Rovers' resolve, Swansea surge, but Tottenham tumbling

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ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch exclusive coverage of Stoke City vs Manchester United live on ESPN from 4.30pm on Saturday...

I’ve been encouraged but also amazed by the productivity and the emotional nature of the response of the wider public well beyond football to what happened at White Hart Lane last weekend.

I can’t pretend it was anything other than a horrible day for anyone who was there - people felt stunned, tearful even, as they watched potentially tragic events unfold on the pitch. That’s now thankfully been tempered by the news of the astonishing recovery Fabrice Muamba is beginning to make and I just hope it continues in the same vein.

Last Saturday, you wouldn’t have thought there was a chance of Bolton being able to play Blackburn, in what is always a very tasty Lancashire derby, one week on. But thankfully that game is going ahead in rather happier circumstances. As much as things have been put into perspective by the events of the last week, in a football sense this is a very important fixture for Bolton, particularly after they slipped back into the bottom three during the week.

Will Bolton ride on a tide of emotion, fuelled by the knowledge that their team-mate is still seriously ill in a hospital 200 miles away, or will the traumatic nature of the past week take its toll on them?

I believe it may well be the former. Owen Coyle, who deserves a mention in this for the wonderfully dignified way in which he’s conducted himself and conveyed the image of his club, let alone providing personal support at Muamba’s bedside, will always have players in line behind him. I would expect Bolton will produce probably their best performance of the season against Blackburn and they may need too, because Blackburn, extraordinarily, have managed to find some form and are now five points above the bottom three.

I don’t know from where Rovers have dug out this resolve. From what I hear, talking to one or two people at the club, the players have gotten together a bit – there are a number of experienced men there, such as Paul Robinson, and they have perhaps cleared the air somewhat.

That’s helped Steve Kean in that he has a united group of players possibly for the first time this season. They’ve given themselves a fighting chance of staying in the Premier League, against all the odds. But I’d have to fancy Bolton on what’s sure to be an emotional afternoon at the Reebok.

Elsewhere fellow strugglers QPR travel to Sunderland, with the West London side presumably still buzzing after that astonishing result in coming back from 2-0 behind to beat Liverpool, especially when you consider they had taken just two points from their previous six games.

They’ve got a horrible run-in, and I still feel that maybe we’ll look back on that result as a one-off rather than the start of a run, because so many of their remaining fixtures are so tough.

But I don’t think Sunderland is as tough a fixture as it was a month ago. They were insipid in their midweek game at Blackburn. They’ve only won one of their last five games in all competitions, but they do have the prospect of the cup replay against Everton, immediately after this QPR game, which becomes a very important match for them. So they could be excused for concentrating more of their efforts on that. They may give QPR half a chance.

Liverpool have had eight away defeats and eight home draws – two fairly damning statistics for a side who had ambitions of finishing in top four. Kenny Dalglish has this week said that people who criticise him and the team don’t understand football. Well, the league table tells its own tale. 42 points from 29 games, 12 points off fourth place, and given the amount of money they’ve spent, that’s just not good enough.

As for Wigan, who visit Anfield on Saturday, they’ve drawn their last couple of games, and that’s just not enough, they need wins. The teams drew 0-0 at the DW in December, and it’s tempting to say that if QPR can turn over Liverpool, then so can Wigan. But this game’s at Anfield, and it’s unlikely this will happen to a Dalglish team twice in a row, so I can’t really see beyond Liverpool for this one.

Wolves are now bottom of the pile on goal difference behind Wigan and Bolton. Terry Connor’s four games in charge have yielded one point and they’ve let in fourteen goals. I bumped into Mick McCarthy at a function in London this week and he was adamant he would’ve kept them up. It’s hard to disagree with him because you just feel the managerial change has totally destabilised the club. The playing staff don’t seem to be responding to Connor in the way they did to McCarthy, even when Mick was struggling.

Their hosts Norwich do seem to be switching off early, having taken one point from the last four games. They seem similar to Charlton of yesteryear, who used to get to a safe position in the league and then go on holiday from mid-March onwards. I’m sure Norwich will dig out a result or two between now and the end of the season - one of them may well be against Wolves - they don’t really need to do too much more, with 36 points to their name, putting them 13 points clear of trouble.

