Soccer

5 things to know about the Premier League

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The Premier League wraps up its packed festive schedule with a full round of matches on New Year's Day, with Arsenal top of the standings but with a host of challengers tucked in just behind.

Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea have gone through the Christmas games unbeaten to lead the way in the top three, but Liverpool has slipped out of the Champions League spots after successive losses against title rivals in a four-day span.

Teams will be playing their fourth match in as little as 10 days in some cases, so managers will be seeking one last big performance from their players before the Premier League takes a break this weekend because of the FA Cup.

Here are five things to know about Wednesday's games:

INJURIES PILING UP

The Premier League's festive pileup has turned into a survival of the fittest.

Liverpool, for example, lost two players — Joe Allen and Mamadou Sakho — to injury in its 2-1 loss to Chelsea on Sunday and was forced to play Jordan Henderson at just 70 percent fitness as Steven Gerrard and Daniel Sturridge are already sidelined.

Other teams have lost key players, too. Chelsea players Frank Lampard and Branislav Ivanovic came off early with muscle injuries; Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney missed Saturday's win over Norwich with a groin injury; and Arsenal midfielders Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey weren't available for the 1-0 victory at Newcastle and will miss Wednesday's home match against Cardiff. Relegation-threatened West Ham hasn't got a single fit center back.

The busy Christmas calendar is great for fans and broadcasters, but can prove tricky for managers. While the top teams can rotate their squads, the rest usually have to rely on the same players, who are running on empty.

ARSENAL UNSCATHED

Arsenal has come through a testing run of fixtures — Chelsea at home, and West Ham and Newcastle away — since Dec. 23 with seven points from a possible nine and its lead intact.

Manager Arsene Wenger complained of his team's "absolutely horrendous" schedule, so will be relieved that its next five league matches include games against four of the bottom eight.

First up is the visit of Cardiff, which is in a state of flux following the departure of manager Malky Mackay on Friday after he lost a power struggle with the club's owner, Vincent Tan.

Arsenal will therefore be confident of carrying through its good form of 2013, when it won more points in the Premier League — 82 — than any other side.

SPOTLIGHT ON MIGNOLET

The goalkeeping spotlight has been on Manchester City's Joe Hart for most of this season, with the England international dropped for a spell after making a string of errors.

Now it has fallen on Liverpool's Simon Mignolet.

The Belgium goalkeeper was at fault for Alvaro Negredo's winner in the 2-1 loss at Manchester City on Thursday and should have kept out Samuel Eto'o's shot that earned Chelsea a victory by the same score on Sunday.

Ahead of the team's home match against Hull, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is likely to keep faith with Mignolet, who has otherwise been in great form in his first season at Anfield.

Liverpool topped the standings on Christmas Day but is now fifth.

WELBECK LIFTS UNITED

With Rooney and Robin van Persie missing for a number of matches in December, many wondered how Manchester United would cope without its star strikers.

Enter Danny Welbeck.

Often criticized for contributing too few goals for a striker, Welbeck has found a cutting edge this month to score four goals in three matches — the latest being the winner in United's nervy 1-0 victory at Norwich.

United manager David Moyes has said he spoke to Welbeck in November about following the example of Wayne Rooney and staying on for extra finishing practice after training, and it seems to have done the trick.

Rooney is expected to be fit for Wednesday's home game against Tottenham, where he will likely partner Welbeck as United goes for a fifth straight league win to put more pressure on the top four.

TIGHT AT THE BOTTOM

This season's title race is the most gripping in years, with the top eight separated by nine points, but the fight to avoid relegation is also gathering plenty of interest.

Five teams in the current bottom six — Sunderland, Fulham, Cardiff, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion — have replaced their managers since September and it has largely had a galvanizing effect, with no team languishing too far behind.

Sunderland is in last place but is unbeaten in its last four matches under Gus Poyet to move within two points of escaping the bottom three.

The team in freefall is next-to-last West Ham, which picked up just two points in six matches in December.

Related Headlines