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 Stoke City vs Wolverhampton Wanderers live on ESPN from 4.30pm on Saturday...
FIXTURES Fri Apr 6 Swansea v Newcastle Sat Apr 7 Sunderland v Tottenham, Bolton v Fulham, Chelsea v Wigan, Liverpool v Aston Villa, Norwich v Everton, West Brom v Blackburn, Stoke v Wolves Sun Apr 8 Manchester United v QPR, Arsenal v Manchester City
Manchester United’s performance, and indeed result, at Blackburn Rovers on Monday night highlighted the difference between themselves and their neighbours. United are exactly that, and their togetherness and experience told in a game in which they were largely frustrated for long periods, when they were rewarded with two goals in the last 10 minutes. City don’t seem to have quite the same nous when it comes to winning and closing games out. That is why, all of a sudden, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team have a five-point lead, which seemed unthinkable even six weeks ago.
But Manchester United are still a little more fragile than they have been in past seasons, but they are a fragile side that has won 10 of their last 11 Premier League games. A home fixture against Queens Park Rangers should be exactly what they need on this busy Easter period. The Red Devils have scored in 46 of their 47 matches in all competitions this season, which tells you how consistent a threat they have been.
QPR, having beaten Liverpool and Arsenal, have shown they can take on the top sides, which is what they must continue to do in the final month or so of the season given their run in. However, both of those victories were achieved at Loftus Road - they are not so clever away from home and I cannot see beyond a home win for Manchester United.
Such as result will mean Manchester City are likely to troop out at Arsenal eight points behind. This would be psychologically significant for a side that has taken its share of battering both in the media and in on the field recently. I saw them last weekend against Sunderland and, while they came roaring back from 3-1 down, they were a shadow of their former selves for the first 80 minutes. They have only won one of their last four Premier League matches and their away record is modest for a leading side – four defeats on the road and only seven wins. I expect their frailties to be fully tested at the Emirates Stadium.
After ending their winning streak at QPR last week, the Gunners are now only above Spurs on goal difference, with Robin van Persie in the midst of what by his standards is a dreadful drought – three games without a goal. This game is a lot more difficult to call than the one at Old Trafford. I just have a sneaking suspicion that, with all their leading lights back, City will show their true colours, so I am going for City to sneak a win. From a neutral’s perspective, I hope I am right because they must to win to keep the title race alive. With three points, Manicini’s men will still be very much in the hunt. However anything less is likely to leave a gap of seven or eight points, which would be too big to overcome.
If Arsenal are defeated, Tottenham Hotspur would regain third place with a solitary point at Sunderland. Swansea proved to be compliant opposition for Spurs last week, as the Londoners ended a run of five games without a win, but Martin O’Neill’s Black Cats should provide a much sterner test on Saturday lunchtime. This is the hardest of all the games to call this weekend because Sunderland have been ‘in and out’ of late. After a dramatic improvement following the Ulsterman’s arrival, their form has tailed off and, after the cup exit to Everton, I’m not quite sure what they are playing for between now and the end of the season. That may play into Tottenham’s hands, because I am sure Harry Redknapp will have his troops ‘at it’. Realistically, Tottenham have only got one target for the rest of the campaign because, ultimately, Champions League qualification will be more important to them than the FA Cup. I can see Spurs going all guns blazing and, if was forced to choose a winner, I’d plump for them.
Roberto Di Matteo’s record as Chelsea boss makes pretty impressive ready – seven wins in nine. I thought they looked nervous at home to Benfica in midweek but they got the job done. They are scoring plenty of goals under the Italian – 20 in nine games - and I can’t see anything other than three more points for the Blues at home to Wigan Athletic, despite the Latic’s recent revival.
Liverpool are enduring their worst run of league form in nearly 60 years- six defeats in seven Premier League games. Kenny Dalglish has just eased off on all the rhetoric and defiance in his public utterances. No longer is he accusing his inquisitors of a lack of intelligence for questioning his side’s recent form. We learnt this week that there is going to be an internal review conducted by the Fenway Sports Group at the end of the season, to which Dalglish will be asked to contribute. While there are no suggestions that his job is under threat, there are serious questions being asked of Liverpool’s lack of form because a top-four place was the aim set in August and even if they win two cups I don’t think that will paper over the cracks.
