ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch exclusive coverage of QPR v Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday from 4.30pm on ESPN
FIXTURES Sat 21 April Arsenal v Chelsea, Aston Villa v Sunderland, Blackburn v Norwich, Bolton v Swansea, Fulham v Wigan, Newcastle v Stoke, QPR v Tottenham Sun 22 April Manchester United v Everton, Liverpool v West Brom, Wolves v Manchester City.
This weekend sees Chelsea compete in yet another Grade A fixture, having so convincingly won their FA cup semi-final against Tottenham last Sunday, and ground out a surprise first leg lead in their Champions League tie with Barcelona on Wednesday evening.
They now come up against one of their biggest and closest rivals in Arsenal in a match which will hold huge significance in the battle for Champions League places for next season.
There is so much history between Arsenal and Chelsea; their most recent was a thriller, Arsenal winning 5-3 at Stamford Bridge, with a hat trick from Robin Van Persie. But itÃ¢ÂÂs difficult to know what to make of Chelsea going into this weekendÃ¢ÂÂs encounter. Will their physical and mental exertions against Barcelona take their toll, or will the morale boosts of the last week see them play with real swagger?
I tend to think itÃ¢ÂÂs more likely to be the former. It would be remarkable for Chelsea to find their top level of performance after what they have just gone through and what they are about to in the second leg against Barcelona next Tuesday.
Despite losing to Wigan on Monday, Arsenal are still in pole position for third place, even if they lose to Chelsea. The Gunners created buffer for themselves with their recent purple patch, and that meant they could afford one slip up without being punished too severely.
We now know Mikel Arteta will be out for the season with a knee injury, and he will be a big miss for Arsenal, having grown in influence and authority over the course of the season. When he first came it seemed like a panic buy, and for the first few weeks he looked like a fish out of water but gradually he settled in. HeÃ¢ÂÂs adopted a slightly less attacking role then he had at Everton, but he has been a real positive influence for Arsenal and it has been ÃÂ£10 million well spent.
Another team chasing championÃ¢ÂÂs league qualification is Newcastle, who have put themselves in the thick of Champions League contention with five straight wins. They have given themselves a genuine chance of finishing in the top four, which I find quite astonishing.They are level on points with Tottenham, two clear of Chelsea and five behind Arsenal with a game in hand. So if Arsenal were to lose to Chelsea and Newcastle were to win their home fixture with Stoke City this weekend, they will surely have even the Gunners in their sights.
TheyÃ¢ÂÂll be confident of keeping up their part of the bargain, not least as Stoke have little left to play for now safety has once again been assured. They pay lip service to this idea of a top ten finish and getting more Premier League points than ever before, but Newcastle will be the team with real hunger, and IÃ¢ÂÂd expect that to show come full-time on Saturday afternoon.
This all leaves Tottenham feeling rather concerned. They travel to QPR on Saturday evening to face a side who are strong at home Ã¢ÂÂ winning their last three at Loftus Road Ã¢ÂÂ despite poor away form. With some tough fixtures ahead - they still have to go to Chelsea, entertain Stoke and face Manchester City - this is a match QPR will feel they have to win if they are to retain their top flight status.
I can see them doing it; theyÃ¢ÂÂve beaten the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool at Loftus Road this season and Tottenham look to be lacking a bit of confidence at the moment. That, combined with QPRÃ¢ÂÂs recent improvement, may alter the balance somewhat.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs also a pivotal weekend in the title race, and Manchester United will feel this is a good weekend to play Everton. David MoyesÃ¢ÂÂ side put so much into their FA Cup Semi Final defeat against Liverpool last weekend that they may well be mentally and physically lagging. United, with nine wins out of ten, have scored in 48 of their 50 games this season, and will be confident of keeping the gap at the top at five points. Everton are tough nuts to crack but they showed in that FA Cup defeat how they lack a Ã¢ÂÂplan BÃ¢ÂÂ when the going gets tough. And at Old Trafford, not only do you need a Ã¢ÂÂplan BÃ¢ÂÂ but more often than not plans C, D and E, too.
