Last updated : 20 December 2004 By editor

From The Times:

'Give me a break not because I’m lazy. Not because I would like to celebrate Christmas. Not because it would be nice to see my family more than once a year. Not even because I got beaten at Old Trafford. The break is needed to improve the quality of the games.

I’m in the visiting team’s toilet at Old Trafford just before our game. For a moment it crosses my mind how many of the world’s best players have visited the same box. At least I’ve shared something with the very best — already this season, not to mention all the legends, the stars, the heroes that have played in Old Trafford, the list is endless. The Old Trafford sanitaria may be like anywhere else I’ve been, but the stadium and its history is unique, it is truly the Theatre of Dreams. My dream is not only to play here, but to win. I know this is not the biggest game in its history, but I approach it like it is and the belief is strong in me.

Two hours later I come off the pitch realising why playing Manchester United at Old Trafford is something else. It was a lesson. They taught us how it can be done. No excuses, probably the biggest crowd anywhere in sports this weekend witnessed that they were just too good for us on the day. The ones shouting "they are out of the title fight" must be mad. After playing all the three candidates, United, Arsenal and Chelsea, it is hard to put money on which one is going to finish on top. It is between these three different kinds of impressive teams and approaches to the game. It is also still wide open at the other end of the table, where unfortunately we are stuck at the moment. Unlike United, our Premiership trophy seems to be staying up this season.

At both ends every point and small detail counts. United had more to count after the game. This Premiership journey is nearly half-travelled. All the competitions included, it has been almost five months without a breather. Now it is Christmas time. For me, Christmas is a religious holiday that should be celebrated with peaceful manners together with a family. In English football language that means four games in nine days. No time for peace or family.

For a footballer, Christmas and the new year equals 12 points. No one could prefer a fat turkey and fireworks to that. It is more than 10 per cent of the season so preparing and playing effectively is crucial. There will be no gifts given on the pitch, so you have to keep your eye on the ball, not on the Christmas dinner. This short period can decide the season. I leave Old Trafford realising that I need to upset a lot of my friends and family to be optimal for the games. Professionalism is staying away from things you want to do to focus on the thing you want more. Sorry Santa.

United can expect a good points return from Santa’s back. They are looking strong even though they have sent two players on holiday. Normally, holiday is a luxury that footballers can’t afford. These players, though, had worked non-stop since summer. Surviving that requires a bit more than a good night’s sleep and a weekly massage. The football profession is not only showing up day in, day out. It’s putting your body and mind on the line each moment. It takes a lot to give a lot.'