Spurs and Arsenal out for revenge as title race reaches pivotal stage
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch live and exclusive coverage of Bolton Wanderers vs Liverpool live on ESPN from 4:30pm on Saturday...
This is the biggest weekend of this Premier League season so far, with two blockbuster games on Sunday involving the big two from Manchester and north London.
Manchester City against Tottenham is a fascinating game in prospect, not least because City have looked a touch vulnerable of late. They struggled at Wigan on Monday night and theyÃ¢ÂÂve had some poor results over the last month or so. TheyÃ¢ÂÂll also be missing two hugely influential players in Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs amazing what a difference the absence of those two pillars of their team is making, even given the amount spent on their squad. If Tottenham play to their best, theyÃ¢ÂÂre capable of getting a result at Manchester City and what a turnaround that would represent after Manchester City really came of age with that spectacular 5-1 win at White Hart Lane back in August.
At that stage Tottenham had played two, lost two and seemed at sixes and sevens, but since then their form has outstripped everybody else in the Premier League. think this is beautifully set up and I really fancy Tottenham to get something out of the game.
At the beginning of the season if Mancini had a doubt over any of his defensive players, it was probably Joleon Lescott. Now, in the absence of Kompany, Lescott is cast in the role of senior centre back, and its not a role that sits comfortably on his shoulders, even though his form this season has been much improved.
Now he is playing this role whereby he has be the leader alongside young Montenegrin Stefan Savic, who has definitely got a mistake in him, probably at least one a game. HeÃ¢ÂÂs still learning the ropes and may turn out to be an outstanding player, but heÃ¢ÂÂs not there yet.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs also the issue of neither full back position being completely settled, due to this constant rotation at left back between Clichy and Kolarov - with the odd appearance from Zabaleta - and Micah Richards having been struck down with hamstring trouble in recent weeks.
Obviously Tottenham wonÃ¢ÂÂt have Emmanuel Adebayor there to try and exploit that, but they do have Jermaine Defoe, who is straining at the leash to get a chance Ã¢ÂÂ this is his big chance to show exactly what he can do, its his big opportunity, heÃ¢ÂÂs a player who generally loves the spotlight and thrives rather than shrinks in it, so I would expect him to be a major factor for Tottenham.
The whole game is beautifully set up and I really fancy Spurs to get something out of it.
TottenhamÃ¢ÂÂs North London rivals Arsenal will be desperate for history not to repeat itself in SundayÃ¢ÂÂs second headline fixture. On the same seismic weekend that Spurs were dismantled by City at White Hart Lane, Arsenal were embarrassed by that 8-2 defeat away to Manchester United.
The fact Arsenal have a genuine chance of getting something against Manchester United five months on shows the extent of the turnaround, and the fact United have fallen from grace since the glorious early weeks of the season. Nani and Ashley Young creating havoc down the wings, Rooney in prime form and Tom Cleverly anchoring the midfield earning rave reviews all seem like distant memories right now.
Whereas Arsenal have improved steadily - though not to the point that I see them as convincing top four challengers, however - they should have enough in their locker, particularly at the Emirates, to cause Manchester United some problems.
This is a litmus test for Manchester United. TheyÃ¢ÂÂll kick off knowing the Manchester City result and if City donÃ¢ÂÂt win the door will be left ajar for Sir Alex FergusonÃ¢ÂÂs side.
The United of old would strive through a half open door, but IÃ¢ÂÂm not convinced this Manchester United is capable of performing with quite such conviction or indeed consistency. We may look back on this weekend as one of the most pivotal in the Premier League title race.
I have to put my cards on the table and say IÃ¢ÂÂm amazed that Norwich are ninth with 26 points, in all probability needing just four more wins in 17 attempts to secure their top flight status. On current form they should sail it.
Having said that, I was speaking to the coaching staffs of Leicester and Nottingham Forest following their cup replay on Tuesday evening, and they were still preaching caution for Norwich City. They cited recent Premier League debut seasons for Hull City and Blackpool, in which the wheels have fallen off after the turn of the new year.
But I donÃ¢ÂÂt see that happening to Norwich. They are a unit thatÃ¢ÂÂs performing well; they have enough to stay up despite the skepticism of some of their former Championship colleagues.
On Saturday they host Chelsea, who have suffered more defeats at home than away, so they may be happy to again be away from Stamford Bridge. TheyÃ¢ÂÂre still missing a regular goalscorer, but were at least boosted by Michael Essien making his first appearance of the season against Sunderland last time out.
HeÃ¢ÂÂll be a huge asset for the final third of the campaign if he is anything like the old Essien Ã¢ÂÂ though thatÃ¢ÂÂs no small feat after such a serious injury. ItÃ¢ÂÂs almost like a new signing, its as if theyÃ¢ÂÂve dipped into the transfer market and bought, not just Gary Cahill, but a new midfielder too.
Everton have so far slipped to 10 defeats in 21 Premier League games Ã¢ÂÂ five in 10 at Goodison Park. They appear to be a team going nowhere fast.
I donÃ¢ÂÂt see them in relegation trouble but I do wonder about David Moyes beyond the end of the season, I struggle to see a man with such ambition and drive being content with drifting in mid-table in the Premier League.
In previous years heÃ¢ÂÂs been able to conjure up something which has allowed Everton to punch above their weight, but he and they seems to have been dragged down by the clubÃ¢ÂÂs financial problems and I wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be surprised if he is managing another team at this time next year.
SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs opponents Blackburn know a thing or two about a downbeat atmosphere, and with no Yakubu this weekend due to suspension it could be another tough afternoon for them. Yet two wins in their last three Premier League matches has given them hope again, and the very fact theyÃ¢ÂÂre breathing oxygen again rather than being submerged in the rapidly enveloping waves of the bottom three is clearly cause for positivity.
