to see who can stop them.
Liverpool, whose slaughter of Spurs precipitated Villas-Boas’s departure, are in their best shape for years and look realistic candidates for a top four spot, while Chelsea, still trying to find their best blend and form, are only two points off the top and can only get stronger.
With the three top guns – United, City and Chelsea – all changing managers last summer, it was always a tough task to forecast the destiny of the Premier League title this season and it is proving to be a fascinating campaign.