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United top the pile as Liverpool seek festive cheer

ESPN staff
December 21, 2012

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As most of the country winds down for Christmas, the Premier League's finest are gearing up for the busiest period of the season.

Manchester United, who traditionally enjoy a successful festive run, are already six points clear and will be looking to cement that advantage when they take on eveyone's second favourite team, Swansea.

Chelsea return to Premier League action on Sunday at home to Aston Villa, while Manchester City and Arsenal will be looking to build on away wins last time out.

Liverpool v Fulham - Live on ESPN

Form: After a woeful start to the season, Liverpool made it into the top half of the Premier League after back-to-back wins, only to come crashing back down to earth with a 3-1 defeat at home to Aston Villa. Fulham, who generously allowed west London rivals QPR their first win of the season last weekend, have four points from four.
Key battle: Luis Suarez is never far from the headlines, and has been linked with a move to Chelsea this week. Brede Hangeland will be expecting to have a busy evening against the Reds' top scorer.
Player to watch: Following a rapid rise to stardom at Liverpool this season, Raheem Sterling is expected to commit his future to Liverpool before the weekend. With one goal back in October, the 18-year-old will be looking to end a memorable year on a high.
Talking point: Luis Suarez-to-Chelsea rumours seem to have come out of nowhere. If the Blues do stump up the cash and tempt Liverpool to sell, who should the Reds spend the profits on in January?
Bet of the day: Luis Suarez to score anytime in a 3-1 Liverpool win is 15/1 with bet365
Prediction: 3-1

Wigan Athletic v Arsenal

Form: Wigan have picked up just one point from their last four matches, while despite concerns over Arsenal's form, they have won their last two, which will go some way to ease the pain of recent defeats to Swansea and Bradford.
Key battle: Arouna Kone is Wigan's top scorer this season with four league goals to his name but is expected to be unavailable in January when he heads to the African Nations Cup with Ivory Coast. His strength in the air is likely to cause problems for a shaky Arsenal defence, with Per Mertesacker set to be charged with keeping the Ivorian quiet.
Player to watch: Theo Walcott's future remains the subject of much conjecture, but Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger is adamant the winger will not be leaving in January. Arsenal made a serious statement of intent when five youngsters - including Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain - signed long-term deals, but is it enough to convince Walcott his future is at Emirates Stadium?
Talking point: Arsene Wenger has endured his worst start to a season during his Arsenal tenure, and remains under pressure to deliver the Gunners' first trophy since 2005. While many Arsenal fans have faith ('in Arsene we trust'), some feel it is time for the Frenchman to move on. Results over the festive period could be key to the short-term future of the club.
Bet of the day: Wigan to be leading at half-time but Arsenal to take all three points back to London is a tasty 18/1 with bet365
Prediction: 1-3

Manchester City v Reading

Form: Having crashed out of Europe, Manchester City's results been mixed - with one win, one draw and one defeat from their last three matches not exactly the form of champions. It is decidedly better than Reading, however, who will be keen to ensure they are not bottom at Christmas, having lost their last seven matches.
Key battle: Having shipped five goals against Arsenal on Monday night, all eyes will be on Adam Federici against the ominous strike force of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez.
Player to watch: Kolo Toure has seemingly profited from Vincent Kompany's injury and has wheedled his way back into the City starting line-up. With Kompany touch-and-go to miss out on Saturday, expect to see Toure play like a man hoping to earn a new contract. Not bad for a player who looked to be on his way out of the club last summer.
Talking point: With Kompany nursing a groin injury and both Jack Rodwell and Samir Nasri likely to miss the festive season, have City got the strength in depth to keep up the pressure on leaders Manchester United?
Bet of the day: Reading were involved in a 4-3 thriller against Manchester United recently and there were seven goals in their defeat to Arsenal on Monday. More than 2.5 goals is 3/10 with bet365
Prediction: 4-1

