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Friday, May 4, 2012
Penultimately yours

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: Newcastle stand in the way of Manchester City's title charge, the loosening grip of United on their crown as they host Swansea, focus on Roy Hodgson and Harry Redknapp, and plaudits for Roberto Martinez but no sympathy for Steve Kean.

Newcastle v Man City: The decider

Monday's so-called title decider actually decided not much at all. It did, though, set up this forthcoming match for City to be grandiose, and arguably it is at St James' Park where their quest for the Premier League crown will be rubberstamped as success or failure. Their manager, Roberto Mancini, has continued to be coy over his side's chances, despite them taking advantage of Manchester United's conservatism earlier this week. The blue half of Manchester lead the way at the summit on goal difference, with two matches to go, but Mancini argues his team's remaining fixtures compare unfavourably to United's "easier" set. He might have a point. Indeed, perhaps it is not the alleged mind games on display here but an acceptance from Mancini that until they overcome an enthralling Newcastle outfit, United continue to boast the upper hand. After the Magpies, City host QPR, who may be fighting for their survival but do not travel well, while United's matches versus Swansea and then Sunderland are against teams with, on paper, little to play for - a mindset that can either fuzz focus or thrust expression to the fore without the constraints of pressure. The 'little to play for' mantra can certainly not be said for Newcastle, however, after their 2-0 win at Chelsea on Wednesday night kept them in the race for a top-four finish. The Magpies, whose boss Alan Pardew should unequivocally be named Manager of the Season, endeared themselves further to the neutral as they bounced back from their shock wobble at Wigan to overthrow the FA Cup and Champions League finalists on their own soggy turf. This outcome, decided by the irrepressible Papiss Cisse whose second goal left Isaac Newton scratching his head from the grave, sees Newcastle fifth in the standings, level on points with Tottenham and one behind Arsenal. With their goal difference weaker than their rivals for a place in Europe's most seductive competition, a points return versus City is necessary to keep this 'pinch-me-I'm-dreaming' journey alive.

The champions: Paying the price

"They're in the driving seat now with only two games of football left," admitted Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of his side's uninspiring performance at the Etihad Stadium which yielded no shots on target by United for the first time in the top flight since 2009. The Scot also accepted that, as City play before his team on Sunday, the title could in theory be beyond them without a ball having been kicked at Old Trafford against Swansea City. Yet, while it remains mathematically possible the Red Devils could retain the title, the insatiable Scot will not sleep a wink. It seems, however, that the lack of investment in midfield is finally catching up on United, with the onus placed on the creaking knees of Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs too heavy a burden to bear, especially when compared with the ammunition at City. Ferguson will cling on to mind conquering matter, although he has already cued up his team's regrets for the season, with a failure to strangle the life out of some teams when only a goal or two in front and a two-goal lead relinquished recently versus Everton chief among defining moments to reflect upon.

Roy and Harry: What friends are for

After the rigmarole that followed Fabio Capello's departure as England manager, one would have hoped that the overdue appointment of his successor would finally mop up the frothing at the mouth from sections of the press. Alas, in spite of West Brom's Roy Hodgson being confirmed as the nation's new manager on Tuesday, the rabidness has intensified. Perhaps you've been fortunate enough not to be on English shores this week, in which case you'll have been saved from an unnecessary dissection of Hodgson and tantrums why, according to a number of the tabloid newspapers, their pal Redknapp did not get the gig. Regardless, it has happened now, and they must make do with the FA's decision, not resort to an infatuation with a speech impediment. However, as Hodgson remains in charge for the Baggies' final two games of the season, the knives are already being sharpened for a premature butchering. An unconvincing display against Bolton away will likely spark ridiculous reaction that he is not fit for purpose. Win versus the relegation candidates, though, and he might well muzzle some doubters - for a day or so. Tottenham's Redknapp, meanwhile, has suggested, seemingly through gritted teeth, he is fine with the snub, stressing he is settled at White Hart Lane. It is maybe of coincidence that Spurs looked like their earlier season selves during their trip to the Reebok Stadium on Wednesday, with the team reminding viewers of their swashbuckling ways. There is still chance for Redknapp to ensure this term is a successful one, as right now, so long as the Blues do not emerge as victorious at the Allianz Arena, Champions League football is secured for the 2012-13 campaign. Third is also feasible, but they must first overcome Aston Villa this weekend, a team that may just have done enough to avoid relegation in spite of their manager Alex McLleish's tactics doing their utmost to leech supporters of their love for the game.

Blackburn v Wigan: Opposites attract

What stark contrasts here. As Wigan have quite literally attacked their season run-in, Blackburn, against Tottenham last Sunday, did not bother with even loading their cannons with ammunition, as no shots even off target were mustered. This lack of impetus from Steve Kean's Rovers rid of the few remaining backers of the Scot, whose side will now not be missed from the top flight next term should they suffer demotion. The Latics on the other hand have demonstrated a boulder-sized set of cahunas with their disposing of Liverpool, United, Arsenal and Newcastle. Roberto Martinez has had his doubters, including this column, but credit where credit is due. The Spaniard's positivity, both in the method of speech and play, merits plaudits, and with it another achievement of survival.
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