Magpies have the edge over Black Cats, Arsenal's commitment put to the test

ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch exclusive coverage of Newcastle United vs Sunderland live on ESPN from 11am on Sunday...

FIXTURES Sat 3 March Liverpool v Arsenal, Blackburn v Aston Villa, Manchester City v Bolton, QPR v Everton, Stoke v Norwich, West Brom v Chelsea, Wigan v Swansea Sun 4 Feb Newcastle v Sunderland (live on ESPN), Fulham v Wolves, Tottenham v Manchester United

In what could be a pivotal weekend in the Premier League season, the pick of this weekend’s fixtures comes on Sunday, when Newcastle host bitter rivals Sunderland. The Tyne-Wear derby is one of the most underrated in the English football, and because it takes place 300 miles away from London it doesn’t quite get the attention others do, but for both sets of supporters it’s about as big as it gets.

Although both sides lost last weekend, Alan Pardew and Martin O’Neill’s sides head in to the fixture enjoying relatively good form. Not since 1948 have Newcastle and Sunderland been placed higher (they currently sit in sixth and ninth respectively) going in to the derby and although there isn’t too much between the two sides, you have to see Newcastle as favourites. Not only do the Magpies have home advantage, they have come out on top in recent matches against their closest rivals – Sunderland fans won’t thank me for mentioning the 5-1 humiliation they suffered in this fixture last season.

Two of the clubs vying for a Champions League spot face each other when Arsenal travel to Anfield to face Liverpool in Saturday’s early kick-off. It will be difficult for the Gunners as Kenny Dalglish’s men will be buoyed by winning the Carling Cup last weekend, although we will have to wait to see if their talismanic captain Steven Gerrard is fit after his excursions playing for England in the week. Those Arsenal fans who have claimed that the victory in the north London derby against Spurs last weekend has saved their season well, I’m afraid may well be mistaken. The Gunners' problem is that they have struggled for consistency this season and the trip to Merseyside will be a real test to see if they possess the commitment and resolve to dig out results. I have my doubts.

Another epic Premier League tussle sees Tottenham take on Manchester United at White Hart Lane. After the aforementioned defeat in the north London derby, Spurs have only won two out of their last six games and they need to quickly re-discover the form that has propelled them to third in the league. Although Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have won six and drawn one out of their last seven games, this is not the formidable United side of years gone by and for that reason I think it will end all square on Sunday.

Although Blackburn have lost three of their last four games and shipped fifteen goals in the process, I fancy Steve Kean’s side to emerge victorious in their encounter with Aston Villa on Saturday. The Villains have won only three games out of a possible fifteen, and defeat on Saturday would really set alarm-bells ringing in the ears of supporters at the midlands club.

Another side firmly in the midst of a relegation battle are Bolton, who face a daunting trip to league leaders Manchester City. Roberto Mancini’s men boast a perfect Premier League home record of thirteen wins from thirteen, and I imagine it will be pretty straightforward for them against the Trotters. Although four of the Lancashire club’s six wins have come away from home and eternal optimist Owen Coyle will be telling his players to focus on that, I just can’t see anything other than a home win.

There is real cause for concern at QPR after another defeat last weekend at home to Fulham, their third in three games. The ‘new manager syndrome’ has had little affect on the west London club and they continue to be very ill disciplined, with a number of players receiving their marching orders in recent weeks. They face an in-form Everton side who have only conceded four goals in their last seven games. Manager David Moyes spent very wisely in the January transfer window and I expect the Toffee’s will come away from Loftus Road with all three points.

This weekend sees Stoke play the 44th game of what has been a very long and arduous season for the Potters. They face a Norwich side who are sitting comfortable in eighth place, and with a few more wins, the Canaries can start thinking about a second successive season in the Premier League. However, Tony Pulis’ side seem reinvigorated by their 2-0 win over Swansea last weekend and I see them taking all three points at the Britannia Stadium this time round as well.

How the fortunes of West Brom have been reversed in the last fortnight. Resounding wins over Wolves and Sunderland has opened up an eleven point gap between themselves and the drop zone. They take on a Chelsea side who will be without captain John Terry through injury. The constant speculation that manager Andre Villas-Boas will be sacked at any given moment cannot be good for the players and they will have to work very hard to come away from the Hawthorns with all three points.

Wigan boss Roberto Martinez welcomes his old side Swansea to the DW stadium on Saturday. Brendan Rodgers’ side are currently ten points clear of the Latics and although they have only won twice away all season, there is no better time for the Swan’s to inflict more misery on Martinez and his Wigan team.

Coming from 2-0 down at half time to draw 2-2 against Newcastle must have felt like a victory for new Wolves boss Terry Connor. As I said last week, I’m not convinced by the appointment of Mick McCarthy’s former assistant as manager and I feel that if the Molineux club wanted to have the desired affect of changing managers then they should have dispensed with McCarthy in January. The West Midlands club face an inconsistent Fulham side who although are strong at home, I can see this ending in a stalemate – which unfortunately is not quite good enough for Wolves at this stage of the season.

Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Newcastle United vs Sunderland, Sunday, 11am.