Are Everton on the brink of collapse?
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Everton: Reversed fortunes
Everton are in danger of playing their season in catastrophic reverse. We spectators have previously taken comfort in the pattern of David Moyes' team: starting a season weakly before growing into it and finishing strongly. This season, however, observers have been ruffled by having that routine disrupted by a promising Toffees beginning that has been sustained - well, it was until recently.
Of their opening 25 Premier League matches, Everton lost just three. Yet they head into Saturday's lunchtime kick-off at home to Manchester City off the back of two disppointing defeats in their last four games inclduing, most recently, an FA Cup humbling by Wigan Athletic at Goodison Park.
In a marathon, is there more contentment to be found in an entrant who stumbles only to regain ground or is in contention only to fall away? In football terms, the latter would result in a long, bitter summer, for football is of the moment, meaning the past is quickly erased from memory. Hence the recent speculation over David Moyes' future, with the manager's contract set to run out at the season's end, being such a hot topic.
Unsurprisingly, Moyes was asked after the Wigan loss whether conjecture about his future was to blame for the slump. He told the Liverpool Echo: "Anybody who watched that game will know it had nothing to do with that. It was just a poor performance by myself and the Everton team. It wasn't anything to do with anything else. It was a performance I've not seen from my team for quite a while."
In spite of that dreadful showing, victory over City would surely surprise few - in particular as Everton claimed a draw on the champions' own patch in December. No doubt if boos (yep) are turned to cheers at Goodison Park, we'll be talking about the Toffees mounting a late charge for a top-four finish.
See that flicker in the distance? It's practically a dot. Well, that's the glimmer of hope that flashed before the eyes of Arsenal after north London rivals Tottenham suffered a 3-2 loss at Liverpool on Sunday in a game they should have won. The gap between the Gunners and Andre Villas-Boas' team remains at seven points - but they now boast a game in hand, meaning it could be cut to a more realistic four.
However, that relies on Arsenal, whose defence is made of papier-mâché, delivering when it matters - something they struggle with, though at least some guts were shown in Munich during midweek. They might also take heart from their decent finish (complemented by a Spurs crumble under Harry Redknapp) at the end of the last season.
That said, and despite the loss at Anfield, Villas-Boas and his men have a steely look about them these days. It is Swansea away for Arsene Wenger's team on Saturday, when they will be without Jack Wilshere, easily their best player. Good luck with that.
Aston Villa v QPR: Crunch
Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers DO BATTLE in a SIXTY-SIX POINTER at Villa Park on SURVIVAL SATURDAY. Yeah, this one's a whopper. The two sides meet off the back of much-needed victories (victories that earned them just the three points each), with QPR at the foot of the table on goal difference and Villa currently safe in 17th. A triumph (which no good man or woman really wants) for Redknapp's expensively-assembled side would see them move to within a point of their opponents.
QPR have looked a more cohesive unit of late - perhaps down to the absence of gifted but frustrating playmaker Adel Taarabt - while, as mentioned in last week's Spotlight, the fitness of £8 million January signing Loic Remy looks to be the key to their safety, with the Frenchman again demonstrating his eye for goal against Sunderland.
As for Villa, Paul Lambert's young crop demonstrated impressive mettle as they responded to Nathan Baker's hilarious own goal against a Reading side that knows not how to defend. It should be an edgy encounter at Villa Park.
Sunderland: Worry they might
Two points from a possible 18 spells (it doesn't) Trouble, with a capital T. Sunderland's 3-1 defeat to basement-dwellers QPR makes relegation a realistic possibility for the Black Cats, who are in 15th place, six points above the drop zone. Win at home against Norwich City on Sunday and the anxiety will be ease its grip. Lose, or even draw, and the concerns will remain tangible, no matter how much camomile is quaffed. "We need to get some points on the board," said Martin O'Neill. Quite.
Reading: Farewell, Brian
At the time of writing, no manager has been appointed as Brian McDermott's successor at Reading. The reaction to his departure on Monday was typical of hearts ruling heads, as some asked why such a nice man had been relieved of his duties.
Certainly, Brian comes across as well-mannered chap, and his work with the club since taking over in December 2009 has been impressive. But this season (with a limited bunch of players, in truth), they have struggled, losing their last four and sitting four points adrift of safety. Furthermore, if they continue to defend like they did against Villa, relegation will happen - so the owners thought it right to make the change. The timing, ahead of down-as-defeats matches at Manchester United and Arsenal, also makes sense. It is against Southampton, on April 6, when the acid will be tested.
Wigan: They make no sense
Wigan are an unpredictable beast, capable of 90 minutes of genuinely excellent football but also capable of playing so horribly that you have to watch through your fingers.
Their most recent outing was an example of the former as three goals in four minutes booked them a first-ever FA Cup semi-final. For those who did not watch the match, the splurge of scoring might have suggested that it was a freak period - yet Wigan's performance throughout made them deserved winners.
They have it in them, and it is now down to Roberto Martinez to utilise that performance as a way of generating momentum in a bid to replicate the outstanding run-in that ultimately preserved their top-flight status last season.
In the likes of Arouna Kone, Shaun Maloney and James McArthur, they have tricksy players capable of turning it on. It is consistency that evades them, however. The time to call upon Mr Dependable comes when they host Newcastle United on Sunday afternoon.