Can Manchester City succeed where United failed, by beating Blackburn on home turf this weekend
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Pressure will be the buzz-word for Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City troops from now until the end of the season, and they can apply a large dose to Premier League rivals United by beating Blackburn this weekend. Rovers stunned United by winning at Old Trafford, can they repeat the trick at the Etihad?
The champions do not play until Sunday, when they visit Norwich, while Arsenal and Tottenham lock horns on the same afternoon. Under-fire Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas will pray that his men can watch that match in comfort, having already beaten Bolton.
For talking points and predictions from every top-flight fixture, allow ESPN to preview the action below…
Betting: Goals in store at the Emirates
Chelsea v Bolton
Form: Chelsea’s form is approaching crisis point. One win in their last seven matches has seen Andre Villas-Boas’ side slip out of the Champions League places, including a 2-0 defeat by Everton in their last league outing. Bolton’s win against Liverpool and draw with Arsenal were tempered by losses at Norwich and at home to fellow relegation battlers Wigan.
Key battle: With John Terry out for another five or six weeks, Gary Cahill can expect to start at the centre of Chelsea’s defence against his former club. The England international, called up to face Netherlands at Wembley next week, was ‘ridiculously disappointed’ with his Champions League debut defeat in Naples and Owen Coyle will be hoping that David Ngog, Kevin Davies and Arsenal loanee Ryo Miyaichi can expose a Chelsea back line that has looked shockingly fragile in recent weeks.
Player to watch: Daniel Sturridge. Having shone during his loan spell at Bolton last season, the Chelsea striker has been one of the few success stories at Stamford Bridge this term. While his pace and eye for goal have never been in doubt, Sturridge is maturing into an all-round attacker capable of holding the ball up and punishing teams from wide positions.
Talking point: All eyes will be fixed on AVB’s team sheet – the real one, not the one he leaves in the team hotel -and whether there will be starts for Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. Both men were benched against Napoli amid rumours of an angry meeting of minds with the Portuguese over his tactics, and another snub will only intensify speculation about their exits this summer.
Bet of the day: The bookies are still backing Lampard to score at 6/5, but our eyes will be on Juan Mata – a goal and a Chelsea win is on offer at 7/1 with bet365
Newcastle v Wolves
Form: Four wins in six Premier League matches since the turn of the year has kept Newcastle on the brink of the Champions League places, just a point behind Chelsea and Arsenal, but their goals against column has taken a five-goal pummelling at Fulham and last time out against Spurs. West Brom’s five-goal haul against Wolves did for Mick McCarthy. Mind you, two wins in three months in all competitions hardly helped.
Key battle: Wolves manager Terry Connor will be looking for a response from the squad, not least from his midfielders. Jamie O’Hara recently returned from hernia surgery and could be vital to Wolves’ hopes of avoiding relegation for another season. His battle with Cheik Tiote should prove fun to watch.
Player to watch: Tim Krul. For all their travails, Wolves have proven themselves remarkably resilient on the road, having not lost their last five away games. What’s more, they always seem to score against Newcastle, a run that stretches back over their past five league meetings, and score from losing positions, having rescued 13 points already this season. Krul will target a clean sheet after the Spurs drubbing, and if he gets it Newcastle will surely have enough talent to net one themselves at the other end.
Talking point: If Newcastle are to consider themselves serious contenders for that fourth Champions League spot – they could be fourth by Saturday night should Bolton do them a favour at Stamford Bridge – they must view this as a must-win game. Anything less and surely they will be left scrapping for Europa League football next season.
Bet of the day: Newcastle have conceded eight penalties this season already – but with Wolves in the mire a punt on a Tim Krul save is 28/1 with bet365
QPR v Fulham
Form: Three wins, two draws and a defeat in their last six Premier League games has been in keeping with Fulham’s inconsistent season. They have kept scoring, however, only missing out on a goal against Manchester City since Christmas. Mark Hughes’ arrival as Rangers boss has hardly stemmed the flow of bad results for the Loftus Road club, with just one league win and four defeats in 2012.
Key battle: Joey Barton and Danny Murphy both appear to have found their spiritual homes in west London. Murphy revels in his role pulling the strings at the heart of the Fulham midfield, while Barton has, for the most part, struck a balance between spoiler, creator and wind-up merchant for Rangers.
