It’s derby day in Manchester and the north east on Sunday but a key game in the history of the Premier League is being played in Liverpool the previous day. If Everton beat Arsenal at Goodison Park which means the London club cannot win the title Arsene Wenger’s position could become untenable. The longest serving current manager will be under even more pressure and a parting could be announced.
Strangely the two most significant matches of the weekend in the context of winning the title are not live on television. Leicester are away at Crystal Palace while Tottenham welcome Bournemouth to White Hart Lane. That fixture looks a home banker which means Leicester must win their match to maintain a five point advantage at the top of the table. Palace are safe and have a FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on their minds.
Everybody now knows that some optimistic supporters backed Leicester at 5,000/1 to win the Premier league. The benefits of cashing out have been well reported and with the leaders now odds-on to be champions more than half the potential winnings are guaranteed. Every week the bubble is supposed to burst but Leicester keep grinding out results and ticking off fixtures. They defend well as a unit and break at pace and have some star quality to do something special when the situation requires.
On paper the Foxes are mid-table and lower quality but the value of the team ethic is being illustrated by their season. Manchester United and Newcastle are not playing as a team and with Louis Van Gaal and until this week Steve McClaren in charge don’t have manager with the skills to bring together a group of individuals. Good players can compensate for poor management and an inspiring manager can paper over the cracks of a disjointed side. However, having neither elements in place is a recipe for disaster.
Relegation to the Championship this season has come down to any two from three. Aston Villa have gone so only one of Norwich, Newcastle and Sunderland can escape the nightmare scenario of relegation. With new television money flooding the game now is the worst time to be denied the honey pot of playing in the Premier League. Swansea are 16th but eight points ahead of Sunderland a place below. Sunderland and/or Newcastle will drop down a level at the end of the season.
The north east derby on Sunday truly is a relegation six-pointer. Winning will not only add to a team’s tally of points but will provide an injection of confidence at a crucial stage of the season. Defeat works the other way and can have a devastating effect on belief. Newcastle have home advantage but Sunderland have won the last three meetings at the home of the Geordies and all of the last six. Sunderland keep nicking the points but their luck could run out in this fixture on Sunday.
Newcastle have not beaten their local rivals since October 2008 and Sunderland are unbeaten in 12 fixtures. Newcastle are due a win and under McClaren would not be fancied to secure three crucial points. Rafa Benitez has set the agenda with regards transfers but he will be gone if Newcastle go down. Sunderland can’t keep winning this fixture so Newcastle are fancied to secure a massive win that could set up a run of form good enough to escape from the relegation mire.
At the other end of the table Arsenal are desperate for three points to maintain any hope of winning the league and saving Wenger’s skin. A dignified departure at the end of the season would be the right thing to do but the mob are speaking and some loyal Gunners want the Frenchman out. Everton are playing on the crest of a wave and Romelu Lukaku can lead the Blues to a home win which could leave Arsenal 15 points off the pace in the race for the title.
The Manchester derby is a key fixture with regards the matter of finishing in the top 4 and qualifying for the Champions League. However, West Ham are in great shape to spoil the Mancunian carve up for last spot for qualifying for the Holy Grail of European football. West Ham would love to be playing in the competition in their first season at the Olympic Stadium and they are highly motivated in that quest.
Swansea against Aston Villa is a damp squib of a live match with no real issues at stake. The other three televised fixtures will have great relevance for getting into the Champions League, avoiding relegation and keeping Wenger in his job. A draw in the Manchester derby, Newcastle finally beating Sunderland again and Everton beating Arsenal will see things change in several ways. Au revoir Arsene!