The Premier League title race is shaping up to climax in quite remarkable style. That is, unless Chelsea and Manchester City stuff things up this weekend. Please don't...
Liverpool's most important league match in 25 years and a season-defining game for Arsenal. Chuck in a relegation battle and it's a bloody Big Weekend...
You have to go all the way back to April 2010 to find the last time that Arsenal lost three consecutive games in all competitions - back to a 4-1 humbling in Barcelona, a crushing 2-1 at Tottenham and then a ridiculous collapse at Wigan when they were leading 2-0 with ten minutes to go but somehow contrived to lose 3-2. The inclusion of Craig Eastmond (now at Colchester) in that side that lost to Wigan tells you just how far Arsenal have come.
But however much personnel has changed (Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott are likely to be the only survivors from that Wigan game), there remains a myriad of doubts about this Arsenal side and their resilience. This week, Michael Owen was the latest in a long line of pundits to question whether the Gunners have a) the staying power to win the title and b) the quality to win really big games. After freezing at Old Trafford and then getting annihilated at the Etihad, here comes another opportunity to muffle those doubters at home to Chelsea.
One mailboxer has already predicted this week that Arsenal will allow themselves to be rope-a-doped by Chelsea - going at them gung-ho, scoring the opening goal and then getting undone by counter-attacks and set-pieces. Arsene Wenger will then claim he never saw it coming. There will be an awful lot of people saying 'ah, but we did, Arsene'. Monday is the time to change the story.
The 'big-match bottler' whispers are building already. Now is the perfect time to deliver...preferably onto the head of a diving Olivier Giroud.
With Laurent Koscielny out with a gash he suffered against Manchester City, it's over to the Belgian who used to be really quite good once upon a time.
This Chelsea side have played six games against top-half sides this season, winning twice at home - against Manchester City and Southampton - and drawing 0-0 with Manchester United away, 1-1 with Tottenham away and losing to Everton and Newcastle on the road. In fact, the only teams they have beaten away from Stamford Bridge are Norwich, West Ham and Sunderland. In case you haven't been paing attention, those are three of the worst teams in the Premier League.
Six goals scored and six goals conceded in six games against decent opposition this season. We're not expecting an awful lot, Jose, but what we would like to see from Chelsea on Monday night is just a little bit of ambition. Give us any sign at all that you believe you can win this title by any means other than by attrition. In fact, give us any sign at all that you're even vaguely enjoying yourself.
On Wednesday afternoon in the F365 office we put together the team that Tim Sherwood would pick to face West Ham in the Capital One Cup; we got it almost exactly right. It was like a parody of an anti-AVB side - the team that AVB would not pick, with a 4-4-2, two wingers on their 'right' wing, no double-pivot and five English players. For a while there it worked, to the undisguised glee of a mainstream media who had thrown their collective weight behind 'Arry's boy, but then the Hammers went and ruined the romantic ending of the film by winning at the death.
It seems that merely not being Andre Villas-Boas was not enough.
This weekend, Sherwood has to deliver better. He has to find a way to combat Southampton's very effective but pretty predictable style and simply picking players with a point to prove will not be good enough. We want to see tactics; we want to see a plan. Sherwood may well be in charge for Southampton (A), West Brom (H) and Stoke (H) now - we expect seven points and Daniel Levy will expect seven points. Otherwise, Spurs will not stay on the coat-tails of the top four, another season will have been wasted and Sherwood definitely won't get the permanent job for which he is massively under-qualified in all categories except 'knowing the place'.
Repeat: Merely not being AVB is not good enough.
Five games without a win and now at home to a managerless Tottenham side in some disarray. The good news for Saints is that Spurs - judging by their midweek showing - cannot even muster a dead cat bounce. Would a draw be a good result? Ordinarily, yes, but it could actually leave them closer to the bottom three than the top four. At the moment we're talking about a 'top nine' that includes Southampton, but for how long? As we warned last week ahead of another one of those creditable but ultimately frustrating draws, they are in danger of getting sucked into the dross below.
It's been almost three years since Liverpool last won four consecutive Premier League games - when King Kenny had returned to large acclaim and ding-dong the chin-striking witch was dead. Now a far better Liverpool side stands on the brink of a quartet of victories with Cardiff the latest sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. Anfield has seen five successive wins for the Reds and there's little reason to suspect that Malky Mackay's hard-working but toothless side can spoil this particular party.
The only obstacles are a) the knowledge that victory will take Liverpool top of the league until at least Monday and b) an Anfield crowd who will turn up with arms crossed, expecting goals and entertainment. Can they handle the pressure? If they want to be considered genuine title contenders, they really must.
