Man City stare into the eyes of failure
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Manchester City: Optimistic
"The championship is not over," kidded Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini after his side's 2-2 draw at home to Liverpool brought the gap between the champions and the leaders to nine points. The misty-eyed Italian proceeded to hark back to last season, when they overturned an eight-point deficit with six fixtures remaining. The nostalgia makes sense: in the current edition, 13 matches are left, so the mathematical probability of a comeback is more attainable.
Yet, right now, it does not feel like a rally is forthcoming. City have not imposed themselves this term, they've not flaunted their right to display an arrogant swagger. "Probably now we need to win all the games," accepts Mancini, aware that the margin for error is miniscule. And their cause is not aided by Manchester United winning without overly exerting themselves, or even having to be that impressive.
There's a beacon of hope, says a theory. The return of talisman Yaya Toure from the African Nations Cup has been mooted by some as potentially decisive, with the Ivorian's shoulders broad enough to take the strain and heave City back into the title race. However, the midfielder was hardly in bulldozing form prior to his departure for South Africa, meaning the onus might well be a misplaced ideal.
At present, Mancini is staring at an unacceptable 2012-13, off the back of last year's last-gasp glory. Having already exited the Champions League with a whimper, the pressure has been ramped up on ensuring a strong league showing. The straw upon which to clutch is that United's involvement in Europe against Real Madrid might open the door ajar - alas, it remains to be seen if this season's City have the killer instinct to again pounce if the leaders of the pack stumble.
Rafael Benitez: Feeling Blue
When Rafael Benitez's first two matches in charge of Chelsea as interim manager ended in goalless draws the positive to be taken, amid the A4 sheets of rage, was that he had at least seemingly solidified their defence, which was sandcastle-like under Roberto Di Matteo. His most recent three fixtures, though, have seen seven goals conceded. The opposition during those encounters? Brentford, Reading and Newcastle.
"I am confident that we will finish in the top three. I will do well," a bullish Benitez said following their loss at Newcastle, which will have stung all the more as the Blues had fought their way in front after going behind. At least the much-maligned Spaniard should return to winning ways this weekend when they welcome Wigan Athletic to Stamford Bridge.
Then follows some league respite, as the Blues take on Sparta Prague over two legs in the Europa League. Manchester City are just around the corner, however, in what is surely a crunch game in defining what Chelsea will achieve this season, ahead of Benitez's all-but certain departure in the summer. Tottenham lurk just a point behind the third-placed West Londoners, who are, like City, in danger of having their campaign branded a failure.
Tottenham: Onus on Ade
Andre Villas-Boas' side have not lost any of their last nine league fixtures. Indeed, the Portuguese and his players continue to make an impression on the top flight this term. Their edging out of West Bromwich Albion via Gareth Bale's superb goal was an important win, as it demonstrated grit while also affording observers another joyful sight of Steffen Freund celebrating so enthusiastically from the dugout.
A little of the edge has been taken off that result, though, with news that striker Jermain Defoe will be out for up to three weeks with ankle ligament damage. Step forward Emmanuel Adebayor, who will "probably", according to AVB, start against Newcastle United - who deserve praise for their back-to-back wins following a rotten run of form - on Sunday, as he returns from representing Togo at the African Nations Cup.
There is pressure on Adebayor to bear the responsibility of being the only fit senior striker at Villas-Boas' disposal, but there are question marks over whether he is up to the task. The former Arsenal player scored once during his four matches for Togo, while previous to heading to South Africa just two league strikes were managed in 14 appearances. Daniel Levy's decision not to add an attacker in January is about to be put to the test.
Queens Park Rangers: Tick-tock
As is every QPR game that remains, their last outing versus Norwich City was 'oh-so must win', with the club six points adrift of safety at the bottom of the standings. Alas, only a goalless stalemate was mustered, which everyone agreed was not good enough. Time is indeed running out for the Hoops, who face Swansea City this weekend.
The strain is exacerbated, not relieved, by the big-money additions in January. One of those signings, Loic Remy, missed the Norwich match through injury - and it is reported the £8 million forward will be out for two months, which would be some blow to Harry Redknapp, whose options up front are limited after Dijibril Cisse headed for Qatari side Al-Gharafa.
Redknapp and his coaching staff have done well to tighten the side's backline, with notable clean sheets managed versus Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham, but against the so-called smaller teams his team must go for the jugular, or risk a summer bound for the Championship and with thoughts of regret.
Stoke v Reading: Opposites attract
Opposite ends of the form table, these two. Reading have recently been hailed for the spirit demonstrated in the latter stages of games - although that is a dangerous strength to rely on, for, like it could have been versus Chelsea, the arrear might be too great a figure to salvage. Regardless, their upturn is deserving of praise, as they have clambered out of the bottom three.
And maybe/possibly/doubtfully, no matter how cringeworthy the policy, the awarding of the squad No. 13 shirt to their fans is having an effect, as their performances in front of their home faithful have been markedly better than on their travels, with nine of their 12 away matches ending in defeat.
On Saturday, Reading make the trip to Stoke City, a team who reside second from bottom in the form table, having accrued two points from a possible 18. Against Arsenal last weekend Stoke battled but offered not much else in the way of football, reiterating the question of whether this is a team that should be showing some evidence of progress four years after their promotion?
While Tony Pulis - who led the Potters to the FA Cup final in 2011 - has done well to ensure his side have not become truly embroiled in a relegation scrap since their promotion, it is of note that the campaigns have not been without their spending since reaching the top division. A league of differing styles is for its benefit, but for Stoke not to evolve from the, at times, knuckle-dragging football, asks whether Pulis is content with Stoke's current lot or ambitious to take them further.