Rafa Benitez bemoaning his side's luck last week at Newcastle
After a midweek filled with international fixtures, including England’s fine 2-1 win over Brazil at Wembley last night, the English Premier League returns this weekend with some crucial matches at both ends of the table.
Chelsea’s loss to Newcastle last Saturday piled even more pressure on Rafa Benitez.
You’d have to assume that the very least that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich will accept is qualifying for the Champions League, but the Blues’ form has been indifferent of late.
If they don’t find a way to break the slump they’re in, then the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and Everton are all poised to take advantage.
At the other end of the table, Aston Villa need to start picking up points if they’re to avoid relegation.
As things stand right now, they’re in the bottom three with the worst goal difference in the league, although their performance against Everton at Goodison last week will give Paul Lambert hope that they can get their way out of the mess that they're in.
It’s getting tight in the battle for Champions League places and to avoid relegation, so let’s take a look at the six fixtures to keep an eye on this weekend.
Jermaine Defoe's injury will keep him out for three weeks
The opening game of the weekend sees Newcastle travel south to take on Champions League hopefuls Tottenham.
Although they’re unbeaten in their last five league games, Spurs have only won twice, but they’ve been able to grind out results.
Their ability to do that has seen them keep in touch with Chelsea in the top four, and if Spurs can beat Newcastle this Saturday, then they’ll put even more pressure on their London rivals, who kick-off at 3pm GMT.
If Spurs are to win this weekend, they’ll need to do it without Jermaine Defoe, who (according to dailymail.co.uk) will be out for three weeks with an ankle injury.
Defoe’s injury leaves Spurs desperately short up front, although Emmanuel Adebayor should return after Togo were knocked out of the African Cup of Nations last weekend.
Newcastle will travel south with no fear after their sensational 3-2 win against Chelsea last weekend.
Moussa Sissoko might have only played twice for the Magpies, but he looks like a real find.
He’s got pace and power, he can thread the ball through the eye of a needle and he’s already shown he’s got an eye for goal!
Newcastle might have won last weekend, but they’re still deep in the relegation mire.
They’re only six points above the bottom three, and if they lose on Saturday, they’re right back in the mix.
In terms of the result, both sides have been in decent form of late, but Spurs’ home form should just see them through.
Prediction: Tottenham win
Frank Lampard is letting his football do the talking at Chelsea
After a disappointing defeat to Newcastle last week, Chelsea are back at home on Saturday when Wigan come calling.
Although the Blues scored two outstanding goals at Newcastle last week—through Frank Lampard and Juan Mata—their defensive frailties were, once again, exposed for all to see.
Despite having a team full of experienced internationals, Chelsea are just making too many mistakes in defensive areas and it’s costing them dearly.
If it continues, it may well cost them a Champions League spot this season.
Yes, they should’ve had a penalty when Fabricio Coloccini clashed with Demba Ba inside the box in the first half, but you have to play with the hand that you’re dealt and Chelsea didn't get the job done.
That incident aside, Chelsea should still have been good enough to beat Newcastle, but they didn’t.
Whether the manager or the players are to blame is up for debate.
Frank Lampard is almost on a one-man crusade at the minute.
He’s closing in on becoming Chelsea’s all-time leading goal scorer.
Lampard is just five goals away from equalling Bobby Tambling’s record, and you’d be a fool to bet against him equalling, or breaking that record, before the end of the season.
With every game he plays, he’s reminding the Chelsea board just how good he is.
If Lampard leaves Chelsea at the end of the season, it’ll be the most ridiculous decision that Chelsea have made in quite some time.
On Saturday, Chelsea come up against Wigan, who came away with a very creditable draw against Sunderland last weekend.
Although Wigan are in the bottom three right now, their fans shouldn’t be too concerned.
With the greatest of respect, that’s where Wigan are used to being—fighting relegation.
If their fans can take a crumb of comfort from their current situation, it’s that they defy the odds every season to remain a Premier League club.
Wigan survive—it’s as simple as that.
They might not win this Saturday, but Paul Scharner’s return to the club will make them strong defensively because he knows what the Premier League is all about.
It’ll be a tough game on Saturday, but Chelsea should have enough to earn all three points.
Prediction: Chelsea win
Can Reading's goal machine Adam le Fondre do it again this weekend?
Stoke are in a poor run of form at the minute, but they’ll be hoping the fact that they’re at home this weekend will see them through.
If it wasn’t for Lukas Podolski’s deflected winner last week, they’d have come away from the Emirates with a very creditable 0-0 draw.
Tony Pulis’ sides are always hard-working and give 100 percent, but something just hasn’t quite clicked for them of late.
They haven’t had a league win since December 26 and that’s a run that the Stoke fans will want to end this weekend.
Although Stoke haven’t been in great form lately, they shouldn’t be in any danger of relegation, but they’ll have a very tough time getting three points on Saturday.
Reading are the visitors to the Britannia Stadium this weekend, and they go in to the game in great form.
They’ve only lost one of their last seven games and are unbeaten in their last four, so they’ll be confident of maintaining that run at Stoke.
Adam Le Fondre has been in unbelievable form of late and he’s scored some great goals.
His strike against Chelsea that earned Reading a 2-2 draw a couple of weeks ago was unbelievable.
If someone like Luis Suarez, Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney had scored that goal, everyone would’ve been waxing lyrical about it for weeks.
It’s unlikely that Le Fondre will start this weekend, particularly as Brian McDermott likes to play a 4-5-1 formation.
Don’t be surprised if Le Fondre marks a late substitute appearance with another goal to earn Reading a point at the Britannia.
