United can ring in the new year on top

Christmas fixtures mean City may be playing catch-up as 2012 arrives, says Glenn Moore

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The Independent Football

Manchester City may be celebrating their first Christmas at the summit of the top flight since the start of the Great Depression, but they are likely to begin 2012 on their neighbours' heels.

This is primarily because United play twice before the end of this year and City once but, when the holiday programme is over, goal difference may be all that separates the rivals.

It is a quirk of the Christmas fixture list that half of the Premier League teams now play successive home matches while the other half are on the road. Thus Manchester United play host to a duo of strugglers, Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers, while City travel to West Bromwich Albion, who have had back-to-back victories, and a Sunderland team boasting two wins in three under new manager Martin O'Neill. While City complete the programme at home, and United away, the leaders face Liverpool on 3 January while the champions go to Newcastle United, whose early-season form has evaporated with the onset of injuries in defence.

Behind the Mancunian front-runners Chelsea will expect maximum points from a pair of home games against Fulham and Aston Villa and a trip to Wolves. That should enable them to catch Tottenham (Norwich and Swansea away, West Brom at home). With Arsenal hosting Wolves and Queen's Park Rangers, then crossing the Thames to Fulham, all three clubs could be level on 42 points, albeit with Spurs having a match in hand.

At the bottom, the beleaguered Steve Kean is unlikely to anticipate much Christmas cheer when he studies the fixtures. Blackburn must travel to Anfield and Old Trafford before the possible respite of a home match against Stoke City. By then, however, Rovers could be further adrift as Bolton, buoyed by Tuesday's win at Ewood Park, will hope for significant improvement in their home form from matches against Newcastle and Wolves.

Victory in the latter match is likely to leave Mick McCarthy's side, who have taken four points from six games, and face Arsenal and Chelsea either side of Bolton, in the bottom three. Wigan, away to Manchester United and Stoke, then at home to Sunderland, are the most likely candidates to be completing the relegation places when the FA Cup's third round provides a breather from the League programme, though QPR, with one point in 15 and in desperate need of a centre-half or two, are sliding down the table towards them.

Premier League Festive Fixtures

(All kick-offs 3pm unless stated)

Boxing Day

Chelsea v Fulham (1.0)

Bolton v Newcastle

Liverpool v Blackburn

Manchester United v Wigan

Sunderland v Everton

West Bromwich v Manchester City

Stoke v Aston Villa (7.45)

Tuesday 27 December

Arsenal v Wolves

Swansea v QPR (5.0)

Norwich v Tottenham (7.30)

Friday 30 December

Liverpool v Newcastle (7.45)

New Year's Eve

Manchester Utd v Blackburn (12.45)

Arsenal v QPR

Bolton v Wolves

Chelsea v Aston Villa

Norwich v Fulham

Stoke v Wigan

Swansea v Tottenham

New Year's Day

West Bromwich v Everton (12.30)

Sunderland v Manchester City

Monday 2 January

Aston Villa v Swansea

Blackburn v Stoke

QPR v Norwich

Wolves v Chelsea

Fulham v Arsenal (5.30)

Tuesday 3 January

Tottenham v West Bromwich (7.45)

Wigan v Sunderland (7.45)

Manchester City v Liverpool (8.0)

Wednesday 4 January

Everton v Bolton (8.0)

Newcastle v Manchester United (8.0)