LONDON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The first offering of a 12-day Premier League feast is served up on Saturday when Arsenal travel to Wigan Athletic for a clash involving two of the country's most unpredictable teams.
With 39 top flight matches crammed into the holiday period the next two weeks will offer some telling clues into what is turning into a two-horse title race between Manchester United and Manchester City and the survival scrap involving several sides at the wrong end of the table.
For Arsenal, it promises some much needed festive cheer in a season that has so far been as disappointing as the Christmas cracker jokes that do the rounds over the dinner table.
Their chronic lack of consistency is encapsulated by a month that began with them being booed off after a 2-0 home defeat by Swansea City, hit rock bottom in a League Cup exit at League Two Bradford City and continued this week with Santi Cazorla scoring a hat-trick in an uplifting 5-2 romp at Reading.
Monday's win muted the growing grumblings of discontent in north London but the season of goodwill could quickly turn sour if the Gunners fail to build on it at third from bottom Wigan.
Victory, however, would send Arsene Wenger's side temporarily into third place and launch them into a holiday fixture schedule eased by the postponement of the Boxing Day derby against West Ham United because of a Tube strike.
"We now go to Wigan. It's another difficult place but we can do well again. Hopefully we'll get some confidence from the (Reading) game," said Wenger.
While it will take more than one emphatic win against a bottom-of-the-table side whose defence did an impressive vanishing act to restore the faith of frustrated Arsenal fans, the performances of Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were encouraging signs.
A 15-point gap to Premier League leaders Manchester United already makes a title challenge a forlorn hope, but Arsenal still look capable of putting together a run that would at least cement them in the top four come New Year.
"We know the games come thick and fast over the Christmas period," said Oxlade-Chamberlain who was joined by Wilshere, Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey and England defenders Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson in signing new long-term contracts on Wednesday.
"It's a really important period for everyone in the Premier League and if you can string together a good number of results and get points on the table, then it stands you in good stead for the run-in to the end of the season."
Wigan have managed only one win in seven matches since a shock 1-0 triumph at Tottenham Hotspur in early November, but on their day Roberto Martinez's team can prove a handful.
They won 2-1 at Arsenal last season and effectively ended Arsenal's title hopes with a 3-2 home victory in 2010.
Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez will be salivating at the prospect of a visit from Reading as champions Manchester City play their final home game of an epic year, almost three years to the day since Roberto Mancini replaced Mark Hughes as coach.
City's 37-match unbeaten Premier League run at home was ended by United in the previous match at the Etihad Stadium but Reading's prospects appear about as bright as a Christmas turkey against a side desperate to close the six-point gap to United who are away at Swansea City on Sunday.
United are in free-flowing goal-scoring form, having netted 10 times in their last three Premier League games, and Alex Ferguson's side have an appetising fixture list over the holiday period with home games against Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion to follow their visit to Wales.
"We usually get ourselves to the New Year in a good position and that's where we want to be," Ferguson told United's website (www.manutd.com).
Third-placed Chelsea, who beat Leeds United in the Capital One (League) Cup on Wednesday after losing the Club World Cup final last weekend, must wait until Sunday to return to Premier League action when they host a struggling Aston Villa side buoyed by a 3-1 victory at Liverpool last weekend.
Fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur can move above Chelsea if they avoid defeat at home to Stoke City on Saturday.
Sixth-placed Everton are also eyeing a return to the top four, although they will be without the suspended Marouane Fellaini as they take on West ham United at Upton Park.
At the bottom, Queens Park Rangers, who gained their first win of the season last weekend against Fulham and are unbeaten in four matches under new manager Harry Redknapp, will look to continue their escape bid at sliding Newcastle United. (Editing by Toby Davis)
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