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: a beatable Manchester City look to bounce back, United's midfield looks worryingly threadbare, Tottenham aim to restore their momentum, and Martin O'Neill faces his first real test as Sunderland manager.
Manchester City: They're not invincible
So, kudos to Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea - that's three wins from three in this decisive December - after they inflicted a first Premier League defeat of the season on the previously-thought-unstoppable force that was Manchester City. In a game that, in all honesty, could have gone either way prior to Gael Clichy's unsurprising brain freeze, the Blues emerged as 2-1 winners, leaving Roberto Mancini with unfamiliar questions to answer in a domestic post-match press conference.
"We don't have a problem bouncing back. I am sure we will. We are strong enough to start winning again and one result doesn't change anything. I hope that we can go another 14 games without losing," said the Italian, with the small matter of resurgent Arsenal in his sights, the pair meeting at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
It will be worth one's attention to see how City respond. Despite their formidable squad depth, they are without a natural left-back (with Clichy suspended and Aleksandar Kolarov injured), and were beaten 3-0 by the Gunners in the corresponding fixture last campaign. On that day, Samir Nasri was the star of the show, while, like Monday night, a sending-off (for Dedryck Boyata) left the home side with a mountain to climb - heck, Sebastien Squillaci was even on the winning side. Nasri, of course, swapped red for sky blue in the summer, but has since started less than half of City's league games. The Frenchman should be itching to play from the off this weekend, keen to stick two fingers up at those mocking him as a '£24 million benchwarmer'.
City's lead at the summit stands at two points (although their superior goal difference is arguably worth a point more in itself), with their neighbours, United, having tasted their first droplet of blood in the water. That the Red Devils have kept the gap narrow, despite not playing well, is impressive - but more on them later. What will likely now be trumpeted is how City psychologically deal with their wobble, coupled with that alien feeling of being the king of the castle and having the enemy at drawbridge. Beware the paranoia.
Mancini has said: "The Chelsea players after the game were really happy to beat us. That shows we are a top team at this moment and that all the teams want to beat us, and this is important for us." His nod in the direction that AVB's men savoured this scalp is a message to his players, an urge to realise what they have become in this short space of time, and that they should revel in the hype. Now the Italian must use all of his Serie A experience, where he won three titles with Inter Milan, to maintain their position at the top of the Christmas tree.
Manchester United: A big January ahead
January can't come soon enough, you'd think. News this week that Darren Fletcher will take an "extended break from football" due to a lengthy battle with ulcerative cilotis, an inflammatory bowel condition, was saddening for the midfielder and troubling for Manchester United's defence of their title. Sir Alex Ferguson's resources, in particular the midfield, are looking exhausted. With young Tom Cleverley - of whom too much has been expected - and Anderson both injured, the onus in the middle of the park falls on the 38-year-old Ryan Giggs, the unconvincing Michael Carrick and centre-back/right-back/midfielder Phil Jones. Compared to the embarrassment of riches at City, United's options, with all due respect, pale into insignificance.
Yet, in spite of the rumour mill already whirring into action over potential United targets, Ferguson has said: "It is very difficult to buy players in January. We have only had maybe four or five signings in my time here in January. It is not a consistent route for us simply because of all the disadvantages." Those words, if true and not a Scottish smokescreen, can rightly be met with questions over why this department was not addressed in the summer; even with injury concerns aside, you didn't need a stethoscope to discover there was a frailty at the heart of the champions' squad. United's form has not flatlined just yet, but there could be a case for resuscitation if the palpitations increase.
It has indeed been a tough seven days at the Theatre of Dreams. Their best defender, Nemanja Vidic, being ruled out for the season compounded their Champions League misery, but the bitter edge was taken off when, at last, more than one goal netted against Wolves, as Nani and Wayne Rooney returned to scoring ways. However, the revelation regarding Fletcher has soured the mood once more.
QPR are next up at midday on Sunday, when the sweet taste of victory for United would see them go top of the table, at least for a few hours, as City are in action in the weekend's final game. Midfield or no midfield, that is quite the incentive for a team that is hardly in 'crisis' - as some have sensationalised - but where there are still problems to solve for the wily Ferguson.
Tottenham: Momentum stunted
A chink in the Spurs armour that has not been seen for a while saw them slip to their first loss since being beaten by the two Manchester clubs in the opening two games of the campaign. Is the title dream over? Was it ever a reality? Considering Spurs were hard done-by against Stoke City - amidst a string of contentious refereeing decisions - the temptation to over-react needs to be reeled in. Tottenham might have won at the Britannia, or at least have drawn. "We certainly deserved to get something from the game," said Redknapp. But he also said: "I never complain about referees' decisions - I have not done it in 30 years of management, never." That open goal aside, Redknapp - freshly linked with the England job again this week - needs a pick-me-up ahead of next week's clash against Chelsea. And, so, onto their opponents this weekend...
Martin O'Neill: Were those boos?
An encouraging start for Steve Bruce's successor but a win over Blackburn at home is a win over Blackburn at home, if you get my train of thought. It at least demonstrated spirit as the Black Cats came from a goal down. Nice touch, however, for the home fans to boo as they trailed at half-time during their new boss' first game in charge. Classy. Yet, O'Neill said: "It [the fans' support] was overwhelming. Naturally I was taken." Maybe the Ulsterman didn't hear the boos, perhaps immersed in the task at hand, or maybe he did but is wary of ensuring the home crowd are on side early on. Indeed, getting off on the wrong foot would be self-destruction; Bruce is evidence of that.
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