'Big Four' ready for Boxing Day clashes
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With Liverpool leading the Premier League halfway through the season, just one point ahead of Chelsea and title holder Manchester United at fourth place just ahead of Arsenal, the traditional Boxing Day clashes are eagerly awaited.
REUTERS - The most open Premier League championship race for years reaches its halfway point on Boxing Day with five teams still battling for the title.
Liverpool, despite drawing three of their last four league matches, lead the pack going into the two-match holiday programme, a point ahead of Chelsea, with surprisingly resolute Aston Villa, champions Manchester United and fifth placed Arsenal on their heels.
Liverpool, bidding for their first title since 1990, face Bolton Wanderers at home on Friday and then play at Newcastle United on Sunday with former England defender Jamie Carragher making an illuminating observation ahead of those games.
"It has been so long since Liverpool won the title, I was a 12-year-old Everton fan the last time it happened," he told reporters.
"For the last 18 months we have been as hard as any team to beat. We've had a few draws and we have to start turning those into wins -- but we are still top."
Liverpool gained a hard-fought point from a 1-1 draw at Arsenal on Sunday and although Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger refused to concede his side's chances of the title were over, Arsenal remain eight points behind Liverpool and outsiders to lift the crown for the first time since 2004.
Arsenal will also be without skipper and playmaker Cesc Fabregas for the next four months after he damaged his medial knee ligament against Liverpool.
Chelsea will also be without skipper and defender John Terry for the holiday matches against bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion and neighbours Fulham on Sunday while he serves a three-match suspension.
Terry was shown a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Everton's Leon Osman in Monday's 0-0 draw at Goodison Park which ended Chelsea's record run of 11 successive away wins and meant that Liverpool head into Christmas as league leaders.
Aston Villa have powered into third place, and although bookmakers Ladbrokes rate them as no better than 40-1 shots for the title, they could well take one of the Champions League places if they maintain their good form.
Villa's first game over Christmas is against Arsenal on Friday at Villa Park before they travel to sixth-placed Hull City on Tuesday.
Champions Manchester United meanwhile, return to England to play at Stoke City on Friday after winning the Club World Championship in Japan last week and have seen their hand strengthened while they have been out of the country.
Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal all failed to win while they were away and although United are fourth, seven points behind Liverpool, they do have two matches in hand. After playing Stoke, United's second holiday fixture is at home to Middlesbrough next Monday.
While United go into Christmas with their sights fixed on their third straight title, neighbours Manchester City will be fighting to get out of the relegation zone after just two wins in their last 13 league matches.
They face Hull before making the short trip to Ewood Park to play Blackburn Rovers, who are also in the bottom three but started life under new manager Sam Allardyce last week with a 3-0 win over Stoke City.