6 Key EPL Battles to Watch This Weekend
This weekend sees the Premier League take one step closer to finishing, and the fight to avoid relegation looks like it'll go right down to the wire.
Reading and QPR are starting to get cut adrift at the bottom, but only eight points separate the team in 18th from the team in 10th, so nobody can breath easy quite yet!
Last weekend's vital relegation battle between QPR and Wigan finished in a 1-1 draw when Wigan's Shaun Maloney scored a stoppage-time equaliser to cancel out a sensational opening goal from QPR's Loic Remy (pictured).
The talented Frenchman has looked a class above the rest of his teammates at times, and if QPR are relegated, there's bound to be a series of suitors for him in the summer.
As we've done for the last few weeks now, today's article will focus on the teams in and around the relegation zone in the Premier League.
Before we get started, though, I just want to wish all of the Chelsea, Manchester City, Millwall and Wigan fans travelling down to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-finals the best of luck this weekend. Hopefully your team wins and you'll get to enjoy another trip to England's national stadium next month!
Join me to take a look at the six key Premier League battles to watch this weekend. My predictions will be at the end of each slide.
Saturday: Arsenal vs. Norwich (3 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
Image courtesy of teamtalk.com
The first of Saturday's fixtures pits Champions League hopefuls Arsenal against relegation strugglers Norwich.
Last weekend, Arsenal went to the Hawthorns to take on West Brom, and even though Per Mertesacker was sent off in the second half, the Gunners came away with a very creditable 2-1 win courtesy of a double from Tomas Rosicky (pictured).
The Czech midfielder has had a rotten run of injuries over the last few years, but when he's fit, he's an asset to the side, and he proved that last weekend. Arsenal desperately need his close control, range of passing and ability to score crucial goals if they're to qualify for next season's Champions League.
Norwich travel to London on Saturday in desperate need of a win. The Canaries have won just once in their last 15 Premier League games, which is a run that's seen them tumble down the league.
They're dangerously close to the relegation zone, and the sooner they can pull themselves away from the bottom three, the better. Last weekend, they drew 2-2 at home against Swansea, but if you'd have offered Chris Hughton a point before the game, he'd probably have taken it.
Norwich might be on a terrible run right now, but aside from their 4-0 loss at Old Trafford a month ago, they haven't been beaten heavily, and they'll prove to be a tough test for Arsenal on Saturday.
Starting this weekend, Arsenal have three home fixtures in their next four games, and they'll have to take at least seven points from those if they are to qualify for next season's Champions League. In my opinion, they'll earn three of those points against Norwich on Saturday.
Prediction: Arsenal win
Saturday: Aston Villa vs. Fulham (3 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
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Aston Villa welcome Fulham to Villa Park on Saturday, and if they win, they'll pull themselves even further clear of danger.
Villa have been in great form of late, winning four of their last seven games. It's a run which hauled them out of the bottom three and relieved some of the pressure on their young squad.
Last weekend, they went to Stoke and ended up winning the game 3-1, with Matt Lowton (pictured) scoring one of the weekend's more spectacular goals, which you can see here. The uploader thinks that it's the goal of the season, and while there's some competition for that, there's no doubt that it was a stunning effort. Sorry to throw out a cliche, but that was a goal fit to win any game!
Paul Lambert and his side deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the job they've done over recent weeks. Just a couple of months ago, they looked certain to be relegated after cup exits to lower league sides and a poor run of form in the league, but they've given themselves a real chance of avoiding the drop with their recent wins against QPR, Reading and Stoke.
On Saturday, Villa will want their good run to continue when Fulham are the visitors. The Londoners were undone by a late Papiss Cisse winner at Newcastle last Sunday and will feel unlucky that they didn't earn at least a point.
While they're not mathematically safe, Fulham will feel that their job is almost done this season, and another win should see them secure their Premier League status for another year. If they're to do that, then obviously Dimitar Berbatov will be a key factor. The Bulgarian has scored some important goals in the last few games, and Villa will have to watch him closely on Saturday.
When it comes to the result, both sides have been in decent form of late, but Villa have picked up a lot of momentum recently, so they should come out on top.
Prediction: Aston Villa win
Saturday: Everton vs. QPR (3 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
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The latest step in QPR's fight to avoid relegation takes them to Goodison Park on Saturday, where they play Everton.
David Moyes' side were tremendously unlucky not to beat Tottenham last weekend. After losing an early goal, they dominated large parts of the game and went 2-1 ahead courtesy of a goal from Kevin Mirallas (pictured) before Tottenham scored a late equaliser. The Belgian has been impressive in his first season in the Premier League, and you have to think that he'll only get better next season.
The other big news to come out of Everton this week was the revelation that captain Phil Neville will leave at the end of the season (via The Telegraph). Neville has done a fantastic job during his time at Everton, and his versatility and experience will be missed.
If Everton were disappointed not to win last Sunday, imagine how Harry Redknapp and his QPR players feel. After taking the lead against Wigan late in the game last Sunday, QPR conceded with virtually the last kick of the ball to drop two crucial points.
I mentioned in the introduction that Loic Remy scored a stunning goal to put QPR ahead and that there will be no shortage of suitors for him if QPR are eventually relegated. The striker has been excellent during his short stay at the club, highlighted by the fact that he's their joint top scorer despite only being there since January.
