Can Arsenal, Man City and title rivals recover after cup woes?
Top four have all suffered cup defeats in the last fortnight, but they must bounce back
WHAT with all the excitement surrounding the FA Cup and Champions League over the past week it has been easy to overlook the Premier League, but this weekend it’s back with a bang - and a crucial round of fixtures.
All four of the title-chasers have experienced a cup defeat either domestically or in Europe. This weekend we will find out what they are made of. It is also the first time some teams, including Man United, will have played for almost two weeks. How will they fare after such a long break?
Here's the best of the weekend action:
Chelsea v Everton The first game of the weekend is also the one featuring the two highest ranked sides as league-leaders Chelsea face sixth-placed Everton. Chelsea were knocked out of the FA Cup by Man City last weekend, and Jose Mourinho will expect a response, particularly as his side slipped up against West Brom in their most recent league game, drawing 1-1. Although they start the weekend as league leaders, anything less than victory could see them toppled from top spot. If Chelsea's unbeaten home record under Mourinho finally falls against Everton they could be leapfrogged by both Arsenal and Man City. The Toffees form has been mixed of late and they are struggling without striker Romelu Lukaku, who would have been ineligible for this game anyway as Chelsea is his parent club. Goodison legend Duncan Ferguson has joined the Everton coaching staff, but whether or not he can inspire a famous victory remains to be seen. A draw may be the limit of their ambition as they seek to keep the pressure on Spurs in fifth.
Arsenal v Sunderland How will the Gunners respond to their setback against Bayern Munich on Wednesday and, even more intriguingly, how will Mesut Ozil perform – if he is even picked after his woeful display against the German side? There are other question, too: will Olivier Giroud return to the starting line-up, for example? And will Wenger give one of his centre-backs, who have played every minute of the last nine games, a rest? As for Sunderland, they have been transformed under Gus Poyet and have lost only two of their last eight league games, while progressing to the Capital One Cup final. But with that game coming up next week the Black Cats may struggle to focus on the Gunners, who should win.
Man City v Stoke What has happened to the free-scoring City who so terrorised their opponents? They have managed just two goals in four games so far this month and will want to put that right against Stoke. It remains to be seen how they react to defeat against Barcelona in midweek and Manuel Pellegrini's public loss of cool in the aftermath of that game, which is likely to earn him a Uefa charge. Sergio Aguero is still missing for City, but with all the other firepower at City's disposal they will surely come good in front of goal. Stoke boss Mark Hughes will be keen to make an impression on his former club, but it’s unlikely that he'll get one over on the title contenders.
Crystal Palace v Man Utd A few seasons ago this match would have looked like a foregone conclusion, but not now. This time last year, 26 games into the campaign, Man United had 65 points; so far this term they have just 42. They’ve also lost eight games, three more than they did in the whole of last season. More worryingly they are below Palace in the form table with a woeful eight points from their last six league games, as opposed to Palace's ten. Perhaps its time to stop insisting that things can't get any worse for United and instead predict a home win for Palace. Then again... surely United won't lose this one... will they?
Liverpool v Swansea Depending on Saturday's results, Liverpool could storm into the top three with a victory over Brendan Rodgers' old club, Swansea, at Anfield on Sunday. Certainly with their frightening front four of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho in fine form the Reds will expect to pick up all three points. Liverpool will also be smarting after their FA Cup exit at the hands of Arsenal, which leaves them with just the Premier League title to play for. But there is no doubt that they consider themselves serious title challengers and will go out to prove it. The game will be a stern test for new Swans boss Garry Monk, who has been handed the reigns after the sudden departure of Michael Laudrup. He will do well to emerge with anything from this one.
The weekend's other fixtures:
SATURDAY Cardiff v Hull
West Brom v Fulham
West Ham v Southampton
SUNDAY Newcastle v Aston Villa
Norwich v Tottenham