Our reporters expect Andre Villas-Boas' side to struggle against Martin O'Neill's resurgent Black Cats, and think the champions should easily overcome Owen Coyle's Wanderers
It was a round low on giant-killings but with enough drama to whet the appetite for what should be another thrilling weekend, with seven Premier League games kicking off at 3pm on Saturday.
The most intriguing clash is arguably Chelsea versus Sunderland in what will be a repeat of the fixture that saw the Blues succumb to a 3-0 humbling to the Wearsiders last season. Anything close to a repeat of that would only serve to ramp up the pressure on Andre Villas-Boas.
Also feeling the strain is Roberto Mancini, who has seen his table-topping City side lose twice in quick succession against United and north-west rivals Liverpool. The Italian will be desperate for a return to form when his side travel to Wigan on Monday evening.
The Etihad Stadium club may enter the game with their lead at the top of the Premier League cut to goal difference alone, with Manchester United and Tottenham only three points behind ahead of their fixtures with Bolton and Wolves respectively.
Saturday also sees Liverpool host Stoke, while Everton travel to the Midlands to face Aston Villa. Elsewhere Blackburn welcome Fulham and West Brom and Norwich face off at the Hawthorns.
Sunday, meanwhile, begins with Mark Hughes' first match in charge of QPR as he takes his side to the Sports Direct Arena without the suspended Joey Barton, before Swansea host Arsenal looking to maintain their solid home form. All eyes, however, will be on Henry at the Liberty Stadium.
We have reporters spread out across the country ready to provide you all the action as it happens, but which way do they see the results falling over the next few days?
SAM BISBY says...
With the loan signing of Robbie Keane for Aston Villa being confirmed on Thursday morning, it could very well be a clash of the LA Galaxy stars on Saturday as the Irish striker takes on Everton’s very own high-key man from over the pond in Landon Donovan.
Both players have tasted the Premier League, with Keane obviously an ex-Tottenham striker and his Galaxy team-mate Donovan having previously had a loan spell with the Toffees two seasons ago.
Saturday’s hosts have had a miserable time at home in recent weeks, with their last outing at Villa Park ending in a dismal 2-0 defeat at the hands of Swansea, and they have not won a game there since the first week of November.
Meanwhile, Everton lost their fifth game on the road on Wednesday evening and have fallen into the bottom half of the table, forcing David Moyes to remind his players to be more clinical.
ALEX FISHER says...
Home has definitely not been where the heart is for Blackburn and their manager Steve Kean. They have only won twice at Ewood Park this season and their supporters have vowed to restart their protests against the club's owners and their manager before this clash.
Things have improved in recent times for Blackburn. Their mini-revival over Christmas gave fans the belief they could escape relegation but defeat to Stoke and Bolton’s win over Everton leaves them bottom of the Premier League.
Fulham are not a side to be taken lightly. They are 12th in the league and in Clint Dempsey have one of the deadliest midfielders in the division.
There are so many factors working against Blackburn that there’s no way I can see them winning this game, so I expect to see a convincing away victory followed by protests inside and outside of the ground.
WAYNE VEYSEY says...
They are a generation apart in age terms but Andre Villas-Boas and Martin O'Neill are in a league of their own when it comes to touchline gymnastics.
The tracksuited and football-booted O'Neill wrote the modern book on photograph-friendly dugout reactions to the slings and arrows of a match, but the sharper dressed Villas-Boas must be even more exhausted at the end of his 90-minute workouts.
Villas-Boas looks urbane and slick in his trenchcoat, suit and polished shoes but he is every bit of a fidget as the more grizzled O'Neill, and some of his matchday postures - particularly the idiosyncratic crouch down on his haunches - can make for amusing viewing.
The match itself should be compelling, particularly following Sunderland's O'Neill-inspired rejuvenation, but the players will do well to match the energy levels of their managers.
DAVID LYNCH says...
Kenny Dalglish's Reds come into this Premier League fixture buoyed by a 1-0 win over league-toppers Manchester City in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final.
Whilst Liverpool have shown great form in that competition, they have failed to sweep all opponents aside in a similar fashion in the league, particularly struggling at home. They remain unbeaten at Anfield in 10 outings but have drawn six of those fixtures with several of those coming against 'lesser lights' in the form of Swansea, Norwich and, most recently, Blackburn Rovers.
It is a failure to convert chances which has most frustrated the Kop faithful in recent times and, against a team as defensively organised as Stoke, this problem could well rear its head yet again.
Tony Pulis' side are also famously potent from set pieces and if Liverpool, who boast the second best defensive record in the league, have any weakness defensively, it is this.
All that could mean that the Staffordshire outfit will fancy their chances of coming away from Merseyside with yet more points after they defeated Everton at Goodison Park earlier in the season.
GREG STOBART says...
The last time punters turned up to Old Trafford expecting a routine victory, they watched United fall to a shock defeat against bottom-of-the-table Blackburn.
Sir Alex Ferguson will want last weekend’s FA Cup victory over neighbours Manchester City to act as a catalyst as his side look to push on in the second half of the season.
