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Friday, February 10, 2012
Kicking the hornets' nest

James Dall

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 fervid atmosphere beckons at Old Trafford as Luis Suarez takes centre stage, the baying for Alex McLeish's blood, a chance for all of England's men, and Mr Harry James Redknapp.

Old Trafford: Angered anger

This match between bitter rivals Manchester United and Liverpool was always going to be a cauldron of bubbling hatred. Now, though, after Kenny Dalglish spoke post his side's goalless draw against Tottenham - their eighth stalemate in the league at home this season - the Scotsman has with his verbal volley, whether inadvertently or on purpose, kicked over a drum of acid. On Luis Suarez's return, after the Uruguayan served an eight-match ban having been found guilty of racially abusing United left-back Patrice Evra, Dalglish said: "It is fantastic to have him back, but he should never have been out in the first place." This despite later in the week stating: "I'm sure people will want to talk about Luis Suarez, but he accepted his ban, served his suspension and returned against Spurs on Monday. It's time for all of us to draw a line under what happened and move forward." Indeed, After it seemed both clubs were finally doing all they could to offer an antacid, the man Liverpool fans look up to has poured vinegar on the wound. Suarez only entered the fray versus Spurs at Anfield in the 66th minute but will surely begin from the off this weekend, despite fellow striker Andy Carroll's gradual return to something like form - if blazing over from 12 yards out with his weaker foot counts as progress, that is. When he came on, to a quite uncomfortable fanfare, Suarez offered a spark missing from the Reds' play, yet also marred his comeback with a boot into the guts of midfielder Scott Parker and further screaming petulance at an official. All eyes will be on the forward, in particular when he comes in the vicinity of Evra, whose displays, after recently improving, have nose-dived following a poor outing in a difficult atmosphere on Merseyside and then further mishaps at Stamford Bridge. For United, their trademark rally from three goals down last Sunday was a reminder of their frailties but also that the spirit instilled by Sir Alex Ferguson remains. This match is a chance for the Red Devils to, at least temporarily, leapfrog City and go top of the standings. It is also an opportunity for payback after Dirk Kuyt's late goal dumped United out of the FA Cup last month. And, lastly, after this column questioned the confidence in David De Gea, this weekend is an occasion to savour the belief boost injected by that brilliant late save in West London.

Aston Villa: They smell claret

It now seems the players, as well as the fans, are unhappy with their manager, Alex McLeish. Should this be the case, one would envisage the end for the Scot is indeed nigh - unless of course the hierarchy that originally appointed him in spite of such protestation again cover their eyes and ears. The apparent players' ire came on Tyneside on Sunday as Villa slumped to a 2-1 defeat against Newcastle. McLeish took umbrage with Stephen Ireland for his defending on the Magpies' opening goal, and the Irishman subsequently told the Scot to "f*** off", so say the reports. In the aftermath of the defeat, 9.5 million summer signing Charles N'Zogbia, no stranger to the role of cat among the pigeons, turned to Twitter. The Frenchman typed: "First time in my life, I'm not happy playing football." A bit rich coming from you, Charles. Villa are currently 13th in the table, eight points above the drop zone, which, on paper, does not initially make for the gloomiest reading in terms of their top-flight survival. But supporters of the club want more than staving off relegation. Mediocrity sustains only the complacent. Too often (ten times) the side's matches have ended in stalemates, while Villa Park has witnessed home triumphs on just three occasions - their last came on Bonfire Night. It appears unlikely that trend will be bucked when they host Manchester City on Sunday. Ahead of a proposed protest from the fans before kick-off, the unpopular choice is enduring darker and darker days in the Midlands. To rid him of his position after their meeting with the table-toppers would prove little, but the away matches at Wigan and Blackburn could prove decisive. To conclude, a statement posted on the 'Vital Villa' (VV) fans' website this week read: "With the players now seeming to be in open revolt, the future is looking very bleak indeed. We need to act now before it is too late and the unthinkable happens."

Englishmen: Clean slate

As the tabloid press this week wiped away their tears of joy, Micah Richards might also have cracked a grin. The Manchester City defender, considered by some to be the best right-back in the Premier League, played just once under Fabio Capello during his time in charge of England. The Italian, as you well know, resigned on Wednesday. Richards will rightly see this as a passage back into the England fold, and with it a place on the plane headed for Poland and Ukraine. And he will unlikely be alone in his renewed optimism and willingness to catch the new eye, whoever's that may be. Indeed, with the captains' armband - this strip of cloth that is held in such peculiar regard in England - cut from the arm of John Terry, so continues the issue of who will replace the Chelsea centre-back. Among the contenders, Steven Gerrard and Joe Hart rank as possibles, as does the blood and thunder of Scott Parker, trumpeted by sections to be Mr England, with his '50s haircut. Parker, who was body-on-the-line impressive against Liverpool on Monday, sees his Tottenham side host Newcastle on Saturday teatime - live on ESPN HD. Which leads us on quite nicely to...

Tottenham: The chosen one

'Arry Redknapp will have to accept that being quizzed about the vacant England job on a daily basis is now the norm, whether he is hanging out of a car door window or not. The obvious storyline that could emerge from his side's meeting with the Magpies is one of a Spurs stumble, sparking spin that Redknapp's eye has been taken off the ball and instead focuses on the prize on offer at the Football Association. The distractions aside, Newcastle will genuinely serve as a test of Tottenham's mettle, as their manager, Alan Pardew, who ruled himself of the England running this week, looks to deploy the Dembas as a strike partnership from the off.
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