No more slip-ups: crunch time for Man City, QPR and Wolves
Premier League preview: Sergio Aguero to miss Sunderland game with 'stupid' injury
MANCHESTER CITY can return to the top of the Premier League this weekend with a win over Sunderland at the Etihad on Saturday, as rivals Manchester United are not in action until Monday.
But only a win will do for City who now trail their local rivals by three points. Anything less will essentially hand the title to United if they can overcome Blackburn, and will render the result of the Manchester derby next month almost irrelevant.
At the bottom there is a massive six pointer between Bolton and Wolves on Saturday that could seal the fate of bottom-club Wolves, while there should be tasty encounters at Loftus Road and the Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle.
Here's the best of the weekend action:
Man City v Sunderland
City will be praying that this encounter with a team in red and white stripes goes better than last week's, when they were held to a draw by Stoke and Joe Hart was beaten by the goal of the season from Peter Crouch.
The omens are better for City this time though. They have an astonishing record at home in the league, where they have won all 15 of their games, scored 44 goals and conceded just seven.
Sunderland were knocked out of the FA Cup in midweek and with Europe out of reach their season is now essentially over. However, that does not mean Martin O'Neill will accept a capitulation from the Black Cats.
Last week City were without Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott and Sergio Aguero, but Kompany could well be back for this clash. However Lescott remains sidelined while mystery surrounds Aguero after Roberto Mancini announced that the striker would once again be missing because of a "stupid" foot injury, and then refused to elaborate, sparking plenty of speculation among fans.
It remains to be seen whether the off-field stresses of the title race have an impact on the team, after a week in which Patrick Vieira riled Manchester United and Mario Balotelli found himself back in the headlines.
The chances are that City will prevail and return to the top of the table, but it will be interesting to see how tense the players and fans are at the Etihad.
QPR v Arsenal
The Gunners make the short trip to west London looking for their eighth straight win in the league on Saturday, and they will fancy themselves against QPR, who appear to have gone into a tailspin in recent weeks.
Mark Hughes came to Loftus Road pledging to bring discipline to the team and keep them in the Premier League, but things have gone badly wrong. The side, or one or two members of it, appear to have lost their heads and they are now favourites to go down.
Djibril Cisse is banned after his second red card since joining the club in January and Bobby Zamora, who made a promising start a Loftus Road, needs to start scoring. It remains to be seen what plans Mark Hughes has for Joey Barton, who was dropped to the bench for the game against Sunderland and has been booed by his own fans. The midfielder is so concerned about the club's chances of surviving that he has even taken a break from Twitter, although that has not stopped him making dark comments about the future of the club on its website this week.
As for Arsenal, everything looks rosy. Arsene Wenger finally has a settled team and a back four that knows how to defend. New players are rumoured to be on the way in and Jack Wilshere could be back by the end of the season.
However, the Gunners cannot afford to relax if they want to hold on to third place, as Spurs are still breathing down their necks. But if Arsenal can maintain their intensity they should emerge victorious against the Hoops.
Wolves v Bolton
The other big match on Saturday is an absolutely crucial encounter at the bottom of the table. It is a classic 'six pointer'. Victory for Bolton would leave Wolves seven points away from safety and as good as relegated, victory would take them to within a point of the Trotters and drag Owen Coyle's men back into the dog fight.
Bolton have been through plenty in the last couple of weeks, but they must now refocus on the Premier League after the emotion and drama of Fabruice Muamba's cardiac arrest. The fact that they are out of the FA Cup could act in their favour as they now have only one footballing goal left this term.
The same is true of Wolves, but they have not impressed under caretaker boss Terry Connor and sit at the bottom of the table. They have lost four on the bounce and another defeat will surely end their hopes of staying up.
Newcastle v Liverpool
on Sunday lunchtime Newcastle entertain Liverpool in a fixture that all Premier League fans look forward to, mainly because of the two classic 4-3 thrillers that the sides played out in the 1990s. This clash will have added spice as former Magpies front man Andy Carroll returns to Tyneside for the first time since he joined Liverpool in January last year.
It is no secret that Carroll has failed to live up to his billing since heading to Anfield, but perhaps a return to his old stamping ground will get his juices flowing again. However, he will have to get in the team first, and it remains to be seen if Kenny Dalglish will opt to play two up front away from home.
Newcastle are eight points clear of Liverpool, gunning for Europe and need a win to stay in contention. The front three of Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse tore West Brom to shreds last weekend and with the Toon army behind them they could give Liverpool a working over.
Tottenham v Swansea
The final game of the weekend sees Spurs take on this season's surprise package, Swansea, who have developed a habit of scalping good teams. But this is a game that Spurs cannot afford to lose after conceding third place in the table to Arsenal.
They are three points behind the Gunners and five ahead of fifth-placed Chelsea. However, there could be trouble brewing, as fourth place in the league may not actually guarantee Champions League football if Chelsea somehow win the competition, as they would be the team to get the fourth berth in next year's competition.
That alone should act as a spur for Spurs to maintain their challenge to Arsenal.
Although Harry Redknapp's team have been out of sort of late, they showed flashes of their early-season form against Bolton in the FA Cup and if they can carry on where they left off in midweek then they should emerge victorious.
Chelsea can keep up the pressure on the other London clubs by winning at ailing Aston Villa on Saturday, and another defeat for Alex McLeish's men would have them looking over their shoulders at the relegation dog fight just below them.
Elsewhere on Saturday Everton entertain West Brom, Norwich visit Fulham and Stoke travel to lowly Wigan.
Then on Monday comes a game that could have an impact at both ends of the table as Blackburn, who won at Old Trafford earlier in the season, welcome Manchester United to Ewood park.