It will be interesting to see what starting line-up Sir Alex picks after poor results over the holiday period when he rotated his squad. One player who I certainly expect to start is Wayne Rooney, who is an historically streaky goalscorer and was on top form as he netted twice in the Manchester derby.
Bolton are very unlikely to have Gary Cahill in the heart of their defence as the England international closes in on a move to Chelsea while goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen faces a race against time to be fit.
Without those two key players, Bolton look porous at the back and manager Owen Coyle could be forgiven for fearing a repeat of the 5-0 hammering his side received when the sides met at the Reebok Stadium in September.
JAY JAFFA says...
Harry Redknapp continues to downplay the notion that Spurs are title contenders but a win over Wolves will just add weight to the claim.
The home side have gone over 330 minutes without conceding a goal at White Hart Lane and a win will move them level with league leaders Manchester City – at least until Monday.
Meanwhile, Mick McCarthy’s Wolves travel to London following a recent upturn in fortunes. Three consecutive draws put paid to an alarming dip in form and the club were unlucky to lose late on against Chelsea.
McCarthy’s men won 1-0 at White Hart Lane two seasons ago however their record at Tottenham is poor – with just five wins from 40 games. Nonetheless their away form has found a level of grit that is sure to make it tricky for Spurs on Saturday – they've conceded just two goals in their last three away games.
|West Bromwich Albion
JOEL LAMY says...
Two teams with different problems face up to each other at the Hawthorns on Saturday. Whilst West Brom have been relatively solid at the back, they have only notched seven league goals all season, in contrast to a Norwich side who seem to always score plenty of goals but are yet to keep a clean sheet in any fixture.
Considering West Brom’s indifferent home form – they have registered just two league wins – will Roy Hodgson risk many of his star players who are just returning from injury? And will Simon Cox be kept in the starting XI ahead of Shane Long?
Similarly, will Paul Lambert bring back Steve Morison with Grant Holt and Simeon Jackson both in the goals? The managers’ selections will be interesting and with strong competition for places the spotlight will be on both pairs of forwards to deliver in front of goal.
ROB STEWART says...
New Hoops manager Mark Hughes will get to see just how much he has got on his plate on Tyneside and just how badly he needs club owner Tony Fernandes to get his cheque book out before the end of the month.
His first game in charge of the Loftus Road club following the sacking of Neil Warnock will probably arrive too soon for Hughes to bring in any of the new signings that he requires as he attempts to steer Rangers away from the relegation zone, so this will give him the chance to see first-hand where new personnel are needed.
It is a shame for Hughes that Newcastle old boy Joey Barton will miss out because of suspension, but on loan Federico Macheda once scored a hat-trick at the Sports Direct Arena for Manchester United’s reserves so the Italian should relish the trip to the North-East.
Another good omen for Hughes is that his five visits to Newcastle as a manager with Blackburn and Manchester City have never resulted in defeat but with Hatem Ben Arfa invigorated that will surely change.
JOE DOYLE says...
'The Return of the King', as Arsenal fans have been calling it, has undoubtedly added an air of optimism around the Emirates Stadium after Thierry Henry's goalscoring cameo appearance in the FA Cup against Leeds.
The striker still has it and with his loan set to last two months, perhaps the pressure will be taken off Robin van Persie as the side's main source of goals.
However, the Gunners face a difficult task as they head to the Liberty Stadium, with Swansea in particularly good form at home, having lost only once against Manchester United, and conceded only five goals in nine games.
Brendan Rodgers' side will welcome two new arrivals into the squad in former Lens player Darnel Situ and Rory Donnelly of Cliftonville, but whether either of the players makes the match day squad remains to be seen.
I believe it will be a tight game with both sides sticking to their attractive passing styles, but I think Arsenal will overcome the hosts as they go toe-to-toe, with the dual threat of Van Persie and Henry proving too much for the impressive Welsh team.
GREG STOBART says...
This won’t have been pencilled down as a pressure match by City fans at the start of the season but it will provide a test of the Premier League leaders’ mental strength on Monday night.
By the time they kick-off, City are likely to be level on points with title rivals Manchester United and Tottenham as they look to get back on track following a rocky patch of form. Away from home, in particular, they have started to look fallible and I want to see which players step up and take responsibility in the absence of Vincent Kompany (suspended) and Yaya Toure (international duty).
People are starting to detect a sense of panic in Roberto Mancini and I’m interested to see what he does, if anything, after two losses this week in the two domestic cup competitions. The Italian would rather be at home but he couldn’t ask for a much more inviting away game than Wigan, who will allow City to play possession football and are fragile defensively.
In a title race that will increasingly rely on the challengers’ mental strengths, I think City will want to make a statement of their intentions ahead of Tottenham’s visit to the Etihad Stadium on January 22.
||7 CORRECT 1 PERFECT 3 WRONG
A much improved performance from our reporters last weekend, with seven correct predictions for the selected fixtures in the FA Cup third round. The biggest congratulations have to be saved for Ryan Benson, however, after he secured the first 'perfect' of 2012, successfully foreseeing Sunderland's 2-0 win away to Peterborough at London Road on Sunday.
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