Football: Premier League set for Boxing Day shoot-out

LONDON - The concertina effect at the top of the Premier League table means that no fewer than five teams will have designs on top spot in Thursday's traditional Boxing Day fixtures.

For the first time in the post-1992 Premier League era, just two points separate the top five teams on Christmas Day, and the erosion of Arsenal's seven-point lead has also given hope to seventh-place Tottenham Hotspur and eighth-place Manchester United.

Arsenal's bruising 0-0 draw at home to Chelsea on Monday left Liverpool top at Christmas for the first time since 2008.

However, the new leaders face a stern test on Thursday when they visit a Manchester City side who have won all eight of their home games to date this season, scoring 35 goals.

City, 4-2 victors at Fulham in their last outing, will leapfrog Liverpool if they prevail at the Etihad Stadium and visiting manager Brendan Rodgers says that his side must not get carried away by their early-season form.

"You don't get the rewards at Christmas. It is a nostalgic time and people always want to know where the team is at around Christmas Day," he said.

"We want to be there, but we want to be there at the end of the season and for that there is a lot of hard work ahead."

Rodgers remains without Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge and Jose Enrique due to injury, but in 19-goal top scorer Luis Suarez he can call upon the outstanding player of the season so far.

City's own leading man, Sergio Aguero, is currently sidelined with a calf complaint, and having seen Liverpool rout Tottenham Hotspur 5-0 in their last away game, manager Manuel Pellegrini predicts a "very difficult" encounter.

"Liverpool is a very good team and Suarez is in a very good moment," said the Chilean.

"But I think this Premier League, we are just finishing the first half, in two more games.

"And this Premier League will not just be Liverpool and Manchester City. Five or six teams will fight until the end."

Second-place Arsenal, behind Liverpool on goal difference, will hope to capitalise on any slip-ups by Rodgers's side when they visit London rivals West Ham United.

Fourth-place Chelsea, meanwhile, host Swansea City, with fifth-place Everton hosting bottom club Sunderland.

Chelsea have failed to sparkle during the first half of the season, but with Liverpool only two points ahead of them, captain John Terry knows that Jose Mourinho's side remain very much in contention.

"We all know, and the fans have seen it home and away, that we can get better," Terry told Chelsea TV.

"So whilst everyone is dropping points around us, hopefully in the new year we have to start firing and put ourselves on a good run of games.

"If we do that we're more than capable of pulling away from everyone."

Tottenham, four points below the top five, host West Bromwich Albion, with Tim Sherwood set to experience life as a full-time Premier League manager for the first time after being appointed as the permanent successor to Andre Villas-Boas on Monday.

Defending champions United, meanwhile, will look to close the eight-point gap that separates them from arch rivals Liverpool when they visit Hull City.

United have won four consecutive games in all competitions since the shock of successive home defeats by Everton and Newcastle United, and manager David Moyes hopes it will stand his side in good stead against a Hull team who have only lost once at home all season.

"It will be a tough game, that's for sure, but we have got ourselves on a winning run and hopefully we can continue that," he said.

Elsewhere on Thursday, Malky Mackay will take charge of Cardiff City against Southampton for the first time since being granted a stay of execution by owner Vincent Tan.

Mackay looked destined for the sack after being told by Tan to either resign or face dismissal, but chairman Mehmet Dalman revealed on Monday that the club are working to resolve the situation through talks.

"The players have trained as they always do," Mackay said.

"We have big games to prepare for and no matter what goes on, that's my number one focus for this club and it always will be."