6 Key EPL Battles to Watch This Weekend
Last weekend's football was somewhat overshadowed by unfortunate scenes at Wembley during one of the FA Cup semi-finals and reports of violence after the Tyne-Wear derby up in Newcastle. Let's just hope that this weekend we can focus on proper football.
Controversies aside, last weekend saw Robin van Persie (pictured, celebrating with Sir Alex Ferguson) end his goal drought after netting Manchester United's second goal in their 2-0 win over Stoke. The result increased United's lead at the top and sent Stoke plunging towards the relegation zone.
Elsewhere, QPR and Reading failed to win (or score) when they played Everton and Liverpool, respectively. It's sad to say, but surely both of those sides will already be preparing for life in the Championship next season. It's no longer a matter of if, but rather when their relegation is confirmed.
There are still sides fighting for survival and European places, so that's what this week's article will focus on. Sit back, relax and join me as we take a look at the six matches to watch this weekend.
As usual, my predictions will be at the bottom of each slide. Feel free to leave yours in the comments section below.
Saturday: Norwich vs. Reading (10 a.m. ET Kickoff)
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When Norwich's Michael Turner (pictured, with Kei Kamara) scored just before the hour mark at the Emirates last weekend, Norwich must have thought they'd leave with at least a point. Arsenal had a lot of pressure without really penetrating the Norwich back line until, with just five minutes left, the home side were awarded a controversial penalty.
It looked like both players were pulling each other's shirts, but the referee awarded a penalty to Arsenal. They scored and went on to win the game 3-1 with two late goals.
Chris Hughton and his side have every right to feel aggrieved by that decision, and they will go into Saturday's game with a bit of a point to prove.
Their visitors, Reading, were lucky to avoid a heavy defeat at the hands of Liverpool last weekend.
Reading goalkeeper Alex McCarthy had the game of his life and pulled off several crucial saves to ensure the game finished goalless. In fact, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers called the keeper's performance "absolutely staggering" (via BBC Sport).
Reading had a couple of chances themselves, and Pepe Reina had to make a couple of decent saves in the second half to keep Noel Hunt and Jobi McAnuff at bay. Deep down, everyone involved at Reading probably knows that relegation is coming, but they still have their pride to play for and won't want to finish bottom of the league.
In terms of the result, this game could go either way, but home advantage should see Norwich earn all three points.
Prediction: Norwich win
Saturday: QPR vs. Stoke (10 a.m. ET Kickoff)
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This match at Loftus Road will see two sides scrapping to avoid relegation as QPR play host to free-falling Stoke City.
For all intents and purposes, QPR are virtually relegated. To have any chance of staying up, they need to win their last five games, which is more games than they've won in the league all season. QPR have improved under Harry Redknapp, but it hasn't been enough.
Only a miracle will see them avoid the drop.
QPR lost 2-0 at Everton last week and looked devoid of any confidence. Perhaps some of the players have already accepted their fate, and if they have, that's unacceptable. The fans deserve more than that, and it's up to the players on the pitch to give their supporters something to cheer about, starting on Saturday.
Talking of sides who need to give their fans something to cheer about, that brings me nicely to Stoke City.
Tony Pulis' side are on a shocking run of form right now. They've only had one league win in 2013, and that was against Reading. Stoke have been on a downward spiral, and it's now at the stage where they sit just three points above the drop zone.
Stoke simply have to do something to stop this slide; otherwise they could find themselves playing Championship football next season. Much like QPR, they have some very experienced players who, for one reason or another, just haven't performed this season.
This match has a lot riding on it. The players and fans will be nervous, and it will more than likely see the match end in a draw, which won't help either side.
Saturday: Sunderland vs. Everton (10 a.m. ET Kickoff)
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This encounter pits two sides at opposite ends of the table, but each has something to play for.
Last weekend, Paolo Di Canio (pictured) masterminded a fantastic 3-0 win for his side in their derby against Newcastle. When Stephane Sessegnon opened the scoring, Di Canio let loose a passionate celebration. From the sidelines, it was as if he was kicking every ball with, and for, his players.
He's clearly had an effect on his players, and he'll walk into his first home game as manager on Saturday following a win against his team's local rivals—that can only bode well for the Italian. Sunderland are by no means safe, and they still need another couple of results to secure their place in next season's Premier League.
They have a tough task ahead of them this weekend when Everton come visiting.
David Moyes' side beat QPR 2-0 at Goodison last Saturday, courtesy of goals from Darron Gibson and Victor Anichebe. On Tuesday, they came away from the Emirates with a very creditable 0-0 draw.
If Ross Barkley's curling shot had sneaked an inch inside the post instead of an inch wide, they could have come away with a win. His inclusion in the starting lineup might have surprised a few people, but the youngster grew in confidence as the game went on. He'll hope to keep his place on Saturday.
It looks as if Everton are just too far behind Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal in the fight for a Champions League place, but they can still qualify for the Europa League, which might persuade David Moyes to extend his stay in Merseyside.
