ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action...
FIXTURES Sat 25 Feb Chelsea v Bolton, Newcastle v Wolves, QPR v Fulham, West Brom v Sunderland, Wigan v Aston Villa, Man City v Blackburn Sun 26 Feb Arsenal v Tottenham, Norwich v Man Utd, Stoke v Swansea.
If Manchester City are genuinely Champions elect, as some of their fans have been saying, this weekend's game against Blackburn Rovers is one they must win, and I think they will.I canÃ¢ÂÂt see Blackburn getting anything from the match. They remind me of a car that needs its breaks serviced; you know the breaks are faulty therefore you know it is going to crash, it is just a question of when. City have Yaya Toure back from the African Cup of Nations to assist their title charge. He hasn't played a domestic match since the 3-0 Premier League win over Liverpool on January 3. Since then, City have crashed out of both English cup competitions and seen Manchester United close the gap at the top to just two points.The Ivorian is obviously a key figure, but I didnÃ¢ÂÂt realise quite how important he was until I spoke with the City coaches earlier this week. They explained that, not only is he a driving, dynamic force from midfield, but that he is also the most popular recipient of passes. The player everyone looks to pass to.
But when you look at the title race you shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be backing a team you should be backing a manager. We are now getting towards what Sir Alex Ferguson christened himself, Ã¢ÂÂsqueaky bum timeÃ¢ÂÂ and even though Manchester United are hardly pulling up trees with their form, they are only two points behind Manchester City.This weekend they go to Norwich, where Eric Cantona was famously sent off in the past. The Canaries are in eighth place with 35 points and probably only need two wins to be sure of staying up in the Premier League, which would be a tremendous achievement for them. They will make life difficult for Manchester United, but we are into the final third of the season; the time that Ferguson and United traditionally get the bit between their teeth so I would expect them to win on that basis.
Tottenham are at Arsenal on Sunday and this game may well exemplify the shift in power in North London. Arsenal seem to be going nowhere fast and are clinging to fourth place by their fingernails; something I canÃ¢ÂÂt see them maintaining for much longer. Tottenham look set to finish above Arsenal for the first time in Arsene WengerÃ¢ÂÂs time with the Gunners and while there is a 10 point gap on paper there is a gulf in the quality of football. I expect a full strength Tottenham side to go to the Emirates and win.
The Andres Villas-Boas story rumbles on. It does seem that he has gone for revolution rather than evolution at Chelsea; clearly he has been told he has to change the guard but I feel the change has been too radical. No one seems to know what the future direction of the club is at the moment so maybe it is a good time for Bolton to go to the Bridge.Bolton should have every bit as much, if not more than Birmingham City and they managed to chisel out a draw. I just feel they lack a goal-scorer; Kevin Davies looks a shadow of his former self but Owen Coyle is relentlessly positive so I wonÃ¢ÂÂt write Bolton off in this one.
Newcastle remarkably, are still sixth and could be as high as fourth come the Sunday evening. The big news for them is that Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye are back in the centre of midfield. At home their form is formidable with just two defeats from 12 games this season. There is always a great belief in the Newcastle crowd and I think that will carry them through against a Wolves side still lacking a manager.I canÃ¢ÂÂt help but think that Steve Morgan has made a mess of the whole managerial change. Caretaker Terry Conor is trying to keep the players happy but it is hardly the ideal preparation for a game which could shape their season.
Another team who have sought a change in fortunes by making a change in the dugout are QPR. But there hasnÃ¢ÂÂt been a massive upturn in form since Mark Hughes arrived at Loftus Road, and the pressure will be on for the visit of his former club, Fulham. Bobby Zamora will also be facing his former employers, just to add a little extra spice to what is often a more 'friendly' derby. QPR are only out of the bottom three on goal difference and they are not playing the sort of football that suggests they will put together a run of results before the end of the season.Fulham are an enigmatic side but they keep doing just enough to keep them out of danger which is hardly a satisfying way to go through a season. My feeling is that Hughes will have Rangers right up for this and that may be enough to see them through.
With West Brom we have another team that is just doing enough to stay out of trouble. Peter Odemwingie is threatening to show some form after a disappointing start to the season.Speaking about disappointments; SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs have been washed away by the arrival of Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeil. I think James McLean, the youngster from Derry, would be a contender for Young Player of the Year if he had played more games. He and Sunderland have if not unstoppable momentum, then impressive momentum and that should be enough to carry them through at the Hawthorns.
Wigan are bottom of the table but still only two points adrift and last time out they won at Bolton. They play some lovely football but I donÃ¢ÂÂt think they have enough in their squad to dig themselves out of trouble. They face a side in Aston Villa who are merely treading water; they donÃ¢ÂÂt seem to have much in the way of heart or substance to them. So if Wigan are going to entertain any hopes of getting out of trouble then this is a game they have to win.
Stoke have fallen away recently; down to 13th but they are still nine points clear of trouble. Their biggest problem is that this game is post a difficult trip to Valencia and I think that will be a factor.Swansea on the other hand will come into this one nice and fresh. I think this is a good day for Swansea to play Stoke. Also I will give a mention to the SwanÃ¢ÂÂs Joe Allen who is another candidate for Young Player of the Year in my eyes; he has looked immediately at home in the Premier League this season.
Jon Champion is football commentator for ESPN. Watch ESPNÃ¢ÂÂs live and exclusive action from ItalyÃ¢ÂÂs Serie A as Inter Milan travel to Napoli on Sunday, 7.15pm.