Premier League: 10 things to look out for this weekend

Queens Park Rangers are desperate to avoid doing a Swindon; Manchester City look far more comfortable chasing the leaders

1 QPR desperately need some festive cheer

This Queens Park Rangers vintage is now officially corked, the season turning sourer than the cheap plonk served up by the hapless Swindon sommelier John Gorman in 1993. Last week's draw at Wigan meant Rangers now hold the record for the poorest start to a Premier League campaign – 16 matches without a win – and a comparison with that Swindon side makes for desperate reading. When Town won their first game at the 16th attempt they were only two points behind the side second from bottom (Oldham) and five from safety (a mark set by Southampton and – check this one out, pop kids – Chelsea). Nevertheless they ended the season 13 points and 30 goals from dry land.

QPR, meanwhile, are also only two points adrift of the second-bottom club (Reading) after 16 games. But they have yet to win and need eight points to haul themselves out of the drop zone. Harry Redknapp clearly needs to make some desperate purchases in January but, if the juxtaposition with Swindon's season tells us anything, it could already be far too late.

A lucrative point-gathering run in December is essential, then, starting with a win over visiting Fulham on Saturday, although the recent form book does not augur well: Fulham prevailed at Loftus Road last season, also beating the not-so-Super Hoops 6-0 at Craven Cottage. They have won the last four matches between the teams. QPR have not got the better of Fulham since May 1983, when two goals from John Gregory and another from Tony Sealy on the old Omniturf of Loftus Road gave the home side a 3-1 victory and jiggered the promotion hopes of Malcolm Macdonald's men.

2 Newcastle United desperately need some festive cheer

Newcastle were so impressive last season that it is easy to forget they are not long back up from the Championship. Recently promoted sides are due a wee stutter somewhere down the line and Newcastle are in the midst of a full-on jabber right now: only one win in the last 10, a run which has seen them lose five of their last six Premier League games and plummet down the table. Currently only four points off the relegation zone, and one ahead of their struggling neighbours Sunderland, they could do with getting something from Saturday's early game against the champions, Manchester City.

It might be too much of an ask, given that it is Newcastle's home form which has really caused the concern: while they recently beat Wigan at St James' Park, the 3-0 win was skewed by the early dismissal of Maynor Figueroa and the result came off the back of defeats in what appeared to be winnable home fixtures against West Ham and Swansea.

A point against City would suffice with the visit of QPR coming up next – but four points from those two games are a must, given that Toon's 2012 climaxes with brutal back-to-back tests at Manchester United and Arsenal. Hatem Ben Arfa, a scorer on Monday night against Fulham and a constant ball of creative energy, has come back from injury at exactly the right time.

3 City: typically best when chasing

You sometimes have to wonder exactly how much damage all those years of being 'Typical City' has done to the psyche of the blue half of Manchester. The manner in which last year's title race panned out, not to mention how events unfolded on that ludicrous last day, suggested City are far more comfortable chasing the leaders than setting the pace themselves. So perhaps last weekend's defeat at the hands of United might perversely do them a favour. Now six points behind Sir Alex Ferguson's side, City are already in a position where they cannot afford too many more slip-ups. But with United now clear favourites for the title, the pressure on City to perform week in, week out might be lifted a tad – and in any case Roberto Mancini's men seem to respond well to a bit of do-or-die.

Newcastle were spanked soundly by United at home this season and, if City ease into gear, they could feasibly inflict a similar reverse on a side low on confidence. A win would set City up nicely for a gentle end to 2012, with festive games coming up against Reading, Sunderland, Norwich and Stoke. Fifteen points out of 15 – not beyond the realms by any stretch – could see City close the gap that has opened up. Although would that be good news? Too early? Ach, we've confused ourselves now.

4 Arise, Sir Tinkerman!

So United have this six-point advantage at the top, then, a lead they have built without playing particularly well at any point this season, by their own ludicrously high standards anyway – until last weekend's victory at City, that is. United were magnificent for most of the match – give or take a couple of their by-now-obligatory defensive errors – and would have been out of sight after an hour had Ashley Young's goal not been unfairly ruled out for offside. This, moreover, was against a team who had turned their home ground into something of a fortress.

It has not gone unnoticed by certain sections of the United support that Fergie has been tinkering with his team pretty much every single week for years now – he did not name an unchanged side between May 2008 and March 2011, for example – and he has been faffing about with the line-up this season, too. But at the City of Manchester Stadium he picked pretty much the best available starting XI for once. And they played brilliantly. With no midweek fixture to follow, Tinkerball (sorry Claudio and Rafa, but Fergie was copping flak from his own fans for this sort of behaviour decades ago) really should scribble down the same team-sheet two weeks in a row. Can he resist the temptation to fix what is not broken?

