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English Premier League
Saturday 21st April 2012
Seven wins in eight league games had ensured that for the last couple of months it was Arsene Wenger the charmer conducting the post-match press conferences and sharing a laugh and a joke with the match officials.
But as soon as Arsenal suffered a shock home defeat at the hands of Wigan on Monday, Wenger the whinger immediately reappeared, haranguing the fourth official for no apparent reason and regressing to his default position that his charges are the victims of some dark conspiracy among their thuggish Premier League rivals to kick them into submission.
Curiously, the Frenchman only tends to trot out that well-worn line when his side have suffered an embarrassing defeat and he may well have to use the familiar smokescreen on Saturday if the Gunners fail to produce a significantly improved performance against Chelsea.
They may have been a touch fortunate to down Barcelona in the Champions League in midweek, but there is no disputing that the Blues have been revitalised since Andre Villas-Boas departed the Bridge and remain locked in a nip and tuck battle with Spurs and Newcastle for fourth place and the Champions League berth that will almost certainly come with it.
Stand-in boss Roberto Di Matteo clearly enjoys the support of the senior players at the club, who effectively seem to hold the balance of power and they showed against Spurs at Wembley last weekend that they still have the potential to cut any of their main rivals to shreds when at their best.
Unfortunately for the visitors, however, they may have to field something of a makeshift rearguard at the Emirates with Branislav Ivanovic still serving a domestic suspension, David Luiz set to miss the game due to a hamstring strain and Gary Cahill facing a late test on a foot injury.
Up front, meanwhile, Fernando Torres could come in to replace Didier Drogba if the Ivorian is feeling the effects of his goalscoring efforts in midweek and both Daniel Sturridge and Raul Meireles may also get the nod to start.
For the home side, who famously won 5-3 at Stamford Bridge back in October, Aaron Ramsey seems set to deputise for Mikel Arteta who picked up an ankle injury early in the piece against Wigan, but otherwise Wenger is likely to give the rest of his starting eleven the chance to redeem themselves at the expense of the Blues.
Wojciech Szczesny is a certain starter in goal and the Pole has played down speculation linking him with a big-money move away from North London this week by insisting that he will stick with the Gunners until they end their seven-year trophy drought.
And he could have at least one new defender playing in front of him next season if reports claiming that Cameroon international Nicolas N’Koulou is on the brink of completing a move to the Emirates from Marseilles are to be believed.
Blues fans making the short trip across the capital can take plenty of encouragement from the recent history of this fixture which shows that their side has won four, drawn one and lost just two of their last seven visits to the Emirates in all competitions.
Both sides have shown dramatic improvement over the last couple of months and it’s not easy to separate them, so although home advantage might be enough to earn slight favouritism for the Gunners, the visitors look more than capable of securing a share of the spoils in what should be a decent game for the neutral.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-2 Chelsea
Sunday 22nd April 2012
Having bounced back from their shock defeat at Wigan with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Aston Villa last weekend, Manchester United remain very much in pole position to retain their title.
And a home clash with an Everton, a side who have not won at Old Trafford since 1992 and are still reeling from their devastating FA Cup Semi-Final defeat at the hands of Liverpool, would seem to represent a relatively straightforward three points.
Not that boss Sir Alex Ferguson will be allowing any complacency to creep in.
With a trip to second-placed Manchester City beckoning next weekend and their arch-rivals all but certain to pick up three points at Wolves later on Sunday, Fergie knows that if his charges were to take their eye off the ball against the Toffees, the impact on their title ambitions could prove catastrophic.
Everton have tended to perform well against the division’s better sides in recent seasons, but most of those successes came at Goodison Park and they won’t relish travelling to Old Trafford to take on a United side which, the Wigan blip aside, has resembled a red juggernaut since the turn of the year.
Luis Valencia has been in sparkling form, Paul Scholes continues to roll back the years in midfield, while PFA Player of the Year-nominee Wayne Rooney looks to be back to his best and will be extra keen to impress against his former employees.
One United player who will be under the spotlight for different reasons, however, is Ashley Young who has confirmed his reputation for diving with several theatrical tumbles in recent weeks and will surely face some sort of censure from the FA if he persists with his unsavoury and unwarranted simulation antics.
On the injury front, meanwhile, although the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Michael Owen, Anderson and Darren Fletcher remain unavailable for the home side, they did not appear to pick up any fresh problems in the win over Villa and may remain unchanged this weekend.
