By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) -Manchester City will seek to maintain their searing title pace on Sunday as the Premier League's clubs muster their squads for a festive programme overshadowed by the spectre of more pandemic-driven postponements.
City, relatively untroubled by the surge in COVID-19 cases that caused the re-scheduling of nine of the last 20 Premier League matches, host Leicester City on the back of an eight-match winning run in the league.
While title rivals Liverpool and Chelsea have seen key players ruled out for COVID-related reasons and have both dropped points in the run up to Christmas, Pep Guardiola's side looked in unstoppable form.
They have scored 11 times without reply in their last two games and their current form is reminiscent of last season when they began a 15-match winning sequence in December and galloped away with the title.
Liverpool, who are three points behind City, face losing further ground, however, after their Boxing Day home game against Leeds United was postponed along with the clash between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford, bringing the total of matches this season hit by the COVID-19 surge to 12.
Chelsea, who have slipped six points back, are still scheduled to visit Steven Gerrard's Aston Villa.
On the previous two occasions City topped the Premier League at Christmas they went on to win the title and all their rivals can do is win their games and hope Guardiola's side relent.
City playmaker Riyad Mahrez sounded an uncomfortable warning, however, as he prepares to face his old club.
"I don't really believe in superstitions and these types of things. I just believe in winning games and trying to be there until the end," Mahrez said.
"We just have to keep going and we are in a very good moment. The numbers do not matter. We just have to win game after game."
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp has been vocal in his criticism of the fixture schedule and will be able to give his players some extra recovery time after Leeds United were granted a postponement by the Premier League because of a shortage of players owing to COVID-19 infections and injuries.
Chelsea, who handed debuts to three teenaged academy players in the League Cup win at Brentford on Wednesday, are also emerging from their only COVID-19 complications.
Romelu Lukaku and Callum Hudson-Odoi should both be available for the trip to Villa, although Tuchel said he would have to wait and see how they are feeling.
"The guys have had some symptoms so we will have to see," he said. "The Premier League is the toughest place to play so it's good news but I'm not over-excited because I need to check to see how they are."
Fourth-placed Arsenal will visit bottom club Norwich City on Boxing Day seeking a fourth successive win as the battle for top-four place behind the leading trio intensifies.
Arsenal are four points ahead of West Ham United but have played a game more than David Moyes's side, who host Southampton.
Seventh-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who have three games in hand to Arsenal after having two games postponed because of COVID-19, host Crystal Palace while sixth-placed Manchester United have Boxing Day off but travel to relegation-haunted Newcastle United on Monday.
United were hit by a COVID-19 outbreak and have not played a league game since a 1-0 win at Norwich on Dec. 11.
"We've pretty much got the full squad back, which is a positive going into the week," forward Marcus Rashford said.
"If we have a good Christmas period now and keep that momentum going and that will take you into the big games where the trophies are, come the end of the season."
Action continues on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with another full round of fixtures scheduled.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Alexander Smith)