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Chelsea hoping to avoid blue Christmas
December 24, 2007 16:53 IST
The Christmas and new year fixture list may no longer be the gruelling slog of yesteryear but it remains a key period of the season, as Chelsea found to their cost a year ago.
The Londoners went into the festive season two points behind Manchester United but after stumbling to draws against Reading, Fulham and Aston Villa came out of it six points adrift, the same distance they trailed when United took the title five months later.
Chelsea's 1-0 win at Blackburn Rovers on Sunday left them five points behind United and six behind Arsenal with two of the same rivals from a year ago in their immediate sights.
They host Villa on Wednesday, Newcastle United on Dec. 29 and are away at neighbours Fulham on new year's day.
They may have to face Villa without goalkeeper Petr Cech, who went off injured after a collision at Ewood Park and was replaced by Hilario, making his first appearance for a year, as Carlo Cudicini was also injured.
Arsenal, whose 1-0 win over Avram Grant's side two weeks ago could yet prove vital come May, travel to Portsmouth on Wednesday and then visit Everton before returning to host West Ham on Jan. 1.
The Gunners were below their best in beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 but nabbed the points and will be strengthened by the return of Robin van Persie, probably for the Everton game.
Manchester United also hope to bring back a long-term injury victim as Park Ji-sung, out since March with a knee problem, is expected to be involved in the next week's games.
The champions, who needed an 88th-minute penalty by Ronaldo [Images] to beat Everton 2-1 on Sunday, travel to Sunderland on Boxing Day, where manager and former United captain Roy Keane is still fuming after the refereeing decisions that cost his struggling side points in their last two games.
Centre back Rio Ferdinand and midfielder Owen Hargreaves should return to action on Wednesday but goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar will not feature until the new year as he battles to overcome a groin strain.
"We'll have a different team (against Sunderland) and I'll freshen things up a bit with one or two changes," said Alex Ferguson.
"I've got players like Darren Fletcher, John O'Shea, Nani, Louis Saha and Park who are all fit and fresh so we've got a few options. I won't make a lot of changes, just one or two."
United then play at West Ham United before returning to Old Trafford to play Birmingham City, when they will be seeking a 10th successive home league win.