- Premier League Spotlight
Manchester City must push Liverpool all the way
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Will Manchester City keep the title tension alive?
The Premier League title has not yet been decided, despite what you may have heard. Something called "maths" tells us this because Liverpool, the leaders, can still be caught. Manchester City, once they've matched up with the games played by their rivals, could be top of the pile on goal difference, if results go their way, that is. Chelsea, meanwhile, even taking into consideration their most recent unexpected calamity, can still do it - you hear that, Jose Mourinho?
"Football is never finished," said City boss Manuel Pellegrini after his side's straightforward 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion. Indeed, City's squad only need cast their minds back two years for inspiration. If the recent results in this well-marketed division have taught us anything, it's that the sport continues to be unpredictable entertainment - why else would we prioritise watching it over spending time with loved ones? - no matter the money spent by one club or what the algorithm that includes chance-taken percentages has predicted.
City conclude the weekend's action at Crystal Palace, who are on a five-game winning streak thanks to Manager of the Season contender Tony Pulis. This is, of course, a potential banana skin for Pellegrini's chaps, even if he is set to have the essential Yaya Toure back at his disposal following injury. But Liverpool also must face Palace before the season's end, meaning further twists could be forthcoming. So, for the sake of being selfish neutrals, do us a favour, gents: make it that the destination of the Premier League trophy is decided on the final day.
Will Liverpool be stifled by Jose Mourinho's second string?
To what scale do we quantify such a "big" game, for this, in particular for Liverpool, is about as ginormous as they come (before the fixture after, and the one after that, of course). Brendan Rodgers' team passed their test of facing a title rival in City on April 14 before ticking another box by coping with the suffocating expectation that comes with all and sundry nodding in unison that three points are already on the board as they saw off a scrapping side away from home in the shape of Norwich.
Much as Mourinho will probably remind us between now and Sunday, the Reds have had a full week to prepare for this match at Anfield, and certainly the Reds' non-European participation has benefited their charge in the league this season. Expect, then, yet another blistering start from the Merseysiders, although also be ready for 11 men behind the ball from the visitors, as surely denying Liverpool what they've become used to - an early goal (or goals) - would manifest the jitters.
Mourinho has intimated he will play a so-called weaker starting XI because of his team's Champions League involvement against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, making a point of moaning that their league involvement comes three days before they meet Atletico - who, by the by, are also in action on the same day and must also then make the flight to London. Suggestions of white flag waving from Mourinho, however, ignore that the Portuguese is a winner and a terrible loser, so expect Chelsea to be up for this regardless of the starting lineup.
What effect will Ryan Giggs have in charge of United?
Nothing to see here apart from a Manchester United legend managing the club following the sacking of David Moyes. Will Ryan Giggs pick himself? Will he drop Wayne Rooney for his rank display at Everton? Will the Welshman's stewardship wake United from their campaign-long hibernation? All will be revealed at Old Trafford, when Norwich are the opponents, a team that is fighting for its life under Neil Adams. The Canaries teeter two points above the drop zone, but can take heart from improved performances in their past two matches under Adams, even if both ended in defeat.
Is it now do or die for Fulham?
Below follows three matches involving six teams that have each largely had a season to bury deep underground. On Saturday, Fulham host Hull City, who aren't yet mathematically safe, but do have a game in hand on two of the bottom three while boasting a six-point advantage. Fulham's final two matches after Hull are Stoke away and Crystal Palace at home, which on paper (on a computer screen?) are winnable. Fulham boss Felix Magath is putting all his eggs in the Craven Cottage basket it seems: "We have to win our home games and that might be enough."
Will Wilfried Bony inflict more misery on Villa?
You'd think, or maybe you don't, that Swansea's win at Newcastle last time out was just about enough to push them over the line, though the threat still remains. What they have in their armoury compared to the rest of them, however, is a ruddy good forward. Goodness knows where the Swans would be without the goals - 13 of them in the league - of Wilfried Bony. Their weekend opponents Villa, 15th in the table, might have pangs of jealously fighting with their terror of the drop, having been shorn of their attacking asset, Christian Benteke, through injury.
Can Gus Poyet get consistency from Sunderland?
Gus Poyet's bottom-of-the-table Sunderland became the first team to beat a Jose Mourinho Chelsea team at Stamford Bridge in the league. What a funny old game this is. How we laughed, especially at Rui Faria. While the Sunderland fans would rightly have been jubilant at such a stunning result, especially after earning a point at City a few days earlier, they might well wonder where on earth this type of display has been in the league this season - it was just their seventh win from 34 fixtures.
Of course it is easy to state that a team should simply replicate such highs from match to match, but ultimately it is up to the manager to ensure consistency and so far Poyet has been unable to match that requirement. It would appear motivation for the games that aren't of the blockbuster variety is the issue. As well as seeing off Chelsea, this term in all competitions Sunderland have won both derbies against Newcastle while also beating Everton, City and Manchester United. With Cardiff, United, West Brom and Swansea - three of which are at home - it's over to Gus to bottle whatever inspired his players so last week.
James Dall is an assistant editor for ESPN FC