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HindustanTimes Tue,21 Oct 2014

Football

Knuckles bared on Boxing Day
Reuters
Manchester, December 25, 2012
First Published: 23:35 IST(25/12/2012)
Last Updated: 02:16 IST(26/12/2012)

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has presided over enough festive fixtures to know rotation is the key as he prepares for a busy period starting with the visit of Newcastle United in the Premier League on Wednesday.

A disappointing 1-1 draw at Swansea City on Sunday saw United's lead at the top cut to four points over Manchester City and maximum points at home to Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion and away to Wigan Athletic are on Ferguson's holiday menu.

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He can take heart from the fact that Newcastle, who languish in 14th place, have not won at Old Trafford since a 2-0 victory in the old first division way back in 1972.

Ferguson has been cheered by the return of key defenders from injury including Serbia international Nemanja Vidic, who made his first start since September at Swansea, and Jonny Evans, who also started the match in Wales.  "We now have three games in the next nine days," said Vidic. "Obviously we have a few players who are coming back from injury and they will be important for that period."

Ferguson was true to his word about utilising his squad over the seasonal holidays by fielding his 26th different back-five combination this year at the Liberty Stadium.

United's problems in defence are reflected in the 25 goals they have conceded so far - the highest by a team topping the Premier League at Christmas since Norwich City, who had let in 34 goals by the same stage of the 1992-93 season.

Mixed Blessing
All of England's top flight clubs play on Dec 26 in the traditional Boxing Day programme except Arsenal and West Ham United, whose match at the Emirates Stadium has been postponed due to a planned London Underground strike.

United will be mindful that being top at this time of year has been a mixed blessing. In the 20 completed seasons since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, the leaders on Dec 25 have only won the championship nine times.

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Manchester City's title chase continues on Wednesday at Sunderland, where they have only won twice in their last five visits.  But City have acquired the knack of scoring late winners and Gareth Barry's strike against Reading on Saturday ensured they entered the Christmas period breathing down United's neck.

Michael Owen looks to end Liverpool jinx
Liverpool: Michael Owen made his name at Liverpool but since he left he has never managed to score against them and he is aiming to set that right when his present team Stoke host them on Wednesday.

The 33-year-old - who moved on to Real Madrid and then back to England with spells for Newcastle and Manchester United before signing for Stoke - looks set to play after recovering from a hamstring injury which has kept him out of action since the end of October.

"It is a strange feeling really playing against your old club, especially one where you were there for around 15 years," he told Independent Sports News.

"Liverpool are a big part of my life and career and I had some of the best times of my life at the club. So certainly I have happy memories. I have not been so happy playing against them since; I have never scored and not particularly enjoyed it."

Rafa eyes title push
London: Rafael Benitez believes Chelsea are showing signs they are capable of mounting a title challenge as the Blues prepare to face Norwich at Carrow Road on Wednesday.

Benitez's side gave their best performance of the season on Sunday to destroy Aston Villa 8-0 and maintain the momentum from their midweek 5-1 victory against Leeds in the League Cup quarter-finals.


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