Jan Vertonghen scored his first Premier League goal last weekend © PA Photos

Tottenham v Stoke City

Form: After three successive wins, Tottenham bounced back from a last-gasp defeat to Everton with a win at home to Swansea last time out. Stoke, meanwhile, are unbeaten in their last seven matches, with four wins and three draws.
Key battle: Kenwyne Jones has been playing as a lone striker up front for Stoke in front of a five-strong midfield. Jan Vertonghen scored the winner against Swansea. Both players netted their first goal of the season last weekend. Who will win the race to score a second?
Player to watch: Scott Parker came on as a late substitute against Swansea in his first appearance of the season after recovering from an Achilles injury. The England midfielder will be hoping to regain his place in the starting line-up - expect to see him play a bigger part against Stoke.
Talking point: Spurs have been linked with a number of players ahead of the January transfer window, with Andre Villas-Boas rumoured to be interested in Christian Eriksen, Fernando Llorente and Joao Moutinho. However, the Portuguese insists he is "comfortable" with his current squad. How busy will Spurs be in January?
Bet of the day: It's nearly Christmas, and we're feeling a little giddy after eating too many Quality Street at ESPN Towers, so we're going for a 4-0 Tottenham win at odds of 20/1 with bet365
Prediction: 4-0

West Ham v Everton

Form: West Ham have just four points from their last five, but have played Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool in that time. After a dramatic 2-1 win over Tottenham, Everton drew at Stoke - their fourth draw in five.
Key battle: With Marouane Fellaini suspended, we're expecting a meaty battle in midfield between Kevin Nolan and Darron Gibson. Nolan is a childhood Liverpool fan will want to make a point against the Toffees, while Gibson has been told he needs to be more like Steven Gerrard.
Player to watch: The way he has been playing this season, Leighton Baines could well oust Ashley Cole as England's first-choice left-back. He was the first player to create 50 chances in Europe's top five leagues this season and has been Mr Consistent.
Talking point: Is David Moyes looking for a new challenge? Having worked wonders with a tiny budget at Goodison Park, the Scot has long been slated as a potential successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. But in a recent interview with France Football, Moyes, who is set for contract talks with Everton chairman Bill Kenwright in the coming weeks, has expressed his desire to manage in Germany.
Bet of the day: They left it late against Tottenham a fortnight ago - we're backing Everton to come from behind to win at odds of 8/1with bet365
Prediction: 1-2

Newcastle v Queens Park Rangers

Form: Newcastle find themselves in a relegation dog fight after winning just one of their last seven matches, and while QPR are below them in the Premier League table, they will be boosted by their first win of the season last weekend.
Key battle: Vurnon Anita seems to be growing into his role at Newcastle, anchoring the midfield in the absence of Yohan Cabaye. With Adel Taarabt playing a starring role in QPR's 2-1 win over Fulham, Anita will have his hands full if the talented Moroccan turns up.
Player to watch: Demba Ba has been openly critical of Newcastle's style of play, saying "fans come to see beautiful games with beautiful actions and not long balls from the goalkeeper to the striker". He already has 11 goals for his side this season, but we're confident a couple more against QPR, and Ba won't care where they come from.
Talking point: With Newcastle boss Alan Pardew looking to sign Marseille strike Loic Remy in January, could this be as a replacement for Ba?
Bet of the day: Ba to score two or more goals is 7/1 with bet365
Prediction: 3-2

