Arsenal look real deal, Newcastle relentless and Tottenham fickle as battle resumes
LONDON, Dec 28 (Reuters) - After an unprecedented mid-season shutdown because of the Qatar World Cup, the Premier League burst back to life over the festive holiday with a bumper fixture package.
The 44-day stoppage allowed top-flight managers time to gather their thoughts while those players not involved in Qatar could re-charge their batteries.
Monday's resumption was also a chance for those jostling at the top of the table to lay down a marker and for the strugglers to enjoy a fresh start.
But what did we learn so far from an absorbing holiday programme that concludes later on Wednesday with champions Manchester City taking on Leeds United?
ARSENAL BEGIN WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
When Mikel Arteta's table toppers went behind early on against struggling West Ham United there were mutterings around the Emirates Stadium -- with fans perhaps fearing Arsenal's pre-break momentum had been lost.
The way they responded, however, underlined that Arsenal's Christmas lead of the Premier League for the first time since 2007, was justified and they might take some stopping.
There was a swagger about Arteta's side as they hit back with goals by Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Eddie Nketiah to win 3-1 and open a seven-point lead.
Former manager Arsene Wenger, back watching in the stands, would have been impressed as Arsenal showed that a first title since the French coach's 2003-04 triumph is now a real possibility.
NEWCASTLE A MODEL OF CONSISTENCY
Any suggestion Newcastle United might suffer a sense of vertigo during the break were put to bed as they re-started their campaign in sensational fashion to rise into second place.
Boxing Day opponents Leicester City had shown great form ahead of the World Cup, but were blown away on their own turf as Chris Wood, Miguel Almiron and Joelinton all scored inside the opening 33 minutes for the visitors.
Newcastle have won six successive league games, scoring 15 goals and conceding just two in that sequence, and with signings expected in January, Eddie Howe's assertion that everything is possible looks realistic.
TOTTENHAM CONTINUE TO PUZZLE
Tottenham's inability to show consistency, even throughout 90 minutes, was evident again in a 2-2 draw at Brentford.
Antonio Conte's side, packing five World Cup players, were out-muscled and out-thought in the opening 55 minutes at Brentford as they trailed 2-0. But, as so often this season, they showed that when in a self-inflicted hole, they can actually look like a good side.
Goals by Harry Kane and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg earned them a point and the way they dominated the last half an hour had pundits baffled at Tottenham's fickle nature.
They have taken 14 points from losing positions this season and while that is impressive, it is not sustainable and their place in the top four looks increasingly fragile.
MAN UTD AND LIVERPOOL SHOWING STRENGTH
With Cristiano Ronaldo's presence no longer hanging over the club like a cloud, Manchester United are playing with a new freedom as shown in Tuesday's win over Nottingham Forest which left them one point off the top four.
Marcus Rashford scored one and assisted another as the forward continues to thrive while Casemiro oozed class in his deep midfield role and Christian Eriksen pulled the strings.
After a difficult start at Old Trafford, manager Erik Ten Hag has got his team on the same page and United, and Liverpool, head into January looking dangerous.
Liverpool were too good for Aston Villa and while their title hopes are long over, watching them and United battle for a top-four spot will be compelling in 2023.
HARD SLOG FOR THE STRUGGLERS
Christmas offered little cheer for clubs facing a relegation struggle. West Ham United look a shadow of the side that were so impressive last season and a fourth straight defeat heaped more pressure on manager David Moyes.
Like West Ham, Everton are just above the drop zone but a home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers was ominous and manager Frank Lampard will need positive results quickly to silence his critics.
Wolves have reason for optimism as Julen Lopetegui's reign began with a win to lift them to 18th, but the same cannot be said of Southampton under their new manager Nathan Jones after defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion left them rock bottom.
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