AVB & Co. left fearing copycat axings, Arsenal seek to banish bad memory

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ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's football action. Watch live and exclusive coverage of Arsenal v Fulham live on ESPN from 4:30pm on Saturday

It took until the last day in November for us to see the first Premier League managerial casualty of the season, which is unusually late.

I’m quite disappointed Steve Bruce has left Sunderland, and it is a dangerous precedent that chairman Ellis Short has set – linking his departure to the fact that the fans were so against him. It’s almost a carte blanche now – any group of supporters can kick up a fuss and feel they can get rid of their manager, which is obviously what’s going on at Blackburn at the moment, though these are two very different situations.

At Blackburn there’s a fair case to suggest that Steve Kean is not leading the team in the right direction. At Sunderland they’ve made major investments over the summer, only to be held back by the lack of a goal-scoring striker which, in a sense, wasn’t entirely Steve Bruce’s fault if you consider how Darren Bent and Asamoah Gyan left the club – both moves appeared to be somewhat out of the blue.

Bruce has been left with two-thirds of a pretty good team, but the fact that they’ve not been able to put the ball in the net has ultimately cost him his job, which is a little harsh.

Now the trigger has been pulled for the first time by a chairman in the Premier League this season, other chairman in the Premier League will perhaps be a little less hesitant than they had been beforehand – nobody wants to be the first to sack their manager, after all.

That means the likes of Mick McCarthy, who’s Wolves team host Sunderland on Sunday, will be feeling just that little bit more nervous than, perhaps they would have been before. Questions are being asked at Wolves – quite rightly, given their form - but, perhaps the fans need to step back and consider where they were five or ten years ago before getting carried away with expectations of the great days returning.

Naturally, if there’s a genuine danger of a team going down then you have to look at the manager, but McCarthy should have enough credit in the bank through his achievements in the past three or four years to earn the chance to turn things round. The visit of managerless Sunderland to Molineux presents ample opportunity for Wolves to get themselves out of a bit of bother.

There has been a lot of talk of Andre Villas-Boas being under pressure of late, but that's true of any Chelsea manager at any given moment, given the expectations of the club’ owner. The Blues have had a run of very ordinary results, have several players out of form and are struggling to settle into the manager’s new system. All of that, combined with Guus Hiddink now being available on the labour marker, is a fairly toxic combination if you’re a 34-year-old in your first really big managerial job -  the storm clouds are gathering.
Although, frankly, it’s laughable to suggest that Chelsea should sack Villas-Boas at this stage, no one will dismiss that notion simply because of Abramovich’s track record. We know he stands for no sustained failure. He’ll look at the recent run of results and this is probably the poorest Chelsea team – in terms of their performances, if not on paper – of his time at the club.
The problem at Chelsea at the moment is that the template laid down by Mourinho was so strong, and so successful, that they are still struggling to break away from it. That template relied on players who were just approaching their peak, the like of Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech. Avram Grant came in and was sensible enough to notice the players were strong personalities and pretty much just continued in the same vain, and the players were reasonably happy with that. Since then it’s gradually started to fall apart a little.
Chelsea face a testing trip to Newcastle on Saturday. The Magpies are growing as a unit and the fact that they’ve bounced back with that draw at Old Trafford after their first league defeat of the season bodes well for them. It will be a very emotional occasion given how popular a player Gary Speed was at St James’ Park, and I think that wave of emotion may carry Newcastle quite a long way.

The other manager under big pressure is, of course, Steve Kean. I don’t really see how he can carry on at Blackburn if they don’t win Saturday’s game against Swansea. It’s got to be a must-win game for Rovers, having 'forfeited' their chance of going further in the League Cup by fielding a shadow team at Cardiff, and what’s more, coming out and admitting it afterwards, which was rather naïve. He’s now placed himself in a position where he has to justify that with a win against Swansea – nothing else will do.
Brendan Rodgers' side look a fairly serene bunch of Swans right now. Their 0-0 draw against Aston Villa wasn’t a great game, unsurpising in the circumstances, but they showed that sides are just beginning to get wise to them. Aston Villa had obviously seen what Manchester United did against Swansea the previous weekend and got into them and got close to them in midfield to try and close down their passing game and I think that’s probably the template that sides will try and follow against Swansea. But, for Steve Kean, we could be approaching end game.

