Arsenal Spurs showdown - will Bale decide Wenger's future?
Premier League preview: north London derby, Giggs milestone, Benitez runs the gauntlet
IT'S GOING to be quite a weekend in the Premier League. The title may now look like a forgone conclusion but this could be an absolutely critical weekend in the battle for Champions League places as Spurs take on Arsenal.
Meanwhile United legend Ryan Giggs is in contention for an unprecedented 1,000th senior appearance and, after his 'rant' against Chelsea's fans and owners, all eyes will be on Stamford Bridge to see how Blues boss Rafa Benitez gets on as his side struggle to maintain their place in the top four.
In terms of footballing significance there is only one contender for game of the weekend. It comes on Sunday and it sees fifth-placed Arsenal make the short trip to White Hart Lane to take on Spurs, who are in third.
This is more than just a local derby, it could have a profound impact on the future of Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and help determine whether his side can force their way into the top four, failure to do so would bring to an end the French manager's perfect record in qualification for the Champions League and will add to the growing calls for his head.
A win for the Gunners on Saturday would put them only one point behind Spurs. Defeat, on the other hand, would leave them seven points adrift of their local rivals with only ten games left in the season, so this is a real six-pointer.
Central to the drama will be Gareth Bale. There are hardly any superlatives left to describe his performances this season which have drawn comparisons with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. He was outstanding again on Monday against West Ham as he scored two more goals including a spectacular 25-yard winner in injury time. The Welsh wizard has now notched eight goals in his last six games for Tottenham and nobody seems able to stop him.
Andre Villas-Boas will surely choose to deploy him on the left wing rather than in a central position, as he will then come up against Carl Jenkinson, deputising for Arsenal's usual right-back Bacary Sagna. It could be a one-sided contest.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger claims his side are unconcerned by the threat of Bale, but he has also announced that he believes the Gunners can finish second in the table and has appeared increasingly rattled in recent weeks.
Gunner's fans will not want to think too much about what Bale could do to their threadbare defence, but there is not a lot for Arsenal to cling to offensively. Santi Cazorla managed two goals against Aston Villa last week, but the side looked very nervous.
It will require quite a turnaround in Arsenal's form and fortunes for them to get anything from the game. But Wenger could do his reputation a world of good by masterminding an unexpected win.
A draw looks unlikely and given the high-scoring history of this fixture in recent seasons it could be quite a game.
With Arsenal and Spurs playing each other, Chelsea, the third London club involved in the three-way shootout for two Champions League spots, will be anxious to earn maximum points against West Brom at Stamford Bridge. However, the atmosphere in south west London is likely to be highly charged after the comments of interim manager Rafa Benitez on Wednesday.
The Spaniard criticised the club's owners for giving him the title 'interim' and rounded on a section of the Chelsea support for its constant attacks on him.
His words are unlikely to have endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful and with talk of an "amnesty" on fans bringing banners into the ground the fans will make their feelings obvious. It could be an uncomfortable afternoon in more ways than one for Benitez if his side fail to perform against a useful West Brom side, sitting in seventh place and with an outside chance of Europe.
One of the reasons Benitez attacked the fans is because he felt they were undermining the support for the team at home games. His point may be proved on Saturday, and if West Brom can capitalise on the febrile atmosphere they could come away with at least a point.
If Chelsea's match against West Brom is all about one man, so is Manchester United's trip to Norwich, where Ryan Giggs could make the 1,000th senior appearance of his career.
The 39-year-old winger has scored in every single season of the Premier League and he today signed a one-year extension to his Old Trafford contract. By the time it runs out in June 2014 he will have 23 seasons as a United first teamer under his belt.
The veteran Welshman may well start on the bench, but United will have plenty of experience to call upon in the starting XI as they seek to extend their 17-match unbeaten run which dates back three months. Their last Premier League defeat came against Norwich at Carrow Road on 17 November, but the Canaries are unlikely to do the double over Fergie's men and by 4.45pm on Saturday his side are likely to be 15 points clear at the top of the table, as their nearest rivals, Manchester City, do not play until Monday.
Another key game on Saturday sees Harry Redknapp travel to the south coast to visit his old club Southampton, knowing that anything less than a win for his current side QPR just won't do. Rangers are six points adrift at the bottom of the table and have not won since they beat Chelsea on 2 January. Since then they have drawn four and lost two.
If they avoid relegation it will be a miracle, and if they can't beat Southampton then they are surely doomed. The Saints lost to Newcastle last time out, but they beat champions Man City two weeks ago, so they will not be short of confidence. Another win would leave them on 30 points and probably lift them into mid-table. It would certainly go a long way to easing their relegation fears.
In Saturday's other fixtures Everton play second-from-bottom Reading, Stoke and West Ham will battle it out at the Britannia, Fulham travel to Sunderland, Newcastle face League Cup winners Swansea and Liverpool make the short trip to Wigan. ·