Premier League Weekend Preview: Defining Moment in Race for Champions League?
On Wednesday night, Liverpool made history for all the wrong reasons. Their 2-1 reverse against group champions Fiorentina meant that, for the first time ever, The Reds had lost two consecutive European home games.
That may not sound like a big deal, but for a club with such a proud history and strong pedigree on the continent, Alberto Gilardino's injury-time goal was yet another devastating blow to the fans' pride, and potentially another nail in the once untouchable Rafa Benitez's coffin.
Out of the Champions League and only three points above Birmingham City in the league, Liverpool host Arsenal on Sunday in this weekend's most notable match, the only Sunday fixture.
While Liverpool's players often relish such games, as was the case when they defeated Manchester United 2-0 in October, they must ensure that they not only play out of their skins to overcome a talented if vulnerable Arsenal team, but also that they remain undefeated throughout Christmas and the New Year.
Over this period, Arsene Wenger must mitigate the impact that striker Robin Van Persie's injury will have on his team. Andrei Arshavin scored four last season against Liverpool. He will need to have his scoring boots on at Anfield and thereafter, if the Gunners are to push on in the league.
Tottenham, after fine performances but disappointing results at Everton and Aston Villa, have less daunting fixtures in front of them. Their five remaining 2009 league fixtures sees them welcome Wolves, Man City and West Ham, and travel to the northwest to face Blackburn, before nipping across the captial to take on Fulham.
Indeed, this weekend is crucial for Spurs, as rivals Arsenal, Aston Villa and Man City will all do well to win a point.
Elsewhere, the early Saturday fixture will provide bookings, entertainment, controversy...and a lot of goals!
Wigan are the most unpredictable team in the league—occassionally excellent, often atrocious. Stoke has a good home record, and are an outside bet for Europe.
Saturday's other standout fixture is Manchester United v. Aston Villa.
Villa were overrun by Spurs at Villa Park a fortnight ago, but excelled against Hull last time around, and remain just one point off and four goals away from a Champions League qualification slot.
Elsewhere, it's crunch time for West Ham, and only three points will suffice from their visit to the Midlands to match up against a confident Birmingham team. Bolton v. Man City, Burnley v. Fulham, Chelsea v. Everton, Hull v. Blackburn and Sunderland v. Portsmouth all look like home wins.
Stoke City v. Wigan (Saturday, 12:45 p.m.)
STOKE: Bad boy Beattie makes the bench, following his alleged bust-up with manager Tony Pulis. Talented defender Ryan Shawcross returns to add steel to the home defence, Dean Whitehead partners Salif Diao in Stoke's midfield.
WIGAN: Keeper Chris Kirkland passes a late fitness test. Jordi Gomez replaces Honduran Hendy Thomas in the midfield. Hugo Rodallega starts as the lone striker.
STOKE: Ryan Shawcross, Matthew Etherington
WIGAN: Hugo Rodallega, Paul Scharner
STOKE 2-2 Wigan
Birmingham City v. West Ham United (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
BIRMINGHAM: Garry O'Connor and TEE-MU TAI-NI-O are injured, Kevin Phillips will start upfront.
WEST HAM: Dean Ashton has shocked Hammers fans by announcing his retirement, other notable absentees are Matthew Upson, Valon Behrami and Carlton Cole. Robert Green should start in goal, and Mark Noble's inclusion will be a boost to beleaguered boss Franco Zola (pictured)
BIRMINGHAM: Seb Larsson and Lee Bowyer
WEST HAM: Robert Green and Zavon Hines
BIRMINGHAM CITY 3-1 West Ham
Bolton Wanderers v. Manchester City (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
BOLTON: Stalwart, skipper and expert battering ram Kevin Davies returns for Bolton. Joey O'Brien and Sean Davis remain sidelined.
MAN CITY: Influential duo Craig Bellamy and Stephen Ireland (pictured) should start. Sylvinho may start in place of injured full-back Wayne Bridge.
BOLTON: Jussi Jaskalaainen and Tamir Cohen
MAN CITY: Craig Bellamy and Stephen Ireland
Bolton 1-1 Man City
Burnley v. Fulham (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
BURNLEY: Skilful winger Martin Paterson misses out again, Steven Fletcher looks to continue in a rich vein of form which has seen him net on eight occasions this season.
FULHAM: Flavour of the day Roy Hodgson (pictured) is still without striker Andy Johnson and midfielder Simon Davies. Bobby Zamora would love to score again—it doesn't happen much.
