LONDON, Dec 31: The turn of the year can be both an inspiring and a daunting time for English Premier League clubs as they reach the end of a congested holiday fixture programme and contemplate the challenges that lie ahead in the second-half of the season.

Someone who opts for the positive outlook is Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager.

Rather than share any shred of self-doubt, Ferguson, 66 on Monday, prefers to play mind games with United’s title rivals.

The reigning champions’ surprise 2-1 defeat away to West Ham, combined with Arsenal’s 4-1 victory at Everton, means it is the Gunners, not Ferguson’s men, who start 2008 with a two-point lead at the top of the table.

And Ferguson did his best to up the pressure on the Londoners by saying: “I always feel if you reach New Year on top you have a massive chance.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team are at home to West Ham United on New Year’s Day on Tuesday, sees no reason why their ‘beautiful game’ cannot be a winning game as well.“We want to win and play the football we love,” the Frenchman said. “I am convinced that is the best way for us.”

But one of the enduring attractions of the Premier League is that although the ‘Big Four’ of Arsenal, United, Chelsea and Liverpool have a strong grip on the top spots, any side can beat any other on a given day, as West Ham proved last weekend.

United are at home to Birmingham City, one of several Premier League clubs managed by a former Ferguson player, only Alex McLeish got to know his fellow Scot not at Old Trafford but at Pittodrie where they were both forging their reputations with Aberdeen in the 1980s.

Fixtures (1500GMT unless stated):

Tuesday:

Arsenal v West Ham

Aston Villa v Tottenham

Fulham v Chelsea (1245)

Manchester United v Birmingham

Middlesbrough v Everton

Reading v Portsmouth

Wednesday:

Blackburn v Sunderland (2000)

Bolton v Derby (2000)

Liverpool v Wigan (2000)

Newcastle v Manchester City (1945).—AFP

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