Table-topping United face testing nine days
LONDON (Reuters) - Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson has presided over enough festive fixtures to know rotation is the key as he prepares for a busy period starting with the visit of Newcastle United in the Premier League on Wednesday.
A disappointing 1-1 draw at Swansea City on Sunday saw United's lead at the top cut to four points over Manchester City and maximum points at home to Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion and away to Wigan Athletic are on Ferguson's holiday menu.
He can take heart from the fact that Newcastle, who languish in 14th place, have not won at Old Trafford since a 2-0 victory in the old first division way back in 1972.
Ferguson has been cheered by the return of key defenders from injury including Serbia international Nemanja Vidic, who made his first start since September at Swansea, and Jonny Evans, who also started the match in Wales.
"We now have three games in the next nine days," said Vidic. "Obviously we have a few players who are coming back from injury and they will be important for that period."
Ferguson was true to his word about utilising his squad over the seasonal holidays by fielding his 26th different back-five combination this year at the Liberty Stadium.
United's problems in defence are reflected in the 25 goals they have conceded so far - the highest by a team topping the Premier League at Christmas since Norwich City, who had let in 34 goals by the same stage of the 1992-93 season.
That has not deterred Ferguson from making changes.
Asked in the build-up to the Swansea match if he would rotate his squad, the Scot told MUTV: "Absolutely. No doubt. It won't be the same team in any of these games. There will be changes each game."
All of England's top flight clubs play on December 26 in the traditional Boxing Day programme except Arsenal and West Ham United, whose match at the Emirates Stadium has been postponed due to a planned London Underground strike.
Manchester United will be mindful that being top at this time of year has been a mixed blessing. In the 20 completed seasons since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, the leaders on December 25 have only won the championship nine times.
Norwich City, Aston Villa, Leeds United, Arsenal (twice), Newcastle United (twice), Liverpool (twice) and Manchester United (twice) have all failed to lift the trophy after celebrating Christmas Day at the top of the tree.
Manchester City's title chase continues on Wednesday at Sunderland where they have only won twice in their last five visits. They went down 1-0 at the Stadium of Light last season after Ji Dong-won struck in injury time.
But City have acquired the knack of scoring late winners and Gareth Barry's strike against Reading on Saturday ensured they entered the Christmas period breathing down United's neck. They visit Norwich and host Stoke City after the Sunderland game.
Third-placed Chelsea are next up at Carrow Road and will be in high spirits after putting eight past Aston Villa, who had never conceded that many goals in a top-flight match.
The Blues have finally found their shooting boots under new manager Rafa Benitez, who has even found a way to get fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres scoring again.
The London side trail Manchester City by seven points but have a game in hand over the top two.
Captain Frank Lampard, who became Chelsea's highest scorer in the top flight with 130 goals after scoring in the 8-0 win over Villa, said the team were finding their rhythm.
"I think we showed a great appetite. The early goal helped. We are enjoying playing again," he said.
At the other end of the table, the battle to avoid the drop is heating up, with Queens Park Rangers hosting seventh-placed West Brom and bottom side Reading welcoming mid-table Swansea on Wednesday with the two sides desperate for home wins.
They both missed out on earning a point last Saturday and their respective managers vented their frustrations as the pressure of trying to avoid relegation mounts. QPR and Reading are five and six points away from the safety zone respectively.
Fifth-placed Everton, who have lost only twice in the league this season, continue their fight for a top four finish at home to Wigan, who are 18th and in the final relegation position.
Sixth-placed Tottenham Hotspur, level on 30 points with Arsenal, Everton and West Brom in the battle for a Champions League place, travel to Paul Lambert's Villa, who will be desperate to restore some pride after the debacle at Chelsea.
Liverpool visit Stoke City looking to build on Saturday's 4-0 home win over Fulham as they also chase European football.
Southampton could slip into the bottom three if they fail to get a positive result at struggling Fulham, who will themselves be looking to make amends for their poor display at Anfield.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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