Player to watch: Bobby Zamora. So long the darling of Craven Cottage, Zamora jumped ship to join Hughes at Loftus Road pretty sharpish amid rumours of a rift with Fulham manager Martin Jol. With Djibril Cisse still suspended, Zamora will most likely lead the line alone once more and his tussle with Brede Hangeland should make for compelling viewing.
Talking point: As if a first top-flight showdown at Loftus Road and the memory of their 6-0 drubbing in the reverse fixture wasn’t enough motivation for QPR, Mark Hughes faces his former team for the first time since walking out on the club last summer with the expectation that he was set to join Aston Villa. The Welshman would no doubt love to put one over Mohammed Al Fayed.
Bet of the day: How about QPR to lead at half-time and Fulham to win? There have been crazier derby days – 28/1 with bet365
Sunderland head to the Hawthorns in fine spirits
West Brom v Sunderland
Form: It’s been almost two weeks but Roy Hodgson will be hoping his side have memories of their 5-1 demolition of Wolves fresh in their minds, as prior to that it’s been nip and tuck for West Brom, who have two wins, three losses and a draw from their past six league outings. Sunderland’s fantastic start under Martin O’Neill shows no signs of slowing, a last-gasp league defeat to Arsenal notwithstanding.
Key battle: Does Hodgson have enough class in his defence to keep Fraizer Campbell and James McClean quiet? Both have been in fine form under O’Neill, winning first senior international call-ups for England and the Republic of Ireland respectively, and are brimming with confidence.
Player to watch: Liam Ridgewell. Deemed surplus to requirements by O’Neill at Aston Villa, the centre-back joined second-city rivals Birmingham City in 2007 where he played with Black Cats Seb Larsson and Craig Gardner. Will look to exploit that knowledge alongside Jonas Olsson at the heart of the Baggies’ rearguard.
Talking point: Home form has proven to be West Brom’s undoing. One point from their last six games and just nine goals at the Hawthorns this season has prevented the Baggies from capitalising on some fine results on the road. Their luckless run looks set to continue against an in-form Sunderland unless Hodgson has forced Peter Odemwingie to keep his scoring boots on since the Wolves game.
Bet of the day: Sunderland could, and probably should, win both halves at the Hawthorns. It’s on at 10/1 with bet365
Wigan v Aston Villa
Form: After five defeats in all competitions in a nightmare January, Wigan have turned the corner in February with a fortuitous draw against Everton and victory over fellow strugglers Bolton to close within two points of safety. Three defeats and just one win in their last six has seen Aston Villa heading in the wrong direction since the new year.
Key battle: Richard Dunne and James Collins are likely to face a hard day’s work against Victor Moses and Hugo Rodallega. Roberto Martinez’s dynamic duo are physical, unpredictable and, on their day, unplayable. Both may be guilty of playing with their heads down when on the ball but neither centre-back can afford to dive in and expose Shay Given.
Player to watch: Gabriel Agbonlahor. In a season Villa fans cannot wait to forget, one player has shown signs of personal growth. The sale of Ashley Young to Manchester United freed up Agbonlahor to serve a roving brief across the front line and he has revelled in the role. Notable in his absence with injury, five goals in six games suggests he loves playing Wigan and a last chance to hook up with Robbie Keane could be the difference.
Talking point: Aston Villa supporters are all too aware of the fact that they are on the verge of a relegation scrap, but defeat at the DW Stadium would sound alarm bells around the league. Winning over the fans will have to wait for McLeish – priority one must be survival. The same applies for Wigan, of course, but right now the Latics are showing more stomach for the fight.
Bet of the day: Call us romantic, but Keane signing off his loan spell with a goal in the second half would be a fitting end to a fine bit of business from Aston Villa – 7/1 with bet365
Manchester City v Blackburn
Form: For all their heroics at Old Trafford and Liverpool, and despite two wins and a draw from their last six matches, the Etihad ought to be a bridge too far for Blackburn. City have dropped just two of the 66 points on offer from their 22 previous home games and are on a run of 17 straight home wins.
Key battle: One man poses a serious threat to the Man City defence. Yakubu has found form at just the right time for Rovers, who remarkably have scored more goals than all but the top five teams in the league. It will fall to Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott to prevent Blackburn from feeding the Yak.
Player to watch: Sergio Aguero. The loss of Tevez left David Silva and Aguero to pick up the slack in a busy front line, a role that took its toll on both men as fatigue affected their form and City’s goal tally. Suddenly, with his compatriot on the verge of the unlikeliest of comebacks, Aguero is a man reborn, and will hope to pick up where he left off against Porto on Wednesday.
