Arsenal and Liverpool in battle of fallen giants
Premier League preview: Huge games at Emirates and Villa Park, QPR try to derail Man City
AFTER a weekend of cup shocks it is back to the Premier League this week with a full programme of games over the next two nights. The top three are all in action against teams in relegation trouble, while other matches could have major implications for the European and relegation fights.
The biggest game of the week takes place on Wednesday night, when Arsenal's clash with Liverpool at the Emirates could be one of the defining matches of the campaign.
Both teams have endured traumatic seasons to date, with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger coming under unprecedented pressure from ever-more disgruntled supporters, while many Liverpool fans are simply at a loss to understand what has happened to their club. The result could determine the future direction of travel for these two fallen giants.
But both have reason to be relatively optimistic going into the New Year. Arsenal fans have learned not to take anything for granted this season, but they turned on the style against West Ham last week and saw off a spirited Brighton side on Saturday to squeeze into the fifth round of the FA Cup.
Theo Walcott has signed a new contract and Olivier Giroud looks as though he is coming into form. A win over Liverpool, who are likely to challenge for a European place, could also lift the Gunners to within one point of Tottenham in fourth place, depending on other results
Liverpool were embarrassed by Oldham in the FA Cup on Sunday and the patience of manager Brendan Rodgers with his team appears to be wearing thin. But the Reds are in better shape than some might think and a win over the Gunners would put them level on points with Wenger's team.
The main plus for the Reds is that they now have two strikers. Luis Suarez had to take responsibility on his own in the first half of the season, but he and new signing Daniel Sturridge have already formed a good partnership and they will fancy their chances against Arsenal's flaky rearguard.
It's a tough one to call, and although a draw would do neither team much good that could be the most likely outcome.
Two games stand out tonight. The first sees Manchester City visit QPR, with or without Mario Balotelli, who is rumoured to be close to a move back to Italy. This match will have an impact at both ends of the table. A City win looks the most likely outcome, and would put the defending champions within two points of league leaders Manchester United, who play on Wednesday. It would also hammer another nail into QPR's coffin.
QPR's predicament is now desperate, and desperate teams can produce extraordinary results. Harry Redknapp was incandescent after Rangers' defeat by MK Dons in the FA Cup, and following reports of a post-match dressing-room bust-up it will be interesting to see how his side respond against City.
A shock win for QPR would offer them a relegation lifeline, and all but hand the title to United. QPR have beaten Chelsea this season and the time could be right for another unexpected performance.
Tuesday night's other big game sees Newcastle travel to Aston Villa. These two teams are sitting in 16th and 17th place in the table respectively and both managers are coming under huge pressure. This is a huge game and the loser will be left in no doubt that they are in a relegation battle.
It's a barely conceivable position for both sets of fans. At the start of the season Newcastle's supporters were expecting to push for the Champions League while Villa's were waving farewell to manager Alex McLeish and looking forward to better times. Now they are both biting their nails and praying that they stay up.
Villa must be shell-shocked after cup defeats to Bradford and Millwall. Newcastle have new personnel to fit into the team, but their fresh faces may need time to settle in. Given the high stakes, it could end in a draw, and a scrappy one at that.
Manchester United welcome Southampton to Old Trafford on Wednesday night and will expect to win comfortably. Southampton are adjusting to life under new manager Mauricio Pochettino after Nigel Adkins was unexpectedly fired, and a visit to the league leaders could be too much for his side. If they come back with even a point it will be a major shock.
Chelsea have a tougher task away at Reading, who might fancy their chances of heaping more misery on Rafa Benitez's shoulders. Reading have shown plenty of fighting spirit in the last few weeks while Chelsea have failed to convince. A draw is not out of the question.
This evening Wigan travel to Stoke and Sunderland take on Swansea. On Wednesday Everton face West Bromwich Albion, fourth-placed Spurs travel to Norwich and there is a London derby by the Thames as Fulham welcome West Ham to Craven Cottage.