Manchester City confident of bounce back
Having had their lead wiped out in midweek Manchester City have the chance to steal a march on their Premier League title rivals when they host Fulham on Sunday morning (NZT).
A surprise 1-0 defeat by Everton combined with Manchester United's 2-0 victory over Stoke City left both clubs on 54 points, five ahead of third-placed Tottenham Hotspur.
However, this weekend's fixtures offer some comfort for City whose start to 2012 has been anything but impressive.
United face Chelsea on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, where they have not won for 10 years, while Tottenham visit Anfield on Monday for a tough-looking match against a Liverpool side buoyed by the return of Luis Suarez from an eight-match ban.
City, badly missing the midfield authority of Yaya Toure who is still away on African Nations Cup duty with Ivory Coast, have won all 11 home league games this season while Fulham have managed just one victory on the road.
It all points to Roberto Mancini's side opening a three-point gap, at least for 24 hours, but as United boss Alex Ferguson is never slow to point out, victories in the run-in can never be taken for granted, whoever the opposition.
"Maybe I thought before the game maybe it was easier," Mancini said after the defeat at Goodison Park.
"I don't want to do the same mistake next Saturday. I'm disappointed for my mistake."
Mancini has David Pizarro available for the Fulham game after signing the Chile midfielder from AS Roma on loan.
Pizarro, who was with Mancini at Inter Milan when they won the Scudetto in 2006, has not featured much this season but believes he can help City get over the winning line.
"It is a great opportunity to create history and be part of this club's history, that is my aim, to help the squad achieve the target which is to win the league title," Pizarro told the Manchester Evening News.
United have not won at Chelsea in the league since 2002 but the Londoners are way off the pace in fourth place and Stamford Bridge is not the fortress it once was.
Chelsea are without England left back Ashley Cole, who was sent off in the 1-1 draw at Swansea City on Tuesday, and Ferguson is confident his side can record a rare win in west London to keep the pressure on City.
"Games at Chelsea in the last few years have been tough and we've had terrible luck there which has caused us disappointing results," he told United website (www.manutd.com)
"The players know what they need to do. We've done very well away from home this season and we need to be good from now on.
"We've got some really important away games in the run-in -Chelsea, Tottenham and City. They're going to be crucial games."
Tottenham rekindled their title hopes with a 3-1 home victory against Wigan Athletic and a rare "league double" over Liverpool last season means Harry Redknapp's side will approach Monday's game in a positive frame of mind.
They have injury worries over winger Aaron Lennon and striker Jermain Defoe while Rafael van der Vaart hurt his calf against Wigan and is doubtful.
Manager Harry Redknapp may also be struggling to get to the game as his court case for alleged tax evasion continues.
Sixth-placed Liverpool have no such worries with Suarez available again and Andy Carroll back in the goals after his strike in the 3-0 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday.
It was Carroll's first league goal since October and a brief reminder of why Liverpool paid 35 million pounds ($55 million)for the former Newcastle United striker exactly a year ago.
Fifth-placed Newcastle can exert pressure on Chelsea in Sunday's lunchtime kickoff at home to Aston Villa while Arsenal, down in seventh, will hope to get back to winning ways in the league at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.
The Gunners have managed just one point from the last 12 on offer and manager Arsene Wenger knows his team are in a "big fight" to secure a top-four berth.
"The fact that there are more teams involved is not too bad," Wenger told Arsenal's website.
"We have of course to focus on the game on Saturday and win our home game. Once we do that we can have a good weekend."