Merry Christmas looms for Manchester United
The Red Devils have one hand on the Premier League title at this stage, and it is theirs to lose
Being top of the English Premier League at Christmas used to be seen as something of a curse, but Manchester United can draw strength from the recent trend of title-winning sides establishing an early lead and holding on to it.
The trend really started with the Chelsea teams managed by Jose Mourinho, who ignored the conventional wisdom that the championship race was a marathon and not a sprint. He made sure Chelsea were fast out of the blocks and did not ease off the pace - a tactic he also employed at Real Madrid to challenge Barcelona and finally take the Spanish title off them last season.
Starting with Chelsea's two wins under Mourinho, the Christmas leaders have won six of the past eight titles - the two exceptions came when the lead was only a point at Christmas and you have to go back to 2002-03 to find the last time the Christmas leaders had an advantage of two points or more and failed to take the title.
Those stats are all in United's favour, although the notion that they are top because they have improved this season is a fallacy. Their total of 42 points from the opening 17 games is exactly the same as their Christmas position last season - the difference is that Manchester City had 44 points then and only 36 now.
The title race may well hinge on whether City can improve in the second half of the season, as they must in order to make up the eight-point shortfall compared with the same stage last season. City and United finished level on 89 points last season - which represented a decline in standards for both teams in the second half of the season.
If that happens to United again, City will win by a point if they can match the level of form they showed in the first four months of last season. But if United can maintain their current level, they will reach a final total of 94 points, which will be extremely hard for City to match. The title is United's to lose.
The main reason for City's lower points tally this season is their home record. At this stage of last season they had won nine out of nine at the Etihad, but they have taken seven points fewer from the same number of games this time.
The dropped points have come against United, Arsenal and Everton, but they have won all five at home to teams outside the top six and should have no problem against bottom club Reading tonight. Four of City's five home games against teams outside the top six have had more than 2.5 goals and three have been won by at least a two-goal margin, which points to big scores as the way for punters to play.
Things look just as bleak for Reading in the long term, as nine of the past 10 teams who were bottom at Christmas have been relegated and seven of them finished in last place.
United face a trickier task tomorrow at Swansea, who have scored at least two goals in six of their nine home games and could take advantage of United's wobbly defence. Over 2.5 goals looks a good bet there too, even if Nemanja Vidic is back in the United starting line-up.
West Brom have a decent chance to get back on track with a home win over Norwich and Everton are solid enough to back on the handicap at West Ham. Southampton could beat Sunderland, although the best bet there is over 2.5 goals. The other matches don't appeal at the odds.
For the best bets on this week's Premier League programme, it is advisable to wait until Wednesday. Fulham rate well for a home win over Southampton, having nine out of 13 against bottom-half teams at Craven Cottage since Martin Jol took charge, and over 2.5 goals also is well worth considering.
The best away bet is Swansea on the handicap at Reading, who are too open at home. Swansea have won at Arsenal, Newcastle and Liverpool in recent weeks and this trip is easier.
Another to consider is Tottenham, who have won three of four away to bottom-half teams and travel to Aston Villa. West Brom, assuming they have recovered from their blip with a good performance at home to Norwich, could go on to reward a handicap bet at QPR. Stoke, unbeaten in their past 15 league home games, are a solid handicap pick for Liverpool's visit to the Britannia.
1 Fulham home win Strong at home against teams of Southampton’s standard
2 Swansea on handicap Have the attacking talent to exploit Reading’s weakness
3 Crystal Palace home win Home form even stronger under new manager Ian Holloway
4 Real Betis home win Great chance against worst away team in the Primera Liga
5 Napoli away win Have won four out of six away to teams outside the top six
West Brom (v Norwich), Everton (v West Ham), Fulham (v Southampton), Swansea (v Reading), Crystal Palace (v Huddersfield), Real Betis (v Mallorca), Napoli (v Siena).
11pm unless stated: Wigan Athletic v Arsenal (8.45pm), Newcastle United v Queens Park Rangers, Tottenham Hotspur v Stoke City, Manchester City v Reading, West Bromwich Albion v Norwich City, West Ham United v Everton, Southampton v Sunderland, Liverpool v Fulham (1.30am, Sun)
TOMORROW Swansea City v Manchester United (9.30pm), Chelsea v Aston Villa (11.59pm)