Champions League a bridge too far for Toon, but London trio all fallible

ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action...

FIXTURES Sat 31 Mar Aston Villa vs Chelsea, Everton vs West Brom, Fulham vs Norwich, Man City vs Sunderland, QPR vs Arsenal, Wigan vs Stoke, Wolves vs Stoke Sun 1 Apr Newcastle vs Liverpool, Tottenham vs Swansea Mon 2 Apr Blackburn vs Man Utd

The balance between the three London sides in contention for those last two Champions League spots - Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea – appears to have swung. For a long time it was Spurs who were the sure things, Chelsea who looked set to grab fourth and Arsenal who looked destined to miss out.

Now, Arsenal are hot favourites for third, while last weekend’s draw at Stamford Bridge leaves Spurs with a five point gap over Chelsea, now rank outsiders.

The three sides all have certain fragilities which could affect them at various times in the last eight games of the season. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen with any certainty, because they don’t deliver the level of consistency that you would normally expect from a top four side, although Arsenal clearly seem to have found their rhythm at the right time.

Just below that capital trio are two sides who face one another in what looks the most intriguing of this weekend’s Premier League ties. Newcastle against Liverpool is one of the blue-chip Premier League fixtures, thanks largely to those 4-3 thrillers in the late 90s, two of the greatest Premier League games of the last twenty years.

Liverpool have already secured a Europa League spot by virtue of their Carling Cup triumph, with the possibility of FA Cup success still to come. But the Champions League is now beyond them, and I fancy that may also be true of Newcastle, despite another brilliant showing at West Brom last time out. They would have to finish above two of Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea, and although they’re already level on points with the Blues, the North London pair are still quite far ahead.

Newcastle are still in a strong position for a Europa League place, however, and they’ll therefore be disappointed to be going into this game with so many injuries. Given a full-strength team and home advantage, they would really fancy themselves against Liverpool, but they’ll be forced to deal with the threat of Luis Suarez without first choice centre backs Steven Taylor and Fabrizio Coloccini. Liverpool are themselves a bit of a wounded animal at the moment, having lost five of their last six in the Premier League, but on this occasion those injuries might just tip the balance in their favour.

Chelsea are still fighting on three fronts, with that tremendous Champions League win in Portugal in midweek and the forthcoming FA Cup Semi Final against Tottenham. Chelsea appear to have discovered a little something extra under Roberto Di Matteo, because it’s five wins, a draw and a defeat in seven matches under the Italian’s caretaker management and he’s clearly getting a response from his squad, which Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t in his last few weeks. Aston Villa should be compliant opponents on Saturday. Eight points clear of trouble, Villa are, in my view, the dullest team to watch in the Premier League. They’ve won just one of their last seven in the league, yet their best result of the season was a 3-1 win at Chelsea on New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, Chelsea are on a bit of a roll under Di Matteo, and I would expect them to avenge that defeat with a win at Villa Park.

Tottenham against Swansea should be the most pleasing game on the eye of all the weekend fixtures. Spurs are without a win in five Premier League games, but should win on this occasion, not least because Swansea will be without one of their unsung heroes Steven Caulker, who is on loan from Tottenahm. While most of the plaudits have gone to their more creative players, Caulker has done very well and I understand the staff at Spurs are looking forward to assimilating him back into their first-team squad next season. Swansea have won three out of their last four in the Premier League, but Tottenham played very well against Bolton in the FA Cup in midweek and should continue their return to winning ways.

QPR’s daunting run-in continues with the visit of Arsenal to Loftus Road. Having only recently faced Liverpool and a tricky trip to Sunderland, they still have to play the top five before the end of the season, and that may well be the most telling factor in their battle against relegation. Indiscipline is another contributing factor, with Djibril Cissé’s second red card in as many months leading to a four game ban. Strangled by suspensions, it’s just a question of whether QPR are good enough to get at an occasionally fragile Arsenal, who have enjoyed seven consecutive Premier League wins. Earlier on in the season QPR may have caused problems, but this is a different side. They haven’t got the terrier-like Neil Warnock urging them on, they have Mark Hughes who is an altogether different style of manager, and for that reason I would be surprised if Arsenal don’t win this particular London derby and put QPR in even deeper trouble.

