Arsenal face Chelsea in battle of the crisis clubs
Premier League preview: City hope United slip up on a weekend of derbies
MANCHESTER CITY will have this weekend earmarked for the start of their assault on United's lead at the top of the Premier League. The reigning champions have what looks like a relatively easy home game against Fulham on Saturday, while United have a much tougher ask away at Spurs the next day, and could drop points.
There are also several derbies this weekend and the most intriguing of them takes place at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, when two of the division's most erratic sides, Chelsea and Arsenal, collide. The frazzled fans of the two London clubs will not be looking forward to the match with much confidence after enduring traumatic seasons so far.
It will be interesting to see how Chelsea react to the news that Pep Guardiola will definitely not be arriving at the Bridge this summer. Few will have been surprised that he turned down Roman Abramovich but it changes the situation as far as interim manager Rafa Benitez is concerned. Although he is deeply unpopular with the fans, he now knows that the man he is supposedly standing in for will not be taking over his job at the end of the season.
However, the Chelsea faithful will once again boo the former Liverpool boss and there are likely to be more chants for Jose Mourinho, who is now being linked with a move back to the club he left in 2007.
On the pitch the Blues are enduring their worst league run at home since 1995 after one win in seven games, and this week they threw away a two-goal lead against lowly Southampton. Their title bid is well and truly over.
In terms of personnel, the fans will be keen to know if Benitez chooses Demba Ba ahead of Fernando Torres up front. It took Torres 25 games to score three times for Chelsea; Ba has notched that number of goals in four outings. John Terry is fit but unlikely to start, but fellow veteran Frank Lampard should get the chance to play in one of his last London derbies before he leaves the club.
Whatever Chelsea's travails, they are still doing a lot better than the visitors, Arsenal, who are enduring their worst season under Arsene Wenger and have just 34 points from 21 games.
Their managerial situation is not quite as delicate as Chelsea's but there are plenty of fans who are starting to doubt Arsene Wenger, and another limp defeat will add to the pressure on him. The Gunners will also be without midfield lynchpin Mikel Arteta who is out until the end of the month.
All eyes will, once again, be on Theo Walcott, who is still "close" to signing a new contract and is still trying to forge a name for himself as a striker. His performances have been hit and miss recently and he will need to be on his game if Arsenal are to leave with the points.
Depending on other results a defeat could leave the Gunners languishing in seventh place, level on points with Liverpool.
Quite how Manchester United's trip to White Hart Lane to play Spurs pans out will depend much on what happens between Manchester City and Fulham on Saturday. But one thing is for sure, Alex Ferguson will want revenge for the 3-2 defeat inflicted on his side at Old Trafford in September.
This is unquestionably a big match for the league leaders against a good-looking Tottenham side that could leapfrog Chelsea and go third if they and north London rivals Arsenal both win.
Spurs are without injured Sandro and Emmanuel Adebayor who is at the African Cup of Nations, but they still have flying wingers Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon to unleash on United. However, United's defence looks a lot steadier since the return of Nemanja Vidic and with Robin van Persie still running riot up front Fergie will be confident of taking the spoils
Manchester City's game against Fulham on Saturday may look easy on paper, but Roberto Mancini will know that his side cannot afford to waste the opportunity of three points. Indeed, the champions will all but surrender their title if they slip up at all between now and Easter.
However, they outclassed Arsenal last weekend, although the Gunners were hamstrung by the sending off of Laurent Koscielny. And City have won three on the trot since the shock defeat to Sunderland over Christmas, so anything other than three points for City would be quite a shock.
Also on Saturday is the small matter of another London derby that pits QPR against West Ham at Upton Park. West Ham are mid table but are by no means safe from the relegation dogfight, while QPR are bottom of the pile and scrapping for their lives. They have improved considerably since Harry Redknapp took over and at the moment their need is far greater than West Ham's, so an away win could be on the cards. And there is another motivation for the QPR boss; having missed out on scalping one of his old clubs last week when Rangers drew with Spurs, 'Appy 'Arry would love to get one over on another former employer.
Talking of managers facing their former clubs, Alan Pardew's Newcastle entertain his old team, Reading, on Saturday. Newcastle's season has been a far cry from their last campaign and they are in a critical position near the relegation places. They need to win against second-from-bottom Reading, but it will be a tough game, especially as the Royals will be buoyed by their exploits last week, when they beat West Brom thanks to three goals in the final eight minutes.
Another big game this weekend is the Midlands derby between West Brom and Aston Villa on Saturday. The Baggies' form is poor, they have won only two of their last nine, but Villa are in dire straits in 18th place. This may not be a game for the football purist but there will be plenty of blood and thunder.
Also this weekend, Liverpool entertain Norwich, Stoke travel to Swansea and Wigan play Sunderland. Monday night's game sees Southampton take on Everton.