Pressure is on to pile up points in holiday season
The Christmas and New Year period remains one of the unique tests of English Premier League title challengers, and this year - when each team face four games packed into a maximum of 16 days - there will be great pressure to maximise points.
Following Thursday's Tottenham v Chelsea clash, there is only one more big-six showdown in the next four weeks, which makes it all the more important for the title contenders to keep winning against the rest of the division.
Best in that respect this season - as in virtually all others - have been Manchester City, who have won 11 and drawn one of their 12 games against teams outside the big six. Manchester United are the only other team unbeaten in that category, with 10 wins and two draws, giving them a points average per game of 2.67 compared with City's 2.83.
Among the big six, the rest of the order in terms of points per game are Tottenham (2.55), Chelsea and Arsenal (both 2.42) and Liverpool (1.83). The figures make it easy to see how Tottenham have emerged as a major threat to the Manchester clubs through the first half of the season and how Liverpool have paid the price for their poor scoring.
The Christmas programme started in midweek and already the Manchester clubs have stated their intent with clear-cut wins, while Arsenal won 2-1 at Aston Villa on Wednesday night. With arguably the easiest fixture list in the remainder of the festive period, the Gunners could make a strong move, unlike last year when they lost ground on the Manchester clubs at this crucial stage of the season.
Arsenal host Wolves and QPR in their next two games and then make the short trip to Fulham, giving them a good opportunity of maximum points. Arsenal have won six out of seven, with one draw, at home to teams outside the big six and should be too good for Wolves on Tuesday.
Four of the six home wins in that category have had more than 2.5 goals and three have been by two goals or more - less convincing figures than in previous seasons. Wolves are leaking goals, however, and have lost 3-1, 4-1, 3-0 and 2-1 on their previous visits to big-six clubs, which points to Arsenal as a banker on the handicap.
Manchester City take their excellent away form to West Brom, who have lost all four home games against top-half visitors. Only Chelsea and Liverpool have limited City to a single goal on the road this season and West Brom, whose only home clean sheets were against Wolves and Fulham, have little hope of doing likewise. Like Arsenal, City are capable of beating the handicap.
The same goes for Manchester United, who host Wigan on Monday. After weeks of low scores, United, in particular Wayne Rooney, have rediscovered their touch in front of goal and Roberto Martinez can expect another hammering. In four clashes with United as Wigan manager, Martinez has lost 5-0 (twice), 4-0 and 2-0.
There is a fascinating statistical quirk to Rooney's scoring form this season. Before his red card against Montenegro, Rooney had scored 11 in nine games for club and country but then, with the threat of a three-match ban for Euro 2012 hanging over him, he managed just three goals in his next 10 matches.
The reduction of his ban to two matches appears to have revived him, as he has scored four goals in three games since Uefa's decision.
Rooney has scored in all three games he has played against Martinez's Wigan, twice as first scorer, and he is likely to torment them again. Backing Rooney to score first is one way to improve the short win odds on United.
Chelsea v Fulham and Liverpool v Blackburn should bring home wins, but there are doubts. Liverpool's excellent approach play is not being finished with goals and they have let down short-odds backers three times out of six at home, as well as on the road at Wigan on Wednesday night. Their only really convincing home win against one of the lesser teams was the 3-1 against Bolton in August, which leaves a lot to be taken on trust even against Blackburn.
All eight of Chelsea's home games have more than 2.5 goals - they are the only Premier League with a 100 per cent record in that respect - but it is worth noting that Fulham are at the opposite end of the spectrum in away games with seven out of eight less than 2.5 goals. That identifies Fulham as a team who can be hard to break down in away games, as Arsenal found in a 1-1 at the Emirates last month, and Chelsea are not sure to steamroller them despite Manchester United's 5-0 win at Craven Cottage on Wednesday night.
The best bet among the big six in the next round of fixtures is Tottenham away to Norwich on Tuesday. The hosts have done best of the promoted teams but have yet to keep a clean sheet and are likely to be outscored by Tottenham, who have hit 15 goals in seven away games against teams outside the big six (winning five).
The best bet of all is Newcastle on the handicap at Bolton. The hosts ended their losing streak with a win at Blackburn this week, while Newcastle are in a sticky patch, but the balance of the form points to a good chance for the visitors.
Newcastle, Swansea, Cardiff, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton, Sheffield United
TOP 5 BETS
1 Newcastle on handicap Have won all three away to teams below them
2 Cardiff on handicap Have lost only one of 11 against bottom-half teams
3 Sheffield Wednesday away win Have won their last four away in all competitions
4 Charlton away win Have won eight of their last 10 in all competitions
5 Sheffield United home win Have won five out of six at home to teams outside the top six