Arsenal 'welcome back' Van Persie
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Arsenal: Van Persie returns
Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski or Gervinho to start as the lone striker for Arsenal against Manchester United - the lesser of three evils? Olivier Giroud's arguably harsh red card and subsequent three-game ban for his clumsy challenge against Fulham means Arsene Wenger's hand is finally forced, with the manager having been over-reliant on the player he signed from Montpellier for £13 million last summer. Indeed, Giroud has made 46 appearances in all competitions during his debut season with the Gunners and has looked increasingly fatigued of late.
So Wenger has a decision to make. Walcott fancies himself (full stop?) as a centre-forward, although right now he lacks the ability (*avoids temptation to make the same quip twice in a sentence*) to hold up the ball that is required in Arsenal's system. For all of Giroud's weaknesses, the dreamy Frenchman has the frame and nous to be the figurehead. As for Podolski, the Germany international has not started a Premier League game for the Gunners since January's 2-2 draw with Liverpool. This leaves you with Gervinho, the unpredictable Ivorian who, every solar eclipse, impresses but also frustrates to the point that fans in the stands collectively punch their own faces.
Such a striking plight comes on the weekend when Robin van Persie makes his return to Emirates Stadium - oh, the irony! It turns out the Dutchman was vindicated in his decision to leave for Old Trafford last season as his hat-trick - the second of which was insultingly good - on Monday secured the Premier League title for United. While a guard of honour will be particularly galling for an Arsenal side so desperate for a trophy, perhaps United's winning edge will have been softened now the title is in the bag, meaning now could be as good a time as any for the Gunners to take advantage of any complacency in their bid to clinch a top-four spot.
Chelsea: Two points blown
Amid the bashing of keyboards that followed 26-year-old grown up man Luis Suarez's humiliating decision to sink his gnashers into Branislav Ivanovic's arm, the dropping of two points so late on by Chelsea got somewhat lost in the Twitter ether. A victory at Anfield would have lifted the Blues above Arsenal in the table, fortifying their quest for Champions League qualification. But now, with their game in hand being against rivals Tottenham, things look trickier for Rafael Benitez's side, particularly as their run-in is thus: Swansea (home), FC Basel (home), United (away), Spurs (home), Villa (away) and Everton (home).
To go from Champions League winners, to early departers, to failures to even qualify would be quite the comedown, and surely unacceptable in owner Roman Abramovich's probably platinum-bound book. Benitez was keen to warble his goatee at the six minutes of injury time added at Anfield, although those who watched the game would have been unsurprised upon reading the fourth official's board, considering the sheer number of stoppages during free-kicks, the penalty and the like. Perhaps the interim boss should have instead offered an explanation of why his team failed to respond to Liverpool's improved second half performance.
Tottenham: Roused by comeback
What a result against at-the-time-of-playing-them-champions Manchester City. This column last week outlined how Tottenham Hotspur's ten-day gap in-between games could see Andre Villas-Boas' men over the finishing line, and their seven-minute blitz in the second period versus City demonstrated there is still something left in the legs of his players following the welcome rest. Credit, too, to the manager after each of his introductions played a part in a stunning revival that meant they avoided making it three league home games without a win.
They next travel to Wigan Athletic on Saturday when the expected return of Aaron Lennon should boost them further - particularly as their lack of width in the first half versus City was plain to see. With Arsenal and Chelsea both playing on Sunday, this weekend's trip to Wigan, whose usual revival has been halted by successive losses, is a chance stretch out on the sofa on Sunday looking smug in the knowledge they have leapfrogged their London counterparts into third spot.
Manchester City: Mancini pressure
City's collapse at White Hart Lane felt-tipped in the question mark over Roberto Mancini's future, as did his bringing on of centre-back Joleon Lescott as a forward in the dying moments. His doing so with Lescott was, in the view of some, a political ploy so as to reiterate to the board what he feels to be a lack of options up front following the sale of Mario Balotelli in January. It is hard, though, to feel sorry for the Italian considering what remains at his disposal via the swimming pools of money spent.
They host West Ham on Saturday, a team that has recently impressed by going five games unbeaten in part down to Andy Carroll, now back to full fitness, sort of reminding why Liverpool (over)spent such a vast sum of money to prise him away from Newcastle United. Speaking of the title lost, Mancini said: "They (United) had a better attitude because they lost last year," perhaps unwittingly bringing his own man-management into sharper focus.
Reading v QPR: Gone
The battle to be the best of the worst. What an incentive that is. Queens Park Rangers, by not scoring enough goals, and Reading, by conceding too many, are rooted at the foot of the table with 24 points apiece. Regardless of their result against one another on Sunday, both could be officially relegated come the end of this round of fixtures should other outcomes not go their away. It is but a matter of time for these two clubs. Considering their weaknesses this season, if it were feasible then both would lose, with Reading having conceded many but QPR having scored none. Six own goals by the Royals it is then.
Aston Villa v Sunderland: Time running out
Premier League Spotlight accused Paolo Di Canio of an over-zealous reaction to Sunderland's Tyne-Wear derby victory, but there is a begrudging acceptance that their scalp of Everton in his first match in charge at the Stadium of Light was worthy of some exuberance. Two straight wins have lifted the Wearsiders to 14th, six points above the relegation zone.
A scalp of Villa on Monday would surely be enough for them to survive and would vindicate owner Ellis Short's decision to bring in the controversial figure in place of Martin O'Neill, who appeared to be struggling to get the best out of his squad. As for Villa, they stood little chance against a focused United this week, though platitudes from neutrals and their manager Paul Lambert about their effort deserving more literally count for nothing, as time and games tick by.