Prediction: Score draw
Edin Dzeko scoring against Liverpool - will Saints be next?
The late kick-off on Saturday comes from St Mary’s, where Southampton host the current Premier League champions Manchester City.
When these two teams met on the opening weekend of the season, City needed a late goal to secure a 3-2 victory.
Although I’ll never understand why Nigel Adkins was unceremoniously sacked last month, it doesn’t seem to have affected the players, at least not on the surface of things.
Saints play some great football at times, with the likes of Rickie Lambert, Gaston Ramirez and Adam Lallana capable of producing moments of magic.
Two players who don’t seem to get enough credit, at least to me, are Jason Puncheon and Morgan Schneiderlin.
Puncheon has been tremendous over the last few weeks and has looked a real threat going forward.
Perhaps Schneiderlin doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he does the ugly side of the game.
He makes tackles, he tracks back to win the ball and he lets his team-mates get on with things ahead of him.
Make no mistake about it; Saints will need to play like they did at Old Trafford 10 days ago—a performance which drew praise from Sir Alex Ferguson no less—if they’re to have any chance against City.
In their last nine games, City have lost just once—winning six and drawing two.
If we’re being honest, City were outplayed for long spells against Liverpool last weekend and they were lucky to come away with a draw.
A mistake from Pepe Reina got the champions back in to the contest and they were able to earn a draw.
It would be fair to describe City’s recent form as solid more than spectacular.
Roberto Mancini’s side are nine points behind Manchester United at the minute and they simply can’t afford any more slip-ups if they harbour any hopes of retaining their title.
The fact that they’re playing away this weekend should see Edin Dzeko start the match.
Dzeko has rescued points for City more than once this season, and he’ll be a major threat to Southampton if he plays this weekend.
It’ll be difficult for City, but they should have enough strength in depth to see them travel north with a win.
Prediction: Manchester City win
Carroll was the difference last week, but will he score against Villa?
Two teams struggling for form go head-to-head at Villa Park at lunch-time on Sunday.
Villa might have played well last weekend against Everton, but don’t let that performance fool you.
The side from the Midlands have some serious, serious problems to sort out over the next few months.
They’ve been beaten in both domestic cup competitions by lower league opposition and they’re languishing in the bottom three with the worst goal difference in the league.
There’s a reason why Villa are down there. They’re just not good enough.
Villa are missing a natural leader—someone to lead by example.
Shay Given and Darren Bent have found themselves out of form, Richard Dunne has been injured for almost the entire season so far and I’m sure everyone knows about Stiliyan Petrov’s predicament.
Whether it’s down to financial restrictions or Paul Lambert’s stubbornness, some of the players brought in over the summer should not have been expected to be playing regular Premier League football.
No disrespect, but the jump from League One or League Two up to the Premier League is enormous and some of the younger players have been left horribly exposed.
It isn’t their fault, it’s just the situation they find themselves in.
Other players in the squad, like Charles N’Zogbia, Stephen Ireland and, apart from his goal last week, Gabriel Agbonlahor, just have not delivered in any way, shape or form for the last two years, if not more.
It seems to me that Villa are fighting a losing battle and they could well end up being relegated this season.
Their visitors on Sunday are West Ham, who will be boosted by their 1-0 win over Swansea last weekend.
The Hammers’ goal came from on-loan Liverpool striker Andy Carroll, who’s finding his fitness after being out injured for a couple of months.
Sam Allardyce’s side will be in no trouble of relegation and will pull clear of the danger zone over the next few weeks.
Their squad is too strong, too talented and too experienced at this level to be in any danger.
Kevin Nolan, Carlton Cole, Joe Cole, Matt Jarvis, Andy Carroll and Mohamed Diame are all capable of winning games on their own, and if Big Sam can get those players on the pitch at the same time, they won’t be in any trouble.
On Sunday, the Hammers are going to be too strong for Villa and they’ll grab all three points.
Prediction: West Ham win
Will Marouane Fellaini put United to the sword again on Sunday?
The last game on this list is a mouth-watering encounter between two of the best sides in the league.
You could argue that Everton cost Manchester United the league last season.
In April, Manchester United were 4-2 up against the Toffees with 10 minutes to go, and the match ended 4-4.
Six weeks later, United ended up losing the league on goal difference.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Everton beat United 1-0 in the opening game of the season, so Sir Alex Ferguson will be after a bit of revenge this weekend.
Do you know the last time United lost in the league?
It was November 17, when they lost 1-0 at Carrow Road.
Since then, they’ve been unbeaten, and although United have had some defensive problems, they still manage to find a way of winning games.
Having the firepower of Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck and Robin van Persie obviously helps!
In all seriousness though, Sunday could be United’s toughest test of the season.
Other than United, and possibly City, Everton have assembled one of the strongest squads in the league.
David Moyes will hold no fear heading along the road to Old Trafford this weekend.
Yes they conceded three goals to Aston Villa last week, but those things can happen.
What was important was the fact that they showed strength to come back from 3-1 down to draw the game, and they could have won it in the end.
Once again, Marouane Fellaini was imperious against Villa, scoring two goals to earn his side a point.
The last time he played against United, their defence couldn’t handle him, so don’t be surprised if Sir Alex deploys someone to try to man-mark the Belgian.
Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar will also need to be watched because those two players have been in excellent form this season.
This is the toughest game of the weekend to call. It could genuinely go either way.
Regardless of the result, it will be a hard-fought contest, with honours even at full-time.
Prediction: Manchester United win