United well placed to pass winter test

The final day of the holiday programme will be a test of stamina and resolve
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Across the nation professional footballers will no doubt be taking more than a passing interest in the scene outdoors as they open the curtains this morning.

Across the nation professional footballers will no doubt be taking more than a passing interest in the scene outdoors as they open the curtains this morning.

The holiday programme this year has been like those of old, with snowswept grounds and freezing pitches testing the endurance of players and spectators alike. For the fans, of course, four games in 10 days is a welcome part of the festive season. For players and managers, it is a time to test their stamina, fitness and resolve, a time which can prove decisive in a season's outcome.

Nowhere is this more true than at the top of the Premiership, where Manchester United went into the holiday programme with a five-point lead over second-placed Arsenal. By tonight that lead could be extended to 11 points and United could have taken a decisive grip on this season's championship race.

The champions are at home to West Ham, and although the Hammers have made good progress up the table in recent months it is hard to see United slipping up again at Old Trafford following the shock of last month's defeat to Liverpool.

Sir Alex Ferguson will be pleased to bring Paul Scholes back into the starting line-up following a slight rib injury. Denis Irwin, however, may still be missing because of an an ankle problem. West Ham should be the fresher of the two teams, their match against Chelsea on Saturday having fallen victim to the weather. Paolo di Canio has had extra time to recover from a heavy cold, but Davor Suker is still missing with a hip problem and Igor Stimac has a calf injury.

Arsenal visit Charlton Athletic hoping to find a cure to the travel sickness that has seen them win only twice away from Highbury all season. To add to their woes, the Gunners may be without Thierry Henry, who has an ankle injury. With Dennis Bergkamp and Sylvain Wiltord already under treatment for calf injuries, Arsenal's attacking options will be tested to the limit. Martin Keown, meanwhile, is likely to be out for another three weeks with hamstring trouble. Charlton are expected to be unchanged after their 4-1 win at Manchester City.

You would no doubt have got long odds at the start of the season on Ipswich's visit to Sunderland today being a contest between third and fourth, but both teams have been steadily scaling the heights as some of the more fancied teams have faltered. Sunderland will be hoping that Niall Quinn recovers from a rib injury sustained at Arsenal on Saturday, while Alun Armstrong, Marcus Stewart and Jim Magilton are all struggling to be fit for Ipswich.

Aston Villa's visit to Chelsea would have been a much more likely top-of-the-table encounter four months ago, but instead their meeting at Stamford Bridge offers a chance to climb out of mid-table. Chelsea will be without Marcel Desailly, who is serving a one-match ban, while suspensions and injuries deprive Villa of Lee Hendrie, David Ginola, Alpay, Ian Taylor and Julian Joachim.

Liverpool take on improving Southampton at Anfield. Robbie Fowler is expected to partner Emile Heskey in attack, while Southampton have fitness doubts over Dean Richards, Tahar El Khalej, Mark Draper and Chris Marsden. Leicester, in fifth place, entertain the bottom club, Bradford City, who could give a debut to Eoin Jess after his loan move from Aberdeen.

The bottom of the table is dominated by two matches which promise to be real dogfights, with Coventry (17th) entertaining Manchester City (19th) and Everton (15th) going to Derby (16th). Paulo Wanchope is available for Manchester City again after completing his suspension.

Middlesbrough (18th) go to Leeds, who will be without the suspended Eirik Bakke. Boro are likely to be without Paul Ince and Colin Cooper.