On Tuesday, Joey Barton claimed that he'll stay in France with Marseille once his loan deal expires (courtesy of BBC Sport). QPR need everyone pulling in the same direction, and if you read Barton's quotes in the link, you'll see that he clearly thinks his time in London is up. Whether you agree with him or not is another matter.
As far as the result goes, Everton are still in with a chance of qualifying for European football next season. It's a small chance, but a chance nonetheless. That should be enough to see them pick up all three points.
Prediction: Everton win
Saturday: Reading vs. Liverpool (3 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
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The last of Saturday's fixtures to keep an eye on comes when Reading host Liverpool.
Nigel Adkins (pictured) has an unenviable task on his hands to keep Reading in the Premier League. Two defeats in a row against Arsenal and Southampton have seen his side become even more isolated at the bottom of the league, and his job won't get any easier this weekend against Liverpool.
Earlier this week, it emerged that Reading chairman Sir John Madejski "would have kept" Brian McDermott in charge, instead of sacking him, if it had been his decision (sourced via BBC Sport), but the club have moved on now, and Adkins is the man charged with driving the club forward. Whether he's given the time and resources to do that remains to be seen.
It's been a tough start to life at the Madejski, but there's every chance of Reading getting a positive result against Liverpool.
Why? It was almost a month ago when Liverpool travelled to Southampton, who were battling against the drop at the time, and the Reds ended up on the wrong end of a 3-1 scoreline. They were outplayed, outfought and outclassed that day, so Brendan Rodgers will want to avoid a repeat of that performance.
Liverpool have some very tough fixtures coming up over the next month or so. Including Saturday's game with Reading, their next few games are against sides who all have something to play for—Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton. It'll be interesting to see just how motivated the Liverpool players are, given that they effectively have nothing left to play for between now and the summer.
As far as the result goes, Reading need something from this game to give them any chance of avoiding the drop. If they don't get at least a point, they can wave goodbye to their Premier League status. They should get at least a point from Saturday's match.
Prediction: Score draw
Sunday: Newcastle vs. Sunderland (12 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
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Sunday's early game comes from St James' Park, where Newcastle, fresh from Europa League duty, will take on their local rivals Sunderland in what's sure to be a fiercely contested derby.
An injury-time winner from Papiss Cisse was enough to earn Newcastle a 1-0 win against Fulham last week, which ended Newcastle's run of three straight defeats in all competitions. Once again, the big Senegalese striker delivered when his team needed him the most. Since Demba Ba left the club in January, the onus has fallen on Cisse to score goals, and he's done exactly that.
If any of you saw the highlights of the game last weekend, you would have seen just how important that goal was to Cisse, the players, Alan Pardew, his staff and the fanatical Geordie support. That passion is what football is all about.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that St James' Park will be rocking once again this Sunday when Sunderland make the short trip to Newcastle.
Paolo Di Canio (pictured) took charge of his side for the first time against Chelsea last week, where three pinball-like goals decided the game, which finished 2-1 in Chelsea's favour.
It was a much improved performance compared to what we've seen from Sunderland recently, and Di Canio has to take some of the credit for that, but not all of it. Yet again, Sunderland's defensive frailties were there for all to see, and they have to cut out those mistakes if they are to stay in the Premier League.
There will be a fantastic atmosphere on Sunday, and it's one that both sets of players should thrive on. The thing is that, without Steven Fletcher, I just don't see where Sunderland's goals will come from. Obvious candidates would be the likes of Seb Larsson, Craig Gardner and Stephane Sessegnon, but by and large, they've not delivered on a consistent basis this season.
It's gut-check time for both of these sides. Because it's a derby, there's no way that either set of players, the management or fans will settle for anything less for 100 percent. For me, all signs point to this being a draw on Sunday, but it will be one hell of a game!
Prediction: Score draw
Sunday: Stoke vs. Manchester United (2:05 p.m. Kickoff GMT)
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The final league fixture of the weekend comes from the Britannia Stadium, where Stoke go up against Manchester United.
When Michael Kightly (pictured) equalised for Stoke with 10 minutes to go last weekend, Stoke fans must have thought that their team would at least hang on to earn themselves a point. It didn't work out like that though, and two late goals from Matt Lowton and Christian Benteke earned Aston Villa a 3-1 win.
Stoke have been on a terrible run since the start of the year, winning just once in their last 12 league games. By any standards, that's relegation form. It's a run that has seen Stoke drop to 15th, just three points above the bottom three.
Considering the run that they're on, you'd have to assume that the last team Stoke would want to play this weekend are Manchester United.
The runaway league leaders suffered their first loss in 18 games on Monday night when Manchester City beat them 2-1 at Old Trafford. United didn't play badly, but they just didn't play well enough to win the game.
United's best player on the night was Phil Jones. The young defender played exceptionally well. He was strong in defence and went about his business without any fuss. He was even a threat from set pieces and can rightfully claim an assist for United's equalising goal. Jones will only get better, and his performance stood out, at least to me anyway.
Sir Alex Ferguson will want, and demand, a reaction from his players. He won't want them being complacent just because they're 12 points clear at the top of the league. Stoke's recent bad run, coupled with Ferguson's demands on his own team, will more than likely continue with a defeat to the league leaders this Sunday.
Prediction: Manchester United win