With most of its title rivals toiling over the Premier League's traditionally busy holiday period, Manchester United has found an extra gear that seems likely to take the team to the top of the standings heading into 2012.
United has wiped out the five-point lead held by Manchester City at the start of December and is seeking a sixth straight win when it hosts bottom side Blackburn on Saturday _ the day manager Alex Ferguson celebrates his 70th birthday.
That would leave City in the unusual position of being behind in this season's title race when Roberto Mancini's team visits Sunderland on New Year's Day.
Even a mountainous injury list _ currently featuring 11 players _ hasn't yet upset United, the reigning champions seeking a 20th English championship success.
"The experience that the manager, the players and the coaching staff have of what's required in the second half of the season, as well as the overall hunger and desire to win competitions, will help us," said veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs, who recently scored for the 20th straight season in the Premier League.
"Big players can't wait for big games. Toward the end of the season the games just get bigger and bigger. For me personally, you want that in the run-in _ you want to be involved in big games and going for the title. That's why you become a footballer."
City goes into the latest round of fixtures over the festive period ahead of its fierce rival on goal difference but, without an English title since 1968, it doesn't have United's experience heading into the run-in.
The leaders have dropped five points in its last four matches.
Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool seem to be out of the title picture, leaving Tottenham, which has won eight of its last 10 matches, looking like the only side capable of breaking the Manchester duopoly at the top of the table.
Seven points behind the pair with a game in hand, Spurs visit Swansea on Saturday where in-form Wales winger Gareth Bale will return to his native country.
"It's great to be up there but we know ultimately that we have to keep concentrating," said Bale, who scored both of Tottenham's goals in the 2-0 win over Norwich on Tuesday.
"It's not even halfway through the season, there's still a lot of games to go and nothing's achieved at this stage of the season. Hopefully we can keep the form that we're in and keep pushing ourselves up the table."
Chelsea _ four points adrift in fourth after a run of three straight draws _ hosts Aston Villa and fifth-place Arsenal is at home to Queens Park Rangers.
The stand-out match sees Liverpool host Newcastle on Friday, when home striker Andy Carroll looks to start repaying the faith shown in him by manager Kenny Dalglish.
Luis Suarez's one-match suspension for sticking his middle finger up at Fulham fans in a recent league match should ensure Carroll starts at Anfield against the team that sold him for 35 million pounds ($56 million) in a stunning last-minute deal in January's transfer window.
The mighty price tag _ which made him one of the world's costliest ever players _ appears to be weighing heavily on the England international, who has only scored twice in the league this season and has often started on the bench behind Suarez.
Brushing aside regular stories in the British press about Carroll's off-field habits _ he was urged by England manager Fabio Capello in September to drink less if he is to become a regular in the national squad _ Dalglish insists the player can still thrive at Liverpool.
"He is adapting well to the change and we will keep working with him and, fortunately for Andy, we have much greater belief in him than a lot of people have who write about him," Dalglish said.
"He is not struggling to deal with anything _ I don't think self-belief is a problem for Andy Carroll, I don't see why it should be."
Carroll _ a boyhood Newcastle fan _ could be set for an extended run in Liverpool's starting lineup after Suarez was handed an eight-match ban from the Football Association last week for racially insulting Manchester United defender Patrice Evra during a match in October.
The Uruguay international is likely to appeal against the suspension but could face a lengthy spell out, giving regular opportunities to Carroll.
With Liverpool having drawn its last two games, against lowly sides Wigan and Blackburn, it needs to get back to winning ways to keep pace with its rivals for the Champions League places.
Liverpool is currently in sixth place, a point and a place above Newcastle but three off Chelsea.
"I think we deserve to be higher up the table than we are but you've got to earn that right and not talk about it," Dalglish said. "To be fair, they (the players) have done a lot of talking on the pitch for us.
"As long as we are in there somewhere, continue to do the right things and give ourselves a chance (come the end of the season) then we'll be happy with that."