Man City v Utd could be title decider, but will it be a classic?
Premier League preview: all eyes on the Manchester derby as Arsenal and Chelsea face tough tests
COULD this be the weekend we find out who is going to win the league? There is one huge match that overshadows the others this week and the first Manchester derby of the season on Sunday could have a huge impact on where the Premier League trophy ends up at the end of the season. But there could be plenty more talking points come Monday with tough games for a couple of big clubs in crisis and some interesting fixtures at the bottom of the table.
But there is no doubt about which game will be most eagerly anticipated by neutrals, and it almost begs the question: Why always them?
On Sunday lunchtime league-leaders Manchester United make the short journey across town to play second-placed Manchester City at the Etihad and if the game is anything like last season's encounter between these two at Old Trafford it will be unmissable.
The scoreline from that match, 6-1 to City, has gone down in Mancunian football folklore and the prospect of, depending on your point of view, a repeat or some revenge, will only add to the needle.
The chances of another classic like last season's are slim, but there should at least be some goals. Fantasy football fans will be aware that, on paper, the league's two most successful strikers are Robin van Persie and Carlos Tevez and with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Mario Balotelli in the equation anything is possible.
Then there is the fact that Manchester United appear to be playing a complex handicap system this season, which involves giving their opponents a lead. Fergie's men have fallen behind in 15 of their 23 games so far this term and come back to win ten of them. Ferguson is obviously worried about the trend and has warned his players that they need to tighten up at the back.
If Ferguson has had one Achilles heel during his career it has been trouble with goalkeepers and there is a school of thought that United's current malaise could be connected to the Scot's apparent inability to decide whether Anders Lindegaard or David De Gea is his number one stopper.
While United have been uncharacteristically chaotic at times this season, Manchester City have been equally uncharacteristic, and have managed to remain unbeaten in the league while offering little in the way of mayhem.
Perhaps the most likely outcome in this game is a draw, but bear in mind that United have yet to finish on level terms in the league this season.
Aside from the game in Manchester on Sunday the most intriguing fixture of the weekend could be the clash between Arsenal and West Brom at the Emirates. The Gunners are having a torrid time of it.
They are languishing in tenth place in the league with one win in their last six games and only two wins in their last nine in all competitions. There were unprecedented scenes of open rebellion inside the Emirates after the defeat to Swansea last week, and if Arsene Wenger can't get his troops to perform again on Saturday then the calls for his head, something that once seemed unthinkable, will gather strength.
But Arsenal face a tough task against West Brom who sit in fourth spot, and have prospered under the management of Steve Clarke. If the Gunners didn't have the firepower to beat Swansea how will they fare against the Baggies?
The way the Arsenal players and fans approach the game will tell us a lot about whether panic has set in at the Emirates and if it has then there could be a troubled few months ahead in north London.
If Arsenal are in something approaching turmoil, then what about Chelsea? The European champions have been knocked out the Champions League, the fans despise the new manager and the team have gone seven league matches without a win. On Saturday they face Sunderland, who are also in pretty miserable form, but have only gone three games without a win.
The Blues may have bowed out of the Champions League with a 6-1 win, but Rafa Benitez is still looking for his first league victory as manager, and he might have to wait a bit longer. Martin O'Neill is the sort of manager who can galvanise a team in times of crisis and the Black Cats might be a good bet for an unexpected home win.
If the Manchester derby is big at the top of the table, then the small matter of Southampton v Reading could have a pretty big impact in the relegation zone. Both sides played well, against Liverpool and Manchester United, in a losing cause last week and will be hoping for a crucial win in this six pointer. Reading's need for points is more urgent and if they lose they will be cut adrift. They simply cannot afford to let Southampton take the three points.
On Sunday Everton, whose star is waning, welcome Spurs, who are on the rise, to Goodison Park. Given the problems affecting the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea both these teams have a realistic chance of breaking into the top four this season and this clash will be a test of their credentials. Spurs qualified for the knock-out stages of the Europa League on Thursday night and have won three on the trot in the league. Everton's early season form appears to have deserted them and they have drawn their last three games. However, they remain a tough nut to crack at home and could get one over on Spurs, particularly if Nikica Jelavic rediscovers his goalscoring touch.
In the weekend's other games lowly Aston Villa entertain Stoke, Norwich travel to Swansea and QPR face a massive game against fellow strugglers Wigan at the DW Stadium on Saturday.
On Sunday afternoon Liverpool travel to West Ham, although Andy Carroll will not be taking part. And on Monday it is Fulham v Newcastle.