This season has been a curious beat for Swansea. Despite the assumption that they are failing to reach the heights of last seasason, they actually have a near-identical record. And yet there is a sense that it's all a bit 'after the Lord Mayor's parade' - partly because of a lack of eye-catching victories, partly because Michu has been a peripheral oft-injured figure and partly because many of their games have been the 'other', non-televised game after a Europa League outing.
This week is different - part of a Super Sunday double bill that promises a clash of similiar footballing philosophies (if you can read that without getting nauseous) with Everton. And it comes before games against Chelsea and both Manchester clubs. If the Swans have ambitions of finishing in the top half of the table (and why the hell wouldn't they?) they need to start winning home games against better teams. Otherwise this is going to be a massively forgettable season.
Being amongst the big boys means winning when first plays third and somebody has to drop points. Liverpool and Manchester City are likely winners on Saturday and Everton must keep pace on Sunday at Swansea. At the moment that four-point gap to sixth looks kind of nice.
My word this is big. This is 'throw everything you've got' big. This is 'please let Steven Fletcher look like a footballer again some time soon' big. There are few games that you can file under 'eminently winnable' if you play for/manage/support Sunderland but 'Norwich at home' sits comfortably in that category. And victory could take them to that holy grail: within a point of Fulham.
Jose Mourinho might have been left baffled by defeat at Sunderland in midweek but Gus Poyet will be less confused; this is a side in survival form (eight points from eight games) whose only problem is that time could run out before the revival is complete. With two away games looming in the next week, victory in a clash with patchy Norwich at the Stadium of Light is obligatory.
The only thing they were going to realistically take away from Chelsea last weekend was pride; they emerged with that intact after a narrow defeat that did nothing to take the wind out of their sails. Now comes the real business: Newcastle at Selhurst Park, where Cardiff and West Ham have been vanquished in recent weeks. History shows that a far-from-free-flowing Newcastle are unlikely to score more than one goal so if Palace nick one (presumably through Marouane Chamakh), they should claim at least a point. Make that more than a point and they will likely be out of the relegation zone for the first time since September. What does he keep under that magic hat?
A month ago there would be solace to be found in Manchester City's away form but now - after wins against Bayern Munich and West Brom as well as a decent point at Southampton - it's difficult to see how Fulham could possibly cope with any combination of David Silva, Jesus Navas, Sami Nasri, Yaya Toure, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko. They can kid themselves that the absence of Sergio Aguero gives them a chance but then they will remember Philippe Senderos and the sight of Scott Parker running through treacle.
Our advice: Repeat the words 'must not get battered, must not get battered' in the mirror, take the narrow defeat (narrower than the one at Everton, ideally) and prepare for career-defining games against Norwich, Hull, West Ham and Sunderland.
Last week we set them the target of ten points from four games - three points were claimed with ease against a dreadful Villa and woeful West Ham are the next visitors to Old Trafford. It doesn't have to be pretty, it doesn't have to be swashbuckling, but it does have to be three points.
We keep being told that all he needs is a run of games in his favoured position - one writer this week even suggested that he is more naturally gifted than Daniel Sturridge and incurred the wrath of red Merseyside - so here's his run of games. It's March 2012 since he last scored in successive Premier League matches and there will rarely be a better opportunity than the visit of West Ham to add to Sunday's double against Villa. Here come old flat-top, he come grooving up slowly...
when you're scoring fewer goals at home than the whole of the Football League, you really have to make your away games count. Especially when you're travelling to Stoke, who have some lovely ideas about playing possession football but no players who can actually pull off that tricky business of scoring goals. That's the perfect scenario for Villa, who might be the only side in history to be happy with around 35% possession away at the Britannia. They are in prime position to be best (11th) of a pretty rotten rest, and those are heady heights when you've spent the last two seasons in 15th and 16th. For now, it's all about those away games.
The media might have tutted at Steve Clarke's dismissal but Baggies fans have been saying all season that they are in a relegation battle. A discussion on Match of the Day only a few weeks ago ended with everybody agreeing that they'd be 'alright' while anybody who has watched West Brom toil their way through 2013 knew that they were badly struggling for creativity. One win at Old Trafford does not a season make. Especially now we know that anybody can win at Old Trafford.
Next up this weekend are Hull at home. Never can a team low in confidence have been fed such an appetising morsel. With just four points taken from a possible 24 on the road, the Tigers are the most welcome of any Premier League visitor. Put down a mat, let them in, put the flowers in a vase and then watch them be destroyed by Stephane Sessegnon and Victor Anichebe. Did anybody else lose faith half-way through that last sentence?