After a whopping fifteen games in the Barclays Premier League last week its back to the usual compliment of ten this time round as the action looks set to continue at pace.
Enough failed accumulators in the past mean that I have had to learn just how unpredictable the Premier League can be the hard way. Even for the top teams, rarely a weekend goes by whereby at least one shock result goes unwitnessed. Last weekend as Manchester United prepared for a battle against old foes Liverpool, many pundits saw the game as a real chance for their rivals in the title race to profit as they came up against (with no disrepect intended) far less mighty opponents. While Arsenal did the business over West Ham, it was Chelsea who emerged as the weekend’s big loser as they first had to watch as United came from a goal down to take all three points against Liverpool and then could only manage a 1-1 draw with Blackburn themselves. The Blues recovered somewhat in midweek as they romped to a 5-0 win over bottom side Portsmouth but having lost their slender advantage over United they can ill afford many more slip-ups between now and the end of May.
Unusually all of the top three play on Saturday this weekend, with two of them even managing to kick off at 3pm. Chelsea take part in what is the game of the weekend as they welcome top four contenders Aston Villa to Stamford Bridge. Such is the extent of the crisis at Fratton Park, the drubbing dished out to Portsmouth by Carlo Ancelotti’s men in midweek will have little bearing on people’s opinions that Chelsea are a side that are a long way from top form.
The game against Villa will be a far more rigorous examination of their title credentials and a victory will go a long way to putting them back on track in terms of the title run in. Despite suggesting otherwise, Ancelotti (pictured, left) will know that having failed in the Champions League that domestic league success is a bare minimum. Villa, who will also face Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final have already beaten their opponents earlier this season and are equally as desparate for points having become outsiders in the race for fourth place behind Manchester City and Spurs.
It has been a familiar experience for the fans of the Birmingham club in recent weeks as early season form has tapered off while an understrength, yet quality, squad feel the effects of a gruelling campaign. Martin O’Neill may well be forced into handing starts to lesser used members this weekend however as first team regulars like Richard Dunne, James Milner, Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew are all doubtful. The only good news for O’Neill is that the injury list of their opponents is even more crippling with Branislav Ivanovic and Ricardo Carvalho the latest members to be added to the list along side Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa and Michael Essien. Both Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack are minor doubts while Petr Cech may well return.
Arsenal, who sat atop the league for a brief period last weekend find themselves coming up against another Brummie club in the shape of Birmingham FC in what may well be a tough test for them. Birmingham, the surprise package of the season are unbeaten on home soil in their last eleven outings however like their fellow city counterparts Aston Villa they may be showing signs of fatigue as Alex McLeish begins to experience the downsides of fielding the same eleven on so many occasions this term.
The Blues are without a win in three and seem set to finish out an excellent season with little to play for. with saftety long secured and Europe now a little beyond them. Arsene Wenger will be eager to banish the memories of his side’s last trip to St. Andrew’s which saw Eduardo suffer a horror leg-break and Birmingham deny the Londoners three points with a 2-2 draw which ultimately proved catastrophic for their title bid, as then captain William Gallas infamously decided to have a little sulk about it all (pictured, right). Wenger will feel his side have enough to continue their title challenge this time round having won each of their last six games, with captain Cesc Fabregas scoring in his last four outings.
Thomas Vermaelen serves a suspension for the Gunners and must sit alongside his fellow first choice centre-half Gallas in the stands – the Frenchman is still suffering with a calf injury. The in form Nicklas Bendtner is the only other new absentee as Aaron Ramsey, Kieron Gibbs and Robin van Persie continue their spell on the sidelines. Van Persie, interestingly is rumoured to be nearing fitness and may well feature before the end of the season. Birmingham have no fresh injury concerns and may well field the same eleven as has featured for the majority of the season.
Manchester United are the last of the top three to be in action as they travel to the Reebok Stadium for Saturday’s late kick off. against Bolton Wanderers. Currently leading the league by a single point, United also have next week’s Champions League clash with Bayern Munich to think about this weekend and Alex Ferguson will be hoping that his side can wrap the tie up early enough to allow him to rest some of his battle weary players. One such man is rumoured to be Wayne Rooney whose knee has become a source of speculation all week as reports of injury whirl around the press after the star-striker was spotted limping heavily after United’s victory over Liverpool last Sunday. Ferguson has been quick to dispell such talk and says Rooney is as fit as ever and will most certainly start this weekend’s game.
After enduring a turbulent few weeks upon his arrival, Owen Coyle has steadied the ship considerably at Bolton who now sit a comfortable eight points off the drop zone following three wins in their last five games. The saftey cushion they currently enjoy is much needed given that after facing United this weekend they then come up against Aston Villa and Chelsea.
United are boosted by the availabilty of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who came on against Liverpool last weekend after recovering from a broken arm. Bolton welcome back star defender Gary Cahill after two months on the sidelines.
Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool will be hoping Chelsea do them a favour and overcome Aston Villa as the race for fourth place continues in earnest. Spurs have (on paper) the easiest match up as they host Portsmouth who lie hopelessly adrift of safety following their ten point deduction dished out to them on the back of going into administration. As shown last weekend however, Pompey are not a club willing to roll over every weekend until they inevitably drop into the Championship. Their stunning comeback against Hull City last Saturday was a credit to the club and boss Avram Grant who has done very well since his arrival.
Grant has spoken this week of his friendship with Spurs boss Harry Redknapp as he tries to secure the services of the on-loan Jamie O Hara in the FA Cup semi-final against his parent club. Redknapp famously guided the south coast club to the 2008 FA Cup but will have no room for sentiment this weekend as he continues to try guide Tottenham into Europe’s premier competition.
Manchester City meanwhile play on Monday night against the league’s most erratic club Wigan Athletic, a side that has beaten Liverpool and Chelsea but still sit in sixteenth place. City who are two points off fourth spot having played the same number of games as Spurs simply must win this game or else face being five points off adrift of fourth with only seven games remaining. The last side to be involved in the hunt for the last Champions League spot – Liverpool, host a resurgent Sunderland side who have recently arrested their horrific form which saw them become turn from European hopefuls to relegation possibilities in a matter of months. Like City, Pool really can’t afford any slip ups, especially given that they they are already four points off Spurs having played one game more.
Down at the bottom of the Premier League, all eyes will be on Gianfranco Zola (pictured, left) and West Ham given the week they’ve had which saw them spanked 3-1 by rivals Wolves and handed a firm talking to by their chairman. The London club face Stoke City this weekend, a side who they have managed to beat in five of their last six encounters.
The Hammers have lost five in a row in the league however and if not for the ineptitude of others around them, may well have otherwise found themselves currently in the dropzone. As it is they sit three points above it, but few will be willing to accept moving any nearer, least of all Zola’s bosses.
Elsewhere, new Hull boss Iain Dowie, fresh from last weekends heartbreaking result against Portsmouth will be looking to get his first points on the board as the Tigers host Fulham, a side with a far from impeccable away record. Burnley, the only other club with a hope of survival have a derby of sorts against Blackburn Rovers.
This weekend’s fixture list in full:
Saturday March 27th (all 3pm unless otherwise stated)
Birmingham v Arsenal
Chelsea v Aston Villa
Hull v Fulham
Tottenham v Portsmouth
West Ham v Stoke
Wolves v Everton
Bolton v Man Utd (17:30)
Sunday March 28th
Burnley v Blackburn (12:00)
Liverpool v Sunderland (16:00)
Monday March 29th
Man City v Wigan (20:00)