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 the FA Cup Semi Final between Liverpool and Everton from 11am on ESPN
Looking at the title race as it stands, I don’t agree with Roberto Mancini’s claim of it being all over - that’s just his version of blunt mind games.
It’s still alive and if Manchester United slip up once more and Manchester City manage to win their remaining games, then it does all come down to that derby game on April 30.
On Saturday, Manchester City travel to Norwich. Manchester United won at Carrow Road and City need to follow suit, but Norwich continue to surprise. Just when one got the impression they had switched off and were thinking of their beach towels, they go and win at Tottenham. Paul Lambert described that win as the best performance by a Norwich team in his three years in charge. The Canaries are perched very happily in tenth place and have been a match for the best, particularly at Carrow Road.
It will be a real test of Manchester City’s away record, having only taken one point from their last three games on the road. They can cut the deficit to two points due to the difference in kick off times with Manchester United, which would mean that Sir Alex’s men would just start to feel City’s breath on the back of their necks ever so gently again, which they haven’t for a little while.
I expect Manchester City to win. They showed what good flat track bullies they are against West Brom, who were very compliant opponents. If Manchester City were going to have any pretentions at all of prolonging the title race, then this is a game that they simply have to win.
It was, of course, Manchester United's defeat at Wigan on Wednesday which gave City this new slither of hope, and I was amazed as everybody else by the champions' poor showing at the DW. Whether there was just a little complacency creeping in with that eight-point lead having been handed to them almost on a plate, for whatever reason they were not the usual Manchester United. Yet that it rarely happens twice in a row, particularly with the nature of their manager. One would expect Aston Villa to feel the full force of a Manchester United side 'on the rebound' on Sunday.
United have won all six home games since the Blackburn debacle on New Years Eve. It’s difficult to see anything other than them making it seven, although Aston Villa's away record is perhaps not as woeful as you may expect. Of the 14 draws Villa have picked up this season, nine of them have been away, in fact they’ve lost only four away games. They won at Chelsea and calved out a draw at Anfield recently, and obviously have a way of playing that is difficult to break down away from home. Manchester United have an imperative to win this, whereas Villa don’t, and that should see United through.
As for United's midweek conquerors, Wigan find themselves coming into form at the right time. They’ve lost only one in their last six, a very unlucky defeat at Stamford Bridge last week. When I asked Sir Alex Ferguson back in autumn whether Wigan would go down, he said ‘no, they’re course and distance specialists’, to use a horse racing analogy. They’ve been in a pickle so many times that they know how to pick themselves out of it.
They’re far from out of the woods yet with five games to go but Roberto Martinez's side seem to have that belief and they’re certainly playing for their manager. They’ve given themselves a better than even chance of escaping, and it would be vindication of the unwavering faith Martinez has shown in the group of players he has assembled.
But Arsenal away is probably the toughest test in the Premier League at the moment, as Manchester City found last weekend. With nine wins in ten, they have built up a five-point cushion for their top four place, and they will be more than a little confident having won 4-0 at Wigan earlier in the season. Wigan will do well to get anything in North London on this occasion.
Another team in a dog fight at the bottom, QPR, have won their last three at home, including victories over Liverpool and Arsenal, but they’ve lost their last four on their travels. Their last two home games against Tottenham and Stoke are going to be vital to their chances. It’s taken a while for Mark Hughes to impose his 'modus operandi' on them, but gradually they’re looking rather more organised than they were six weeks ago. They’ve got their ideal opponents this weekend in West Brom. With one win in six in the Premier League, the Baggies were pretty meek at Manchester City in midweek and I have a feeling that this could be QPR’s fourth away win of the season and arguably their most important. If they win this they are perhaps just one victory from safety, and they’ll fancy their chances, particularly given West Brom's patchy home form. I feel quite strongly that Queens Park Rangers will come out on top this weekend.
Also down towards the foot of the table, it’s looking rather grim for Blackburn. After a mini resurgence, they’ve gone and lost four in a row and now they’re three points short of safety. They’ve lost impetus at a crucial time, and it will be difficult to regain it with just five games to go. Two of those are at Tottenham and Chelsea, so it’s an uphill struggle for Steve Kean and his team. Swansea, like Blackburn, have lost their last four, including three of their last four at the Liberty, which was their great strength for so much of the season. It’s slightly taking the shine off what has been a tremendous debut season in the Premier League. I would love, from Blackburn’s point of view, to say they’ll win at Swansea but I’m not sure they will.
Finally, rock bottom Wolves play Sunderland. They’re nine points from safety with only 15 points available. At Stoke last weekend, for the third game in a row they led and then lost. They were pretty lifeless at the end of that. It seems they know their fate and have done so for a couple of weeks. They’ve lost seven in a row, they’re shipping goals left, right and centre and there’s internal dissent in the camp surrounding the captain Roger Johnson, who’s been dropped in recent games. Even though Sunderland have won just two of their last nine in the Premier League, I'd tip Sunderland to win this weekend's match quite comfortably.
Jon Champion previews the weekend's FA Cup semi-finals
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the FA Cup and the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Liverpool v Everton in the FA Cup Semi Final from 11am on Saturday.
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's FA Cup action. Watch exclusive
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