Big three prepare

LONDON – Chelsea starts 2005 in pole position to win its first league title in 50 years. Arsenal and Manchester United are close behind, hoping the Londoners emulate their slumps this season.

While the rest of European soccer rests, the Premier League will play its third game in seven days on New Year’s Day.

Chelsea heads the standings at the end of 2004, but Arsenal is seeking to defend its league title for the first time since 1934 and Manchester United is keen to prove it’s not a spent force after a poor start this season.

‘Their pressure is bigger than ours,’ Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said. ‘They have to win and wait for our mistake. We don’t have to wait for their mistake, we just have to get our results. Since we’ve been top of the league (on Nov. 6), we haven’t lost a game.’

Saturday, Chelsea is at Liverpool, Arsenal travels to London rival Charlton and Manchester United visits Middlesbrough.

All three picked up six points from their post-Christmas matches. Everton only got three and slipped to fourth with a 2-0 loss at Charlton on Tuesday.

After 20 of the league’s 42 matches, Chelsea has 49 points, Arsenal 44 and Manchester United and Everton 40.

‘We don’t want the gap to get any bigger,’ Arsenal defender Ashley Cole said. ‘Chelsea are doing well, but hopefully they will have a blip like we did.

‘As for back-to-back championships … for me, the manager and the fans it would be nice to celebrate for a second season. It could be nice to beat Chelsea with all the players they have brought in – doubly special.’

While Arsenal has used December to halt the slump that followed the end of its 49-match unbeaten league streak in late October, Mourinho isn’t a fan of the crowded end-of-year schedule in England while the rest of Europe has a winter break.

‘You can play two games in three days, but it is not correct,’ Mourinho said. ‘It is not good for the health just like smoking one cigar after another is not good for the health.’

Still, Mourinho was confident of his side’s determination.

‘My players believe they can win the league and at this moment they don’t need me to believe that,’ Mourinho said.

‘At the beginning of the season they needed me to help them believe but at this moment with their self-confidence and the way they feel and work, and the way they go to every match, they don’t need me for that belief.’

Manchester United will be without striker Wayne Rooney, who was suspended for three matches on Thursday when he accepted a charge of violent conduct for pushing a player in the face.

Rooney shoved Bolton’s Tal Ben Haim on Sunday in United’s 2-0 win and was charged on Wednesday after a review of video evidence.

His absence will hit United, which is already without strikers Ruud van Nistelrooy and Louis Saha through injury. Defender Gary Neville hopes to be recovered from the flu.

‘We’re climbing the table but it’s getting to Chelsea that’s the problem,’ United manager Alex Ferguson said. ‘They’re on a great run and obviously you hope they stumble. If we can keep our consistency then we’ll go very, very close.

‘I think there’s a great quality in the Premier division the standard is very, very high. All we can do is maintain our form as it is. That’s what we keep saying play the way we are, and we’ll get our rewards.’

Meanwhile, Everton, which has surprised everyone by its strong form this season after selling star striker Rooney to United, hopes to continue to defy critics. Everton travels to Tottenham Saturday.

‘I’m sure people are starting to write us off now and saying, ‘the bubble’s burst,’ but we have to prove them wrong,’ Everton defender David Weir said.

Everton will start backup goalkeeper Richard Wright on Saturday after Nigel Martyn injured a calf muscle against Charlton.

Wright hasn’t started a league game for 15 months because of the strong form of the 38-year-old former England international.

In other matches, it’s Fulham vs. Crystal Palace, Aston Villa vs. Blackburn, Bolton vs. West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City vs. Southampton, Newcastle vs. Birmingham and Portsmouth vs. Norwich.

In the Football League Championship, Ipswich can increase its lead atop the standings with a win over West Ham on Saturday. Second-place Sunderland is at Preston, with Wigan at Sheffield United and Reading at Gillingham.

Ispwich has 52 points, Sunderland 49 and Wigan and Reading 47.

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