- Premier League Spotlight
City have the talent, but do they have the mettle?
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 hold their nerve?
Manchester City should win the Premier League title because they have the best squad. Football doesn't always work like that in an isolated match, and that's what makes it so wonderful, but over the course of a domestic season the cream usually rises to the top. Hence, whoever is in first place come 4.45pm on Sunday, May 11, will deservedly be so. City can make that so by beating Everton at Goodison Park, Aston Villa and West Ham, both at the Etihad, subject to Liverpool scoring a serious number of goals.
Indeed, City's fate is now in their own hands, but as Liverpool will testify that counts for not much, especially when expectation and pressure levels are turned up to "sweaty." Many members of Manuel Pellegrini's squad already showed they could hold their nerve - albeit only just - in 2012's dramatic success, and they will need to draw upon that experience in the final three matches of the season. Dragged by the scruff of the neck by the colossal Yaya Toure, one would expect them to see out the term, although the possible absence of David Silva would be a blow - one hand giveth, the other taketh away.
Everton stand in their way on Saturday, a team that is now closer to sixth than fourth after seemingly blowing their chances of Champions League qualification with shock defeats against Crystal Palace and Southampton. Might Roberto Martinez's players' motives be torn given that a positive result against City would hand the momentum back to rivals Liverpool? In short: No. Martinez, a proud man, will demand a response from his squad - which has suffered from a lengthy injury list - ensuring that they do not finish what has been a fine campaign, lest we forget, with a whimper.
Can Newcastle fans stomach six more years of Pardew?
If we are to quite fairly presume that Newcastle United will lose at Liverpool on the final day of the season then Alan Pardew and his team have one chance remaining to ensure their 2013-14 season does not end on a run of eight matches without a win. That opportunity comes against lowly Cardiff City at St James' Park on Saturday. Having lost their last six matches, there is an understandable toxicity being spat from the mouths of the Magpies faithful, who are disillusioned (to put it mildly) with the management of the club.
"I'm looking at this job which is a long-term opportunity for myself," said Pardew after the meek 3-0 loss at Arsenal, making it about him. With six years left on that absurd eight-year contract he signed in 2012, Newcastle supporters, who continue to provide attendances of 50,000-plus on Tyneside regardless, have little to look forward to other than the hope of a change, which makes for a dispiriting summer ahead.
Is the end nigh for Lambert at Villa?
Six matches without a win, five of which have been defeats, have seen Aston Villa sink without any apparent attempt to fight against the tide. It's as if they are accepting their fate at the bed of the sea. A 4-1 loss at Swansea City is their latest misdemeanour, with Wilfried Bony reminding Villa they are desperately missing their own talismanic striker, Christian Benteke. But the Belgian's absence cannot solely be blamed for the slide, for it was comical defending that did for Paul Lambert's men in Wales.
Three points separate Villa from the relegation zone, although they do have a game in hand on the bottom three. However, with Hull City at home next, then trips to Tottenham and Manchester City to come, safety is far from assured. It is the missing signs of improvement that will be so troubling for the fans, compounding what has largely been a miserable season. Lambert has been content to take the brunt of the criticism - "As long as it protects the lads, then fine" - but that could well be his undoing.
Is survival enough for West Ham and Allardyce?
Pardew is a former manager of West Ham, whose current boss Sam Allardyce is under pressure at Upton Park and used to be in charge at Newcastle. There's some nice symmetry there, whether relevant or not. The four straight defeats suffered by the Hammers have unsurprisingly led to fans unfurling banners regarding the future of Allardyce, whose team, like the Magpies, seem to have switched off when survival was thought to be secure. Although it is unlikely, mathematically West Ham could still go down.
With rivals Tottenham then Manchester City to come, a dire conclusion to the campaign is on the cards, meaning a long summer beckons in East London. The majority of the criticism directed at Allardyce has been about his side's style of play, which has rarely whetted the appetite. Big Sam could previously point to what was a mean defensive record, yet not one clean sheet since February 11 has left the boss with few, if any, positives to call upon. When the season draws to a close, the West Ham hierarchy has a chance to show whether its ambition is restricted to safety being the prerequisite, not the goal.
Can Poyet maintain Sunderland's momentum?
Sunderland have woken up. Their eyes are open and they've realised that the combination of effort and skill can yield results. Seven points accrued from their last three matches - two of which were at City and Chelsea, remember - have given them a genuine chance of beating the drop. And they have an unlikely saviour, too, in the shape of the burly Connor Wickham, who has scored five goals during their upturn in form. The job is not yet complete, and after travelling to United this weekend, home matches versus West Brom and Swansea will be decisive.
Can Rodgers pick up his players after a damaging defeat?
Two teams meet that had their winning streaks halted last weekend. With pushovers Newcastle at home to come, it is Monday's trip to Selhurst Park that is considered to be Liverpool's final real test. Brendan Rodgers has rightly been commended for his motivational skills this term, having got performances out of previously struggling players. And that ability to pick up his squad will be required following the sucker-punch loss against Chelsea.
As is the way in football in 2014, knees were jerked in the wake of Liverpool losing. That their system is flawed was a common conclusion, but this is a team that had previously won 11 matches in a row. Rodgers can expect to come up against a similar approach to that they faced versus Chelsea when they travel to Palace, and it is up to their manager to remind his players of what got them to the summit: their probing, their runs from deep, their expression. Return to these principles and the Reds will return to winning ways.
James Dall is an assistant editor of ESPN FC