With the league title nearly back in the red half of Manchester, we must look elsewhere for pivotal fixtures
It is unusual to have the Manchester derby looming over us and, well, not feel like it is The Big One. Of course, in terms of television viewers, pomp and occasion this is still the most anticipated match of the season, especially when considering how Manchester City’s last visit to Old Trafford panned out.
But the way that Manchester United have left the rest practically for dead has taken some of the sting out of the match. There is naturally a lot of pride to be restored after that 1-6 thrashing last October, but United know that even a loss will not be as catastrophic as it might have been had City mounted a decent title defence.
Elsewhere in the league there are fixtures that will have far more of a bearing on the table—here is a round-up of the best of them.
AVB will be looking for revenge against his former employers.
For me, this is the big game. Any possible outcome can have an interesting effect on the teams around them, particularly fierce rivals Arsenal.
Victory is more vital for Tottenham’s chances of getting a Champions League place, with Chelsea sitting above them on goal difference, but with a precious game in hand. Spurs had a strong season until a few weeks ago, when their form deserted them in a 3-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool, and in addition to their stutter they have lost Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe to injury.
Chelsea, on the other hand, have turned a long run of mediocre performances—both from their star players and as a team—into a spell of hard-fought victories. The congested Christmas schedule has not had the devastating effect on fitness it was expected to, and with Oscar and Eden Hazard both in form the Blues are appearing to get into their rhythm for the first time this season.
Tottenham know that their meeting with Manchester City the week after, who are playing well despite not having much to play for other than a pretty much guaranteed second-place, means they cannot afford to lose this one. With Chelsea’s next fixture being Fulham, should the Stamford Bridge outfit beat Spurs it is very possible that by the Fulham game they could find themselves six-points ahead with a game in hand.
Of course, Arsenal will be hoping that Spurs drop the points, mainly because they look the more likely team to catch, but also the obvious rivalry. Also having a game in hand, they can leapfrog their rivals and sit four points ahead if they take six points from their next two matches.
But Spurs will still have a bitter taste from finishing fourth last year but being denied their Champions League spot by Chelsea’s European triumph, and will be looking for revenge. Add to that the despicable manner in which Spurs boss Andre Villas Boas was treated by Chelsea bank-roller Roman Abramovich during his time there, and things are getting personal.
One for the purists, and the hooligans.
Alan Pardew will relish the prospect of sending rivals Sunderland on their way to relegation.
The Tyne-and-Wear derby will always have a special place in the football calendar, but this year it is an appetizing prospect.
Newcastle United have fallen far from the heights of last year when they finished fifth, their highest placing since 2004. This can of course be in part attributed to injury (most readily by Alan Pardew, but he does have a point) and having a taxing Europa League schedule, but even with most of their big players on the field the Magpies have failed to produce the kind of football that kept them in fourth for much of last season.
Sunderland are in even worse shape. Having won only one of their last ten league games, they parted company with Martin O’ Neill last week and appointed Paulo Di Canio. Their form has been dire, with an inability to forge scoring opportunities keeping anxiety levels high at the Stadium of Light, and defensive matters not much better. They are one of three teams that could join all-but-relegated Reading and QPR in the Championship next term, and going on their lack of imagination around the box seem set to be the fall guys.
Both Newcastle and Sunderland could end up in the bottom three, though it is a case of Sunderland needing a miracle and Newcastle having fairly safe hopes that a miracle won’t happen.
Aston Villa and Wigan are also living dangerously on the edge of relegation, and they will be hoping that Newcastle can do them a favour. For the Newcastle fans, the idea of dropping their local rivals will be an attractive one, and a suitable tonic to the relative disappointment of this year’s domestic performance.
Benteke's goals have been a god-send for relegation-threatened Villa.
As mentioned in the previous slide, Aston Villa are also in danger of being relegated for the first time in Premier League history. However, unlike woeful Sunderland, they have a few players who are capable of digging them out of the rut.
Christian Benteke has proved a shrewd signing, knocking in 15 goals in his debut season in England, and Austrian international Andreas Weimann has been steadily improving. Manager Paul Lambert took a risk by naming such a young squad for the season, but if they remain in the top flight the experience will be invaluable and the rewards there to be reaped.
The Villans are lucky enough to be involved in two of my selected key games, both against fellow relegation-battlers: In three weeks they welcome struggling Sunderland, then a final-day trip to perennial escape artists Wigan Athletic.
Both games could have massive influence on who goes down, and all teams in the bottom six will be keeping a close eye on the results around them.
Liverpool have vastly improved under Rodgers' tutelage.
A Mersey derby is always a joyously poisonous occasion, but with little to fight for, this may prove a relatively stilted atmosphere.
Everton sit in sixth place, three points above Liverpool with a game in hand, and should they win this match their rivals will find it difficult to make up the ground. Of course, depending on the results leading up to it, this game could either mean everything or nothing in the race for a Europa League place; it makes it into the list solely on the ceremonial aspects of the match.
This being the Premier League, there could always be some strange twist of events that means the outcome actually means something for one of them, and the non-London based fans of the game will be secretly hoping it does. Purely for entertainment value, of course.
City have been somewhat left out in the rain in this year's title race.
Despite what I said in the introduction, I had to include this. Not because it is important for anything other than bragging rights, but due to the effect it could have on one man’s job.
For Roberto Mancini, this is it. All season long he has fended off questions about his team’s inability to replicate last year’s scintillating form with barbed responses concerning the lack of transfer activity.
This week, he topped it all off with a remark in which he asserted that City would be “on the top…and probably also in the Champions League quarter-finals” (via championsleague.ca) had they acquired the players he wanted. He appears to miss the irony that he is the one who signed the players who he implies are not up to par.
If I were the City board, this constant bleating in which he repeatably undermines the club hierarchy and playing staff would have forced my hand long ago; this latest act of treachery must surely be final straw?
However, if I were the City board I would wait to see how tonight’s match finishes. If Mancini beats United, it will go some way to showing that he is still capable of leading City to success again; if not, let’s just say I would not be convinced of his ability anymore.