Liverpool’s struggles over the packed festive schedule has opened up a fascinating Premier League title race with Manchester United and Manchester City closing in on the champions.

The defending champions have failed to win in three consecutive league games for the first time since 2018, allowing United to move level on points at the top of the table with a game in hand still to come.

City are also steadily climbing the table after a slow start, but their troubles with a coronavirus outbreak serve as a warning for what is likely to be a bumpy few months for the Premier League.

Three matches in the past week have been postponed and they are unlikely to be the last with infection rates soaring across England and a new national lockdown ordered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday.

Here’s a look at three talking points from the Premier League’s Christmas and New Year fixture pile-up.

Manchester giants gain ground

Liverpool’s 7-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace the weekend before Christmas opened up a five-point lead at the top of the table and with West Brom, Newcastle and Southampton to come, many expected Jurgen Klopp’s men to pull clear.

Instead, they dropped points at Anfield for only the second time in 34 league games against the Baggies and failed to break down either Newcastle in a 0-0 draw or Southampton in a 1-0 defeat on Monday.

United have taken full advantage thanks to a run of eight wins and two draws in their last 10 league games.

For the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, the Red Devils head into the new year a contender in the title race with a highly-anticipated visit to Anfield to come on January 17.

City are still lingering down in fifth, but have two games in hand on Liverpool to close the four-point gap and produced their best performance of the season to sweep aside Chelsea 3-1 on Sunday.

Pep Guardiola said he saw signs of the side that won back-to-back titles in 2017/18 and 2018/19 at Stamford Bridge as for just the third time this season City scored more than twice in a league game.

At the back Guardiola appears to have addressed the defensive problems that undid their title defence last season with just three goals conceded in their last 11 games.

Premier League table (top half)

Pos Team P W D L F A +/- PTS
1 Liverpool 17 9 6 2 37 21 +16 33
2 Man Utd 16 10 3 3 33 24 +9 33
3 Leicester 17 10 2 5 31 21 +10 32
4 Tottenham 16 8 5 3 29 15 +14 29
5 Man City 15 8 5 2 24 13 +11 29
6 Southampton 17 8 5 4 26 19 +7 29
7 Everton 16 9 2 5 26 20 +6 29
8 Aston Villa 15 8 2 5 29 16 +13 26
9 Chelsea 17 7 5 5 32 21 +11 26
10 West Ham 17 7 5 5 24 21 +3 26

Covid chaos

Premier League chiefs remain adamant there are no plans to pause the season despite the rising case numbers and call-offs and they retain government support to continue during the lockdown.

A record high of 18 players and staff tested positive in the latest weekly round of testing and that was before further cases came to light at Fulham and City.

However, the league’s determination to continue has not been helped by a series of embarrassing own goals from players flouting coronavirus restrictions.

Over the weekend, Tottenham trio Erik Lamela, Sergio Reguilon and Giovani Lo Celso were pictured attending a Christmas party with family and friends along with West Ham’s Manuel Lanzini.

City are also investigating after Benjamin Mendy broke the rules by hosting a New Year’s Eve party.

In each case, internal sanctions have been promised, but the pressure is now being applied for players to be subject to bans on the field for putting the future of the season at risk.

Lampard on the ropes

Chelsea entered mid-December on a 17-game unbeaten run, sparking hopes a title challenge as a return on their £220 million (today 244 million euro) investment in new players in the transfer market.

Instead, a run of one win and four defeats in six games has left Frank Lampard fighting for his job as boss at Stamford Bridge.

The Blues are languishing in ninth in the table, seven points off the top.

Lampard publicly questioned his players’ commitment in a 3-1 defeat to Arsenal last weekend, but has not got the response he desired as City toyed with them after scoring three times inside 35 minutes on Sunday.

Big money signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner have struggled to adapt in their first season in England, but the pressure is on Lampard to quickly summon their best form if he is not to suffer the same fate as many of the Chelsea managers he played for since Roman Abramovich took charge of the club.

(With AFP inputs)