Storylines taking shape as Premier League reaches halfway mark amid festive fixture pileup



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MANCHESTER, England — The English Premier League season is approaching its halfway point and a number of storylines are beginning to take shape.

Chelsea and Manchester City are unstoppable forces and will fight it out for the title. Manchester United's resurgence, based on its glut of attacking riches, is offering a tantalizing glimpse of what to expect next season with its defense sorted out.

And the fight for the final Champions League place could involve five or six teams and be the most thrilling in years.

The second part of the festive fixture pileup takes place on Sunday, when squad strength is set to come into play as 18 of the league's 20 teams play their second matches in the space of 48 hours.

Chelsea holds a three-point lead over City heading into a tricky-looking away match at Southampton, which has recovered from a blip and is back in the top four. With City on a seven-match winning streak and at home to relegation-threatened Burnley, there is a chance of a twist in the title race.

Third-place United is unbeaten in eight matches, winning seven of them, but faces a test of its new-found credentials in an away match at Tottenham — one of a slew of teams in the chasing pack in the hunt for European football next season.

Elsewhere, West Ham meets Arsenal in a match pitting fifth vs. sixth respectively, while Liverpool hosts Swansea in another game between two teams in the top nine and in reach of the top four.

Here are some things to know about the 19th round of games, which marks the mid-point of the campaign:


VINTAGE TERRY

Scoring goals at one end and keeping them out at the other, John Terry is a player reborn at Chelsea.

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho sees "my John of 2004, '05, '06" in the recent displays of the former England captain, who has been a rock in the team's superb start to the season.

Terry has scored goals in each of his last two games and helped Chelsea keep clean sheets in six of its last seven matches.

Terry was Chelsea's captain during Mourinho's first spell as manager at Stamford Bridge, helping the team to back-to-back Premier League titles in 2005 and '06.

Key to Chelsea's obduracy in defense is the form of holding midfielder Nemanja Matic, who has been one of the star players in the Premier League this season and a brilliant protector of the back four.

"He's been a revelation for us," Terry said.


SOUTHAMPTON RECOVERY

Southampton was Chelsea's nearest challenger only a month ago, before a defeat to Man City sparked a run of four league losses that burst the bubble at St. Mary's Stadium.

The south-coast side is back in form after successive wins against Everton and Crystal Palace, scoring three goals in both games, and could give Chelsea problems.

"For everybody, Chelsea are the biggest test," Southampton manager Ronald Koeman said. "In my opinion, they are the best team in the Premier League until now, but we believe in ourselves and it will be a great game."

Southampton has struggled against the top teams this season, though, losing to Liverpool, City, Arsenal and Man United.


ROONEY REVELLING

Wayne Rooney has dropped back into central midfield as Man United manager Louis van Gaal looks to find a spot for all his attacking players — and the England captain is responding with some of his best form in years.

Rooney scored twice in Friday's 3-1 win over Newcastle to take his team-high tally to nine goals for the season. He has scored eight times in his last eight games for club and country, and is keeping up his scoring form despite playing in midfield for United.

"It's a role that I've played many times and I know I can play," said Rooney, who has played behind Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie for the last two games. "The manager has given me even more license to get forward and get into the box from that role.

Comparing himself to United great Paul Scholes, Rooney added: "As Paul did many times over his career, he could see the ball when it was wide and see the space and run into it."


EVERTON STRUGGLING

It's been a tough season for the Merseyside clubs — but while Liverpool appears to be on the rise, nothing is going right for Everton.

The blue half of Merseyside has lost four of its last six Premier League games to drop to 12th place in the standings. The team is 13 points behind where it was last season after 18 games, with its regression perhaps due to its involvement in the Europa League.

Everton lost 1-0 at home to Stoke on Friday during which defender Phil Jagielka, American goalkeeper Tim Howard and winger Kevin Mirallas were injured and are all set to miss Sunday's trip to Newcastle.

"It is a pivotal moment in the season for us," Everton manager Roberto Martinez said.

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