Friday, November 18, 2011
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: Chelsea's meeting with Liverpool, surprise package Newcastle's trip to the table-toppers Manchester City, woeful Wigan against Steve Kean's Blackburn, and a sticky time for the Toffees.
Stamford Bridge: Familiar foes
Chelsea's 1-0 victory over Blackburn was just the tonic to ease their stupor inflicted by the Gunners' barrels, the Alka-Seltzer to their five-strong hangover. Indeed, just like Manchester United, the Blues followed a humbling with a clean sheet - the return of Alex in defence key? - that helped to restore the order. This result in tow, head coach Andre Villas-Boas likely envisaged an international break away from the spotlight.
Alas, in spite of club matters taking a back seat, conjecture has sparked after former caretaker Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink parted company with Turkey. Already the murmurings of a return, albeit in an upstairs capacity, to Stamford Bridge have begun, which, depending on your viewpoint, could interfere with Villas-Boas. This, though, is merely speculation.
For now, the Portuguese's focus is on Sunday's opponents Liverpool, with an unwanted record against his 'big' rivals to be addressed, having lost so far to United and Arsenal, conceding eight in the process. The gap between the pair, who meet one another again in the Carling Cup later this month, is three points. Hence, in isolation, a draw might be seen as a positive result for the visitors. However, the Reds, who face Manchester City next weekend, have made a habit of stalemates of late, being held in three of their last four top flight matches. To rectify this, Kenny Dalglish will hope that influential striker Luis Suarez carries his international form onto the domestic stage, the Uruguayan having netted four in a single game against Chile last week.
The fixture also sees Fernando Torres facing his former club, whom he left for Chelsea in January for £50 million. His first game in a Blues shirt was against Liverpool, the match back in February ending in the Reds' favour thanks to a strike from Raul Meireles, who has of course also since joined Chelsea. It appeared Torres had returned to the boil prior to his suspension, but now he looks tepid once more. Even if Suarez - who was this week charged with racism by the FA - has been guilty of club profligacy in recent weeks, Torres' exploits have made the Reds man look sniper-like in his potency. Indeed, Torres has scored every 425 minutes for Chelsea compared to every 121 minutes for Liverpool. That £27.2 million January price difference between the strikers must leave Liverpool fans feeling like the cat that got the cream, although a possible suspension for Suarez could turn matters sour.
Magpies: Two for joy
A new set of litmus tests awaits Newcastle United, the club having past their previous 11 with black and white colours. The third-placed Magpies travel to table-toppers Manchester City on the weekend, before hosting Manchester United the next, and then welcoming Chelsea to the Sports Direct Arena. This weekend's examination is arguably the toughest they will face, roughly Mensa level. Alan Pardew has had the fortnight to sit at his desk, thinking cap on head, and consider just how he goes about ensuring Newcastle maintain this incredible start to the 2011-12 season when they travel to the Etihad Stadium. He is at least boosted by the availability of Yohan Cabaye, although the beast Cheik Tiote misses out. A loss, remember, should not take the shine off Pardew's good work.
For City, manager Roberto Mancini will be seeking a more convincing performance than that which meant they had to rally to overcome QPR, a result which evoked the cliché of 'winning when playing badly', but, in fairness, demonstrated mental resolve - another box ticked. Mancini will be wary the international break can often pose problems to clubs as their players return potentially jaded. Fortunately for the Italian, though, such is the size of his squad, he will be able to cherry pick those fresher players.
This match is the start of a crunch run for City, for they have three away matches in succession before the month is over: Napoli, Liverpool and Arsenal. That five-point cushion they currently boast might prove handy in order to sustain being the pace-setters, with the Red Devils ready to plunge their teeth at any sniff of Sky Blue blood.
Kean and Martinez: The sack race
Wigan's stinking plight is best summed up in statistics: 11 games played, one win, eight losses, seven goals scored, 20 conceded, bottom of the table on five points. Oddly, Latics boss Roberto Martinez is not at present the bookmakers' favourite to feel the chop. No, that infamy hangs around the neck of Steve Kean, the Scot no stranger to a banner begging for his P45 to be filled out. But there have in fact been signs of encouragement for Kean, his team seemingly on the cusp of grabbing that elusive three-point haul. Regardless, one feels a defeat for Kean could spell the end. Or, if the shoe is on the other foot on Saturday, it could be Martinez - his side shamed last time out by Antolín Alcaraz's spitting games - to feel the boot at his backside, out of the DW Stadium door.
The Toffees: Stuck in the mud
"We came up here not expecting much," said David Moyes in the wake of his side's defeat at Newcastle. That depressing statement of defeatism will not have sat well with the fans that made the trip to the North East. The Toffees are in a sticky place above the drop zone, having lost five of their last six league fixtures. They can perhaps take comfort from this weekend's opponents, Wolverhampton Wanderers, who halted a dire run of their own with a triumph last time out. Furthermore, all is certainly not lost, as it is worth noting Everton have a game in hand over their fellow strugglers, which, if won, would take them up to mid-table. However, the cause for concern hangs in the Merseyside air.
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