Manchester City versus Norwich City is the biggest gimme of the weekend, which is no disrespect to Norwich. The Canaries played well at Old Trafford and drew at Anfield, so they’ve performed well on the road, but City are five points clear at the top for a reason. Norwich’s only hope is that City’s minds are on that crucial Champions League game with Bayern next week, but it would probably be a stretch towards fantasy to think that’s going to happen.

Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion have both been a bit in and out so far this season. QPR will strengthen substantially in January – Neil Warnock is hoping for at least four marquee signings in January - and that should be enough to see them safe. West Brom already look like having enough, and Roy Hodgson will be delighted to have brought the experience of Terry burton in to aid him on the training ground – perhaps their best signing of the season. There are enough poorer teams in the Premier League for these two, while they may flirt with it, to avoid actually falling through the trap door.

Harry Redknapp won‘t be too upset by Tottenham's defeat by PAOK in the Europa League. He’s managed to do his keep his Premier League line-up and his Europa League line-up largely separate and he’s been rewarded with the run of nine wins in ten games in the Barclay’s Premier League, and five successive wins, which I expect them to make into six against Bolton on Saturday. Owen Coyle may well be another manager worried that the departure of Steve Bruce from Sunderland could have his own chairman’s trigger finger twitching slightly.

Wigan finally ended their winless run at Sunderland, though I’m not sure how. Wes Brown’s gift in the 93rd minute was the means by which Franco di Santo won the game, but Sunderland had dominated for long periods. It would be nice to think, from Roberto Martinez’s point of view, that this is the turning point, but I find it hard to think that that’s the case. They’re likely to still be in for a long season of toil and struggle, and that should start with the visit of Arsenal. Although the DW was the scene of the Gunners‘ infamous capitualtion two years ago – they had been 2-0 up before ultimately losing lost 3-2, conceding two goals in and after the 89th minute – the Gunners will need to banish those memories and win this fixture if they are to have any chance of getting back into title contention.

I’ll be at Villa Park for the visit of Manchester United on Saturday evening. Aston Villa have a very small squad and fairly limited ambitions, from what I’ve seen of them this year. They’ll be very happy to be sitting eighth in the Premier League table, but then you look at this enormous gap – this chasm of seven points ahead of them – and you’d have to say they’re confirmed as a mid-table outfit. They don’t concede too many, but they don’t score very many either, and there are already murmurings of discontent.
As for Manchester United, they’ve not won in their last three games in all competitions, three of their last four in the Premier League have been 1-0 in their favour as they’ve gone back to basics. They are functional rather than full of flair right now, and I think that’s what they’ll need to be at Villa because they’ll be hard to break down. They’ve also got an important Champion’s League game on their minds so there may be some compromise in terms of Alex Ferguson’s team selection, but I would imagine Aston Villa will find Manchester United rather too hefty a nut to crack.

Everton also in that group of teams almost certain to finish in mid table, while Sunday’s opponents Stoke have really been derailed this season, largely by the Europa League. This week they’re coming off the back of a home draw against Kiev, but after their last four Europa League group games, they’ve lost, and they’ll do well to avoid that fate at Goodison.

Fulham were surprisingly good at Arsenal for a side that have been desperately searching for some consistent form this season, and could even have won the game. They’ve never won at Arsenal and they came quite close to it, but overall I think it’s four wins in the last eighteen games in all competitions. They have the oldest team in the league and I think it shows – it’s a dangerous combination having the oldest team playing the most games, which they are having starting their season so early at the end of June in the Europa League.
On Monday evening they host Liverpool, who are eleven unbeaten since that 4-0 setback at Tottenham in mid-September. They had the luxury of resting Luis Suarez at Chelsea for their mid-week League Cup quarter-final win, so I would be very surprised if Liverpool don’t emerge from West London with another win.

ESPN will continue its live televised coverage of this season’s FA Cup with two exclusive Second Round matches this weekend:  Fleetwood v Yeovil at 7.30pm on Friday 2nd December and Sutton United v Notts County at 5pm on Sunday 4th December.