While Norwich are easing off as we approach the finish line, Swansea are sprinting towards it, having now won three in a row. They’re eighth and just three points behind Liverpool, and were they to finish ahead of the Merseysiders, that would be fantastic for them and pretty damning for the Anfield side, given the comparative resources of the two teams. But they will find Everton a tougher nut to crack than some they’ve faced of late, but the Toffees have just gone off the boil as well, losing their last two, at Liverpool and against Arsenal, after a relatively long unbeaten run.

It shows the limitations of their squad that David Moyes has banged on about for much of the season. I think they can be forgiven for slipping below their very highest standards on occasion this season. It’s about whether Moyes can crack the whip and return them to their best for a trip to the Liberty Stadium, because no-one goes there and gets anything unless they’re actually playing absolutely at their best, as Man City found.

What’s riding on Newcastle’s visit to the Hawthorns on Sunday is their chance of European qualification. They’re still five points clear of the team behind them, Liverpool, but their Europa League prospects are largely going to be determined by who wins the FA Cup and what effect that has on the shake-up for European places via the league. But all they can do is keep winning at the moment and they’re winning enough to stay in contention. I don’t think they’re quite the force they were earlier in the season. They were without Tiote last week and ended up playing Cabaye, a central midfielder, on the left wing, and Gutierrez at left-back. They changed that later in the game and looked rather better

West Brom are one of these teams that you never know quite what you’re going to get from. They did win at St. James’ Park in December and with Roy Hodgson very keen to press his England credentials at the moment, he’ll be driving them hard right till the end of the season. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one ended in a draw.

In the battle for the Champions League spots, there’s a London derby as Chelsea host Tottenham on Saturday lunchtime. The Blues have had four wins under Di Matteo, before the midweek setback against Manchester City.

They do look a better unit, but I still think there are a number of shortcomings. Much was made by many of us about Fernando Torres scoring twice in the FA Cup, but he was back to his hesitant self at the Etihad on Wednesday night. So I think Didier Drogba will come back to lead the line against Tottenham with rather more brio.

I quite fancy Chelsea in this given just how badly Tottenham have lost their way of late. They’ve now dropped below Arsenal, having been 10 points clear just a matter of weeks ago.

It’s a question of momentum, isn’t it? There’s negative momentum afflicting Tottenham, and I don’t see that changing with this fixture. Chelsea away is a tough ask, with Di Matteo having rounded up the players and gotten them to play for him in a way that they weren’t for the old manager.

Arsenal, meanwhile, look likely to make it a seventh consecutive victory – they’ve scored 19 goals in the six games they’ve won recently. They’re up to third place now, having chiselled out a win at Everton.  They do seem a more resilient outfit recently, and I don’t see them being troubled by an Aston Villa side going nowhere quickly.

They’ve done just about enough to stay up but they’ve impressed no-one. They’re 10 points clear of trouble but in virtually any other year, they’d be looking over their shoulders with rather more fear.

Manchester United went to Stoke earlier in the season, and were lucky to get away with a draw. They will now be hoping Stoke give a similarly tough examination to Manchester City, who will go into the game a point behind Manchester United.

Self-evidently, if they draw or win, they will go ahead in the table, before United play on Monday night. A lot has been made of Manchester City having dropped out of the title race, or pole position, which they have, but I don’t buy into this stuff that all of the momentum is with Manchester United.

Tevez coming back in could just be the little boost they need. He set up the winner against Chelsea on Wednesday night. I quite fancy them against Stoke, even though Stoke are quite a tough nut to crack at the Britannia. This is the sort of game that defines champions. If City can go there and succeed where United failed, it would be one more reason to suggest they are the better team.

Manchester United have the sort of run-in that Sir Alex Ferguson would’ve chosen for himself had he the power to do so, starting against a Fulham side that travels as well as Real Ale, with only two away wins all season. Fulham won three in a row and lost the last two. I’ll be amazed if they don’t make that three wins followed by three defeats.

Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Stoke City vs Manchester United, Saturday, 4.30pm