Talking point: Having spent most of the season in a no-win situation, Steve Kean finds himself with nothing to lose against Roberto Mancini’s glittering side. With 12 games left this season after the weekend, Blackburn could do worse than to throw caution to the wind in search of a stunning result – or even a point. If nothing else, it would make for a great game for the neutrals.
Bet of the day: Hard to find value in a one-sided affair as far as the bookies are concerned, but if you think Blackburn could hold back City’s advances for 45 minutes and nick a goal themselves, they are 4/1 to win a half with bet365
Arsenal desperately need to change their fortunes
Arsenal v Tottenham
Form: The Gunners are in disarray, and Spurs will be scenting the blood of their north London rivals. Arsenal have lost their last two matches – against Sunderland and Milan – with an aggregate score of 6-0, while Tottenham’s most recent Premier League encounter was a 5-0 thumping of Newcastle – although they were held by Stevenage in the FA Cup last weekend.
Key battle: If he can shake off a leg injury, Rafael van der Vaart should take his place just behind the striker for Spurs. The Netherlands international has shown a liking for netting against Arsenal, and his creative capability and long-range shooting have made him one of the most feared opponents in the league. Arsenal’s short-on-confidence defence will need plenty of protection from Alex Song, who has to keep a close eye on Van der Vaart throughout.
Player to watch: Having been surprisingly overlooked for Stuart Pearce’s England squad to face Netherlands, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has plenty of work to do if he is to force his way into the Euro 2012 squad. Theo Walcott was dreadful against AC Milan – he wasn’t the only one, it must be said – so expect Oxlade to be favoured as one of the attackers in support of Robin van Persie. He seems to have the appetite for the big occasion judging by his impressive showing against Manchester United, so expect big things from the winger.
Talking point: Are we witnessing the last days of the Arsene Wenger empire at Arsenal? Defeat in this one would mean Spurs doing the double over the Gunners this season – if they do lose, will the disgruntled fans be able to keep a lid on their already-simmering anger?
Bet of the day: The draw, 12/5 with bet365
Norwich v Manchester United
Form: Manchester United suffered defeat against Ajax on Thursday in the Europa League (although they still progressed on aggregate), but in the Premier League they’ve managed to keep the heat on Manchester City after a win over Liverpool and a draw against Chelsea. Norwich have won their last two in the league, but were surprisingly beaten in the FA Cup by Leicester last weekend.
Key battle: If David de Gea starts in goal for United, then bruising Norwich forward Grant Holt will be keen to prey on the Spaniard’s supposed vulnerability under the high ball. Holt, who has impressed this season, has the power to make it a really difficult afternoon for De Gea, who is yet to totally convince.
Player to watch: Rio Ferdinand was another not included in Pearce’s England party, and his international career now looks to be a thing of the past – although Harry Redknapp is a known admirer, so if the Spurs boss gets the job, all hope may not be lost. Ferdinand’s loss of pace is unlikely to be exposed by Norwich’s front men, so he has the chance to prove he’s still got what it takes to compete on the world stage.
Talking point: Ferguson talked up David Moyes’ achievements earlier this week, but is Paul Lambert another Scottish manager who could one day take the hotseat at United? He has done a brilliant job with the Canaries, who are close to securing their Premier League safety in their first season back in the big time.
Bet of the day: 1-0 Manchester United, 7/1 with bet365
Stoke v Swansea
Form: Stoke can now fully focus on Premier League matters after falling out of Europe to Valencia on Thursday, and several of their players should be rested as Tony Pulis played the rotation game in Spain. Swansea arrive off the back of a home defeat to Norwich, but they did win their last away fixture at West Brom.
Key battle: Peter Crouch held up the ball impressively in Stoke’s last victorious outing at Crawley. Ashley Williams will need to pick his moment to nip in front of the lanky forward to intercept balls played into his chest.
Player to watch: Danny Graham. Suggested as a potential England call-up in certain sections of the press, it will be interesting to see if the Swansea man can deliver a reminder of his credentials after the latest international squad was announced.
Talking point: Is Welsh football on the up with Swansea competing well in the Premier League and Cardiff set to contest a Carling Cup final?
Bet of the day: Stoke to sneak a 1-0 victory, 11/2 with bet365