With the January transfer window and deadline day both distant memories, attention is fully focussed on the Premier League. The season’s run-in starts here and, as usual, some tantalising fixtures await us this weekend.
This week, the standout action takes place in the final two matches as title challenger goes up against Champions League hopeful in each, with championship credentials likely to be tested on both occasions.
The first of the eye-catching matches sees Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea. Usually this fixture pits the top two sides against one another, with both hoping to gain some kind of psychological edge in the title race, however not this year as Andre Villas-Boas’ side linger in fourth, 12 points behind the Red Devils.
Bringing this weekend’s action to a close is Tottenham’s trip to Anfield where they will face Liverpool in a fixture they have only won once since 1993, with that win coming last year. The pressure is on Spurs to find a win with the Manchester duo opening up a gap over Harry Redknapp’s side, whilst the Reds still maintain hopes of finishing in a Champions League spot.
League-leaders Manchester City take part in Saturday’s late kick-off as Martin Jol’s Fulham visit the north west looking to pick up just their second win in all competitions against City since 2006, whilst Steve Kean’s Blackburn head down to Arsenal in the day’s first clash.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Norwich City welcome Bolton to Carrow Road, QPR host Wolves, and Sunderland head to Stoke as they continue their ascent towards the European places.
The other three o’clock kick-offs see West Brom play Swansea at the Hawthorns and Everton, conquerors of Manchester City in mid-week, make the relatively short journey to Wigan, while Newcastle United’s home clash with Aston Villa gets us underway on Sunday.
As ever, we will have our reporters on duty at every match, providing their expert analysis, coverage and insight, but now is the time they put their necks on the line and predict the outcomes of the matches.
JOSH CLARKE SAYS...
Even throughout Arsenal’s mini-Renaissance late last year, the atmosphere at the Emirates has been fraught with tension this season. Always hostile, teetering on the edge of mutinous, it's a strange place for the neutral.
A frugal January, both in terms of new recruitments and Premier League points amassed, combined with a fruitless trip to lowly Bolton and consequent slide back down the table means that this friction will only be bumped up a notch. Blackburn’s visit will be another fascinating test of character for Arsene Wenger’s team, who further cemented their over-reliance upon a fully-firing Robin van Persie at the Reebok.
Blackburn’s season has spluttered into life in fits and starts the past few games, though admittedly there have been more of the former. Nevertheless, I think Steve Kean may view this match-up as one where he can exploit the now habitual Emirates unease. It’ll be tight either way.
OLIVER PLATT SAYS...
A revitalised Bolton Wanderers visit Carrow Road to take on Norwich City on the back of a four game unbeaten run in all competitions.
Owen Coyle's team have lost only to Manchester United since the turn of the year, beating Liverpool 3-1 before collecting a very credible draw against Arsenal in midweek. They have dealt with the departure of Gary Cahill admirably, and Coyle quietly made some astute signings of his own in the form of Tim Ream, Ryo Miyaichi and Marvin Sordell.
Norwich's performance in their 3-0 loss to Sunderland on Wednesday was one of their poorest of the season so far, but otherwise their form in 2012 has been terrific and they will be keen to get back on the right track at home.
JAY JAFFA SAYS...
It's the dawn of another new era at QPR and following the late acquisitions Mark Hughes made in the transfer window, the fans have reason to be hopeful of Premier League survival. With the Lord of Frodsham Manor off the mark with a debut goal, Rangers will be looking to build and take maximum points at Loftus Road on Saturday.
For Mick McCarthy, times are glum. Wolves haven't won a Premier League game in nine attempts and are just three points above rock bottom Wigan. Wolves need an injection of confidence sharpish if they are to avoid relegation but it's hard to see where that will come from. Emmanuel Frimpong's introduction lifted spirits briefly but perhaps much of the pressure will fall on the shoulders of Sebastian Bassong, their loan-signing from Tottenham.
This will be the second time I've seen both sides this year and given Wolves' dogged draw at Spurs, I fancy them to repeat the feat here.
SAM BISBY SAYS...
It’s been nine league games since Martin O’Neil took over a desperate Sunderland side and the Wearside outfit have seen just two defeats with the Northern Irishman at the helm. A huge 19 points has been amassed and the Black Cats have breezed their way into the top half of the table and lie on par with their opponents on Saturday, Stoke City.
The Potters have not had one their best of months and will be glad to see the back of January. With just the single victory in the top flight, their progress hasn’t been helped having only a single game at the fortress that is the Britannia Stadium.
Sunderland have fared pretty well on the road when faced with teams outside of the big six and will be sure to cause the hosts problems. With their defence shored up with loan signings in the transfer window, Stoke will have a hard time in breaking them down and I expect the resurgent Black Cats to take the spoils.
| West Brom
JOEL LAMY SAYS...
