Arsenal have fate in their own hands
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Arsenal: A sprint at the finish
Big four days for Arsenal ahead, after uncharacteristic character was demonstrated last weekend by Arsene Wenger's side as they clung onto a 2-1 lead with ten men at West Bromwich Albion following Per Mertesacker's dismissal.
As an aside regarding the German, his wiping out of Shane Long was not his most notable contribution at The Hawthorns. Oh, no. It was instead his backtackle/backle/Mertebacker. Anyway, we're getting distracted here. The point is, starting at home to Norwich on Saturday, this could be a 'season-defining' period for the Gunners, who have it in their hands now.
Defeat the Canaries, a team that has one away win in the league to their name all season, and Arsenal will be up to third - a point above both Tottenham and Chelsea, who were meant to meet this weekend only for the game to be postponed due to the latter's FA Cup involvement. What you have right there is an incentive. Following Norwich, Arsenal take on Everton on Tuesday evening, the Toffees having drawn 2-2 at White Hart Lane last Sunday and involved in their own very winnable game on Saturday as they host doomed Queens Park Rangers.
Wenger is apparently to be boosted by the return of injured duo Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere. The odd thing about Wilshere's absence is that his side have actually enjoyed an upturn in form - four wins in all competitions on the bounce - despite the midfielder being considered head and shoulders their best player. Whether his comeback will disrupt the rhythm remains to be seen. With Wilshere out, Arsenal have been boosted by unlikely heroes, in the shape of Gervinho and Tomas Rosicky (shock: he faces a fitness test). So often the Gunners' squad players have failed to step up to the mark, so this unfamiliar turn of events is timely and welcome indeed.
As for Norwich, four points separate them and the relegation zone with six matches remaining. Their 2-2 draw with Swansea last time out edged them a little closer to safety, but the failure to secure all three points means the clammy hand of demotion rests on their shoulder. After Arsenal, and before their final day fixture away to Manchester City, there are winnable games, starting at home to bottom-of-the-table Reading next week, so, with that in mind, you'd fancy them to secure a third straight season in the top flight.
Stoke: Unfortunate timing
Tony Pulis probably didn't celebrate Sergio Aguero's delightful winner (such balance by the Argentine) at Old Trafford, for this means Manchester United will unlikely be lacking in focus when they visit the Britannia Stadium on Sunday lunchtime. Sir Alex Ferguson told Sky Sports after the loss "It's a 12-point lead and there are only seven games left. Each game that goes along you whittle them down. It's Stoke on Sunday which will be a big effort and we'll have a go." Indeed, with Antonio Valencia admitting United are "a little worried" about the slip, there will be no taking the foot off the gas.
This means Stoke, who have managed just the one win in their previous 13 top-flight games, can expect to meet an even sterner test of their resources than faced last weekend against Aston Villa. Pulis said he witnessed a "confidence problem" from his team during that defeat, and certainly in front of goal the failings shriek a dearth of belief/quality, with 0.875 goals averaged a game. The Potters are clinging on, with one eye on next week's trip to QPR.
Tyne-Wear derby: Di-Day
The only even mildly interesting thing about Paolo Di Canio's debut performance on the touchline as Sunderland boss was his purple jumper. As expected, there was little evidence of the PDC effect in such a short space of time under his tutelage as the Wearsiders fell to a loss at Chelsea, ensuring that Sunday's Tyne-Wear derby is all the more imperative - though the edge is taken off a little after Papiss Cisse's late goal against Fulham means Newcastle aren't quite as threatened as they might have been.
Goal difference separates Di Canio's team from being in the bottom three, as they look to take advantage of the Magpies having played on Thursday in the Europa League. There should be much scrutiny on how they perform in the final third, too, with just one shot managed on target in their last 180 minutes of Premier League football, which doesn't even come close to as positive as 'unacceptably rotten'.
Southampton: Potential for growth
Yes, they were playing a frankly useless Reading side, but, regardless, Southampton looked tasty once more. This was a first away win notched under Mauricio Pochettino to lift them to 11th in the table and surely doom their opponents to a return to the Championship. Pochettino has at his disposal an exuberant squad, with the likes of Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez, Morgan Schneiderlin, Jack Cork and Nathaniel Clyne all 23 or younger. With survival just about assured, the next battle is keeping hold of these players to ensure that their Argentine boss can develop and build at St Mary's.
Aston Villa: Enthusiastic charm
Three wins out of four have helped to dig Aston Villa out of trouble, although the soil threatens to cave back in on them if the momentum is not continued. Their triumph at Stoke was vital as it was eye-catching, with Matt Lowton's staggeringly good strike and the third of his side's goals epitomising the youthful abandon with which they play, as no less than four players swarmed upon goalkeeper Asmir Begovic in injury-time, despite their being a lead to protect.
There are many rooting for this Villa crop, assembled on not much money in comparison to some (QPR). And one feels that if Paul Lambert can stave off the drop this season, and also fend off inevitable interest in Christian Benteke during the summer, then, like Southampton, the potential is there on which to progress and ensure this type of scrap becomes a thing of the past. They face Fulham on Saturday, who, had they held on for a point at St James' Park, would be fifth in the form table - which has gone a little under the radar.