Even so, Blackburn will do well to get anything out of their trip to Merseyside.
Fulham are currently six points clear of the drop zone, but we often talk of a seemingly safe side dropping into trouble, and I think they are a side that should be slightly concerned about that.
Martin Jol, perhaps feeling the heat, has been sniping at his predecessor Mark Hughes, newly installed at QPR, but he would perhaps be best served concentrating on his own team, because SaturdayÃ¢ÂÂs opponents Newcastle are back in form. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve won three out of their last four and will be hoping desperately that Yohanne Cabaye recovers from the injury that he sustained following a horrible tackle from QPRÃ¢ÂÂs Shaun Derry last weekend.
Newcastle may have felt the bite of the Africa Cup of Nations more than most other Premier League sides Ã¢ÂÂ losing Demba Ba, Cheick Tiote and new-signing Papiss Cisse - but they should still fancy themselves against most opponents. They are sixth, level on points with Arsenal and four points behind Chelsea and it is truly astonishing that they are still as high as they are, they are my team of the season so far in terms of defying expectations. What I would expect is for them to go to Fulham and get something.
Across West London, Mark Hughes had some effect on his new side Queens Park Rangers during their cup replay win over MK Dons during the week, but it is the Premier League that matters most. The stats donÃ¢ÂÂt make good reading; six defeats in seven, two months without a win and none at home for a full three months. But Mark Hughes will galvanize them, as well as bring in one or two more players to strengthen in key areas.
This weekend is an important one because their opponents Wigan are one of the few sides below QPR in the table. They pushed City reasonably hard the other night but theyÃ¢ÂÂre never going to score many goals, and theyÃ¢ÂÂre always going to concede a few, so despite the switch to three central defenders, I predict difficult times ahead for Wigan and Mark Hughes should get his first league win this weekend.
Stoke are very happily installed in eighth place, with those big European games coming up next month against Valencia in the Europa League, a really glamorous occasion.
Tony Pulis will be looking down the table rather than up, with a sizable five-point gap between them and Liverpool, and a number of clubs below queuing up to overtake them. A top half finish is far from guaranteed, particularly with those European commitments looming for them again. But you would fancy them against this weekendÃ¢ÂÂs opposition West Brom, who have slipped from ninth to 15th following three straight defeats.
Roy Hodgson has a bit of a battle on his hands, I donÃ¢ÂÂt see them going down, but I do see them having an uncomfortable flirtation with relegation, which Stoke should hasten this weekend.
Last weekendÃ¢ÂÂs defeat at Chelsea was a bit of a reality check for Sunderland, but they still had chances to win that game. They are much improved under new management but they still donÃ¢ÂÂt possess that cutting edge. We wait to see whether Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeill buys the striker Steve Bruce longed for before the window closes; the trouble is you donÃ¢ÂÂt get value for money in the January transfer window.
This weekend they host Swansea, who are on a run of one defeat in seven after that memorable win over Arsenal, though their away form isnÃ¢ÂÂt so impressive. They look like having more than enough to stay up but just one win in ten on the road may be a worry.
With that poor away form, combined with SunderlandÃ¢ÂÂs general resurgence under Martin OÃ¢ÂÂNeill, itÃ¢ÂÂs difficult to see beyond Sunderland as winners at the Stadium of Light this time out.
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs a derby of sorts at Molineux, where Wolves - seven without a win and dumped out of the FA Cup by Birmingham during the week Ã¢ÂÂ host Aston Villa.
Although theyÃ¢ÂÂre far from a free-scoring side, Wolves do tend to find the net consistently, theyÃ¢ÂÂve scored in 12 of their last 13 league fixtures and in Steven Fletcher they have a striker capable of keeping their heads above water.
There is a camaraderie and team spirit in Mick McCarthyÃ¢ÂÂs squad that isnÃ¢ÂÂt in existence in some of the other struggling teams, and against a Villa side going nowhere that could make all the difference. Alex McLeish has seen his team win twice in 10 matches, they arenÃ¢ÂÂt playing to Darren BentÃ¢ÂÂs strengths and are not really hurting the opposition very often. This is a big opportunity for Wolves to pick up three much needed home points.
Bolton are the team with the most losses in the Barclays Premier League, with 15 of their 21 games ending in defeat. They suffer from the toxic combination of having the worst defence in the league - 46 goals conceded - and not scoring that many at the other end, though I note with interest they have scored more than Liverpool, which perhaps says more about this weekendÃ¢ÂÂs visitors to the Reebok.
Despite their significant difficulties, Bolton had the best player on the pitch at Old Trafford last weekend in Mark Davies, but one man canÃ¢ÂÂt carry a team, and now they also have to make up for the absence of Gary Cahill, whoÃ¢ÂÂs been so important to them in the last three seasons.
Liverpool, even without Suarez, should have too much for Bolton this weekend, and IÃ¢ÂÂll be fascinated to see what shape of team Kenny Dalglish comes up with, having again flirted with playing three centre backs in a fairly dour 0-0 draw with Stoke last time out. Will he have enough faith in Andy Carroll against a couple of centre backs who are new as partners in David Wheater and Zat Knight? Does he have enough courage and faith to throw him in from the start? Liverpool supporters will hope he does.
Jon Champion is lead football commentator for ESPN, broadcaster for the Barclays Premier League. ESPN will provide live and exclusive coverage of Bolton Wanderers v Liverpool, Saturday, 4.30pm. ESPN will be completely free to watch from 3rd February Ã¢ÂÂ 6th February on Freeview, Sky, Top Up TV and BT Vision. This means fans will be able to watch, for free, the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester v Fulham, 4th February.