The air is crisper. The lights a little brighter. The day-to-day smiles just a little less forced as each of us prepares for the welcome respite provided by the holidays.
And for the many fans of the beautiful game, these next 10 days provide a sumptuous feast of soccer with three almost-complete sets of EPL fixtures: 26 fantastic matches, only three of which involve Stoke. For your early Festivus consumption, we give you the benefit of our Nostradamus abilities.
Swansea vs. Manchester United: For purists, this head-to-head should be the best of the weekend's lot. Once the calendar hit October, Michael Laudrup's Welsh lads hit top gear, garnering points from eight of 11 Premier League matches while going six games unbeaten, a tidy run that took them into the top half of the table. Not bad for a side that almost all pundits predicted would be a one-and-done phenomenon when it came up to the top flight last year.
But in comparison, United's form has been sick. Thirty points from the last 33, including full honors in away matches at Manchester City and Chelsea. It hasn't even mattered that United has surrendered an astonishing 16 goals while doing its Sherman-like march through England. After all, opposition goals serve only to goad the Red Devilish beast into playing to its potential.
In the category of fun but useless facts, United's 1-0 win at Liberty Stadium in November 2011 was its first ever away win against Swansea, but the one thing we're sure of is that there'll be more than one goal in this one. Heck, there'll probably be more than one goal every 20 minutes. Even with Nemanja Vidic primed to rejoin the starting XI, there's nobody on the league leaders whose form would suggest that he can stay with Swansea's beastmaster, Michu. The Spaniard has been huge on the turf and in the air from attacking midfield and has already belted in 12 goals from a mere 17 appearances. Similarly, outside of Ashley Williams, the Swans don't possess the defensive prowess to completely neutralize either Wayne Rooney or RvP, although the home team's predilection for ball control may limit the United tandem's opportunities.
Normally this would be a tough ask for United, but if Patrice Evra can use his experience and accumulated wisdom to contain right winger Nathan Dyer, Michu's menace will diminish. Given that United's prevailing weak spot -- its fevered midfield -- is improving with Darren Fletcher firmly back in the blend, one suspects that silencing the rampant Spaniard might be enough.
Swansea 1, Man United 3
Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke: Yes, we make frequent jokes about Stoke's generally eye-gouging style, but such games between two such utterly different philosophies are always fascinating. Which style will prevail?
What Xerox is to copy machines, the Potters are to grinding. One of the top coaching aphorisms is "We want to be the team that nobody looks forward to playing" and Stoke manager Tony Pulis is living this dream. In most instances, R&R denotes something positive - except when it refers to Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross, the antithesis of a day at the beach. With backstopper Asmir Begovic enjoying a career year and Geoff Cameron assimilating nicely at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke has now gone seven games unbeaten (hey, not ALL of them were draws) and conceded a league-low 13 goals.
And this is where the fascinating contrast comes in to play. Even without Real Madrid semi-starter Luka Modric and the oft-hobbled, transfer-flirting Gareth Bale in the lineup, Andre Villas-Boas has Spurs playing the type of attractive soccer that Roman Abramovich claimed he wanted before hiring the death-of-all-joy Rafa Benitez.
Spurs have thumped in 30 league goals to date, exactly double the Stoke number, but the North Londoners also seem to have inherited the Liverpool mantle of shooting without scoring. Still, ask any longtime Spurs fan and the present is preferred over Harry Redknapp's "Just Run About" brigade.
Clint Dempsey has yet to hit his stride, Aaron Lennon appears to have matured and Hugo Lloris is a legitimate upgrade in goal. Now that Scott Parker and his terrier intensity are an eyelash away from returning, Spurs can pick up points by the bucketful with Villa, Sunderland and Reading upcoming.
For Spurs, the run needs to come now, and while previous squad versions have consistently found ways to lose points in these types of games, last week's 1-0 workaday win over Swansea is a harbinger of good things at the Lane. Sorry, Roman.
Spurs 2, Stoke 1
West Brom vs. Norwich City: From a battle of contrasts to one involving two teams with much in common. Each has suffered the pain of multiple relegations; each is financially sensible and routinely worships at the David Moyes Church of Brilliance on a Budget. Going into the weekend, the sides sit a mere two points apart and are firmly in the battle for a European spot next season.
However, their current trajectories could not be more different. The Canaries are now unbeaten in their last 10 EPL matches yielding only nine goals in that span, while Steve Clarke's Baggies have lost their boing -- the slow regression from Champions League territory has begun with only one point garnered from the past 12 up for grabs. Of far greater concern must be the ending of the goal glut: WBA have only managed a single goal in the last Premiership month.
Norwich's success, meanwhile, has been built from the back, with Sebastien Bassong clearly the Canary MVP to date. His presence has solidified the entire back line and he is also second on the team sheet in goals scored. While Grant Holt has been disappointing, the likes of Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan have been chipping in with crucial contributions. For Albion, Shane Long has to learn how to lose his marker (he's all but disappeared these last four games), Claudio Yacob and Youssuf Mulumbu must get back in the starting lineup and it's also time for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku to re-emerge.
Unfortunately for the Baggies, Norwich keeps gaining in confidence, and the different paths of these two teams make us think that Norwich will match the scoreline from last year's effort at the Hawthorns.
Fading Baggies 1, Norwich 2
Liverpool vs. Fulham: It's true. We slow down and crane our necks when we see splintered cars on the other side of the road. We enjoy the voyeuristic sensation of watching daytime talk shows. The rubbernecker in all of us is very much looking forward to Fulham's walking into, and slinking out of, Anfield.
The Cottagers just lost to QPR. Let's put that down again -- they lost to QPR. In addition, they hemorrhage goals (18) on the road in a way that would embarrass the most inebriated of sailors. Only Southampton has been a more generous guest, and we all know where the Saints will be playing next year. Dimitar Berbatov has almost perfected the art of languidness, Martin Jol is busy inventing new ways to describe his team's magnificent defensive frailties and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer could almost certainly win a court case for emotional abuse.
This will be one of those games when the Kop will ring with joy, when Liverpool's fans will be temporarily lifted from the misery of watching their mid-table workaday squad try far too hard to beat inferior sides, when Stevie Gerrard might even hit the target with one of his random football launchings, and when all the slick interplay will actually result in goals.
Expect Liverpool to finally edge into positive goal differential -- a key ingredient in the battle for 12th place.
Liverpool 4, Fulham 1
Paul Kanarek is a freelance soccer writer living in Los Angeles, the only city in America where MLS teams outnumber NFL teams 2-0. James Tyler is an editor for ESPNFC.