Christmas slip-ups could hurt league leaders United and City
Premier League preview: Arsenal get a break, but Newcastle and Sunderland face tough tests
LONDON'S striking Tube drivers have given Arsenal and West Ham a midwinter break as the rest of the Premier League prepares for the annual rush of Christmas fixtures.
The Gunners will be able to enjoy a few drinks over Christmas lunch after industrial action on the Underground led to the postponement of their Boxing Day fixture against the Hammers.
It means that Arsene Wenger's team play only twice over the festive period and their two games pretty much top and tail a Christmas programme that could determine who wins the league next spring.
League leaders Manchester United and the champions Manchester City will both hope to take maximum points over the holidays, as neither of them face opponents currently in the top six.
United play Swansea at the Liberty Stadium this weekend, and then go up against Newcastle on Boxing Day and West Brom the following Saturday with both those games at Old Trafford.
If United drop any points then they are likely to see their six-point lead at the top of the table cut, as their rivals City have only to content with lowly Reading, at home, and Sunderland away, and then Norwich.
Third-placed Chelsea, who have returned from the Club World Cup, entertain Aston Villa this weekend and then have away games at Norwich and Everton. Given the Blues' erratic form they may drop points. Rafa Benitez's team might have a game in hand, but they are already 13 points behind United and any hopes of catching the leaders will surely die if they allow that lead to grow over Christmas.
The same could be said of Spurs in fourth, who have the same number of points as Chelsea (29) but have played one game extra. They too have a relatively easy-looking Christmas programme. They face Stoke on Saturday and then visit Aston Villa and Sunderland.
Arsenal, who are fifth in the table, get the whole Christmas programme underway with a visit to Wigan on Saturday lunchtime. Then, more than a week later, they face Newcastle in an evening kick-off at the Emirates.
While the top teams will not play each other over the holiday period the Premier League's strugglers will come face to face and the results of those games could be hugely significant.
Newcastle and Sunderland, who are both embroiled in the relegation scrap whether they like it or not, face southern opposition this weekend. The Toon welcome QPR to St James Park and the Black Cats head to Southampton. If the Saints win that encounter they will go above Martin O'Neill's strugglers.
QPR's next two assignments after Newcastle are West Brom and Liverpool at home, and new manager Harry Redknapp will expect a decent return from those two games. If they get it, then it will pile the pressure on Reading who also have two home fixtures against Swansea and West Ham.
But the two teams that could be the biggest losers over Christmas are the teams from the North East. If Newcastle and Sunderland fail this weekend then their chances of getting any change out of their next two opponents look slim. The Magpies are away at Man United and then Arsenal, while Sunderland face Man City on Boxing Day at the Stadium of Light and then Spurs.