Elsewhere at the bottom, Wolves seem to have collapsed. There is an air of resignation about the players and the club in general. They made a huge mistake in the sacking of Mick McCarthy and the handling of his appointing his successor. Terry Connor was watching Saturday's opponents Bolton play at Tottenham on Tuesday and while everyone thinks he is a very good assistant, few are yet convinced he is a manager. Bolton have won their last two matches in the Premier League, against QPR and Blackburn, doubly valuable wins because they were against their companions in distress. Looking at the bottom of the Premier League table, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the bottom three stay the same until the end of the season, with Wolves at the very bottom.

Another of the current bottom three, Wigan Athletic, have at least been showing signals that they could perhaps turn things around. They’re only off the bottom by virtue of Wolves’ collapse, but their last three games have brought two draws and a win, and they have lost only one of their last seven. They’ve most likely left themselves a little too much to do this year but I certainly wouldn’t rule them out of escaping. They’ll find their games against Stoke difficult but the Potters are not as strong on their travels as they are at the Britannia. This is a difficult one to call, with the relegation threatened teams a lot is down to desire at this stage of the season and this game against Stoke is a good barometer of Wigan’s desire.

Blackburn Rovers were complacent against Bolton in their local derby last weekend. They did not play well and received a sharp reminder that they cannot afford to ease off. They will be rank outsiders against Manchester United at Ewood Park this weekend, but we shouldn’t forget they won 3-2 at Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve in probably the most surprising result of the season. Having said that, that will be the ultimate motivation for Manchester United, who have won nine of their last ten in the Premier League. They are not the results machine that they have been in previous seasons and I do see them slipping up at some point between now and the end of the season to give an extra twist to the title race. It’s their 47th game of the season; they’ve only failed to score in one match, which was at Newcastle over the New Year. Blackburn still need three wins to be sure of safety, but Manchester United should have too much for them on Monday night.

You can’t bet against Manchester City at home; they’ve won every league game they have played there this season, scoring 44 and conceding just seven. The crunch match is going to be the Manchester derby at the end of April, but the key for them at the moment is who’s fit and who isn’t. Without Vincent Kompany they look vulnerable at the back, whereas with him you can see precisely why they’ve got the best defensive record in the Premier League. They’ve missed him for the last few games and are hoping that he will be back this weekend. They’re also hoping that Sergio Aguero will return because he was equally missed in that 1-1 draw Stoke last Saturday. This weekend’s visitors Sunderland are a side who have just gone off the boil slightly, with two wins in their last seven games in all competitions. Despite disappointment against Everton in the FA Cup in the week, they’re sitting comfortably in eighth place, and while Martin O’Neill won’t want his team to ease off, it would only be natural if they did slightly. Unless they are anything other than at their best, and unless Manchester City have an off day, I cannot predict anything other than a home win.

Everton, on the other side of the coin to Sunderland, will be buoyed by their place in the FA Cup semi-final and, with two defeats in fourteen games in all competitions, they’re a tough nut to crack. I struggle to see West Brom winning this game, after how poor they were against Newcastle last weekend; I couldn’t believe how naive and open they were in the first half. They have taken one point from their last three games after a run of three consecutive wins and that sums them up. They have a good spell and then a bad spell, and that is why they’ll end up lower to mid table. The only question regarding this match is whether it will be an Everton win or a draw.

Fulham have a similar problem - three defeats in a row after three wins in a row - and they’ve failed to score in their last three games. They were very unfortunate at Old Trafford on Monday night not to earn a penalty late in the game, because they had played quite well throughout the game. I like the number of attacking players that Martin Jol is managing to pack into his line-up with Pogrebnyak now as the main striker. If you look at their midfield it includes players like Moussa Dembélé who is one of the best attacking players in the Premier League! Their game against Norwich is a game that doesn’t particularly engage me because nothing really rides on it. I think there’s plenty to admire about Norwich but they have only one win in five games and that was against a very poor Wolves team. They seem to be coasting towards the end of the season and maybe Fulham can take advantage of that. It should be one of those games where you sit back and enjoy the football, without too much concern for the result.

Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN. This season, ESPN’s live television football coverage includes the Barclays Premier League, the FA Cup, the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, England U-21 matches, Dutch Eredivisie and international friendly matches.

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