There was a full slate of midweek fixtures in the Premier League, following last weekend’s FA Cup fixtures. Manchester United moved back level on points with neighbours City, as the Reds beat Stoke 2-0 at home, while the leaders slumped to a 1-0 loss away to Everton. After Tuesday’s defeat, Manchester City’s manager, Roberto Mancini, admitted that he had not thoroughly prepared for the match, as he had expected his side to ease to victory. This confession was particularly bizarre, given that his team had extra time to prepare to face Everton, as they had already been knocked out of the cup in the previous round, leaving them with an open weekend prior to the match. City now have a run of four league games they will expect to win (home against Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton, away to Villa), so they may be able to re-establish their lead over United at the top of the table. The return of Yaya Toure from the African Cup of Nations will also be a huge boost for Mancini’s side, but if they are unable to pick up points in tricky away fixtures over the next few months, they will struggle to beat United to the league title.
In the race for the remaining two Champions League spots, Chelsea and Arsenal both dropped points as they drew away at Swansea and Bolton respectively. While Andre Villas-Boas’ side came from behind to earn a last-minute draw in Wales, the Gunners wasted many chances to win at the Reebok Stadium and could well have ended up losing, had David Ngog taken one of his two good opportunities for Bolton. Third placed Tottenham – who had drawn with Wolves and lost to City in their last two games – returned to winning ways with a 3-1 home victory over bottom-of-the-table Wigan. Although they are only five points off the leaders, the next two months will be crucial for Spurs and their chances of staying above their rivals to claim an automatic Champions League place for next season. Their forthcoming matches are thus: Liverpool away; Newcastle; Arsenal away; Manchester United; Everton away; Stoke; Chelsea away – a tough run of fixtures that means that Tottenham should be looking to consolidate their position in the table, rather than harbouring any realistic thoughts of a title challenge. Their North London rivals, Arsenal, dropped down to seventh in the league this week, as wins for Newcastle (away at Blackburn) and Liverpool (at Wolves) moved both teams above Arsene Wenger’s men. Although Spurs fans may not openly admit it, our one true aim this season is to cancel St. Totteringham’s Day – the point at the season in which their archrivals celebrate that Tottenham can no longer finish above them in the league. Arsenal fans have been able to celebrate this every year in the Premiership except one (in 1994/5) but as they currently sit 12 points below the Lilywhites with 15 games to play, we are only 34 points (gained for Tottenham or dropped by the Gunners) from guaranteeing the white half of North London ends up on top this season.
Sunderland’s excellent form since appointing Martin O’Neill as their manager continued, as they beat Norwich 3-0 on Wearside – if the league had started on the day the Northern Irishman started in his new job, the Black Cats would be top of the Premiership. Aston Villa came from two goals down against Queens Park Rangers at Villa Park to earn a 2-2 draw, and Fulham, who just sold striker Bobby Zamora to QPR on the last day of the transfer window, were held to a share of the points at Craven Cottage by West Brom.
The highlights of this weekend’s fixtures include Chelsea vs Manchester United on Sunday, the second Premiership game being shown on network television in the US (on Fox, the first was Arsenal vs United last month) as a prelude to the Superbowl later that day; and Liverpool vs Tottenham on Monday, with the Merseysiders welcoming back Luis Suarez for the match, following his eight game suspension. Elsewhere, Manchester City, who last four of their eight games played in the month of January, will be hoping to regain their early season form at home against Fulham; their conquerors on Tuesday, Everton, travel to Wigan; Arsenal, who have taken 1 point from their last four league games, host Blackburn; and Newcastle face Aston Villa at St. James’ Park.
Before my predictions – a quick update on all the legal news in English football right now. Harry Redknapp’s case relating to a charge of tax evasion has reached it’s closing arguments and a verdict should happen soon; John Terry’s trial for the charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand has been delayed until after the European Championships in the summer, but the Chelsea defender has been stripped of the England captaincy by the FA today; and during Everton’s game with Manchester City, a supporter handcuffed himself to one of the goalposts – causing a delay of five minutes while the police found bolt-cutters to release him – in protest at his daughter’s sacking from Ryanair – a budget airline. You could not make it up.
Midweek, 5-5; Season 87-113
Arsenal vs Blackburn – Home win
Norwich vs Bolton – Draw
QPR vs Wolves – Home win
Stoke vs Sunderland – Away win
West Brom vs Swansea – Draw
Wigan vs Everton – Away win
Manchester City vs Fulham – Home win
Newcastle vs Aston Villa – Home win
Chelsea vs Manchester United – Away win
Liverpool vs Tottenham – Home win