Premier League gears up for return with plenty at stake in mouthwatering Christmas period

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The final international break of the year has come and gone, and the attention now switches back to the Premier League for the busiest period of the season.

Games come thick and fast through to the New Year so, with the table taking shape and new managers under the spotlight, get ready for answers to some burning questions.

Can leaders Chelsea maintain a sustained title push? Are West Ham genuine contenders in the race for the Champions League? Can Antonio Conte revive Tottenham?

Will Dean Smith, Eddie Howe and Steven Gerrard prove to be astute appointments? And will Ole Gunnar Solskjaer survive as Manchester United manager?

If the first 11 games are anything to go by, this title race is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.

Chelsea lead the way and their strength in depth arguably makes them the favourites. Their slip-up against Burnley before the international break means they are only three points clear, but they have been without the injured Romelu Lukaku for a month.

The Belgian has resumed light training in the past fortnight and, while Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off at Leicester is likely to come too soon for him, he is nearing a return.

If Lukaku, who has managed just three Premier League goals since his £97.5million summer move from Inter, starts firing, then it is hard to see how Chelsea can be stopped. Liverpool and Manchester City, of course, will have something to say about that.

City have not been at their best yet this season. Will they pay a price for not signing a centre-forward?

Liverpool look credible contenders again, but their challenge is likely to depend on how they cope without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane during the Africa Cup of Nations early next year.

And what about West Ham, who are third? Their start under David Moyes has been remarkable, particularly as they been juggling European football. After their brilliant 3-2 win over Liverpool before the international break, they are even being talked about as outsiders for the title.

The concern for West Ham is whether their busy schedule catches up with them or injuries hamper their progress.

The loss of Angelo Ogbonna, who is likely to be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, is a major blow and how they cope without him over the next few weeks should indicate whether they can sustain a top-four challenge.

One of the biggest story lines between now and Christmas will be whether Conte can whip Tottenham into shape.

Harry Kane scored seven goals for England against Albania and San Marino, and he will be bidding to kick-start his faltering club season against Leeds on Sunday. Spurs will hope Kane can be inspired by the arrival of a top-calibre coach in Conte.

 (Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)
(Aston Villa FC via Getty Images)

Three new bosses will be out to hit the ground running this weekend. The appointment of Steven Gerrard by Aston Villa is the most intriguing of the managerial changes.

Everything from his time at Rangers suggests that Gerrard can drive Villa forward, but expectations are high and challenging for Europe looks a tough assignment. His first game in charge is against Brighton on Saturday.

How Eddie Howe tackles the Newcastle job will be fascinating. The January transfer window is looming and he will be backed with new signings, but Newcastle are already five points from safety.

They host Brentford on Saturday, the same day when Dean Smith takes charge of his first game as Norwich head coach against Southampton.

One manager who would have been glad for some time out of the spotlight over the international break is Solskjaer. However, if his Manchester United side fail to beat Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday, the heat on him will turn back up.

Mikel Arteta has steadied the ship at Arsenal and they are now 10 games unbeaten in all competitions. How solid their foundations are will be tested over the next few weeks when they play Liverpool, United, Everton and West Ham.

The Gunners, like a rejuvenated Crystal Palace under Patrick Vieira, will be looking to kick on now international football is off the agenda until March, while Brentford and Watford will want to pull away from the relegation scrap.

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