By Mike Collett
LONDON, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Few players have undergone the transformation from sinner to saint that Luis Suarez is experiencing this season and the prolific Uruguay striker is now dreaming of winning the Premier League with Liverpool.
Liverpool went top of the table by beating Cardiff City 3-1 on Saturday, Suarez scoring twice to take his season's tally to 19 goals from 12 league matches ahead of the busy Christmas holiday programme which offers no let-up in the title race.
The Anfield club visit fellow contenders Manchester City on Thursday before travelling to Chelsea on Sunday and Suarez, who missed the opening five matches of the season following a ban imposed last season for biting an opponent, is a man reborn.
"It is my dream, I hope to win the league and a big trophy with Liverpool," he was quoted as saying on the club website (www.liverpoolfc.com) on Monday.
Suarez signed a new four-year contract last week and according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper is scoring goals "to make the likes of (former Anfield greats) Ian Rush, Roger Hunt and Robbie Fowler appear like they were occasional marksmen".
The race for the title reaches the halfway stage with four rounds of matches over Christmas and the New Year including this weekend's programme which concludes later on Monday when Arsenal face Chelsea at the Emirates.
Arsenal, who led the way from mid-September until Liverpool went top on Saturday, will return to the summit if they win.
However, if Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho extends his unbeaten run against counterpart Arsene Wenger to 10 matches and prevents Arsenal winning, Liverpool will head into Christmas as the top side for the first time since 2008.
Unlike Germany where there is an unofficial 'winter champion', no such accolade exists in England but historically it is no bad thing to top the table at this time of the year.
The top team at Christmas in the 21 completed Premier League seasons has won the title 10 times. Seven of the last nine champions, and all of the last four title winners, were first on Dec. 25.
The last team to be first at Christmas and miss out on the title were Liverpool in 2009.
This time last year eventual champions Manchester United held a four-point lead over Manchester City going into Christmas and were 11 clear of third-placed Chelsea but this season the race is much closer.
Liverpool now have 36 points and the leading eight teams are separated by only eight points, down to champions United with 28.
Despite varying ups and downs in the first half of the season the top eight - Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Everton, Chelsea, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United all have realistic hopes of finishing in the top four.
Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta said last week: "Christmas is so important. Does it matter that this current team has not won the title before? No, it doesn't.
"What is important is that you get as many points as you can over Christmas. That's what counts."
Following Monday's game, Arsenal visit relegation-threatened West Ham United in a London derby on Dec. 26, the same day as champions United travel to Hull City.
Two days later Manchester City host struggling Crystal Palace and United go to Norwich City.
On Dec. 29, Liverpool visit Chelsea while Arsenal make the long trip to Newcastle.
Everton have two home games to take a grip on a top four spot, against bottom club Sunderland on Dec. 26 and faltering Southampton three days later.
Spurs, with caretaker manager Tim Sherwood taking charge following last week's departure of Andre Villas-Boas, follow up Sunday's 3-2 win at Southampton with home games against West Bromwich Albion and Stoke City before playing at Manchester United on New Year's Day.
Being bottom at Christmas almost certainly heralds relegation at the end of the season.
Since 1992-93, when the Premier League started, only one club bottom at Christmas has escaped the drop - West Bromwich Albion in 2004-05.
Sunderland have 10 points from 17 matches and face Everton and Cardiff City away before hosting Aston Villa on New Year's Day.
"We need to turn things around soon if we are to survive," said Sunderland manager Gus Poyet.
"We could do with Luis Suarez, he's not bad is he?", he joked after the Uruguayan bagged his 19th goal on Saturday - seven more than the entire Sunderland team have managed this season. (Editing by Tony Jimenez)