FFT looks ahead to 2013's final round of Premier League action...
The fact the teams who spent Christmas Day on top and in fourth switched places after just 90 minutes of action tells you everything you need to know about how tight it is towards the summit of the Premier League.
This time of year is always cited as a key period of a top-flight season with games coming thick and fast, but with so many meetings between the elite sides this festive season, it really could be a fortnight in which title and top four aspirations are boosted or broken. There are two more such clashes this weekend, as the Premier League season reaches the halfway point.
Liverpool will look to bounce back from their unfortunate defeat at the Etihad by returning to winning ways against Chelsea. In 2010/11 and 2011/12, the Reds won at Stamford Bridge when in a far worse state than they are at present, which should see them arrive in west London in a positive state of mind.
Chelsea may not be playing with quite the same swagger as Liverpool or City (they have scored 10 fewer goals than this weekend’s opponents, and 20 fewer than free-scoring City), but Jose Mourinho’s team are still – bar the odd hiccup – a highly efficient side.
How the Blues approach this match will give a good indication of how seriously Mourinho takes Liverpool as a title rival. Traditionally, the Portuguese has looked primarily to nullify his biggest rivals, often leading to slow-paced, chess-like matches, such as the recent draw at Arsenal or the early-season stalemate at Old Trafford.
The fact this match is at home may necessitate a slightly more expansive approach, but it is unlikely to be a thrill-a-minute barnstormer of a fixture like many of Liverpool’s recent outings against the league’s stronger sides.
Newcastle’s home clash with leaders Arsenal appears far more likely to be a breathless end-to-end festive treat. The Gunners have lost just one of their previous 12 league fixtures at St James’ Park, winning four and drawing the other seven, and with 19 points from their nine away matches this season, only north London rivals Spurs can equal their away record.
Yet Sunday’s match will be no walkover, as Newcastle have won seven of their last nine in the league, and are fresh from blasting five past Stoke on Boxing Day. The Magpies’ fine form has gone under the radar, perhaps thanks to Everton’s long unbeaten run, but Alan Pardew’s team now sit just one point behind the Toffees, and three off the top four.
That gap closed in part thanks to a surprise win for their North East rivals Sunderland at Goodison Park, a result that may knock Everton out of their stride ahead of their own weekend match against Southampton.
Roberto Martinez will be without Tim Howard for the visit of the Saints, thanks to the early red card doled out to the American against the Black Cats, as well as in-form loanee Gareth Barry. With Adam Lallana in form and Southampton finally ending their winless run with a 3-0 mauling of Cardiff in South Wales, this suddenly feels like a challenging hurdle for the Toffees.
Sunderland’s win may not have moved them off the bottom, given Crystal Palace and Fulham also both selfishly won away from home, but it could prove a confidence-boosting launchpad for the second half of the season. They’ll look to exploit the chaos surrounding now-managerless Cardiff when they arrive in the Welsh capital for Saturday’s Premier League showdown.
The news that Vincent Tan had dispensed of Malky Mackay was as unpopular as it was unsurprising, and it will be interesting to see how the players react. Their form had hardly been sensational of late – the Bluebirds had scored just five goals in their last 10 league matches, picking up seven points along the way. Could a change in manager and approach – as ugly and unsavoury as the whole drawn-out process has been – actually prove the spur to Cardiff securing safety?
It will also be interesting to see how Crystal Palace line up for their match at Manchester City. Tony Pulis has helped turn the Eagles’ season round – nine points from their last five matches have even helped drag them out of the relegation zone – but with what appears to be a six-pointer against Norwich coming just three days after the trip to the Etihad, could the arch-pragmatist rotate his squad with a view to saving his key players for the bigger match? Either way, it’s hard to see City failing to win.
One team who may well take encouragement from Palace’s upturn in fortunes is West Brom. The Baggies are now eight without a win and slowly sliding down the table, and will hope the arrival of a new manager can bring fresh ideas and impetus to a crumbling campaign. Caretaker Keith Downing made several changes for Thursday’s trip to White Hart Lane – possibly with one eye on Saturday’s match at West Ham - and will have been encouraged by a resolute showing and a hard-earned point.
The now-unemployed Mackay may be watching this match closely. He has already been strongly linked with the aforementioned vacancy at The Hawthorns, and the mounting pressure on Sam Allardyce could soon lead to another at one of the Scot’s former clubs.
Hull once again played well against one of the Premier League’s glamour clubs but left their Boxing Day fixture with Manchester United empty handed. The Tigers are doing a good job of keeping their heads above water, but a second away win of the week for Fulham would drag the Tigers back towards the mire.
The Cottagers ended Norwich’s mini-renaissance thanks to a late Scott Parker winner at Carrow Road, and things don’t look like getting any jollier for the Canaries, as they host a rejuvenated Manchester United on Saturday afternoon.
The champions have recovered well from the ignominy of losing back-to-back home matches by winning three on the spin. Extending that run to four would likely drag David Moyes’ side closer to the title-chasing pack, given four of the six teams above them face one another.
United may be sensible to exercise some caution in Norfolk – they’ve lost two of their last three trips to Carrow Road – but their recent away showings have been enough to suggest they could and should win again on Saturday.
Given their dismal home record, Aston Villa won’t be relishing their second Villa Park fixture in three days, not least as they lost Thursday’s to Crystal Palace. Paul Lambert’s side have lost six of their nine home league matches this term, which will be music to the ears of a Swansea side who haven’t won in four matches.
Villa started December with an impressive win at Southampton, but that hasn’t proven to be a springboard. Another defeat on Saturday would be a fifth on the bounce, and would leave Lambert with some difficult questions to answer. If the Swans show the same application they did in their narrow defeat at Chelsea, they’ll have more than half a chance.
Tim Sherwood will certainly be looking for more commitment from his new Tottenham charges, when they host Stoke at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Spurs looked disorganised and lethargic in Thursday’s draw with West Brom, perhaps suggesting that Andre Villas-Boas persisting with only one striker wasn’t as big an issue as was being suggested in some quarters.
Their hopes of a top-four spot may currently appear faint, but a win at home to a Stoke side reeling from a 5-1 shellacking at Newcastle would leave Spurs no more than three points off fourth, regardless of results elsewhere.