So what of Everton?
Many of their fans were furious with the way their side seemed to surrender the initiative to Liverpool in the second-half at Wembley last Saturday, with boss David Moyes coming in for some fierce criticism for what were perceived as his negative tactics.
That may have been a touch harsh on the Scot who has performed miracles on a yearly basis at Goodison Park, but it could be in his own best interests to move on in the off-season as it’s hard to see how much further he can take the cash-strapped Merseyside club under the present circumstances.
His immediate task is to ensure that the hangover from that semi-final defeat is not allowed to derail the rest of Everton’s league campaign which could still end with an extremely creditable seventh-placed finish and the possibility of Europa League football next term if certain other results go their way.
Finishing above Liverpool is another juicy little incentive that should keep the Toffees’ players motivated and given that they have already beaten Manchester City,Chelsea and Tottenham this term, Moyes’ men will quietly fancy their chances of putting a spoke in the wheel of United’s title tilt.
Jack Rodwell will be the visitors’ only notable absentee as he continues to battle a hamstring injury, while both Seamus Coleman and Phil Jagielka could start after being used from the bench againstLiverpool.
Everton are not the kind of side that roll over for anyone and United will have a battle on their hands on Sunday, but with so much at stake, Fergie and co should prevail and keep their noisy neighbours at arm’s length for another week.
Prediction: Manchester United 2-0 Everton
Sunday 22nd April 2012
With Manchester United’s game against Everton kicking off earlier in the day, by the time Manchester City run out at Molineux to take on Wolverhampton Wanderers, they will know if their arch-rivals have handed them another glimmer of hope in the title race.
If the Toffees can snatch even a draw at Old Trafford, City could close the gap to just three points and in doing so, set up arguably the most important Manchester derby of all time at Etihad Stadium next weekend.
The first part of that equation may be a long shot, but there seems little doubt that Roberto Mancini’s men will at least control the controllable by picking up three points at Molineux and effectively consign hapless Wolves to relegation in the process.
Rock-bottom of the table, eight points adrift of safety with only twelve points left to play for, the outlook for the Black Country side could hardly be bleaker and the same applies to the future of manager Terry Connor.
Clearly not the first, second, or even third choice for the job following the controversial sacking of Mick McCarthy back in February, the hugely-likeable Connor may be an excellent training ground coach, but his record of two draws and seven defeats from nine games in charge indicates in no uncertain terms that the number one position has come too early for him.
Indeed so desperate has Wolves’ plight become that there have even been suggestions that club owner Steve Morgan could swallow his pride and ask McCarthy to come back.
As it stands, the cellar-dwellers look set to stick with Connor until their inevitable fate is sealed and having seen his charges concede 22 goals in the last seven games, the under-fire rookie boss could do without a visit from a City side who hit Norwich for six at Carrow Road last weekend having rattled four past West Brom five days earlier.
In terms of team news for the home side, Jamie O’Hara and Stephen Hunt are both set to miss out, while Welsh international ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey has been ruled out for anything up to six months by a knee ligament injury and will be replaced by former Swansea stopper Dorus de Vries.
City, meanwhile, seem to be responding favourably to their manager’s claim that the pressure is off them because the title race is already over.
Showing that his United counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson is not the only one capable of playing mind games, Mancini has galvanised his side who have produced two scintillating performances in their last two outings and are well capable of dishing out another hiding to Wolves on Sunday.
Argentinean duo Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez are averaging an astonishing 4.3 goals since being paired up front and it is perhaps no coincidence that City have looked a far more cohesive unit in the absence of Mario Balotelli who will again miss out this weekend due to suspension.
The errant Italian will, however, be available for next week’s trip to Old Trafford where his presence, even on the bench, could well light the fuse on what promises to be an explosive clash irrespective of whether this weekend’s results keep the title race bubbling along.
Adam Johnson, Yaya Toure and Micah Richards all caught the eye in coming off the bench at Carrow Road last time out, but Mancini will surely be reluctant to make too many changes to his run-on side following such a superb attacking display.
City have lost just one of their last ten meetings with the men in old gold and even the most optimistic Wolves fan would be hard-pushed to make a case for his or her side avoiding a comprehensive defeat on Sunday.
Prediction: Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-3 Manchester City