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United set to benefit from revitalized Rooney


LONDON (Reuters) -- Top of the Premier League, still unbeaten and starting to play with their familiar swagger, Manchester United's season could be about to get even better with Wayne Rooney rediscovering his spark.

The England striker did not score in the 2-0 victory over Sunderland on Sunday, but as United prepare for their trip to Birmingham City on Tuesday there are signs that Rooney is emerging from the worst slump of his career.

He was instrumental in some fluent United football against Sunderland and almost scored with a sublime chip. Manager Alex Ferguson believes the goals will come soon.

"Wayne had a couple of tries against Sunderland," Ferguson told MUTV. "He was very unlucky with the chip and there were a couple of shots saved by the goalkeeper.

"He is getting there. The important thing is he is playing well. That is refreshing."

To have established themselves so firmly at the top of the league despite Rooney scoring just once in the league this season is a testament to United's strength in depth and their defensive solidity.

With his shock declaration that he wanted to leave the club now a fading memory and a few weeks in the Dubai sunshine in the tank, a revitalised Rooney will have the effect of a "new signing" in the January sales as United step on the gas.

Manchester City are emerging as a genuine title threat, having bounced back from their home defeat by Everton to beat Newcastle United 3-1 on Sunday.

The problem for manager Roberto Mancini is that his side have been far more impressive away from Eastlands where they have struggled to score goals.

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With Carlos Tevez looking hungry, City will hope to improve that situation against Aston Villa on Tuesday and then against Blackpool on New Year's Day.

"We have an incredible four games in 10 days and we will make changes against Villa because we must recover in the 38 hours and that is not an easy thing to do," Mancini said.

Third-placed Arsenal and fourth-placed Chelsea, who meet later on Monday at the Emirates, will be wary of City and with United looking stronger as each week goes by, they have precious little room for error.

Chelsea are at home to a dangerous Bolton Wanderers side on Wednesday while Arsenal travel to Wigan Athletic.

Tottenham Hotspur complete the top five after a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa on Sunday and are on a nine-match unbeaten run in all competitions.

With a home game against Newcastle on Tuesday followed by the visit of Fulham on New Year's Day, Harry Redknapp's side could enter the second half of the season in the mix for a "top four" slot or better.

"Playing like this it should be a great season for us," Redknapp told the BBC after Rafael van der Vaart's double secured the points at Villa.

While the festive fixtures could prove crucial at the top, the managers struggling in the lower half will be desperate for some seasonal goodwill.

West Ham United's under-fire Avram Grant and Wigan Athletic's Roberto Martinez both enjoyed three points on Sunday but know survival will need a run of decent results.

Grant's Hammers host Everton on Tuesday when victory could take them out of the bottom three while Wigan host Arsenal on Wednesday. Free-falling Fulham go to Stoke City while Wolverhampton Wanderers, who are now bottom after losing to Wigan, face Liverpool away on Wednesday.