Manchester City scored a crucial victory over Chelsea last weekend to further secure their spot in the top three. Rival Manchester United is showing no signs of letting them back in the title chase, however, as City get prepared for a match with Aston Villa.
The outlook isn't as promising for Villa. They are currently in the relegation zone with 11 matches left in the campaign. It will take a strong final stretch to overtake Southampton or Wigan and earn another season in the Premier League.
Given the 12-point gap between City and United, the defending champions basically have to win out and hope the Red Devils slip up along the way. They certainly don't have any room for disappointing results against inferior competition.
What will be the outcome of Monday's match?
So, Monday's clash at Villa Park is clearly important for both clubs as the season begins to wind down. Here's a look at all the key viewing information for the matched, followed by some players to watch and a prediction.
Where: Villa Park in Birmingham, England
When: Monday, March 4 at 3 p.m. ET
Watch: ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes
Live Stream: ESPN3.com
Aston Villa Player to Watch: Christian Benteke
Benteke had a streak of five straight matches with a goal snapped against Arsenal. It was an impressive stretch of play from the 22-year-old striker, who continues to show flashes of brilliance as the main target atop the Villa formation.
The Belgium international joined Villa over the summer, scored in his debut and quickly developed into the club's most reliable attacking option. He's tallied 11 goals in 24 league matches and has also chipped in a handful of assists.
Although Villa isn't in the position they were hoping for when the season began, the situation would be far more dire without Benteke. The club is averaging less than a goal per game even with his contributions, so it's easy to imagine how mighty its struggles would be without him.
The Gunners made a point to ensure Benteke didn't have too much space to operate last weekend and they earned all three points. The game plan will be similar for City. If they keep him off the board, they should be in great shape.
Manchester City Player to Watch: Joe Hart
City's match with Chelsea was still up in the air when Frank Lampard stepped to the spot. If he converts, like he normally does, the Blues receive an instant boost of confidence and the outcome of last week's high-profile match could have been different.
Instead, Hart made a terrific stop. The save energized City, who took control of the match and scored the eventual game winner 10 minutes later. It's an example of one play changing the entire complexion of a match.
The 25-year-old England international goalkeeper continues to show why he's one of the top young players at the position. He's cut down on the mental mistakes from earlier in his career, and is a main reason why City have allowed the fewest goals in EPL play.
Given Villa's lack of offensive prowess, Hart shouldn't be forced into a lot of action on Monday. But when the desperate side does generate some pressure, there are few keepers in the world better prepared for it than Hart.
Who will score the first goal for City?
Matchup to Watch: Villa back line vs. City attack
Villa's struggles were summed up in the loss to Arsenal. Twice they allowed Santi Cazorla to get free in the box and he converted both times. Lapses at the back have been far too common, as illustrated by the club's league-worst goals against total.
That's not good news as they prepare to face a City squad with no shortage of attacking options. The trio of Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez has scored 29 goals, which is more than the entire Villa roster.
Ultimately, this is the area where City should take over the match. They should be able to control possession from the start and sooner or later that will lead to a couple goals. And Villa don't have enough offensive firepower to respond.
Manchester City 2, Aston Villa 0