Make-or-break for Arsenal and Liverpool as leaders pull away
Premier League preview: Torres faces old club, Gunners hope to get back on track
IT COULD be a big weekend in the Premier League as the top three teams, who are already threatening to break away from the the chasing pack, all face tough games.
On paper the tastiest clash comes on Sunday as Chelsea entertain Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. The Blues started the season in fine style and were unbeaten until Manchester United came to town a fortnight ago. That controversial defeat and a disappointing draw with Swansea last time out have seen Roberto Di Matteo's team lose top spot in the league, and they will be hoping to get back on track against struggling Liverpool.
But it has been something of a feature for Chelsea to start the season well only to come off the rails once autumn sets in. It happened under both Carlo Ancelotti and Andre Villas Boas, and Roberto di Matteo will not want a repeat this season.
The Reds have had a miserable start to the campaign and, after almost three months of the season, have just two wins and 11 points to their name. However, they do have an impressive record against Chelsea, and won on their last two visits to west London.
Brendan Rodgers appears untouchable despite his poor record as Reds manager, which is even worse Roy Hodgson's. But he really could do with a big result to get his season going, and where better to strike than against the team that poached Fernando Torres and accelerated Liverpool's decline.
It is almost two years since Torres quit Anfield for Stamford Bridge, but he has been a shadow of the player he once was since arriving in London. His fall from grace has been so great that few people will be expecting him to have much of an impact on this game. Chelsea's trio of tiny midfielders, Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, are the ones who will be tasked with driving the Blues forward, while on the Liverpool side the only two trump cards that Rodgers has are Steven Garrard and Luis Suarez.
John Terry will return from his four-match ban for racial abuse and will be afforded a warm welcome back by the Blues faithful, although he can expect nothing but abuse from rival fans. He is likely to start alongside Gary Cahill at the back, but Ashley Cole could be missing.
A Liverpool win would be a massive surprise and a point would represent a triumph for the Reds.
Arsenal's clash with Fulham on Saturday afternoon could be one of the defining games of their season. The Gunners have had a torrid couple of weeks, their abject performance against Manchester United had the critics sharpening their knives and Arsene Wenger's men followed it up by blowing a two-goal lead against Schalke, although the fact they went 2-0 up in Germany suggests they are not as bad as some would make out.
This is a home game and represents a chance for Arsene Wenger to steady the ship. However, Fulham have lost only one of their last seven games and are unlikely to roll over for their London rivals, and in Mladen Petric and Dimitar Berbatov they have players who could easily hurt Arsenal.
The Gunners have the best defensive record in the league, but their main problems are up front. Santi Cazorla has created 35 potential scoring opportunities this season, according to the stats people, but only three have been converted. After the departure of Robin van Persie, the performances of Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski were sure to be pored over, and some of the criticism may be harsh, but they need to start scoring.
It will be interesting to see if Arsene Wenger gives contract rebel Theo Walcott another start. The Emirates injury crisis means that he is short of options and despite his limited opportunities this season Walcott is top scorer with eight goals. Jack Wilshere will be missing after his red card against United, but the Gunners should have too much for the Cottagers, and if they don't then the alarm bells really should start ringing at the Emirates.
Moving forward to Sunday lunchtime and the visit of Spurs to the Etihad to face Manchester City could be a humdinger. It will be a beauty contest on the touchline where a sometimes debonair but increasingly frazzled Roberto Mancini and dapper Andre Villas Boas will be parading up and down in their Sunday best, but it will be down to the players to provide the real action.
City have been pretty average at times this season, but remain undefeated this term and have not lost at home in the league for almost two years. Spurs, though, have performed well on the road and have won their last three away games. AVB is unlikely to play two strikers but Jermain Defoe scored a hat-trick in the Europa League against Maribor on Thursday so will fancy his chances against a City defence that has been at sixes and sevens in recent weeks.
It would not be the biggest surprise in the world if Spurs turned the champions over.
On the face of it Manchester United face a simple task against struggling Aston Villa. The last time Alex Ferguson lost a league game at Villa Park he given a warning by Alan Hansen, who told him "you'll win nothing with kids". That was back in August in 1995 and the words have haunted the BBC pundit ever since thanks to the exploits of David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the rest.
Veterans Scholes and Ryan Giggs could feature against the Villans who are languishing in 17th place with just nine points to their name.
Villa's task has not been made any easier by the likely absence of striker Darren Bent, but there are signs that Paul Lambert's team are turning the corner after two wins and a draw in their last three games.
United will be a tough proposition, but if Lambert can get his players fired up they may be able to raise their game.
In the other games this week, fourth-placed Everton face Sunderland, Reading entertain Norwich, Southampton play Swansea, QPR travel to Stoke and high-flying West Brom head to Wigan on Saturday. The final game on Sunday sees Andy Carroll return to the club where it all began as West Ham face Newcastle.