Only two rounds left in the Premier League, and teams are facing must-win ties to secure success
Carlos Ancelotti's Chelsea need wins from both of their last two games to guarantee the Premier league title. AFP
Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez will hope to upset Chelsea at home and help boost their chances for clinching fourth spot. AFP
THIS weekend sees the penultimate round of fixtures take place as nine months of football condenses down to an intense 180 minutes for some teams chasing glory. There is no doubt that Sunday takes centre stage as Chelsea and Manchester United both face tricky away fixtures that could make or break their title aspirations.
Chelsea certainly have the harder match as they travel to Anfield to take on a Liverpool side still clinging on to slim chances of claiming a place in the top four. After Chelsea wobbled at White Hart Lane, they bounced right back with an emphatic 7-0 demolition over a normally resolute Stoke side.
Liverpool might be able to thump Burnley comfortably, but Chelsea will give them no charity as they must win at all costs. Torres’ absence is massive to the Reds as he is the kind of player that can offer a piece of magic which can impact a game likely to have chances at a premium. The heat is on both teams but despite home advantage, Chelsea look superior in all areas of the pitch.
Benitez is going to set up his side not to get beat, playing five in midfield. Drogba, Lampard, Malouda and Kalou are all in great goal scoring form, and Carragher is going to have to marshal the Liverpool defence stoutly. The Kop has been a twelfth man before, and will need to be in fine voice once again as failure to win will deprive Liverpool of substantial earnings. Liverpool have proved people wrong before, but this game should show them exactly where they went wrong this season. Chelsea simply have more match winners and they will be the hungrier of the two teams.
The champions travel to the Stadium of Light to face a Sunderland side that are on the up. Darren Bent couldn’t have dreamed of a better season as he has almost single handily propelled the Black Cats into the top 10.
Sir Alex has managed endless vital games and he will know what is needed as Steve Bruce tries to get one over his old boss. Rooney will be United’s biggest concern as the PFA player of the year is their deadliest weapon but is currently hampered by injury.
Sunderland are much better at home than on their travels but despite an expected packed house, United have more to play for. I expect Ferguson to play an experienced side, with Giggs and Scholes offering the mentality that has seen them win countless trophies. The game should be played at a furious pace and, with Nani and Valencia offering the width, the Red Devils should take all the points in an open game.
Aston Villa were very lucky last weekend in their derby victory of Birmingham. Villa know they must defeat Manchester City away on Saturday if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for the Champions League. They have one of the best away records in the league and Martin O’Neil will assemble his squad to hit on the counter attack.
City have failed to score in their last two matches and Mancini will have to urge his side to attack, as even a draw could be catastrophic. Tevez and Bellamy offer City that extra dimension, and it will be needed as Villa are no pushovers. Milner and Agbonlahor will be the main threat to City and with Given out for the rest of the season, expect incessant balls into the box. A tough game to call and despite both teams desperation to win, I think it will be a draw which will suit neither side.
Tottenham host Bolton in a game they should cruise through. Spurs always seem to fall at the final hurdle, but they seem more resolute this season and display new found belief and determination. No game is easy in the Premiership, but the gulf in class between the two teams and Bolton’s attention turned towards the holidays should make this game an easy home win. Expect Crouch to come back into the side to partner Defoe as Spurs aim to hold onto fourth spot.
Birmingham v Burnley is a game of scant significance and purely based on pride. Birmingham will be hurting after last week’s derby defeat and will still want to finish in the top ten. Burnley already know their fate, and unless they change their woeful away record this will be an easy victory for McLeish’s men. Birmingham don’t score many but McFadden and Jerome must fancy their chances as the Blues look odds on favourites in this match.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis will have been embarrassed by the way his side got humiliated at Stamford Bridge. With the media questioning the team’s pride, I expect to see a re-galvanised Stoke as they host Everton who still have a slender chance of qualifying for Europe.
You know what to expect from Stoke; more brawn than brain. Everton, with Arteta and Pienaar providing the creativity, have that extra component and they also know how to dig deep and scrap for their lives. Stoke should improve on last week’s dismal display, but Everton are bang in form and look like they have enough in their locker to pick up all three points.
Saturday will be Portsmouth’s last home game in the Premier League for a while. I expect the Pompey faithful to send their team off in style with a chorus of noise that should be the only entertaining part of a game against Wolves that looks unappealing on paper. Pompey’s players will all be attempting to show Grant that they deserve a chance to start in the FA Cup final. While Mick McCarthy will want his side to finish the season off well, this game will probably be scrappy and without any real class.
Zola’s position at West Ham is looking doubtful but at least his side can relax as they’ve secured another season in the top flight. They visit Fulham who will want to finish their last home game on a high to crown another glorious season at Craven Cottage. Hodgson will defiantly play a stronger side than last weekend, and with the tension and drive taken out of the Hammers, Duff and Murphy should pull the strings to send the home fans off happy.
Last season, Arsenal played the most attractive football and won nothing. This term they’ve once again shown glimpses of delightful artistry but have been forced to stomach the same sinking feeling of knowing they are not good enough. After two away defeats and a goalless home draw, Arsene Wenger will demand a positive response.
Unfortunately they travel to Blackburn who are decent at home and will look to bully the Gunners frail spirit. Kalinic and Dunn will be Blackburn’s danger men and Sol Campbell will be the wall they have to break down. Walcott, Nasri and Van Persie will be looking to impress before the World Cup, but it’s in the middle of the park where I think Arsenal will struggle. A draw should continue Wenger’s woes.
Wigan v Hull could have been a crucial game to avoid relegation but instead it’s a game of little importance. Hull were lucky last season that Newcastle took the plunge, but West Ham have turned the corner to leave the Tigers with the anguish of playing out two more matches before their inevitable relegation. Both sides are poor, but Wigan should be slightly superior. Rodallega has had a decent first season and, along with N’Zogbia, should offer the only flashes of skill in a game that will be one to forget.