Top-four chase intensifies and basement battle hots up
The battle for a top-four finish looks set to intensify over the weekend, while a relegation six-pointer will be staged at Villa Park.
Elsewhere, Reading begin life after Brian McDermott with a daunting trip out on the road and a busy afternoon of top-flight action on Sunday offers up two intriguing capital derbies.
Everton and Manchester City get proceedings under way on Saturday lunchtime - in a game which can be seen live on Sky Sports 2HD - with both sides in need of points to aid their respective quests towards the top of the table. Everton remain in the hunt for a European place, but have won just two of their last seven to drop off the pace. They put in a disappointing FA Cup display last time out, seeing them tumble out at the quarter-final stage at home to Wigan, and have seen arch-rivals Liverpool edge above them in the top-flight standings. David Moyes will be determined to see his side right a few wrongs against City. The reigning champions head to Merseyside with their crown starting to slip and know they cannot afford any more wobbles in their efforts to close a 12-point gap on leaders Manchester United.
Liverpool have hauled themselves back into the hunt for European qualification, with three straight victories seeing them into sixth spot - seven points adrift of the top four. Momentum is crucial at this stage of the season and the Reds will fancy that their recent form makes them strong favourites to collect another three points from their trip to lowly Southampton. The Saints have won only one of their last eight to remain firmly entrenched in a relegation battle. Just four points separate them from the drop zone, and they need to start stringing results together quickly if they are to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.
Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers are also scrapping for their Premier League lives, and they will go head-to-head in a potentially pivotal encounter on Saturday. Villa saw off another fellow struggler in the form of Reading last weekend and that success has their head back above water. QPR have also begun to show signs that they are capable of clawing their way to safety, with Harry 'Houdini' Redknapp beginning to work his magic. The Rs have seen off Southampton and Sunderland in their past two outings to secure back-to-back Premier League victories for the first time since December 1995. They are now only four points from safety and suddenly feeling much better about themselves.
Arsenal should also be full of positivity this weekend following a much-improved showing against Bayern Munich on Wednesday. The Gunners may have bowed out of the UEFA Champions League on German soil, but a 2-0 victory at the Allianz Arena suggests those who have been quick to write Arsene Wenger's side off may be forced to eat their words. Another trophyless season beckons at the Emirates, but bridging a five-point gap and retaining their place at European football's top table remains a realistic target. Their weekend opponents Swansea City have managed to claim major silverware this season, but need to put their Capital One Cup heroics to the back of their mind and knuckle down in the pursuit of a top-half finish.
West Bromwich Albion are also hoping to end the season inside the top 10, with a return to form over recent weeks offering them every chance of hitting that target. Three wins in four have Steve Clarke's side heading in the right direction again and a push for Europe may not be beyond them if they can maintain their current level of performance. Stoke City are unlikely to be relishing a meeting with the Baggies, with Tony Pulis' side stuck in an alarming slump. The Potters have suffered three defeats in a row, and seven in their last nine, to undo much of the good work they put in prior to the turn of the year.
The final fixture on Saturday will see Manchester United looking to take another positive step towards reclaiming the Premier League title. The Red Devils have opened up a commanding lead at the summit, but Sir Alex Ferguson will not allow his side to take their foot off the gas until silverware is safely tucked away in the trophy cabinet. United have won their last five, and 14 of their last 16, to underline their domestic dominance in 2012/13. Attempting to put a rare dent in the Red Devils' title charge this weekend will be Reading, who head to Old Trafford under the guidance of caretaker coach Eammon Dolan. The Royals opted to part company with McDermott in the wake of a morale-sapping setback against Aston Villa and have just nine games in which to save their season - with four straight defeats leaving them four points from safety.
Sunderland and Norwich City will open up a Super Sunday double-header, with the game set to be screened live on Sky Sports 1HD. A six-match winless run has the Black Cats looking anxiously over their shoulder once more, with only a six-point cushion keeping them clear of the relegation trapdoor. Martin O'Neill desperately needs to turn things around, starting in a home date against his former employers. Norwich will travel to the Stadium of Light just one place and three points above their opponents. Just one win since 22nd December tells its own story for the Canaries and Chris Hughton will need no reminding that his side are not safe yet - despite having collected as many points as tenth-placed Fulham.
Speaking of the Cottagers, they face another tough away test on Sunday. Fulham will make the short journey from west to north London to face high-flying Tottenham Hotspur, a side still pushing hard for a top-three finish and top billing in the capital. Spurs have suffered just two defeats on home soil this season, and only two sides can better their defensive record in front of their own supporters. The size of the challenge facing his side will not be lost on Martin Jol, with the former Spurs boss fully aware of how difficult it can be for visitors at White Hart Lane. Fulham have, however, moved into the top-half of the table on the back of a three-match unbeaten run and should be in optimistic mood.
Rafa Benitez's struggles as interim coach of Chelsea were not helped by an early defeat to West Ham United, and the Blues will take in a return date with their capital rivals on Sunday. The Hammers prevailed 3-1 at Upton Park back in December and will be looking to complete their first double over Chelsea in 10 years. Benitez's men cannot afford to suffer another hiccup, as they cling to fourth place, and will look to take plenty of positives from the fact that they have won their last three league games at Stamford Bridge. The Hammers, meanwhile, are edging their way towards the fabled 40-point mark and top-flight safety.
The final game of the weekend, and the second instalment of Super Sunday, sees Wigan Athletic welcome Newcastle United to the DW Stadium. The Latics hammered the Magpies 4-0 on home soil last season as they pulled off a remarkable survival charge. They will be hoping for more of the same 12 months on, with Roberto Martinez's side finding themselves locked in another relegation scrap. The Latics sit inside the bottom three, three points adrift of 17th place. Newcastle have claimed four wins in six to pull clear of trouble, but could be dragged back into a dogfight if they fail to end the season with a flourish.
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