London: Premier League leaders Manchester United begin the year 2013 at Wigan Athletic on Tuesday, with manager Alex Ferguson hoping they can muster enough freshness to keep Manchester City at arm’s length.
United overcame West Bromwich Albion 2-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday to take their tally of goals to 50 in 20 games and preserve the seven-point advantage they enjoy over second-place City at the top of the standings.
Ferguson’s men have galvanised their grip on first place during the Christmas period and are now overwhelming favourites to secure a 20th English title.
However, although Christmas is now behind them, the fixtures continue to come thick and fast, and with an FA Cup game at West Ham United on Sunday, Ferguson will have to manage his resources carefully.
United face games against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton, Fulham and Everton over the next six weeks, while Real Madrid loom on the horizon in the Champions League.
Wigan moved out of the relegation zone by beating Aston Villa 3-0 on Saturday and Ferguson is wary of returning to the DW Stadium after seeing his side beaten there in April last season as United’s title push began to come apart.
“It will be a hard game,” said the United manager.
“But hopefully we can freshen up again. Possibly Phil Jones will be ready and Rafael will be ready.
“We rested Javier Hernandez (against West Brom), and also Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, so we have enough freshness to bring in.”
Ferguson must also assess whether or not captain Nemanja Vidic is capable of playing twice in four days, having only recently returned to action following knee surgery.
While United were strolling past West Brom, City were embroiled in a frantic game at Norwich City in which they eventually prevailed 4-3 despite the first-half dismissal of Samir Nasri for head-butting Sebastien Bassong.
For all the champions’ endeavour, the distance between themselves and United remains the same, but manager Roberto Mancini believes it is still too early in the season to be concerned by league positions.
“At this moment, United are better than us, because they are on the top,” said the Italian, whose side host Stoke City on Tuesday.
“But for us, it is not important to look at the table now. We need to work, win and maybe in February, we will look again.”
Below the top two, the contest to secure Champions League qualification threatens to be keenly fought, with just five points separating third-place Chelsea and West Brom in seventh.
Fourth-place Tottenham welcome Reading to White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, while Chelsea, who won 2-0 at Everton on Sunday, host rock bottom Queens Park Rangers — who are eight points adrift of safety — on Wednesday.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, meanwhile, will hope for a more straightforward game at Southampton after seeing his side blunder past Newcastle United 7-3 in a madcap match on Saturday.
“It is a worry, because we were three times in front and three times they came back,” admitted the Frenchman, for whom Theo Walcott once again excelled in a central striking role by claiming a hat-trick.
The new Premier League year begins at the Hawthorns, where West Brom host Fulham.
Despite winning only twice in their last seven outings, West Brom continue to punch above their weight, but Fulham have slid to within four points of the bottom three after picking up just eight points from a possible 36.
“We shouldn’t look at the table,” said Fulham defender Sascha Riether, whose side lost 2-1 at home to Swansea City on Saturday.
“It’s a long season in football and it all can happen. At the moment, we have a lot of negative things but we are working every day very hard, so I hope on Tuesday we will have a better result.”
Tuesday (1500GMT unless otherwise stated)
West Bromwich Albion v Fulham (1245GMT), Tottenham Hotspur v Reading, Manchester City v Stoke City, Swansea City v Aston Villa, West Ham United v Norwich City, Wigan Athletic v Manchester United, Southampton v Arsenal (1730GMT)
Wednesday (1945GMT unless otherwise stated)
Liverpool v Sunderland, Chelsea v Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle United v Everton (2000GMT)