Driven on by memories of last season’s extraordinary title climax, Manchester United are in no mood to relax despite holding a seven-point cushion over fierce rivals Manchester City heading into the second half of the English Premier League campaign.
United, usually the coolest team around in championship run-ins, surrendered an eight-point advantage with six games left as City claimed a first English title in 44 years in May by finishing with six straight wins.
Playing his 21st year for United in England’s top flight, Ryan Giggs has a better idea than anyone of the twists and turns still to come.
“We know it’s a key time and we’ve got to start performing and there can be no mistakes,” said the 39-year-old winger, who will be hoping for a recall for the trip to Wigan on New Year’s Day.
“We’re only halfway there and there are a lot of tough games to come.
“We’re in a great position but we know we have to carry on producing.”
Tuesday 1 January
West Brom v Fulham
Wednesday 2 January
Chelsea v QPR
City certainly haven’t thrown in the towel, judging by their battling 4-3 win at Norwich on Saturday when the team played with 10 men for more than half the match following Samir Nasri’s red card for a head butt.
Being seven points down is “no problem,” according to manager Roberto Mancini, who is bracing himself for the imminent departure of influential Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure to the African Cup of Nations.
Tuesday’s home match against Stoke will be the final league outing for Toure – and his brother, Kolo – perhaps until the middle of February should the Ivorians go all the way in South Africa.
“We lost him last year and won the league,” City assistant manager David Platt said.
Toure has been City’s totemic player this season but United has one of its own in Robin van Persie, who has replaced Wayne Rooney as the main man up front for the leaders after just four months at the club.
The Netherlands striker has already scored 17 goals in all competitions since his move from Arsenal in August. He finished 2012 with 32 club goals and is on course to be the Premier League’s top scorer for the second season in a row.
“He’s just a fantastic player,” said Ferguson, who celebrated his 71st birthday on Monday.
Van Persie is likely to be recalled to the starting team by United after making a goalscoring appearance off the bench in the 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Brazilian right back Rafael da Silva is also set for a return after four games out because of injury.
Chelsea are trying to ensure it won’t simply be a two-team race for the title, and the European champions are likely to stay in touch with the top two as their opponent on Wednesday is last-place Queens Park Rangers.
Chelsea have won four straight league games under interim manager Rafa Benitez and are four points behind City, with a game in hand over both Manchester clubs.
“We have to keep believing,” said midfielder Frank Lampard, who scored twice in the 2-1 win over Everton on Sunday.
“There is a long way to go and things have changed around.”
“It can only happen if we win our games but if we go on performing like we have done in the last few league games and keep doing that, it’s all we can do.”
Fourth-place Tottenham are without Gareth Bale for the home match against Reading after the winger was booked for diving for the third time this season in Saturday’s win at Sunderland, triggering a one-match ban for a total of five yellow cards.
Arsenal, who are three points behind north London rival Spurs on 33 points, visit Southampton where Theo Walcott will look to continue his good form against the club that nurtured him.
Most teams will be playing their fourth games in as little as nine days over the festive period, before a break in league action next weekend when the third round of the FA Cup takes place.