Element of doubt creeps in at City as chasing pack prepare for battle

ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. ESPN's live and exclusive coverage of Manchester City vs Fulham is entirely free this weekend from 4:30pm on Saturday... 

A month ago, Manchester City versus Fulham would have been a foregone conclusion. But now, although you would still heavily favour City to win this weekend, there is that element of doubt creeping in.

In their last nine fixtures, City have won just three and that kind of form seemed inconceivable in mid-autumn. It’s amazing what the loss of Yaya Toure has done; it seems to have removed a whole dimension to their play. He is the one they have really struggled to replace and that’s going to continue to be the case for a couple of weeks, in all likelihood.

Carlos Tevez – who has been virtually been forgotten now - and Mario Balotelli – who serves the third game of a four-match ban – they can do without because they’ve got Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero to cover. But Toure plays a unique role and so they have no replacement for him and boy are they missing him. He can probably name his price if he wants a new contract on his return.

City will be aware that there is a chance they could lose the lead of the Barclay’s Premier League this weekend. Say Fulham manage to eke out a draw, the door is open for Manchester United the following day when they step out at Stamford Bridge against their old rivals Chelsea.

Personally I think that Manchester City will beat Fulham and will still be top of the pile; but I’m glad that it is a race and not a procession because there was a stage of the season when it looked like City were going to run away with things but it certainly isn’t going to be the case.

Manchester United may not be playing brilliantly at present, but under Sir Alex Ferguson they always hang on in there, and whilst they remain there it will sow seeds of doubt in City minds.

Chelsea, their opponents this Sunday, are twelve points off the top and are missing Didier Drogba, who may well be past his best and may well be on the way in the summer, but given that Torres can’t buy a goal for love nor money they could really do with him.

I think if Manchester United are going to have any title pretensions then it is a game that they have to go out and win – that would send out a message to City. Chelsea are ordinary enough this season for United to go there with a degree of confidence.

Sturridge and Mata have done very well, but there are too many who are perhaps over the hill, going down the other side now. I’m thinking particularly of Terry and Lampard and I don’t think Petr Cech is the goalkeeper he once was. So for that reason I think United go there with a really good chance.

They will hope to have Rooney back which will be significant for them, but they do have this problem with the goalkeeper. It may be that Ben Amos gets another chance. The question is whether Sir Alex throws David de Gea back in now that he knows Lindegaard is out for a month on the basis that he paid £17.5 million for him? It is a conundrum that Ferguson has had to deal with many times over his career and he usually gets the answer right.

If Chelsea don’t finish in the top four it will be through their own failings rather than the achievements of others. I see fourth place as being there for the taking for them.

They’re not in the same class as Tottenham - let alone that of Manchester City or United - but equally I don’t see Newcastle, Liverpool or Arsenal being on the same level as Chelsea.

Newcastle are in a slightly false position in sixth place, they’ve done wonderfully well to keep churning out results despite the roadblocks that keep being thrown in their way, but I don’t see them sustaining a top four challenge, even though they should have enough to see off Aston Villa on Sunday. Yoan Cabaye’s three-match ban is a real problem for Newcastle, Alan Pardew has been railing against various sections of the media for daring to comment that Cabaye committed this foul.What he’s doing by publicising this is trying to create that siege mentality and it seems to be working, because for all the adversity and the lack of players they are still churning out results. I expect them to get another one this weekend, not least as Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse will return.

Liverpool have suddenly found a rich seam of form. Less than two weeks ago Kenny Dalglish was berating his players for a lacklustre display, absent of heart, at Bolton. If those words were supposed to induce a positive response then they have hit the nail on the head. Since then, three very impressive victories for Liverpool have reinvigorated their season.It’s going to be a very close and an entertaining game between two very different sides when they face Tottenham on Monday evening. Spurs have match-winners throughout their side, whereas Liverpool are more reliant on the team effort. Tottenham will finish higher in the Premier League, but with home advantage Liverpool will fancy their chances of knocking them out of their stride.

Arsenal hoped to end their losing run with a win at Bolton on Wednesday night, but only chiselled out a very dull 0-0 draw. If they can’t beat Blackburn at home then there really is something seriously wrong, and I expect them to win this one fairly comfortably.

Norwich face Bolton and I wonder how significant come the end of the season their 3-0 defeat at Sunderland on Wednesday night will prove to be. They looked nothing like the silky smooth operators they were in the first two thirds of the season. Nagging in the back of my mind is the fact we’ve seen this same situation with other teams season in season out. Hull City and Blackpool had really good starts to the season and then fell away dramatically and got ended up bang in the middle of the relegation dogfight. There is still cause for concern at that prospect in Norfolk, though they’ve probably got enough points on the board thus far not to lose too much sleep just yet. They need to find another four wins in fifteen games and a home game with Bolton represents a possibility to get the first.

It’s reaching the point of no return for Mick McCarthy and Wolves. I’m surprised they’re struggling as badly as they are because they’ve got some decent players and a great team spirit but that doesn’t seem to be enough for them. They can’t score consistently, defensively they’re a soft touch and QPR - with a clutch of new players and a new manager in place - may prove to be too strong for them in the bear pit of Loftus Road.

Sunderland travel to Stoke and will feel they have a good chance of getting a result. They’re riding a wave of confidence under Martin O’Neill and Stoke are stuttering ever so slightly. It’s been a huge boost for Sunderland having Frazier Campbell back after 18 months out. He scored a sublime goal against Norwich on Wednesday night, and as long he’s fit enough to start again, it gives Sunderland the spearhead that they lacked when Steve Bruce was in charge.

West Brom seem to have a couple of steps forward and then two or three steps backwards, it’s frustrating for Roy Hodgson, but they should have enough about them to stay in the division.We’ve said everything that we can say about Swansea’s style of football, a sort of mini-Arsenal. They’ve got a number of unsung players who have only come to our attention this season; in particular Joe Allen, who looks one of the best attacking midfielders in the division. But Swansea away from home are a completely different beast to the side that performs with such conviction and style at the Liberty, so this is a good barometer to see if Brendan Rogers is managing to address their problems.

The Premier League table makes very grim reading for Wigan now, because they’re five points adrift. Fifteen points from 23 games is out and out relegation form in any season. They had their little purple patch in December, but now they’ve gone back to where they were before, losing most of their games, conceding far too many goals.On Saturday they host Everton, who will be on something of a high having beaten Manchester City and brough in a new striker in Nikica Jelavic. They should build on that by bouncing off the top team and a victory, and going to the bottom team and winning that.

Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Manchester City vs Fulham, Saturday, 4.30pm. ESPN will be completely free to watch from 3rd February – 6th February on Freeview, Sky, Top Up TV and BT Vision. This means fans will be able to watch Saturday evening's match for free.