London:Manchester United returns to Premier League action against Stoke on Friday for the first of two games in four days. Fans and rivals are about to find out whether the midseason trip to Japan has tired or invigorated the defending champions.
United took a brief break from domestic action to compete in and ultimately win the Club World Cup, but its rivals' inability to put together a winning streak means the Red Devils are just seven points off the lead with two games in hand.
United has regularly been stronger over the second half of the season in each of its 10 Premier League title-winning seasons and victory over Stoke on Friday could be the start of another title charge if Liverpool and Chelsea keep dropping points.
Only defender Patrice Evra is unavailable after being banned for four games over an altercation with a Chelsea groundsman last season, but manager Alex Ferguson otherwise has a fully fit squad _ albeit one that could be tired after the grueling trip to Asia.
"The players looked quite fresh in training this morning and I was pleased with that," Ferguson said Wednesday.
Liverpool still leads despite having drawn four of its past five matches, while Chelsea has won just one of five. With its rivals in that sort of form, wins over Stoke and then Middlesbrough on Monday could put United firmly in the race.
Arsenal looks to be out of contention even before Friday's game against third-place Aston Villa, with injuries and form to blame for a poor start that has included five defeats in 18 matches. Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas was ruled out for four months this week because of a knee problem, and manager Arsene Wenger could be forgiven for ruing his decision to sell midfielder Lassana Diarra to Portsmouth a year ago.
Injuries to Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky have left the Gunners light in midfield, especially with Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb departing in the offseason. Diarra, who left after failing to win a first-team place, could have filled the gap but joined Real Madrid this week in a deal reportedly worth as much as 20 million pounds.
"I have no regrets," Wenger said. "Not at all. We had a midfield with Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini and Rosicky. He was behind them and didn't accept it. What can you do?"
Wenger's midfield at Villa Park will likely be the mostly inexperienced Abou Diaby, Alex Song, Denilson and Samir Nasri, who have an average age of 21.
Liverpool, which has 39 points to Chelsea's 38, could be boosted by the return of talismanic striker Fernando Torres against Bolton. Torres hasn't played since Nov. 26 because of a hamstring problem and his participation could be crucial to a team playing twice in three days.
While United has an extra day off before playing its second Christmas game, and Villa has yet another before playing at Hull, Liverpool's players could be tired by the time they take on Newcastle on Sunday.
Also Friday, Chelsea hosts last-place West Bromwich Albion. The Baggies are on a high after beating Manchester City, while Chelsea's search for a first win in three games will be hampered by the suspension of captain John Terry for his sending off for a reckless challenge in Monday's 1-1 draw at Everton.
Meanwhile, Hull is at Manchester City, Everton is at Middlesbrough, West Ham is at Portsmouth, Blackburn is at Sunderland, Fulham is at Tottenham, and Newcastle is at Wigan.
On Sunday, it's: Arsenal vs. Portsmouth, Blackburn vs. Manchester City, Bolton vs. Wigan, Everton vs. Sunderland, Fulham vs. Chelsea, Newcastle vs. Liverpool, West Brom vs. Tottenham, West Ham vs. Stoke.
Wolverhampton Wanderers gets the chance to consolidate its seven-point lead atop the second-tier League Championship when it hosts Sheffield United on Friday. It then plays at Blackpool on Monday, a day after most of its rivals are in action.