Martin O'Neill can have no better yardstick to measure the size of his task at Sunderland than the visit of Manchester City. In fact, yardstick doesn't do the gap between them justice: think furlong or milepost. But O'Neill will have spent the week banishing all that defeatist talk: in his eyes there is no better opportunity for his players. Whether they will take it is a different matter. In rugby, form side Saracens should be more than a match for Gloucester.
Half the Premier League's managers will approach the new year with trepidation. Chief among them will be Blackburn's Steve Kean, who – despite winning at Old Trafford – is starting to resemble one of those Americans who languish on death row for decades. Rumours of his demise have been so insistent that everyone just assumed they were true. But here he is in 2012 proving the sages wrong. Defeat at Stoke today will bring more dire warnings, but others will also be twitching.
Liverpool visit Manchester City twice in eight days, The first game will be the priority if the Reds are to keep their Champions' League ambitions intact. Spurs are playing for a bigger prize and would do well not to underestimate improving West Bromwich. In cricket, India will hope for a sterner showing from their batsmen in the Second Test against Australia.
Manchester United have an attractive-looking trip to Newcastle while Bolton seek at least a point at Everton. Stuart Lancaster, England's interim rugby union head coach, speaks ahead of the Six Nations. Expect the phrase "must do better" to figure prominently.
Liverpool top the bill again today, this time in the FA Cup against Oldham. Expect Kenny Dalglish to plunder his reserves for this game, which has been brought forward a day to prevent a clash with Everton's tie against Tamworth. In rugby, Northampton host a heavyweight clash with Harlequins.
Hard to predict where the Cup shocks will come today but Aston Villa look vulnerable at Bristol Rovers and Tony Pulis will not be relishing a return to Gillingham, whom he left amid some rancour in 1990. In cricket, England open their tour of Pakistan – sorry, UAE – with a three-day game against an ICC Combined XI. Nothing like a bit of cricket to make the winter warmer.
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