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United Leads Premier League at Christmas, Aims 2007 Top
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There's little time to enjoy Christmas as an English Premier League player or manager when there's a full round of games on Tuesday to prepare for.

Manchester United, which hosts Wigan, leads the standings with 47 points _ knowing that every club with that tally after 19 games has gone on to win the title. The Red Devils beat Aston Villa 3-0 on Saturday to maintain a two-point lead over defending champion Chelsea at the halfway stage of the season.

"It was great to go into Christmas at the top of the table, certainly better than being second," Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar said.

Chelsea has 45 points, followed by Liverpool with 34, and Arsenal and Bolton on 33.

Wigan won't be a walkover for United _ it took a last-minute winner from Arjen Robben for Chelsea to beat it 3-2 on Saturday.

United last won the league in the 2003, while it also topped the table at Christmas 2003 but went on to finish third behind Arsenal and Chelsea.

British bookmaker William Hill made Chelsea the 4-7 favorite on Sunday to win the league, with United second-favorite at 5-4, and Arsenal and Liverpool both 40-1.

Also Tuesday, it's: Tottenham vs. Aston Villa; Blackburn vs. Liverpool; Bolton vs. Newcastle; Everton vs. Middlesbrough; Sheffield United vs. Manchester City; West Ham vs. Portsmouth; and Watford vs. Arsenal. On Wednesday, Charlton hosts Fulham.

In a packed schedule while other European leagues are on a winter break, Premier League clubs also play on December 30 and either January 1 or 2.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said injuries have affected his team. Captain and central defender John Terry has missed the last two matches with a back injury, while midfielder Joe Cole is recovering from a knee injury and goalkeeper Petr Cech from a depressed skull fracture.

"For the second half of the season we will have some important people back to the team," Mourinho said. "When John Terry, Joe Cole and Petr Cech are back in the team, this is more important than spending money on new players. So for the second part of the season, I feel we can be much stronger."

Mourinho said Manchester United had the benefit of a relatively injury-free squad.

"Last season it was the opposite," Mourinho said. "Everything was fantastic for us and they had problems."

Mourinho didn't know if Terry would be fit to face Reading. His replacement Khalid Boulahrouz is suspended for the December 30 game against Fulham, leaving Chelsea with only one fully fit central defender in Ricardo Carvalho.

"Sometimes people think Chelsea has a perfect squad, but we don't," Mourinho said. "We only have three central defenders, and we are in big trouble in that situation."

Liverpool has finally got the best out of striker Craig Bellamy and manager Rafa Benitez plans to play the Welshman against his former club Blackburn.

Bellamy scored his fourth goal in five games in Liverpool's 2-0 win over Watford on Saturday.

"We are now seeing the Craig Bellamy I wanted when we signed him," Benitez said. "He has quality and pace and can get behind defenders, and he is doing all that now. We aim to use him in this role, and to create chances for his teammates. He has started to play well and has more confidence."

Benitez was also pleased with Bellamy's growing strike partnership with Dirk Kuyt.

"The understanding between both is really good. If they can keep doing this, I will be happy," Benitez said.

Despite beating Blackburn 6-2 on Saturday, Arsenal had some shaky moments at the back and manager Arsene Wenger expects a challenging game against Watford.

"Watford will give us a different style to cope with, I expect them to be very direct," Wenger said. "What will be important there is to prepare mentally. We must also, however, not forget to dictate our own style."

Midfielder Mathieu Flamini, who scored Arsenal's sixth goal and his fourth of the season on Saturday, said the club had a new spirit of consistency.

"It is about becoming more solid and we know we have the quality to keep winning," he said.

In the Football League Championship on Tuesday, Birmingham hosts Queens Park Rangers, Preston is at West Bromwich Albion and Derby hosts Wolverhampton. Birmingham leads with 49 points, followed by Preston and Derby with 44.

(China Daily via Reuters December 25, 2006)

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