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
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
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
"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)