5 Liverpool go forth for fourth

Liverpool are far from the finished product – give it another couple of decades or years at the very least – but it is three wins on the bounce now for Brendan Rodgers' emerging side, who have done for Southampton, Udinese and West Ham in quick succession. It is instructive of how poor the Premier League currently is that Liverpool, who have struggled for large chunks of the season, are only four points off Everton in the last Champions League slot and two behind Arsenal who, despite their travails, have not been written off for fourth spot yet. But the Reds, maligned for much of the campaign, suddenly find themselves back in contention for a Champions League return and hope is flickering back into life at Anfield.

Wiser heads will be counselling caution, suspecting the side is still too flaky and inconsistent to maintain a push for fourth. Villa, coming off the back of a magnificent League Cup quarter-final thrashing of Norwich, could easily plunge the Kop back into the familiar throes of impotent frustration – and in 10-goal Christian Benteke they have a striker as dangerous as anyone in the division (save perhaps Luis Suárez, Robin van Persie and Sergio Agüero) – but should Liverpool make it four wins in a row for the first time since the very early days of King Kenny's second reign, expect their European hopes to be talked up. (Even if it is probably not much of a signifier: Mr Roy managed four in a row while he was here, too – against Blackburn, Bolton, Napoli and Chelsea – and look how things panned out there.)

6 Toffees need to make it stick

Everton flew out of the blocks this season – a first for the usually somnambulant starter David Moyes – but after reaching the heady heights of second spot following a home victory over Southampton, the old sleep patterns kicked in again. Everton won only one match of their following nine and, though they lost only one as well, much of their early momentum was wasted. A disappointing run looked set to continue last Sunday at Goodison, but Everton awoke with a start right at the end of their game with Tottenham and a quick double from Steven Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic gave André Villas-Boas's side a whammy in the mouth.

It is a result crying out to become a pivotal moment in Everton's season: as well as the drama inherent in such a late turnaround, the three points allowed them to clamber over Spurs and reclaim a Champions League berth. Everton cannot afford to slip back into snooze mode, though. Stoke away is hardly an ideal fixture when looking for your first back-to-back league wins since the opening two games of the season – when Everton saw off Manchester United and Aston Villa – but, if any team can go toe to toe with a Tony Pulis side and come out on top, Moyes's side can.

7 Speaking of Stoke City …

Michael Owen is "raring to go", apparently. He might play a game of football! Now this, folks, is news. We probably should have led with this, to be honest.

8 West Brom's form: gone west

West Bromwich Albion were the form team in the division three weeks ago, when a fourth win in a row took them up to third place, but now they are facing the sick symmetry of a fourth consecutive defeat. The Baggies are unlikely to sink down the table like another surprise package, Phil Brown's Hull City, did four years ago – West Brom are a markedly better side – but runs like this have a habit of draining confidence quickly and Steve Clarke will be looking to plug the leak before events spiral out of control. The form of Sunday's visitors, West Ham, offers Albion the chance to turn things around, the Hammers having lost three of their last four, although there is a fairly major caveat: those defeats came against Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool, and the other game in that run was a victory over Chelsea.

9 Catharsis Time!

On Monday night – you will have to take it up with the Trade Descriptions people if you do not agree with our free-jazz interpretation of "weekend" – it is Catharsis Time at the Madejski. Reading will be looking for redemption after that 7-5 League Cup defeat, a singular match from which Brian McDermott's side have done their level best to recover – although one suspects they have not quite managed it. They have since registered their first league win of the season, at home against Everton, but that's been followed by four defeats on the spin, including an unlucky one in a five-goal thriller at Wigan, then another unfortunate reverse in a seven-goal rollercoaster against Manchester United.

Sides not suffering from shock tend not to act like this. A win against Arsenal, preferably by one goal to nil, would allow Reading some closure, though with their leaky defence, and the Gunners looking to respond to midweek humiliation at Bradford with a cathartic cry of their own, another goalfest appears more likely. Although here is our one cast-iron guarantee of the week: there will not be another 12 goals. (Legal disclaimer: there might be another 12 goals.)

10 Can Caley Thistle keep it up?

Up in Scotland – you will have to take it up with the Trade Descriptions people if you do not agree with our free-jazz interpretation of "Premier League" – the form team Inverness Caledonian Thistle travel to Dundee United. This could be a cracker: United are coming off the back of a morale-boosting derby victory over that lot across the road while Terry Butcher's side has responded to a shocking 5-1 shellacking at home by Motherwell in mid-November with three magnificent big-game victories: 1-0 at Parkhead, 3-2 at local rivals Aberdeen and a whopping 3-0 win over (the then) second-placed Hibs. Butcher has quietly cobbled together a formidable collection of talent – Billy McKay, Andrew Shinnie, Richie Foran and Owain Tudur-Jones have all been excellent this season – and while the title is a pipe dream, they have as much chance of finishing second as anyone else. Mind you, history is against them: outside the larger established clubs (the Old and New Firms, plus the pair from the capital) only Motherwell's 1995 vintage have broken into the top two since Willie Waddell's Kilmarnock won the title in 1965. Still, post-Rangers, this was supposed to be the year Scottish fitba ground completely to a halt. Hey, that has simply not happened, has it? It's on!

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