Arsenal and Chelsea must take chance open gap on Man City
City favourites to take first silverware of the season as title rivals focus on the league
WITH Manchester City otherwise engaged this weekend – they have a date with Sunderland at Wembley – the other three title contenders have the chance to pull away at the top of the Premier League table.
However, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool face potentially tricky away games and the pressure will be on as they know that they cannot afford any slip-ups.
It is a similar situation at the foot of the table, with Sunderland's rivals near the bottom hoping to take advantage of the Black Cats' cup date and get some points on the board.
The Capital One Cup final also means a weekend off for West Brom, who had been due to play Sunderland, and Man United, who will be grateful that they are not facing their Mancunian rivals so soon after their Champions League disaster on Tuesday.
Here's the best of the weekend's action:
Fulham v Chelsea
This vital west London derby pits the league leaders against the team at the very bottom of the table. It also unleashes two managerial heavyweights as new Fulham boss Felix Magath takes his Craven Cottage bow against the man the Cottagers love to hate, Jose Mourinho. It will be intriguing to see how Fulham perform under their new, ferociously disciplinarian, manager. The Premier League's bottom club earned a creditable draw against West Brom last week, and they cannot afford anything less this time out. Chelsea may be feeling the effects of playing less than three days after a match in Instanbul, but this is the sort of game Mourinho relishes. His strikers will also be champing at the bit to prove him wrong after his disparaging remarks about their efforts in front of goal. With so much at stake it should be a fiery encounter. Magath has told the Fulham fans they will beat Chelsea, but that is the most unlikely outcome of the lot. Chelsea must be considered favourites.
Stoke v Arsenal
Stoke may be less direct under Mark Hughes than they used to be, but that does not mean Arsenal can expect an easy ride at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday. The Gunners put their European misfortunes behind them last weekend when they beat Sunderland 4-1, and they could do with a similar result against Stoke, who are only three points clear of the relegation zone. Rumours that Aaron Ramsey would return for this game proved wide of the mark, and the midfielder may be relieved not to be revisiting the scene of his horrific 2010 leg break four years ago. Arsene Wenger has concerns about Laurent Koscielny and Jack Wilshere, but both are likely to be available. Of more interest is whether £42m-man Mesut Ozil is back in the squad after missing out against Sunderland in the wake of his dire performance against Bayern Munich.
Southampton v Liverpool
The third of the title-chasing teams in action on Saturday is Liverpool, who kick off against Southampton at 5.30pm. By that time they will know how the two London teams got on, although it is unlikely to influence how Brendan Rodgers's team go about their business. The Reds are in fantastic form up front and have 12 goals in their last three league games, although their defence has been worryingly leaky. Star of the show in recent weeks has been Daniel Sturridge, who is on course to set a new record as he aims to score in his ninth straight league game. Luis Suarez, who failed to score a single goal in February, will be anxious to rediscover his goalscoring touch and reclaim some of the limelight. It spells trouble for Southampton, who look comfortable in mid-table and may already be thinking about the summer.
Tottenham v Cardiff
The Sunday afternoon league clash between Spurs and Cardiff is a big game for both sides. Spurs are currently in fifth but face competition from Everton and Man United. They also need to bounce back from last week's defeat to Norwich and build on the momentum they generated with their Europa League win over FC Dnipro on Thursday night, when Emmanuel Adebayor rediscovered his scoring touch and Christian Eriksen made a case for his inclusion in the team after being left out in recent weeks. As for Cardiff, there have been rumours that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign will be a short one unless he starts delivering some points, but after one win in seven league outings his chances of victory at White Hart Lane look slim.
Capital One Cup final: Man City v Sunderland
The main event of the weekend, for football romantics at least, is the League Cup final at Wembley. On paper this should be a straightforward assignment for Manuel Pellegrini's Man City side but, as the saying goes, anything can happen in the cup. Sunderland fans will certainly be hoping that their team can upset the odds, but their chances look slim. However, Black Cats fans can point to two things, firstly City's abject display last time they were at Wembley, when they lost to Wigan in the FA Cup final last season, and their team’s win over the title favourites back in December. The problem is that those events might galvanise the likes of Yaya Toure and David Silva. Even without Sergio Aguero City's rampaging forward line should have what it takes to overcome Gus Poyet's men.
The weekend's other fixtures:
Everton v West Ham
Hull v Newcastle
Aston Villa v Norwich
Swansea v Crystal Palace