Southampton v Sunderland

Form: Just a point separates these two sides who both ply their trade in red and white stripes as they hover precariously above the relegation places. Southampton have four points from their last three games, while Sunderland came home empty handed from Old Trafford after morale boosting win at home to Reading.
Key battle: With Saints captain Adam Lallana sidelined with a knee injury Gaston Ramirez is likely to be asked to fill the gap out on the left. He is likely to come up against no-nonsense Spaniard Carlos Cuellar.
Player to watch: Sunderland's form seems to have ebbed and flowed in sync with how many goals Steven Fletcher has scored. After a bright start to the season, Fletcher's goals dried up, as did the Black Cats' points. His return from an ankle injury saw the Scotland international net in a much-needed win against Reading, and Martin O'Neill will be hoping Santa brings goals over the festive period.
Talking point: With Craig Gardner and Jack Colback both forced into emergency defensive duties this season, Martin O'Neill needs build his squad next month. Sunderland have not traditionally been busy in previous January transfer windows, but will Ellis Short cough up the cash to bolster the Black Cats' defence?
Bet of the day: Gaston Ramirez to score the first goal in a Southampton win is 9/1 with bet365
Prediction: 2-1

Sebastien Bassong has been in impressive form for Norwich © PA Photos

West Bromwich Albion v Norwich

Form: After a sublime start to the season, West Brom have now gone six games without a win. Norwich, in contrast, are one of the most in-form sides in the Premier League, unbeaten in 10 with three wins from three. They can leapfrog the Baggies with victory at The Hawthorns.
Key battle: Sebastien Bassong has been a revelation for Norwich this season since his £4 million move from Tottenham in the summer. With three goals in the last month, he has also contributed to Norwich's stellar form of late. If he can keep the ever-dangerous Peter Odemwingie quiet, Norwich could well extend their unbeaten run to 11.
Player to watch: Ben Foster looks set to return to the Baggies starting XI for the first time in over a month after returning to full training. The former England keeper has recovered from a double hernia operation and could replace Boaz Myhill between the sticks.
Talking point: West Brom have slipped to seventh in the Premier League table, but Peter Odemwingie says the Baggies are still targeting a top-five finish. Steve Clarke has done well so far this season, but is that a realistic target?
Bet of the day: West Brom's worrying slump in form came at the same time as Foster's injury. With the goalkeeper set to return, we can see the Baggies keeping a clean sheet at odds 7/4 with bet365
Prediction: 0-0


Swansea v Manchester United

Form: After a stunning win at Arsenal, Swansea have suffered back-to-back defeats to Norwich and Tottenham. United are top of the Premier League for a reason, with five wins from as many games.
Key battle: Leon Britton continues to stroke the ball around in the Swansea midfield but he will come up against former West Ham team-mate Michael Carrick. While much of the focus will be on the strikers, the battle in midfield could prove decisive.
Player to watch: Michu has proved the signing of the season for Swansea, with 12 goals and a snip at just £2 million. David Villa has inexplicably been linked with a move to Wales, which would make for a mouth-watering all-Spanish forward line.
Talking point: Manchester United are already sitting pretty, six points clear at the top of the Premier League, but they could be even further clear by January. Sir Alex Ferguson's men are traditionally very strong over the festive period, and with Newcastle and West Brom, United could find themselves in command by Sir Alex's birthday on New Year's Eve.
Bet of the day: How about a 4-2 win for United at 33/1 with bet365
Prediction: 4-2

Chelsea v Aston Villa

Form: After an exhausting 12,000-mile round-trip only to lose to Corinthians in the Club World Cup final, Chelsea return to Premier League action looking to build on their most recent win against Sunderland which stemmed a seven-match winless streak. Villa will be flying high following their stunning win at Liverpool last weekend, and are now unbeaten in five.
Key battle: With eight goals in all competitions this season, Christian Benteke has more than filled Darren Bent's boots. With John Terry still out, Gary Cahill will marshall the back line after FIFA decided not to extend his suspension for his red card in the Club World Cup final.
Player to watch: Rafael Benitez's arrival at Chelsea seems to have revived some of the old Fernando Torres spark. This is a perfect opportunity for the striker to add to his goalscoring tally.
Talking point: Surely if Chelsea are seriously considering a bid for Luis Suarez, that would suggest they have given up on Torres?
Bet of the day: We're going for Fernando Torres to score a hat-trick at odds of 16/1 with bet365
Prediction: 4-1

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