Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend’s top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
By James Dall ESPN
United: Focus on Rooney
Four points garnered from trips to Stoke City and West Ham United is not a total to be sniffed at. But there’s an anticlimactic feel about the way Manchester United are closing in on their 20th league title, and it was not eased by last Monday’s win for Manchester City at Old Trafford.
There has been little sign of fireworks at the finish, instead just Alexander Buttner waving a couple of sparklers. Yet if City lose to Spurs on Sunday and United win 24 hours later, the Premier League crown is secured and, ultimately, that’s what matters.
Perhaps the lack of a title race, as such, has meant increased scrutiny of United, with the neutral bitter at the lack of drama. The blame for that, though, surely lies with City. Indeed, for all the sniping at the Red Devils not being all that, victories in each of their remaining five matches would put them on 96 points, a new Premier League record – Chelsea having achieved 95 in 2005 – although there is an argument that this feat would more be an indictment of the division’s dwindling quality.
Such has been the formality of United’s march to glory that focus has switched elsewhere, for instance to the future of Wayne Rooney. He operated in a midfield role against Stoke and impressed, only to struggle at West Ham and be taken off after 71 minutes, sparking shrieking from some of the red tops.
Paris Saint-Germain are said to be interested in Rooney, whom it is hard to imagine sitting in a French capital cafe dunking a crusty baguette into moules marinière. Whatever his future, it would not be surprising if it was he who scored the goal that seals the title for United.
Tottenham have their fate back in their own hands after North London rivals Arsenal failed to put away Everton on Tuesday night – with, gobsmackingly, Olivier Giroud not as clinical as the sold Robin van Persie. Win their remaining six matches and Spurs will secure Champions League football. It is as simple as that. Trouble is, their run-in isn’t. They host City on Sunday, with the soon-to-be-usurped champions playing like they give a damn now the title is lost.
Thereafter, it is Wigan away (fighting for survival and doing their late season in-form thing), Southampton at home (pretty much safe, so arguably the better of the opponents), Chelsea away (rivals for a top-four spot, meaning the outcome here is likely to be decisive), Stoke away (like Wigan, fighting for survival but, unlike Wigan, playing terribly) and, finally, Sunderland at home (also attempting to avoid the drop and reinvigorated by new manager Paolo Di Canio).
Tottenham were last in action on April 11, when they were defeated on penalties by FC Basel. While that loss will have been a psychological blow, not to mention physically draining because of extra time, the ten-day gap between matches has offered Andre Villas-Boas’ side welcome respite.
Some have put their slide in form in the league down to fatigue, so this rest period, coupled with the return of key personnel including Gareth Bale, should see them back with a spring in their step as they look to ensure that they don’t undo their hard work to date.
Stoke: Out of ideas?
One win in their last 14 games stinks the place out. Its stench makes the eyes water. “The most important thing is that you all stay nice and positive – and it’s difficult to do that – and focus,” said increasingly under pressure Stoke manager Tony Pulis after United had inflicted a third loss on the spin. Pulis also said: “It [the season] really starts for us now,” which is a worrying platitude.
Three points separate Stoke from the relegation zone, although Wigan have a game in hand. The Potters’ “five-game season”, as Pulis puts it, starts this weekend against doomed Queens Park Rangers – and failure to win at Loftus Road doesn’t bear thinking about for Stoke fans, who have had the displeasure of witnessing their team score only 28 times in the league this season. It’s about time caution was thrown to the wind.
If Pulis can rediscover Stoke’s identity – the resolve that intimidates teams through unsightly means – they should stave off the drop. Certainly, their remaining matches, Tottenham aside, are winnable. After they tackle QPR, it is Norwich, Sunderland and Southampton. Yet even if relegation is avoided, it increasingly feels as though Pulis’ second stint at the club is coming to an end with a whimper – which is something of a shame after the promotion, staying power, FA Cup final and European adventure achieved under his stewardship.
Spoilsport alert: Di Canio’s reaction to winning the Tyne-Wear derby was over the top. The sliding on the knees and the thumping of the heart were too much, too premature. The win was vital, of course, and made all the sweeter for being over local rivals, but relegation remains a very realistic possibility.
Furthermore, while the application was improved and the finishing outstanding, this felt like a result that could have swung the other way, with Simon Mignolet making a number of splendid saves and Papiss Cisse having a goal wrongly ruled out for offside. Let those swooning over Di Canio’s charisma save it for when/if he saves the Black Cats, who will look to prove that the Newcastle scalp was not a flash in the pan when they host Everton this weekend.
Norwich: Drawing conclusions
This drawing their way to safety thing isn’t proving the most effective approach. With just one win in their last 16 top flight matches, and 14 of their 33 games having ended in stalemate, the threat of demotion still looms for the Canaries. The chance of a return to winning ways comes against Reading, when there will be genuine expectation for Chris Hughton’s side to beat the bottom-of-the-table side at Carrow Road, where creativity has largely dried up since the festive period.