Two passing sides meet at the Hawthorns on Saturday and, whereas Swansea are brilliant at home but struggle on their travels, the opposite is true of West Brom. Roy Hodgson’s biggest decision will be on which strikers to pick for the match. Marc Antoine-Fortune and Somen Tchoyi scored during the week but his preferred pairing is normally Shane Long and Peter Odemwingie, who have been struggling with injuries.
I haven’t seen the Swans play live yet and I’m looking forward to watching their pass masters and pacy wide-men in action. However, with both sides normally so good in possession, and both sets of defences normally so strong, I expect them to cancel each other out over the 90 minutes.
ALEX FISHER SAYS...
When you’re struggling at the bottom of the league the last team you want to come across is one who have just beaten the league leaders, but that’s exactly the challenge facing Wigan Athletic this weekend as Everton visit the DW Stadium.
The Latics have not won at home since August and they are currently five points from safety at the bottom of the league. The arrival of Jean Beausejour in the transfer window will give Roberto Martinez something new going forward but the lack of a goalscorer will continue to hamper their chances of survival.
Everton will be on a massive high after their win over Manchester City, and the sight of new players Nikica Jelavic and Stephen Pienaar coming into the club will lift them even higher.
The visitors will have too much for Wigan and should end a great week with a convincing win.
GREG STOBART SAYS...
Roberto Mancini took responsibility for his side’s defeat at Everton in midweek so it will be interesting to see what changes he will make for a fixture that would ordinarily be considered a home banker.
I say ordinarily, because City are showing signs that they are starting to feel the pressure of their title battle with bitter rivals Manchester United. The performance levels have dipped, the confidence looks like it’s starting to ebb away and results have become patchy.
But City now have a run of fixtures that could see them pull clear at the summit of the Premier League - and they need to make it count. They have been superb at home this season and on Saturday come up against a Fulham side that continue to produce Jekyll and Hyde performances.
The Fulham fans have not taken well to manager Martin Jol’s transfer dealings in January, with striker Bobby Zamora sold to QPR on the last day of the window. The Cottagers have some exciting attacking players - with Goal.com diarist Clint Dempsey in superb form - but are vulnerable at the back and weak in midfield.
City will be looking for a response to their defeat at Goodison Park and I expect them to provide it with Sergio Aguero’s movement and finishing proving too much for the visitors.
ROB STEWART SAYS...
Rightly or wrongly, Newcastle fans are regarded as the game’s most hopeless optimists but they should be forgiven for daring to dream of Champions League football after manager Alan Pardew revealed that he is setting his sights on fourth-placed Chelsea.
With Demba Ba and new signing Papiss Demba Cisse back on Tyneside following their Africa Cup of Nations exploits with Senegal, it would be foolish to write off Newcastle because they are sitting pretty in fifth position and the new-look strikeforce could maintain their upward mobility.
The Toon Army will be keen to see new No.9 Cisse in action for the first time and Villa centre-half Richard Dunne could provide the ideal opponent for the speed-merchant who joined Newcastle for £7 million from Freiburg.
This will be Darren Bent’s first visit to the Sports Direct Arena since he figured in Sunderland’s 5-1 defeat by their hated rivals and, whilst he will be out to settle a score, his team’s defence looks there for the taking.
|| Manchester United
WAYNE VEYSEY SAYS...
John Terry is not to expected to figure against the champions but the circus that surrounds the man who was stripped today of the England captaincy will still be present.
I am looking forward to seeing the extent of the support at Stamford Bridge for the club talisman and the knock-on effect this has on Chelsea's performance.
Expect there to be warm and sustained support for Terry and the team to foster against an us-against-them mentality.
The Bridge will draw upon all the emotion of the fall-out from the England captaincy affair, which could provide Chelsea with an invisible 12th man.
How the two sides cope with this issue, as well as Chelsea without their most reliable centre-back, will have a significant bearing on the outcome.
DAVID LYNCH SAYS...
As Liverpool slumped to defeat against Bolton Wanderers just a matter of days ago, it seemed that their renaissance under Kenny Dalglish was well and truly over. However, morale-boosting wins over Manchester City and Manchester United followed by a comfortable away victory over Wolves sees the Reds revitalised and back in with a shout in both domestic cups and the race for a top four finish.
They now face a Spurs side whose performances this season have seen them go from Champions League chasers to title challengers, a team who dispatched of the Reds so easily in a 4-0 drubbing at White Hart Lane earlier in the season.
Yet despite the fact that Dalglish's men have won just 4 of 11 fixtures at home this season, they have yet to lose at Anfield and, given their seemingly imperious form, they may well feel they can give themselves a chance of bridging the gap to third-placed Spurs with a win here.
||2 CORRECT 0 PERFECT 7 WRONG
It’s fair to say our reporters had a bit of a nightmare last week in the FA Cup, with seven of the nine predictions being incorrect, while only two correctly forecasted the victors. Hopefully the unpredictable nature of the cup will have them on their toes more than ever this week.