As Christmas approaches Manchester United currently sit second in the Premier League table behind neighbours Manchester City. You can bet that Sir Alex Ferguson is not a happy camper when he looks at the league table, and he will be viewing the Christmas fixture list as an opportunity to make up ground on City.
Traditionally United perform well around the Christmas period—some might say it's when their season starts for real. While those in some leagues enjoy a nice, little break around Christmas to recharge their batteries and avoid playing in the cold, teams in England are made of sterner stuff and scoff at the idea of taking a couple of weeks off, as it can affect momentum and often see players needing a couple of weeks to get back in their groove.
Given that United have been having a tough time over the past week or so with their shock elimination from the Champions League and the season-ending injury to Nemanja Vidic, I thought I'd spread some Christmas cheer and take a look back at ten great Christmas-period games involving Manchester United during the Premier League era. I hope you enjoy.
What better place to start than the very first Premier League season and the first title-winning season for Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. United had been pretty streaky in the early part of the season.
They lost their first two games, then went on a run of five-consecutive wins which propelled them to third in the table. Then came a run of seven games without a win which saw them drop to tenth in the Premier League table in mid-November.
Titles aren't won in mid-November, though, and Ferguson's side rebounded brilliantly. Four-straight wins and back-to-back away draws to Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday brought them right back into contention. It may not be a surprise to learn that this run of form coincided with the arrival at Manchester United of some guy called Eric Cantona.
On December 28th Coventry arrived at Old Trafford and were expected to provide a stiff test for the resurgent Reds. However, United were in no mood to entertain the idea that Coventry might be a match for them and demolished them 5-0 with goals from Ryan Giggs, Mark Hughes, Eric Cantona, Lee Sharpe and Denis Irwin. The fact that five different players scored for United in this game highlighted what a strong team they were and how many attacking options they had.
This victory put United on top of the table for the first time that season and set them up for a fantastic second half to the season which saw them lose only twice on their way to claiming their first league title under Sir Alex.
In the house I grew up in, the Christmas period ran to January 6th, known as little Christmas, when you took down your Christmas tree and put away your crib. On those grounds, I include what was unquestionably one of the greatest games in Premier League history.
Manchester United were in the midst of an unbeaten run that began on September 19th, 1993 with a 1-0 win against Arsenal and would stretch all the way to March 5th, 1994 when they lost 1-0 at home to Chelsea. Chelsea had, in fact, been the last team to beat United before their long unbeaten spell.
United arrived at Anfield on January 4th brimming with confidence, and who could blame them? Liverpool, on the other hand, were struggling in midtable under Graeme Souness and looked ripe for the picking.
United flew out of the traps, and goals from Steve Bruce, Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin gave them a 3-0 lead within 25 minutes. United were cruising, and they bombarded the Liverpool goal in search for more.
Liverpool would launch a famous comeback as two first-half goals from Nigel Clough set up a fantastic second half, and a late header from Neil Ruddock would give the home team a share of the spoils.
While United didn't win this game, it is arguably the most-entertaining Christmas-period game they have ever played.
The 1995-1996 season is mostly remembered for two things.
1) Newcastle's epic collapse from a 12-point title lead.
2) Alan Hansen's "You can't win anything with kids" claim for which he has been reminded about non-stop since the end of that season.
The pivotal point of the season was undoubtedly this game at Old Trafford. United hadn't won in five games and were coming off back-to-back losses to Liverpool and Leeds. Newcastle arrived for this game 10 points clear at the top and knowing that a win would leave them with one hand on the the Premier League trophy.
United knew it was win or bust. The Alex Ferguson-managed Manchester United teams have always been known for their ability to perform when it matters most, especially in the league, and this game proved to be no different. An early goal in each half, from Andy Cole in the first and Roy Keane in the second, gave United a 2-0 victory, and from there they never looked back.
They would suffer only two defeats in the league after this game, and little by little they clawed back Newcastle's lead before overtaking them for good on March 20th and easing their way to their third title in four years.
With only two wins in the previous eight games, United came into this game in fifth place. Their form during the season had been less than inspiring, and they had suffered thrashings at the hands of Newcastle and Southampton.
Their position as Premier League champions appeared to be in jeopardy, and Newcastle and Arsenal looked favourites to battle it out for the title.
Unfortunately for Newcastle and Arsenal, nobody told United about that particular plan of action, and United were about to embark on another fantastic unbeaten run which would again see them come on strong in the second half of the season and comfortably top the league by seven points.