This is a tough match to call. These sides are capable of cancelling each other out, and they're both capable of winning. But Everton have more of a goal threat, which should just see them sneak a win.
Prediction: Everton win
Sunday: Tottenham vs. Manchester City (8:30 a.m. ET Kickoff)
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There are two titanic games on Sunday, beginning with this match at White Hart Lane when Manchester City travel to Tottenham.
Spurs weren't in action last weekend due to Chelsea's involvement in the FA Cup semi-final, which means they haven't had a game for 10 days or so. That can have one of two effects: Either they'll go into the match refreshed, or they won't quite be on their game.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon are doubtful for the game after suffering injuries over the last two weeks, and if they're unavailable for Sunday, then it seriously decreases their chance of a positive result. Those two have been hugely important for Spurs this season; they're almost irreplaceable.
Andre Villas-Boas will still feel that his team are in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League, even though the advantage currently lies with Arsenal and Chelsea. Nothing short of a win will do, especially if they want matters to remain in their own hands to qualify for European football's biggest club competition.
While Tottenham have been out of action for the last 10 days, their opponents, Manchester City, have had a very decent couple of weeks.
After beating Manchester United 2-1 in the league last Monday, they beat Chelsea by the same score in the FA Cup semi-final before earning a 1-0 win against Wigan on Wednesday, with Carlos Tevez (pictured) scoring a late winner.
It was Tevez's fellow countryman Sergio Aguero who hit the headlines at the weekend after a shocking tackle on David Luiz. Aguero was lucky to escape any punishment for the incident.
The situation for Manchester City is quite clear on Sunday: If they don't beat Spurs, Manchester United can regain the Premier League title 24 hours later; a draw won't be good enough. Spurs are in a similar situation, as they need to win to be in for a chance of Champions League football.
When these teams played each other in November, City came from behind to win 2-1 thanks to a late winner from Edin Dzeko. Sunday's game will be just as close. My gut tells me that because City have momentum, they will come away with all three points.
Prediction: Manchester City win
Sunday: Liverpool vs. Chelsea (11 a.m. ET Kickoff)
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Liverpool were incredibly unlucky not to beat Reading last weekend. They had 11 shots on target, but an inspired performance from Reading keeper Alex McCarthy, coupled with poor finishing, saw the Reds draw the game 0-0.
Liverpool and Chelsea are far apart in terms of their league positions, but don't let that fool you. Liverpool have performed very well in the games against other top-four sides this season.
Both games against Manchester United were close, and Liverpool will feel that they should have beaten Manchester City twice, instead of drawing 2-2 both times. They'll also feel disappointed that they didn't take all three points from Arsenal in January, again drawing the game 2-2.
Liverpool are more than capable of beating Chelsea on Sunday. They have really progressed over the last few months and are now settled into life under Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers welcomes one of his former sides to Anfield on Sunday, and Chelsea come into the game in somewhat indifferent form.
They lost 3-2 to Rubin Kazan in the Europa League, although they still progressed to the semi-final, and they lost 2-1 to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final last Sunday. However, Rafael Benitez got a response from his players on Wednesday when they went to Fulham and won 3-0, with John Terry (pictured) scoring twice.
Terry's performances have been restricted this season, but as the campaign draws to a close, his experience will be vital if Chelsea are to win the Europa League next month and qualify for next season's Champions League.
Ironically, Terry scored the last time these sides met back in November, when the game finished 1-1. Luis Suarez netted the equaliser for Liverpool.
There's no doubt that this game will be excellent to watch. Both sides have terrific players, and the result will end up being a draw, either 1-1 or 2-2.
Prediction: Score draw
Monday: Manchester United vs. Aston Villa (3 p.m. ET Kickoff)
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The final game of the weekend comes from Old Trafford, when Manchester United host Aston Villa on Monday night.
After losing 2-1 to Manchester City last Monday, Sir Alex Ferguson got the perfect response from his players when they went to Stoke and came away with a 2-0 victory over the weekend. It was a game which saw Robin van Persie (pictured) end his barren run in front of goal by scoring United's second from the penalty spot before heading off to celebrate with his manager.
That goal last Sunday must have given him confidence, because on Wednesday he went to Upton Park and scored again to earn United a 2-2 draw. It looked as though Van Persie netted from an offside position, but it was a difficult call for the match officials to make.
That draw means that they can clinch the title on Monday night if Manchester City fail to beat Spurs 24 hours earlier, but it won't be easy for Sir Alex's side against Aston Villa.
Paul Lambert and his players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for hauling themselves out of the bottom three with some sensational results of late. In fact, the only sides to beat them since the start of February are Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, and they only lost those games by a single goal.
Villa are by no means safe. They sit just three points away from the bottom three, but they are playing with confidence and are capable of scoring goals, which is what you need when you're fighting the drop.
They were unlucky not to win last Saturday when Fabian Delph's unlucky own goal saw them draw 1-1 against Fulham. It was just one of those things, and Paul Lambert's team will feel they can cause United problems on Monday.
It will be a tough game for the league leaders, but their imperious home form should see them beat a plucky Villa side.
Prediction: Manchester United win