Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: the mouth-watering Manchester derby, a Chelsea side chugging along without too much of a fuss, Wolves looking meek, Wigan on the wane and Tottenham's attacking trio.
Manchester derby: It's big
This is a rather tasty match-up. First plays second as the two Manchester giants, City and United, battle it out at Old Trafford on Sunday. City boast a two-point lead over their rivals after making very light work indeed of the Premier League to date, amassing six wins from seven and racking up 27 goals in the process.
They will be further buoyed at having got a Champions League monkey off their back, with Roberto Mancini going bananas at watching City pinch their first win in the competition against Villarreal. A point for discussion on another day: have City's struggles in Europe's premier club competition been indicative of a poorer standard in the Premier League or, instead, English exertions draining personnel prior to Champions League tests? Anyway, the chance to move five points clear of the Red Devils presents quite the incentive for Mancini and his men.
United, meanwhile, have been purring along as only United know how, although last weekend's weakened starting XI against Liverpool put the cat amongst the pigeons. Regardless, a point gained at Anfield was not to be sniffed at, while it can be expected that the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Wayne Rooney, Nani and Javier Hernandez are all bending Ferguson's ear for a return in the league against City. The Red Devils arguably have the mental edge over City, having already fought from two goals down to triumph at Wembley in August. Furthermore, they have won five and lost not one of the last six Premier League games against the Citizens.
Despite United's edge in recent meetings, it would surprise few if the match ended in a deadlock, with both sides unbeaten in the top flight thus far and conscious of a mental setback. Indeed, it will be intriguing to see just how progressive both sets of starting line-ups are, after Ferguson went on the defensive on Merseyside having seen his backline and goalkeeper exposed of late.
City, of course, have a wealth of options, but, after Mancini hauled off winger Adam Johnson for holding midfielder Gareth Barry before half-time during midweek, the Italian must weigh up whether attack is the best form of defence at the Theatre of Dreams.
Chelsea: Under the radar
While the bulk of the title talk has centred on the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea have been stealthily picking up results under the radar. The Blues round off the weekend action with their short trip to London rivals QPR, and Andre Villas-Boas will surely be keeping a keen eye on the result in the North West as his team trails United by a point and City by three. Villas-Boas' project has shown signs of development since the goalless draw at Stoke on the opening day of the season. The likes of Juan Mata and Daniel Sturridge have injected a youthful verve into the side's displays, as 12 goals scored in Chelsea's last three league outings are evidence of a creative outfit that is dazzling as well bringing home the results. This could turn out to be a great weekend for Villas-Boas.
Wolves: An unwanted record
Five defeats on the bounce spells worry for Mick McCarthy's men. After a bright start to the campaign, when they managed two wins and a draw from their opening three matches, their fortunes have dramatically slumped, with the club now just a point above the relegation zone. And McCarthy's words, after their 2-0 Black Country derby defeat at West Brom, panged of a man grasping at straws that serve to offer a distraction from their rocky patch. McCarthy criticised Paul Scharner for exposing a t-shirt that his children had given him, the message - apparently just the words 'West Bromwich Albion' - "taking the p**s", according to McCarthy, who has this week apologised for his reaction.
Granted, Wolves were outdone by their local rivals courtesy of a star performance from Shane Long, while the absence of striker Steven Fletcher, who has scored 50% of his side's league goals this season, was certainly felt. Yet these factors will offer supporters little solace, with the club on their worst run in the top flight since April 1984, ahead of Saturday lunchtime's meeting with Swansea City. There is concern, too, that defender Roger Johnson - his £4.5 million acquisition from Birmingham considered a coup - has struggled since arriving in the summer. Back-to-back games with Manchester City follow their meeting with Swansea, reinforcing their need for a pick-me-up this weekend.
Wigan: Charming man
The Latics just look doomed. Last weekend's home game against fellow strugglers Bolton was a crunch match, so to crumble to a 3-1 loss at the DW Stadium, against a team desperately out of form, reeked of relegation beckoning. Roberto Martinez opted to remain at Wigan in the summer after being offered the Aston Villa job, and one wonders whether he perhaps regrets demonstrating such loyalty, as last term's final day Great Escape might have proved an ideal time to bid farewell.
Defensively, Wigan have continued to look fragile, and that brittleness at the back combined with a limp attack that has scored just six times, paints a very gloomy pictured indeed. Martinez could have done without a trip to in-form and unbeaten Newcastle, who were on the receiving end of Premier League Spotlight praise in last week's edition. The Magpies did not disappoint in the glow of their acclaim, the club fighting for a 2-2 draw versus also in-form Tottenham. Newcastle will be expected to see off Wigan with relative ease, so, potentially, this lack of hope given to Wigan could work in their favour. That, though, is straining to look on the bright side.
Tottenham's front line: Tasty trio
Harry Redknapp has something of a growing selection dilemma on his hands. Emmanuel Adebayor (captured on loan from Manchester City in August) has emerged as an automatic starter and has backed up his claims with three goals and four assists. The caveat to Adebayor's arrival has been how to integrate both Jermain Defoe and Rafael van der Vaart around him. It is indeed rare that the trio are all handed starting berths, with Van der Vaart's workrate likely of concern when coupled with a striking duo. Furthermore, the Dutch playmaker rarely completes 90 minutes, so cannot be relied upon for the duration. Both Van der Vaart and Defoe scored at St James' Park last Sunday - the pair now on three goals apiece - although Van der Vaart has managed two assists compared to Defoe's one. It's a nice conundrum for Redknapp to have, but one to monitor as the season pans out.
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