BURNLEY: Andrey Bikey and Steven Fletcher
FULHAM: Brede Hangeland and Danny Murphy
BURNLEY 2-0 Fulham
Chelsea v. Everton (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
CHELSEA: Deco has had to travel to support his ill father, Jose Bosingwa remains out. Critically perhaps, Blues fans may not see Michael Essien return to the playing field in Chelsea colours until after the African Nations Cup. Didier Drogba (pictured), an early candidate for player of the year, will pose a serious threat to Everton's goal.
EVERTON: Where to start? Already missing nine players through injury, David Moyes will be without his best player, Aussie Tim Cahill (that phrase sounds strange). Johnny Heitinga's return in defence is all the more important in light of the injury Joseph Yobo sustained in last weekend's draw against Spurs.
CHELSEA: Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard
EVERTON: Tim Howard and Louis Saha.
CHELSEA 3-0 Everton
Hull City v. Blackburn Rovers (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
HULL: Jimmy Bullard (pictured) a.k.a. Darren Anderton has bust his knee again...poor lad! Two defenders with a Spurs connection, Anthony Gardner and Andy Dawson are doubtful. Upcoming games against Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, and Man United again mean this is a must win game.
BLACKBURN: Boss Sam Allardyce will hope that his best player, David Dunn, will shrug off a niggle to line up against Hull. He has no other injury concerns, and will therefore have no post-match excuse...he'll still find one!
HULL: Stephen Hunt and Khamel Ghilas
BLACKBURN: David Dunn (if fit) and Benni McCarthy
Prediction: Hull 1-1 Blackburn
Sunderland Athletic v. Portsmouth (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
SUNDERLAND: Given Portsmouth's shaky defence and injuries wiping out his own defence, boss Steve Bruce may decide to opt for a 1-4-5 formation today. Mensah, Ferdinand, McCartney, Bardsley and Richardson are all out. In the midfield, Lee Catermole and Boudewijn Zenden will be missing. Darren Bent (pictured) will fancy adding to his already impressive goals tally.
PORTSMOUTH: Papa Boupa Diop is a big absence for Pompey. Jamie O'Hara and Hassan Yebda must continue their form if they are lead Portsmouth to victory.
SUNDERLAND: Lorik Cana and Darren Bent
PORTSMOUTH: David James and Nwankwo Kanu
SUNDERLAND 2-0 Portsmouth
Tottenham Hotspur v. Wolverhampton Wanderers (Saturday, 3:00p.m.)
SPURS: Luka Modric will probably just miss out as a substitute, Ledley King and Johnathan Woodgate remain injured, as do Carlo Cudicini, Wilson Palacios and Giovani Dos Santos—yes, Spurs fans, he is still alive! Skipper Robbie Keane (pictured) has an excellent record in this fixture, but don't expect any celebrations from him.
WOLVES: Chris Iwelumo's return provides a tonic for boss Mick McCarthy who will sorely miss Andy Keogh and Michael Kightly's flair and imagination.
SPURS: Tom Huddlestone and Robbie Keane
WOLVES: Jody Craddock and Nenad Milijas
TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 4-1 Wolverhampton Wanderers
Manchester United v. Aston Villa (Saturday, 5:30p.m.)
MANCHESTER UNITED: United have beed decimated by injuries recently, but that didn't stop their fine result in Wolfsburg in midweek. Dimitar Berbatov (pictured) will be a key player today, and will need to start scoring more often to win a permanent place in attack alongside Wayne Rooney. Van Der Saar, Ferdinand, Brown, Evans, Fabio, Rafael, Neville and O'Shea all miss out, meaning that Giggs, Park and Carrick may continue to fill in at the back.
ASTON VILLA: Conversely, it is good news on the injury front for Martin O'Neill, with only Craig Gardner, Wilfried Bouma and Curtis Davies missing. Carew, Agbonlahor, Milner and Young will form a formidable offensive force for Manchester United to deal with.
MANCHESTER UNITED: Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney
ASTON VILLA: James Milner and Gabi Agbonlahor
Manchester United 2-2 Aston Villa
Liverpool v. Arsenal (Sunday, 4:00p.m.)
LIVERPOOL: Key trio Fernando Torres, Stephen Gerrard and Javi Mascherano should all start for the home team. There should be a long-awaited home league debut for Italian midefield maestro Alberto Aquilani. Ryan Babel is injured.
ARSENAL: Arsene Wenger will draft Abou Diaby, Alex Song and Eduardo da Silva back into his team. Cilchy, Eboue, Rosicky amd Van Persie are all out.
LIVERPOOL: Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres (who else)
ARSENAL: Last season's four-goal hero Andrei Arshavin (pictured) and Cesc Fabregas.
Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal