Put your mouth where your money is
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: serious questions over Arsene Wenger's future at Arsenal, patience needed at Stamford Bridge, a clichéd six-pointer for two struggling sides, a fleeting honeymoon period for Mark Hughes, and warning signs at Stoke.
Such was the aching nadir of Arsenal's last week that the following question is now being asked in earnest: should the Gunners be rid of their manager, Arsene Wenger?
It appears that something surely must give, or at least certainly will if the forthcoming matches end in further woe. Having been humiliated by AC Milan in the Champions League, Wenger's boys, despite reportedly receiving a verbal dressing down from their boss that contained even swear words, slumped at Sunderland in the FA Cup to all but end this season's quest for a first trophy since 2005. Next follow Tottenham, Liverpool, Milan again, and then Newcastle.
The Emirates Stadium this season has at times been a bitter environment as fans who were hit with a 6.5% ticket price increase last year vent their spleen over the lack of commensurate progress on the pitch. And one must fear just how volatile the atmosphere might be if Arsenal suffer the unthinkable on Sunday: a damning defeat to Tottenham. It only worsens the angst that their arch-rivals' stock has risen as the Gunners' has waned in recent times, with Harry Redknapp's side playing the type of blistering football his Gunners counterpart had once made his own.
The mediocrity of this Arsenal side has been simmering below an anaemic surface since a head-scratching set of transfer deals last summer, with only Robin van Persie ensuring they kept their heads above liquid. Of late, though, the displays have done nothing to ease supporters' anxieties that the current squad is well short of the quality it once oozed under Wenger. Whether the buck stops at the coach, the board or both is debatable, but while it can be awfully knee-jerk to clamour for signings when times are hard, here only investment will do. Otherwise watch the disillusionment grow, for fans do not place the same fundamental emphasis as owners with regards to the operation of a successful business model. Ultimately, those at the top of the hierarchy must realise matters on and off the field are interlinked, and without Champions League football and quality footballers, income and pride will read negative on the balance sheet.
Andre Villas-Boas: A patient project
What a peculiar yet wonderfully entertaining match Wednesday's Champions League tie with Napoli was, as the Italians inflicted a 3-1 defeat on Chelsea. For Blues boss Andre Villas-Boas, it served as a neat abstract of the Portuguese's task in hand: there's much work to be done but seemingly dwindling time with which to do it. Charged with overhauling an ageing side, it is premature at best to demand he be moved on less than a year into his 'project'. Admittedly, Villas-Boas has made mistakes, which have left him open to criticism. And the statistic that he has the lowest win percentage of any Chelsea manager (47.4%) since Glenn Hoddle (33.8%) indeed makes for incriminating reading.
Trouble is, Roman Abramovich's history of having an itchy trigger finger adds to the conjecture a sacking is always around the next corner, particularly if Chelsea do crash out of the competition the Russian desires so dearly. Four games await before the second leg versus Napoli, all of which are winnable and would do much to relieve some of the ever-lingering pressure that hangs over Stamford Bridge - a venue of boos when the Blues drew 1-1 with Birmingham in the FA Cup last weekend. Bolton at home await this Saturday, when a first win in five Premier League outings is paramount if Chelsea are to even be competing in Europe's premier competition next season.
Wigan v Aston Villa: Basement vortex
Granted, on paper this ain't the sexiest of matches. However, on closer inspection, this is indeed a whopper of a game in terms of the 'race for survival'. Wigan currently occupy bottom place in the Premier League, but their much-needed 2-1 win over Bolton last time out - their first triumph in ten attempts - took the club to within two points of safety. Villa, meanwhile, slid to 15th following their 1-0 home defeat to Manchester City a fortnight ago.
There's an obvious gap between the five lowest teams and the middle section of the table, yet a triumph for Wigan over Villa risks sucking the latter into the doldrums. And, for manager Alex McLeish, this will intensify the heat under his collar, amid the growing clamour for him to be relieved of his duties, particularly after the loss to City compounded their shortcomings on home soil. Perhaps the Scot, who admits his team's form on their own patch is "pretty abysmal", will take solace in an away day, with Wigan having won just once at the DW Stadium this term.
Mark Hughes: Trouble in paradise
So much for the honeymoon period. From his first five league games in charge of QPR, Hughes has won just once. Having spent lavishly, compared to their promoted counterparts, the rightful expectancy has been that this West London side should be making lighter work of fending off relegation. Yet three goals conceded in the first half against struggling Blackburn - a performance branded "unacceptable" by Hughes - has chimed the alarm bells louder, with the eventual 3-2 stumble leaving QPR 16th in the division. Granted, it is still very early days for the Welshman at Loftus Road, but the pressure takes little time to do its creeping - and certainly if you are the man brought into to salvage a situation. QPR take on Fulham, another of Hughes' former clubs, at home this weekend, and success is essential.
After a strong spell, Stoke's form has gone off the boil. After stringing together four successive victories, and going on to lose just once in nine matches, their 2-1 slump against Fulham last time out was a fourth straight defeat. Unlike elsewhere, the level of worry at the Britannia Stadium is not approaching critical, especially after the Potters booked an FA Cup quarter-final tie with Liverpool. That said, boss Tony Pulis - who bafflingly left nine of his first-team squad at home for the Europa League trip to Valencia, despite only trailing 1-0 from the first leg - will be wary of how difficult it can be to escape a spiral. A home game with Swansea awaits on Sunday.
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