Stakes are high as Arsenal and Liverpool face huge derbies
Premier League: Chelsea could be ultimate winners as title chasers face their bitter rivals
COULD this be the weekend that the tightest title race for years comes to a premature end?
With the top four all playing away from home, league leaders Chelsea look like the side destined to take most from the latest round of matches.
Arsenal and Liverpool are both up against their bitterest rivals in two massive games on Sunday, while an out-of-sorts Man City face a tricky trip to Hull on Saturday lunchtime. If those results go in Chelsea's favour and they can overcome Aston Villa it will leave Jose Mourinho's men with, possibly, a ten-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
But if that is the bigger picture this weekend, there is plenty to look forward to in the games themselves. Here's the best of the weekend's action:
Spurs v Arsenal Where to start this weekend? The north London derby gets the nod because it is a game that has massive significance for both clubs as fifth-placed Spurs welcome the Gunners, second in the league, to White Hart Lane. It's hard to know which of these sides is in worse shape at the moment. The Gunners may not have wilted as dramatically as they have in recent seasons, but they are out of Europe and no-one seems to believe they are genuine title contenders. Arsene Wenger's injury woes are also becoming the stuff of legend. Wilshere, Walcott, Ozil and Ramsey – a formidable-looking midfield – will all be missing, but the good news for Gunners is that January signing Kim Kallstrom could make his debut. Spurs lost 4-0 to Chelsea last weekend and 3-1 to Benfica in midweek, and manager Tim Sherwood is becoming increasingly fractious. But Spurs remain fifth and a win would put them within striking distance of Arsenal and a top four finish. One suspects that Sherwood, raised an Arsenal fan, will be up for this one. He will whip the dressing room into a frenzy and it won't just be the fans baying for blood when the action starts. If Sherwood's men, and Emmanuel Adebayor in particular, can keep their cool they could take the spoils.
Man United v Liverpool The north London derby may be billed as the main course, but appetisers don't get any better than this tasty encounter between the two most successful clubs in England. There is no love lost between these teams and their reversal in fortunes this season will only add to the febrile atmosphere at Old Trafford. It's been a bad year for United, and no mistake, but if last year's champions can torpedo Liverpool's title charge it will ease the pain considerably. Victory would also make life a lot easier for David Moyes; lose and he might not be seeing much more of Old Trafford's "Chosen One" banner. Liverpool strikers Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have been close to unstoppable this season and they will see United as there for the taking. Certainly United will need a big performance from Nemanja Vidic in one of his final home games if they are to emerge victorious. Up front Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie will want to prove that they are a formidible proposition, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that United would be happy with a draw.
Hull v Man City It's only a few short weeks since City were being touted as potential quadruple winners. But since winning the Capital One Cup things have gone badly for Manuel Pellegrini's side. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by Wigan last weekend and Barcelona put them out of their misery in the Champions League on Wendesday. To make matters worse Sergio Aguero is also out with a hamstring problem. Pellegrini may be pleased to get back to the Premier League after all the cup distractions, and this will be their first league match for three weeks. But in that time Chelsea have established a nine-point lead over the Citizens, and although they have three games in hand they must win all of them to catch up with Mourinho's men. It all adds up to pressure, and City will need to prove they have what it takes when they kick off on Saturday lunchtime. Hull's form as been up and down in recent weeks, but they will be buoyed by their progress to the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Despite that City should prevail.
Aston Villa v Chelsea Jose Mourinho is enjoying life back at the Bridge. As his title rivals have been engulfed by various dramas and misfortunes the Blues have calmly forged a commanding lead in the Premier League and, no matter what the Special One says, they are now firm favourites to win the title. Defeat at Villa Park, though, would change the picture, but now that the Blues have a settled and solid-looking team that looks unlikely. Chelsea's finest display of the season came away from home, against Man City last month, and they are unbeaten in the league for more than three months. Mourinho has no significant injury worries and with Samuel Eto'o finding form and Eden Hazard in fine fettle, there is no reason why the Blues can't take all three points off Villa, who have lost eight of their 14 home games this season.
Everton v Cardiff Of the 3pm kick-offs on Saturday the most notable is Everton's match against Cardiff. The Toffees lie in seventh but will increase the pressure on the two teams above them, Man Utd and Spurs, with a win against Cardiff. Indeed victory would send Roberto Martinez's team up to sixth above United and within striking distance of Spurs, over who they have a game in hand. As for Cardiff, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men desperately need to build on last week's win over Fulham if they are to stand any chance of staying up. However, a result for the Welshmen looks unlikely.
The weekend's oither fixtures:
Saturday, Premier League: Fulham v Newcastle
Southampton v Norwich
Stoke v West Ham
Sunderland v Crystal Palace
Swansea v West Brom