January – Africa Cup of Nations
Prevailing attitudes towards Afcon among Premier League clubs are often unhealthy but, for those with a genuine love for the sport itself, it is one of the most captivating spectacles around. This year’s edition, postponed from 2021, will be played in Cameroon; the competition has become used to late scares over its hosting and has had to overcome concerns over Omicron and the reluctance of European sides to release their players. But once the Indomitable Lions kick off against Burkina Faso on 9 January attention will rest on the pitch. It should be an open tournament, contested by some of the world’s best players, with the 2019 finalists, Algeria and Senegal, the teams to beat. About 40 of the players taking part are England-based, while the commitment shown by Sky and the BBC in screening every game is testament to the tournament’s invigorated global profile.
March – World Cup play-offs
The World Cup play-offs reliably offer some of the most exhilarating, nail-biting tension around and this year is unlikely to be different. In Europe a new format sees three mini-tournaments start at the semi-final stage on 24 March and conclude, five days later, with a set of knife-edge shootouts for a place at Qatar 2022. Should things go as expected, Portugal will face Italy in one of them; Wales could play Scotland in another and it would be heartening to see home nations’ interest next winter extend beyond England. Elsewhere, five African teams will emerge from a set of intense two-legged ties with a World Cup berth: the draw will be made this month and Mali, in particular, may fancy a first qualification. Further play-offs pitting an Asian side against a South American team, and Concacaf representatives against one from Oceania, will take place in Qatar during the summer.
Fulham and Bournemouth have threatened to run away with the Championship at times and, as a later point will cover, that is no good thing. But they have serious competition from Blackburn, outsiders at the start of the season but third by a whisker after taking 22 points from the last available 24. The picture below that is reliably chaotic, with teams as far down as 12th-placed Sheffield United harbouring realistic ambition of a play-off push. All of life can still be found in England’s second tier for now, even if it appears at perpetual risk of becoming more stratified than ever. If the tension does dry up at the top then not to worry: in the nether regions Wayne Rooney’s Derby, deducted 21 points and operating with a patchwork squad, have embarked on a run that puts them in with a shout of what would surely be the most unlikely survival of all time.
May – Can Arsenal Women turn back the clock?
Time was when Arsenal Women had a stranglehold on the domestic game. They had won seven straight titles when the Women’s Super League was inaugurated in 2011 and immediately added two more. But they have won only one of the subsequent eight and were not expected to topple the lavishly resourced Chelsea or Manchester City this time around. With the halfway stage looming, though, they lead Emma Hayes’ side by four points while City are nowhere. Under Jonas Eidevall, a young Swede who increasingly looks to have been an inspired replacement for Joe Montemurro last summer, Arsenal have improved significantly and played some delightful attacking football. It goes without saying that Vivianne Miedema, second in the division’s scoring charts, has been fundamental to their title charge; she is out of contract in the summer but, should Arsenal be able to roll back the years to reign supreme once more, it might become easier to make her stay.
Vivianne Miedema of Arsenal scores her team’s first goal during the Barclays FA Women’s Super League match between Tottenham Hotspur Women and Arsenal Women
Will Vivianne Miedema, seen here scoring against Spurs, stay at Arsenal? Photograph: Catherine Ivill/The FA/Getty
July – England hosts Euro 2022
Only three Uefa Women’s Championships have been staged since England last hosted the tournament but Euro 2005 feels a lifetime away. Back then the hosts finished bottom of Group A and the final between Norway and the eventual champions, Germany, drew just over 21,000 fans to Ewood Park. Nowadays England, semi-finalists in 2017, can be considered among the favourites and should be spurred on by a tide of euphoria. The stock of the women’s game has never been higher and should only grow this summer, with no serious competition in the footballing calendar. Euro 2022 was originally Euro 2021 but found itself moved back in the calendar after Covid-19 meant the men’s Euro 2020 was postponed; it will be worth the wait, with 10 venues around the country giving access to a wide distribution of fans, and if Sarina Wiegman’s team go all the way, the Wembley final will be the summer’s hottest ticket.