Sunderland roll the relegation dice
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Sunderland: A gamble
This will come as a shock to some of you: Sunderland have a new manager and that manager is Paolo Di Canio. Yes, the Black Cats have, quite under the radar, sacked and replaced Martin O'Neill following a miserable run of football and results. Eight matches without a win simply wasn't good enough for owner Ellis Short and he duly reacted after witnessing £10 million signing Adam Johnson jog with the ball then fall over time and time again versus Manchester United last weekend.
Thousands of words later, and certainly more to come, we near Di Canio's debut as Sunderland boss when the North East club, placed just a point above the relegation zone, meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. But it is the ambiguity regarding the Italian coach's ideals that have dominated the build-up, not how or whether he is equipped to go about getting the team out of their current mess.
His new club's statement on the matter did not help to make clear where Di Canio stands on the issue of fascism. "To accuse him ... of having fascist sympathies is insulting," said CEO Margaret Byrne, after the former Swindon boss (yes, he's managed in England before) had told the Italian news agency ANSA in 2005: "I am a fascist, not a racist." Tuesday's press conference was then a failed opportunity for transparency as he offered a number of opaque answers when quizzed by journalists. But then 24 hours later, presumably after a PR rethink, Di Canio denied that he supports the ideology of fascism - crystal, eh?
As for the football, Di Canio's appointment is a gamble. He has only previously managed in League Two, where he gained promotion as champions with Swindon, and in League One up until February. The 44-year-old appears a divisive leader, one that players will either sweat blood for or distance themselves from. If the former is achieved with the majority then Short's decision will be justified, as a shot in the arm is seemingly what the current crop need to get them over the finishing line. As with any gamble, though, there's a risk of it backfiring.
Reading v Southampton: Adkins returns
There was an amusing moment after Southampton's impressive 2-1 win over Chelsea last Saturday when their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, was asked by the Match of the Day interviewer, via his translator, whether he would like to say thank you to former Saints manager Nigel Adkins for the squad he has inherited. Needless to say, the Argentine sidestepped this barbed query, while his translator's face was a picture prior to putting the words into the coach's native tongue, so bemused was he by the line of enquiry.
This question was looking ahead to Saturday lunchtime's fixture between Southampton and Reading, Adkins' new club. Adkins' bow as Royals boss expectedly ended in defeat at Arsenal, with the defending on show illustrative of a team that has conceded 61 times in 31 matches this season - the worst defensive record in the top flight. The task of saving Reading, now seven points adrift of safety, reeks of negativity, even for the ever-positive Adkins. But, for his replacement on the South Coast, this weekend's match offers an opportunity to build on some decent home form and inch ever closer to survival by reaching the 37-point mark.
Stoke v Aston Villa: Stopping the rot
Saturday's game at the Britannia Stadium is another game involving two relegation-threatened sides. Stoke's 1-0 loss at Everton underlined they have work to do if they are to be playing Premier league football next season - a cause not aided by a paltry total of 27 goals scored in the division during 2012-13. Amid growing unrest from the Potters faithful, in part down to that feebleness in front of goal, Pulis has said: "What they (the fans) think of me does not matter now - it's what they think of their team that counts." One wonders whether he will be the man in charge at the Britannia next campaign.
With Villa, naivety again came back to bite them in the bottom last time out as 21-year-old Nathan Baker gave away a needless penalty to ensure Liverpool completed their comeback. Yet, as with many of their performances this season, there were positives to take. And so long as Christian Benteke stays fit then there remains a decent chance of beating the drop, with all eyes on the final-day fixture away to been-there-got-the-T-shirt Wigan Athletic, who are above the bottom three at Villa's expense by virtue of a better goal difference.
Newcastle: Eye off the ball
"That's done, we won't worry about that now," Alan Pardew told BBC Newcastle on March 11 with regards to relegation, after they had beaten Stoke 2-1. Three weeks later, a 4-0 loss at Manchester City sees Newcastle three points from 18th with seven games remaining. January's spending spree should ensure the Magpies have enough quality to avoid the drop, yet their Europa League involvement threatens to distract them from the priority, with the manager seemingly having taken his eye off the ball prematurely. It's home to Fulham this weekend.
Manchester derby: Semantics
Big game, this. Well, big-ish. It's a one involving two rivals, so there's your needle. But the result only matters in semantics. For United to lose would mean a 12-point gap still to overhaul for City. Indeed, you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who doesn't believe 'Manchester United 2012-13' hasn't already been engraved on the trophy. There's seemingly one, though, and that man is Sir Alex Ferguson, whose strong starting XI at Sunderland hinted that he is taking no chances after last season's final-day agony.
Just when it looked like Norwich were drawing their way to safety (13 managed to date this term) they went and lost to resurgent Wigan. Fortunately for them, they face a Swansea side that appears to have switched off post their League Cup triumph. Chris Hughton's side should be okay come the end of the campaign. But it'll be a stumble over the line rather than a convincing sprint.