One of the best looking fixture lists of the Premer League season is on offer this weekend with several ties pitting clubs at both ends of the Premier League against each other. The first weekend of spring sees various sub-plots abound up and down the country as many teams enter direct battle with their rivals for league success, a place in Europe next season or simply for top-flight survival.
Last weekend’s table topping clash between Arsenal and Manchester United is matched in the glamour stakes this weekend as the Gunners travel to Stamford Bridge in hope of resurrecting their title challenge against a Chelsea side who will be eager to make up for the mishap of dropping two points against Hull in midweek. Arguments have raged all week concerning the situation at the Emirates with several fans claiming that they are disgruntled with Wenger’s policy of being slow to spend and showing too much faith in his youngsters. Past results however have showed that Arsenal are often most dangerous when written off. Their 3-0 defeat to Chelsea in November was followed by a devastating run of results which saw them march their way back to the top of the League. The Emirates men remain without Abou Diaby (calf injury) and also long-term absentee Robin van Persie. Chelsea’s result at Hull in midweek will mean that they will be feeling the breath of Manchester United on their necks more than ever and will be going all out to reassert their dominance at the top of the table. Despite the fact that the African Cup of Nations has ended, Michael Essien is out after injuring his knee during the tournament.
Manchester United welcome Portsmouth to Old Trafford and Sir Alex will surely be expecting the full three points from his charges following very strong displays in recent games. Portsmouth fell to a 1-0 defeat in midweek against Fulham and safety now looks quite a way off, especially if they fail to pick up anything this weekend. Rio Ferdinand will continue his suspension handed to him for his strikeout at Craig Fagan two weeks ago with Jonny Evans likely to partner Nemanja Vidic in defence. Wes Brown seems set to lose out as the Serbian is reportedly fit again following his calf injury.
A little further down the table, another of the Premier League’s more attractive fixtures takes place as a resurgent Everton visit Anfield and a Liverpool team who haven’t been beaten in six Premier League games. This is quite often a heated affair and all pointers suggest that this time round will be no different. It is dubbed as the derby that splits families and both Merseyside clubs, famously separated only by a plot of grass, will relish the opportunity to continue their recent upturns in fortunes and use the victory over their greatest rivals to spur themselves towards a strong finish to the season. Liverpool, despite their dismal season so far, are still well placed to challenge for a Champions League spot. Ninth place Everton will also have eyes on a place in next year’s Europa League after notching up some solid results of late. They are unbeaten in nine league games, with their last loss coming at the hands of this weekends opponents when the two last clashed in late November. Not for the first time this season, Liverpool have a number of injuries. Big names Glen Johnson, Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres are all certainly out. Fabio Aurelio and Phillip Degen are doubts. Everton have a relatively full squad to choose from, ignoring Phil Jagielka who nears a return date in late February. Mikael Arteta, who continues his recovery from a long term knee injury, may well play a part, however he is a slight doubt due to a groin strain picked up last weekend.
Another interesting clash sees two more teams vying for the illustrious fourth spot take each other on as Aston Villa make their way to a Robbie Keane-less Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. Aaron Lennon, Jonathan Woodgate and Carlo Cudicini are definitely set to sit in the stands as they continue treatment for injuries. Benoit Assou-Ekotto faces a possible return to the line-up but may well be forced to watch Gareth Bale play in his spot as the Welshmen aims to continue his recent run of form. “Ice-man” Eidur Gudjohnsen will likely take his place on the spurs bench for the first time since his loan move from AS Monaco. For Villa, left-back Stephen Warnock is out, as is Nigel Reo-Coker. John Carew is a doubt with a knee injury. This game has a lot riding on it. A win will see Villa leap frog Spurs in the standings the tussle has added importance seeing that Liverpool may struggle to overcome Everton while Manchester City, who have two games in hand of Liverpool and Spurs and one on Villa, will be firm favourites to take three points against Hull City. Neither club can allow a chance to capitalize on a rivals dropped points go to waste, but more importantly, neither can they allow another rival shoot ahead of them.
Eyes will also be on the bottom half of the table this weekend as 19th place Burnley take on 15th place West Ham. Despite the Londoners being four places higher on the league table, only one point separates the clubs. If Brian Laws was to pick any time to start picking up some points for the Clarets, this would be the time. West Ham may welcome new signing Benni McCarthy into their starting line-up and will also be boosted by the availability of Carlton Cole. Burnley will still be without captain and penalty taking supremo Graham Alexander.
This weekend’s fixtures in full:
Saturday (15.00 unless otherwise stated):
Liverpool v Everton (12.45)
Bolton v Fulham
Burnley v West Ham
Hull City v Man City
Man Utd v Portsmouth
Stoke City v Blackburn
Sunderland v Wigan
Tottenham v Aston Villa (17.30)
Birmingham v Wolves (13.00)
Chelsea v Arsenal (16.00)