Merry Boxing Day everybody! Or is it Happy Boxing Day? Either way, the day after Christmas is a huge focus in English football because all 20 Premier League teams play on Boxing Day. They also take the center stage because the majority of Europe's other major leagues take a winter break after the week before Christmas. But rest assured not all leagues are taking a football siesta at the moment so this will be anything but a one game picks column today. The first game of the day, Stoke City vs Manchester United, is already underway so let's not waste any more time. England gets the main event today, but we start just a bit north in Scotland as unexpected challenger takes aim at the reigning champion's prize.
Aberdeen FC vs Inverness Caledonian Thistle FC (10:00 AM ET/RedTV International)
Since Rangers' financial collapse sent them spiraling into the lower tiers of Scottish football, Celtic have ruled the Scottish roost with an iron fist. They've won the last four Scottish crowns and haven't really been challenged in doing so. That has changed this year with the re-emergence of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was the last non-Celtic/Rangers winner of Scotland's top division back in 1984-85. They were managed by some guy who you've probably heard of: Sir Alex Ferguson. Fergie ruled Scottish football for those two years with Aberdeen winning back to back titles as well as the European Cup Winners' Cup over Real Madrid in 1983. They also bested Bayern Munich on the way to that final. Since then Aberdeen has been more of a mid-table side with a couple of second place finishes sprinkled in here and there. This year is different. The Reds have split the season series with Celtic thus far and are just one point behind the champions, though they've played on more game. They can go top this morning with a win against Inverness Caledonian Thistle. ICT finished third behind Aberdeen last season, but have had a rough 2015-16. They were eliminated in the second qualifying round of the Europa League and are ninth in the league table. Their rough run continues today as not even Greg Tansey will be able to stop Aberdeen from going top.
PREDICTION: Aberdeen 2 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 0
BELGIAN JUPILER LEAGUE
KV Mechelen vs KAA Gent (2:00 PM ET)
Sadly, you are going to have to find yourselves an overseas stream for this one. Though the Belgians are making waves both on the international and club football scenes this year, there is no service for the Jupiler Pro League in the United States. In fact you'll be hard pressed to find this game outside of Belgium. That is a shame though as Gent has become one of the European stories of the year with their ascendancy to the top of Belgian club football. They had toiled in relative obscurity for years with a trip to the 1991-92 UEFA Cup quarterfinals being their claim to fame before last year. That was because for the first time in their 115 years of existence Gent won the Belgian first division title. Belgium's league set up is the most like the United States as they have a playoffs system to determine their champion. A team's points from the regular season are halved and rounded up, and then a final ten games, home and away, among the league's top six clubs determines their champion. Gent was able to upend Club Brugge for the title. This year they are in the driver's seat again, sitting five points clear of second placed KV Oostende after 20 games. They also made it to the Round of 16 in the Champions League, a first for a Belgian club since the UCL changed to their current format. They welcome in lower tabled KV Mechelen with a chance to extend that gap further. Mechelen is a bad defensive team, but usually make up for it at home with some potent offense. There will be goals in this one, just more will come from the league leaders.
PREDICTION: Gent 3 Mechelen 1
ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
Southampton FC vs Arsenal FC (2:45 PM ET/NBC)
We finish off the day's picks in England with Boxing Day's main event between Southampton and Arsenal. Stoke City is making the day start swimmingly as they are up 2-0 on Manchester United with less than 10 minutes to go in that game. I was going to pick the Liverpool/Leicester City game, but I was afraid of jinxing my beloved Reds once again. Fool me once...etc etc etc. So this afternoon we have Arsenal and Southampton, a game featuring two skillful sides who love to fire them some crosses in. No team converted more crosses last year than Arsenal. Southampton were tied for second in number of crosses per game. The pace of both teams on the wings makes the need for players like Olivier Giroud for Arsenal and Graziano Pelle for Southampton in the middle so much more important. While Giroud has been in great scoring form for Arsenal, Pelle has been in Saints manager Ronald Koeman's doghouse for the last month after picking up a petulant yellow card to trigger a ban at the end of November. Koeman has utilized the Italian sparingly since but may need him today if he is going to go cross for cross with the league's best at that style. Though the games over the past few years have either been low scoring affairs or high scoring draws, I am going to take the best of both worlds for this one. I am taking the Gunners in a goal fest.
PREDICTION: Arsenal 4 Southampton 2
So I hope everybody has an exciting Boxing Day, or as us Americans call it, the day our spoiled brat children demand we return all the gifts they don't want to the stores. Instead of going on a "my generation" rant, I'll instead go watch Stoke/Manchester United highlights, pet my cat and smile for the fact that I plan on moving a total of 12-13 feet this lazy Saturday. Raise your bottle, can, glass, or flask and let's keep the holiday and football spirit flowing into the new year!