By Mike Collett
Exactly a year to the day since losing 7-3 at Arsenal, resurgent Newcastle United can move into the top four of the Premier League if they exact revenge for that painful defeat at St James’ Park on Sunday.
The Gunners head to the north-east to face Alan Pardew’s in-form side as league leaders after winning 3-1 at West Ham United on Thursday.
Newcastle’s 5-1 demolition of nine-man Stoke City on Boxing Day was their eighth win from their last 10 league games and Pardew expects a cracking encounter.
“Arsenal are top of the league. That is deserved as they have been the best team in the first half of the season, but we are in great shape, our place will be rocking and rolling and Arsenal know it won’t be easy to turn us over,” he said.
Arsenal ended a run of three league games without a win with a come from behind victory at Upton Park to revive their title hopes as the closest race for years keeps up its relentless pace through the Christmas and New Year holidays.
The season reaches the halfway mark this weekend with Arsenal top with 39 points from 18 games, with eight teams still harbouring hopes of either a push for the title or the top four.
Manchester City are just a point behind the Gunners on 38, followed by Chelsea (37), Liverpool (36), Everton (34), Newcastle (33), Manchester United (31) and Tottenham Hotspur (31).
Arsenal were boosted by the return of long-term absentee Lukas Podolski at West Ham and the German marked his comeback with a goal to seal the win.
The league leaders suffered a big blow, however, after Aaron Ramsey, their outstanding player this season, suffered a thigh injury.
“It looks serious, the Christmas period is certainly over for him but I don’t know how long he will be out,” said Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.
If Arsenal should falter at Newcastle, Manchester City, Chelsea or Liverpool could all go top.
City, who have won all their nine league games at the Etihad with a goal tally of 37-6, are at home to Crystal Palace, who have improved since Tony Pulis took over as manager and climbed out of the relegation zone for the first time since August with a 1-0 win at Aston Villa on Thursday.
But City underlined their title aspirations with a 2-1 win over Liverpool, a defeat that sent the Anfield side falling from first to fourth.
Liverpool face another tough task on Sunday when they travel to Chelsea who scored a nervy 1-0 win over Swansea City at Stamford Bridge.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers was angry with the officials after defeat at the Etihad and he could be in trouble with the FA for criticising the appointment of referee Lee Mason.
Mason lives in Bolton, near Manchestrer and Rodgers said: “I was surprised we were playing in Manchester with a referee from Greater Manchester. I didn’t think we got any decisions going for us.
“I will ask the FA the question. I don’t think we would get someone from the Wirral (near Liverpool) refereeing a Liverpool-City game.”
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was also upset after Thursday’s game – but with his players, not the referee.
“This team never lets me relax,” he said, “They kill me every game. Every week I am tired. We should have been relaxed at halftime with a comfortable result guaranteed, but we weren’t.”
Everton, who lost the chance of going through 2013 unbeaten at Goodison Park when they had goalkeeper Tim Howard sent off and surprisingly lost 1-0 to bottom club Sunderland, will look to bounce back immediately at home against Southampton.
While the leading pack are all jockeying for position, the two teams hovering just below on 31 points appear to be heading in different directions.
Champions Manchester United chalked up their fifth-straight win in all competitions after coming from 2-0 down to win 3-2 at Hull City where Wayne Rooney scored his 150th Premier League goal for United.
They visit Norwich City on Saturday and can continue their climb up the table with another three points against a side who lost 2-1 at home to Fulham on Thursday.
Spurs, playing their first match since Tim Sherwood was appointed full-time coach following the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, will need a big improvement on Thursday’s 1-1 home draw with managerless West Bromwich Albion, when they play Stoke City at White Hart Lane on Sunday.