Manchester City, meanwhile, have got the equivalent of a gimmee. Wolves Ã¢ÂÂbounced backÃ¢ÂÂ with a draw at Sunderland last weekend, after seven defeats on the trot, but they could be relegated this weekend. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve also lost arguably their best player, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey to injury for the remainder of the season. I canÃ¢ÂÂt see anything but a win for City and relegation for Wolves Ã¢ÂÂ even if results elsewhere extend their suffering for another week.
It is also looking bleak for Blackburn, who have now suffered five defeats in a row. It seemed as though some of the players believed they had done enough when they were winning a few matches a month ago. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve got two home matches that will ultimately decide their fate, the first is against Norwich on Saturday and the second is a potentially huge fixture against Wigan on the penultimate weekend of the season.
Blackburn are playing full of fear and its difficult turning around an ocean going liner when its set in a certain direction Ã¢ÂÂ and the direction Blackburn are heading in is towards the Championship.
Unlike Rovers, Norwich will play without fear or inhibition - theyÃ¢ÂÂve got 43 points to their name - but theyÃ¢ÂÂve only won two of their last nine in the Premier League and they capitulated in the end against Manchester City having played very well for an hour. A trip to Ewood will present the perfect opportunity to bounce back with a positive result.
Bolton are the other side currently in the bottom three, but theyÃ¢ÂÂll still fancy their chances of pulling themselves out of the drop zone, not least as they have two games in hands over most of their rivals. But itÃ¢ÂÂs time for their spine - Nigel Reo-Coker, Kevin Davies and David Wheater - to stand up and be counted, while Darren Pratley would do well to show he made the right call last summer when he abandoned newly promoted Swansea for Bolton.
His former club travel to the Reebok this weekend, and their patchy away form will encourage Bolton ahead of a fixture they really must win.
Amazingly, the form side in the Premier League are Wigan Athletic, and theyÃ¢ÂÂre now five points clear of trouble. They travel to Fulham on Saturday having won four of their last five, yet when the sides met back in October, FulhamÃ¢ÂÂs 2-0 win at the DW was the seventh of eight consecutive defeats. If anyone deserves an accolade itÃ¢ÂÂs Roberto Martinez. He has maintained faith in that group of players when everyone else - myself included - had lost hope in their chances of survival. HeÃ¢ÂÂs told them the way they play football is the way that is going to keep them out of trouble, and it seems he is going to be proved right.
But Fulham are three games unbeaten and have risen from14th place up to 10th, thanks in part to the form of fringe players such as Alexander Kacaniklic and Kerim. I get the feeling that though some of his methods were initially unpopular with the squad, the players are gradually accepting and adjusting to life under Martin Jol.
You could call Aston Villa against Sunderland Ã¢ÂÂa dead rubberÃ¢ÂÂ, but Villa have a very big four days ahead of them. If they were to lose their next two games Ã¢ÂÂ the second is against Bolton on Tuesday - they would be bang in a relegation battle. They have just one win in the last eleven Premier League games, and they have a pretty threadbare squad at the moment. We always talk in a blasÃÂ© fashion about a side falling into the relegation mire at the very last; they are the only candidates that could possibly fulfil that role this season but if they win one of those two games they should have just about enough points on the board to survive.
Liverpool, while being nowhere near that relegation scrap, will be equally as disappointed with their showing in the league this season. Their cup showings are covering the cracks and when Andy Carroll nodded in that late header against Everton at Wembley, it bought Kenny Dalglish a bit of time and breathing space. Were one to compile a form table for the calendar year, they would be next to bottom of it, and that is clearly not good enough.
West Brom are playing with a bit of freedom and have won two of their last three. Roy Hodgson will surely feel he has a point to prove to those at Liverpool, where his league record was not too different to that of Kenny Dalglish in the ScotÃ¢ÂÂs current spell. West Brom will be in the mood to cause Liverpool a headache, and given the RedsÃ¢ÂÂ poor home record and the potential for a cup hangover, they may do just that.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster of the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of QPR v Tottenham Hotspur from 4.30pm on Saturday.
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