Their opponents on Saturday, Aston Villa, are in equally woeful form – one win in eight – although they briefly threatened a dramatic comeback against Chelsea on an emotional day at Villa Park last week. Many of their thoughts will be with captain Stilian Petrov, who is battling Acute Leukemia. The prospect of a place in the FA semi-final at Wembley should act as an incentive for Liverpool’s players and, despite their serial habit of dropping points at home, I can only see them adding to their win at Villa Park earlier in the season and completing the double over Villa at Anfield. Villa are only five points above the drop-zone and another defeat will seriously perk up the clubs below them.
I am not as confident in Swansea City as I was during the middle of the season when they were winning almost every game at home and drawing the rest. The Swans have only managed to win two of their last seven at the Liberty Stadium and, home and away in the Premier League, it is four defeats in their last seven. While there are no alarm bells going off in South Wales, there have been one or two signs in their last few games, notably the home defeat to Everton, that sides are beginning to work out how to combat their expansive and very attractive playing style. I would be very surprised if Alan Pardew hasn’t picked up on that, given his tactical triumphs this season.
Newcastle United have won their last three games and are five points off the top-four. While it is rather farfetched to think they are going to achieve a Champions League place, they have every chance of pipping Chelsea to fifth, who will do well to stay focused on the league run in, given their upcoming fixture schedule and the distractions of huge semi-finals against Spurs and Barcelona. I think Europa League qualification for Newcastle would be a huge achievement. Having said all of that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this game finish all-square. The Swans remain reasonably difficult to deal with at home and Newcastle will be tactically cute, so I think a draw is on the cards.
After recording three straight league wins under very difficult circumstances, Bolton Wanderers boss, and Manager of the Month, Owen Coyle deserves tremendous credit. Ahead of the game with Fulham, his message to his players will surely be ‘don’t ease off’, because they still remain in real dogfight. They seemed to have found a way of playing that really suits them. Although they could have been three goals down at Molineux last weekend, they played brilliantly in the ‘business end’ of that game and deserved the win.
Fulham can play without fear now. They are marooned in 10th place on 39 points, which will be more than enough to stay up this year. They have shown they are capable of beating the best and losing to the worst, so goodness knows what will happen. I'd expect it to be an open and entertaining game, and Bolton should have enough to get something out of the game, which could be vital come May.
Norwich City are another side which have been showing all the signs of having their minds on the beach. They have won only once of their last six but their Premier League status has already been secured, which is a wonderful achievement. In Everton, they are a playing a side that will definitely not give up before the end of the season. The Toffees have only lost twice in their last 15 games in all competitions. David Moyes’ men are also playing for a place in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool. They currently sit above their Merseyside rivals in the Premier League table and will be determined for things to remain that way. I fancy a fully-motivated Everton to claim all three points at Carrow Road.
West Bromwich Albion are finishing the season poorly with three defeats in their last four games. Blackburn Rovers have lost their last two but won three of their previous five. Steve Kean’s side needs the points, while West Brom don’t and that might be key. Blackburn have more reasons to be motivated although they also have more reasons to the nervous. Nevertheless, I fancy Rovers to get something at the Hawthorns – probably a draw.
Wolves are six points from safety and, I am sorry to say, have probably gone. They have conceded 24 goals in seven outings, shipping five on three of those occasions. I was amazed the see the public spat between goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and captain Roger Johnson last week. The former Birmingham defender has proved himself to be a rather divisive character in the dressing room this season and his appointment may well have played a significant role in the side’s demise. Unfortunately for Terry Connor, I think Stoke City are ready to provide some sort of backlash following their lackluster showing at Wigan. With a much smaller squad, the Potters have played the same amount of games as Chelsea this season, but I fancy the hard-working Potters to take all three points at the Britannia.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Stoke City vs Wolverhampton Wanderers , Saturday, 4.30pm.
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