ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch exclusive coverage of Everton vs Tottenham Hotspur live on ESPN from 4.30pm on Saturday...
With things so delicately poised at the top of the Premier League, it’s sometimes easy to overlook exactly how fraught the upcoming relegation scrap is likely to be. But with the five bottom sides all struggling for any kind of form and currently separated by just two points, there are sure to be plenty of twists and turns at the foot of the division.
This weekend sees four of those five sides face one of their relegation rivals, making this a crucial round of fixtures in the battle for survival.
Despite all the upheaval at the club, with fan protests against the owners and manager Steve Kean, Blackburn somehow currently find themselves just above the Premier League drop zone. They have the chance to widen the gap when they travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers, who will still be reeling from the 5-0 thumping doled out by Fulham last Sunday.
These have also been a particularly unsettled few weeks for Wolves. They sacked Mick McCarthy after last month’s 5-1 humbling at the hands of West Brom, and then seemed to take an age to identify a replacement before settling on McCarthy’s former assistant, Terry Connor. They sort of suggested he was always their first choice, but I’m not entirely convinced that was the case. We now hear stories of defender Roger Johnson turning up to training somewhat worse for wear, so we can expect him to be disciplined by the club in due course.
But what really matters is what happens on the pitch, and with things so tight at the bottom these fixtures are absolutely integral to the two sides’ hopes of survival. A tense draw wouldn't surprise me, but I just have a feeling Wolves' fearsome home crowd may help them to a crucial win.
The second relegation ‘six-pointer’ comes at the Reebok, where Bolton Wanderers host Queens Park Rangers. Bolton’s opening day 4-0 victory at Loftus Road suggested this could be an enjoyable campaign for all involved with the club, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve won just five Premier League games in the 26 which have followed, with none of those victories coming since mid-January.They still have the distraction of the FA Cup, and given they don’t have a big enough squad to rotate the side, that will still be sapping energy and focus. Defeat to Rangers would leave Bolton five points adrift of safety and that will be something Hoops boss Mark Hughes is also well aware of. Hughes has yet to really stamp his authority on QPR, but he will once again be able to call on his desired striker partnership of Bobby Zamora and Djibril Cisse, with the Frenchman returning from a three-match ban. The pair have only played 33 minutes together so far, and whether or not they hit it off could well decide whether or not the West Londoners avoid the drop.
When Norwich visited Wigan at the start of the season, many expected both to be embroiled in the relegation scrap come the end of the campaign. But Norwich have defied expectations and are already all but safe. The same cannot be said of Wigan, whose chairman Dave Whelan last weekend revealed he would be seeking talks with manager Roberto Martinez over the club's current position. The Latics have won just one of their last 12 Premier League matches, and they don’t seem to have the goal threat that has got them out of trouble in recent seasons – 23 goals in 27 matches is a very poor return indeed.For that reason, Norwich will be confident of a victory at Carrow Road, which would take them to 38 points, a great achievement for a side of whom so little was expected.
If you were being kind, you would describe Aston Villa’s current home record as ‘disappointing’. If you were being realistic, you’d describe it as simply ‘bad’. Just three wins in 13 home fixtures is a record akin to those sides right down at the bottom, and though Villa should have enough to eke out the two or three victories required to ensure they don’t get dragged below the dreaded red line, these are still troubling times for fans, manager and owner alike.Saturday’s visit of Fulham gives them the chance to get back on track, but the Cottagers have suddenly found a bit of form, winning their last three and soaring up to eighth place. Yet Martin Jol’s side are essentially the curate's egg of the Premier League – they’re just as capable of winning brilliantly as they are losing feebly, so Alex McLeish will be hopeful his side catch them on one of their off days.
Like Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo makes his Premier League debut as Chelsea manager with a fixture against Stoke City. If nothing else, the departure of the Portuguese appears to have lifted the mood at the club, with the players laughing and joking before the midweek cup victory at Birmingham, and also on the bench during the match.Yet they still have problems. What was originally intended to be a transitional season may now become two, and with Champions League football for next season currently looking unlikely and several new players needed before they can compete at the top again, there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done. They must win here to keep their top four hopes alive.
Sunderland seem to have shot themselves, not just in one foot, but in both. The red cards handed to Stephane Sessegnon and Lee Cattermole during (and after) Sunday's Tyne/Wear Derby draw at Newcastle mean both players will be missing for the next three games, with Cattermole missing a fourth due to it being his second dismissal of the season.That will severely weaken the Black Cats for the visit of Liverpool, who will consider themselves unlucky to have been beaten by Arsenal last time out. That loss will most likely have put an end to any lingering hopes of Champions League qualification, with the prospect of completing a cup double now likely to be their top priority. Sunderland’s resurgence under Martin O’Neill appears to have been halted, but they have at least comfortably avoided being drawn into the relegation mire, which you wouldn’t have predicted four months back.
West Brom may have won six games on the road this season, but when they face the big boys they usually battle valiantly before crumbling, and I expect the same to happen when they travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United on Sunday.We’ve said many times that United haven’t been at their best this season, but they still keep grinding out those wins are have kept themselves within touching distance of City. They know exactly what it takes to be successful in a title race, and I have no doubts they will succeed where they failed last season and beat the Baggies at home.
The fixture between Swansea and Manchester City is sure to be a fixture that’s pleasing on the eye. Brendan Rodgers’ side have performed admirably against the top sides this season, with their 4-0 opening weekend defeat at the Etihad Stadium the only time they’ve looked really well beaten. But at home the Swans are far more formidable, and they have lost just two of their 13 home fixtures to date. This will be a real challenge for Roberto Mancini’s Premier League leaders, but the motivation of knowing United will most likely win their fixture will see City go all out to do the same, and I believe they will come away from south Wales with the points.
All of a sudden, Arsenal are once again the hot ticket in town - as was the case a few years back. Robin van Persie’s sparkling form continues unabated, but the same cannot be said of Monday evening’s opponents Newcastle, who are now stuttering somewhat having performed so well for the first six months of the season. That heavy defeat at Tottenham has perhaps taken the wind out of their sails, with the subsequent home draws with Wolves and Sunderland not enough to keep them in the hunt for a top four spot.Three impressive wins on the bounce for Arsenal - albeit the last one in vain - have really lifted the mood both among the players and on the terraces, and there's no reason to suggest they shouldn't continue their resurgence against Newcastle on Monday.
Saturday evening’s trip to Everton could be one of the major roadblocks on Tottenham's path to the Champions League. Everton are currently in good shape, having now gone six unbeaten. They worked wonders in the January transfer window by begging, stealing and borrowing what they could, and now look back to their old selves after a somewhat stuttering first half of the season. Spurs haven’t looked quite themselves over the last few weeks, and that ten point chasm which once Iay between them and Arsenal has quickly closed to four. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Gunners narrow the gap on their North London rivals to one point this weekend, with the help of David Moyes’ side.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Everton vs Tottenham Hotspur, Saturday, 4.30pm.
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