Manchester City midfielder James Milner says his side will be facing one of the country’s outstanding players when they host Luis Suarez and Premier League leaders Liverpool on Thursday.
Uruguayan striker Suarez has already scored 19 league goals this term despite having been suspended until the end of September for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic last season.
His run of form has helped Liverpool go top with a run of four straight wins, in which they have scored 17 goals, while City, who could move above the Reds with a win, have scored 16 in a similar run of four victories.
As City look for a second title in three seasons, Milner feels the visit of Liverpool, and the following home game against Crystal Palace, offer City a real opportunity to take charge in the title race.
“[Suarez] is having a pretty good season,” said the England midfielder. “He’s a dangerous player. We have come up against dangerous players this season, but he will definitely be right up there, so we will need to keep him quiet.”
For the first time in the post-1992 Premier League era, just two points separate the top five teams on Boxing Day, and the erosion of Arsenal’s seven-point lead has also given hope to seventh-place Tottenham and eighth-place Manchester United.
Arsenal’s bruising 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea on Monday left Liverpool top at Christmas for the first time since 2008.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers remains without Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Jose Enrique due to injury, but in Suarez he can call upon the outstanding player of the season.
City’s own leading man, Sergio Aguero, is sidelined with a calf complaint, and having seen Liverpool rout Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 in their last away game, manager Manuel Pellegrini predicts a “very difficult” encounter.
“Liverpool is a very good team and Suarez is in a very good moment,” said the Chilean. “This Premier League will not just be Liverpool and Manchester City. Five or six teams will fight until the end.”
Second-place Arsenal, behind Liverpool on goal difference, will hope to capitalise on any slip-ups by Rodgers’ side when they visit London rivals West Ham United.
Fourth-place Chelsea, meanwhile, host Swansea City, with fifth-place Everton hosting bottom club Sunderland.
Chelsea have failed to sparkle during the first half of the season, but with Liverpool only two points ahead of them, captain John Terry knows Jose Mourinho’s side remain very much in contention.
“We all know, and the fans have seen it home and away, that we can get better,” Terry said. “So whilst everyone is dropping points around us, hopefully in the new year we start firing and put ourselves on a good run of games.
“If we do that we’re more than capable of pulling away from everyone.”
Tottenham, four points below the top five, host West Bromwich Albion, with Tim Sherwood set to experience life as a full-time Premier League manager for the first time after being appointed as the permanent successor to Andre Villas-Boas on Monday.
Sherwood, 44, has no prior experience of first-team management, but having played for Spurs for four years and been a member of the coaching set-up since 2008, he says that he understands what the club stands for.
“It’s an honour to be head coach of this top club,” Sherwood said. “It’s a club that means an awful lot to me and a proud moment. If you cut me in half, I bleed the colour of the club. Blood is thicker than water, as they say.
“I’ve known it from the grass roots right up to the first team, worked at every level of the football club and played here, so I know it better than most.
“Hopefully, that will stand me in good stead taking this club forward as head coach.”
Defending champions United, meanwhile, will look to close the eight-point gap that separates them from arch rivals Liverpool when they visit Hull City.
United have won four consecutive games in all competitions since the shock of successive home defeats by Everton and Newcastle United, and manager David Moyes hopes it will stand his side in good stead against a Hull team who have only lost once at home all season.
“It will be a tough game, that’s for sure, but we have got ourselves on a winning run and hopefully we can continue that,” he said.
Elsewhere, Malky Mackay will take charge of Cardiff City against Southampton for the first time since being granted a stay of execution by owner Vincent Tan.
Mackay looked destined for the sack after being told by Tan to either resign or face dismissal, but chairman Mehmet Dalman revealed on Monday the club are working to resolve the situation through talks.
“The players have trained as they always do,” Mackay said. “We have big games to prepare for and no matter what goes on, that’s my number one focus for this club and it always will be.”
Fixtures (15:00GMT unless otherwise stated): Aston Villa v Crystal Palace, Cardiff City v Southampton, Chelsea v Swansea City, Everton v Sunderland, Hull City v Manchester United (12:45), Manchester City v Liverpool (17:30), Newcastle United v Stoke City, Norwich City v Fulham, Tottenham Hotspur v West Bromwich Albion, West Ham United v Arsenal.