Sunderland were put to the sword as United moved through the gears and began to approach top form. Two goals apiece from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Eric Cantona, and a late collector's item from Nicky Butt gave United their biggest win of the season and set the stage for United to retain their title.
Without question, the greatest season of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign at Manchester United is the 1998-99 treble-winning season. A unique season of unique success for a unique manager.
United actually had a poor December that season, winning only one game. They had slipped to third following a defeat at home to Middlesbrough which came on the back of three successive draws. There were some that believed Arsenal were the best team in the land and would go on to win the title.
Yet again, however, United weren't informed of those plans and took it upon themselves to spoil Arsenal's fun. This comprehensive victory of Nottingham Forest began an unbeaten run which would continue until the end of the season and see United bring home three major trophies for the first, and only, time in club history.
Everyone loves Christmas, and everyone loves goals. What's better than those two things? How about goals at Christmas.
Manchester United were in the midst of a run of form that that would see them lose only one game from late October until the end of the season as they marched towards yet another league title, one which would be won by a Premier League-record 18 points.
United gave their fans a Boxing Day treat by smashing four goals against Bradford City at Old Trafford. Surprisingly this was actually a very close game, and United didn't take the lead until a Quinton Fortune goal in the 75th minute. Further goals from Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole and Roy Keane secured an impressive win.
I couldn't find a video of the game in question, so I thought I'd treat you to this magnificent volley in the return fixture later in the season.
Have you heard the one about the season in which Manchester United had a poor first half to the season, turned things around at Christmas and then dominated until the end of the season en route to winning the Premier League title?
Coming into this game United sat third in the league and had just lost back-to-back games against teams Blackburn and Middlesbrough, whom they would have expected to beat. They seemed to be slipping slowly out of the title race.
What followed this game was an 18-match unbeaten run in which United won a staggering 15 games. Goals from Diego Forlan and this beauty from David Beckham gave them a much-needed victory over Birmingham and set them on their way to Premier League title No. 8.
Coming in to the 2006-07 season, Manchester United had not won the title for three seasons. Some were writing them off, claiming that their period of domination had come to an end in the wake of Roman Abramovich and his billions arriving in English football.
Jose Mourinho had led Chelsea to back-to-back titles, and Chelsea looked set to become England's top dogs for many years to come. Unfortunately for Chelsea fans, Abramovich seemed set on destroying his own creation, and Manchester United were quite ready to take a backseat.
When United crushed Fulham 5-1 on the opening day of the season, they went top of the table, somewhere they had not been since 11 January 2004. With the exception of a two-week period in September, they would sit proudly on the top of the table for the entire season.
The highlight of the Christmas period for United that season was a 3-0 victory away to Aston Villa. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice on either side of the above cracker from Paul Scholes. While the Ginger Prince scored many great goals during his United career, very few were better than this one.
Forget derby matches, forget United or Liverpool vs. Arsenal or Chelsea, forget El Cashico—the biggest games in the English football calender are Manchester United vs. Liverpool. When England's two biggest and most successful clubs take the field, league form and everything else go out the window.
If you ask Sir Alex Ferguson what the only thing better than beating Liverpool is, he'll tell you that it's beating Liverpool at Anfield, and that's exactly what United did in this match.
A tense affair where both sides had limited chances was settled by a tap-in from Carlos Tevez. United would, in fact, complete the double over Liverpool that season with a 3-0 victory at Old Trafford en route to yet another League title.
You know how the story goes. Poor start to the season, revival begins late in the year, good Christmas period, stunning second half to the season, United win the title. It really is a bit boring isn't it?
In all seriousness, United owe a big debt of gratitude to Rafa Benitez for this title win. His Liverpool team were the best team in the league until the day he decided to embarrass himself with his "facts" rant which put all the pressure on Liverpool to perform and lit a fire under Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.
As Liverpool decided that draws were more fun than winning over Christmas, United picked up a head of steam and from early December to mid-March won 14 out of 16 Premier League games, drawing the other two.
I'm going to cheat with this one a little bit, but I'm sure you won't mind. United didn't play a New Years game in the 08-09 season, and their first match of 2011 didn't occur until January 11th when Chelsea came to Old Trafford looking to keep their own title challenge on track.
Goals from Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney and Berbatov gave United all three points and sent Chelsea home to London with their tails between their legs.