This could be the weekend Man City give up the title to United
After losing to their rivals last week Mancini faces tough test at Newcastle
MANCHESTER UNITED have the chance to consolidate their lead at the top of the Premier League this weekend in what looks like a quiet round of fixtures. With Chelsea away at the Club World Cup and crisis-hit Arsenal not playing until Monday there appear to be few stand-out games, but there is always the possibility of an upset in this division and any slip-ups could prove crucial.
Indeed, as both Manchester clubs face opposition from the North East, this could be the weekend that Tyne and Wear helps decide who wins the title.
The most intriguing clash of the weekend looks like Manchester City's visit to Newcastle on Saturday lunchtime. Make no mistake, this is a big game for the defending champions. They are six points behind United in the table and last week they lost for the first time this season when they were beaten by their local rivals. Another defeat and they could be waving goodbye to the Premier League trophy.
There have been signs all season that the wheels are about to fall off the City bandwagon and Roberto Mancini must prevent that from happening. But it remains to be seen if he can galvanise his troops. City have been humiliated in Europe, there is said to be discontent in the squad over the manager's tactics and methods while some players, notably Joleon Lescott, have fallen out of favour.
It is against that backdrop that they travel to St James' Park knowing that defeat could leave them nine points behind the leaders going into the festive programme.
All eyes will be on Mancini's selection in attack. Mario Balotelli had a nightmare against United and will surely be replaced by the effervescent Carlos Tevez, but no-one seems to know what the Italian will do next. Mancini may also have to make do without Vincent Kompany at the back, while Gareth Barry is serving a one-match ban.
As for Newcastle, they have one win in ten games and are down in 14th place. Alan Pardew's magic touch appears to have deserted him and history is against the Magpies, who have not beaten City since 2005. However, with City reeling and the fervent Geordie support behind them, Newcastle could earn themselves a draw, which could have major implications for the title race.
Manchester United face off against Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon. By the time the game starts they will know the result on Tyneside, not that it will affect Fergie's team talk.
Sunderland are in an even worse position than Newcastle and manager Martin O'Neill, who has only been in charge of the Black Cats for a year, is under real pressure. A much-needed win over Reading in midweek lifted them out of the relegation zone but they are unlikely to get any change out of United even though they, too, have been off the pace themselves in recent weeks.
United have made a habit of falling behind and coming back to win games this season, so even if Sunderland do take a surprise lead it won't rattle the United fans. A home win seems inevitable.
Of the weekend's other games, QPR's clash with Fulham should be an entertaining west London derby. QPR are still without a win this season and are eight points from safety. But the ever-optimistic Harry Redknapp will be determined to get the recovery going and a first triumph of the campaign against the R's local rivals would do wonders for the fans.
Elsewhere on Saturday Liverpool entertain Aston Villa, Wigan travel to in-form Norwich and Stoke face Everton. On Sunday there is the promise of an entertaining clash between Tottenham and Swansea, while West Brom face West Ham.