A look ahead to the key matches in determining where the premier league title will reside this year
By this weekend, the run in for the title race will have well and truly begin. With this in mind, I have picked out five fixtures that will have a large part to play in deciding where the premier league trophy will reside.
Tottenham vs Manchester United Manchester City vs Bolton
Sunday March 4th Saturday March 3rd
White Hart Lane Etihad Arena
Both teams will be under scrutiny this Sunday in North London. Tottenham will be looking to prove that last weeks capitulation against Arsenal was an one off, whilst United will likely be starting this game five points behind their noisy neighbours as city have a fairly routine looking fixture against Bolton the day before.
Spurs will be without Scott Parker who has been excellent this season, particularly against the top teams (his performance at Anfield a few weeks back was outstanding) and will bring either Sandro or Jake Livermore into the team, both talented, but short of sharpness and lacking Parker's ability to inspire his team mates. However a far more concerning issue is the injury worry over Kyle Walker, with Adam Smith potentially in line to make his premier league bow against the champions. Or even a move to 3-5-2.
If Harry Redknapp feels that Aaron Lennon is fully fit and with Manchester United needing a win, the threat of both him and Gareth Bale on the counter attack could be decisive. United will be hoping that Wayne Rooney can recover from a throat infection to lead United into a fixture they drew 0-0 last year, although their record at White Hart Lane over the years is outstanding, they are unbeaten against Spurs since 2001.
Manchester City vs Chelsea Wolves vs Manchester United
Monday March 19th Sunday March 18th
Etihad Arena Molineux
One of only three teams to beat Roberto Mancini's league leaders this season, Chelsea visit the Etihad and may well be arriving with a new manager in place if you believe everything you read. City have seen of Spurs, Arsenal and Liverpool at home this year and will be favourites to maintain their 100% home record against a struggling Chelsea side lacking form or fluency. Having said this though there is still enough talent in this AVB's side to cause any side problems as exhibited by their victory over City at home as well as their 3-3 draw with United, where only suicidal defending cost them. The problem is that such defensive issues show no sign of abating and with City so dominant at home it is difficult to see anything other than a win, albeit a narrow one.
Prediction: City Win
Stoke City vs Manchester City Manchester United vs Fulham
Saturday March 26th Monday March 28th
Britannia Stadium Old Trafford
Whilst trying to avoid all the obvious cliches and stereotypes surrounding a top team going to play Stoke, this genuinely will be a big test for City. They came unstuck here last season with a late Matthew Etherington strike holding them to a 1-1 draw and Mancini will be desperate to avoid a similar outcome. With United at home to Fulham on the Monday night anything other than three points will surely result in any lead City do have going into this fixture being cut. One can imagine this fixture being viewed in much the same way as the "Battle of Ewood Park" was for Chelsea when they won their first championship under Jose Mourinho. With Stoke now out of Europe and potentially out of the FA cup (an away trip to Anfield looks unpromising one could argue that Stoke will have little to play for in this game. Sometimes I would accept that argument however since entering the premier league Stoke have always given the top teams tough games at the Britannia and there is little reason to view this game any differently.
Prediction: Stoke win
Arsenal vs Manchester City Manchester United vs QPR
Sunday April 8th Sunday April 8th
Emirates Stadium Old Trafford
A clash between Manchester City and their London based feeder club, a game between two sides whose philosophies and ideologies couldn't be further apart, two sides who represent the old and the new of the English game. Expect to see endless stories based around these concepts in the build up to this game. Regardless of these headlines, most football fans will have forgotten last seasons fixture between the two given the fact that City came to the Emirates determined to get a draw and consequently stunk the place out. The chants of "boring boring city" seem to belong to another time though now such is the attacking verve they have exhibited this season. The reverse fixture this season at Eastland's was decided by David Silva's tap in but had it not been for Joe Hart, Arsenal could well have left Manchester with a point.
Unlike last year, City will come to Arsenal looking for and needing three points and as such this could well be another addition to the raft of "hockey score" results that have occurred between the top sides this season. The encouraging aspect for Arsenal fans will be the fact that, injuries permitting, they will be able to field a far stronger back four than they did at the Etihad in December. With the return to fitness of Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs and the consequent return of Thomas Vermaelen to centre back it will certainly make it more difficult for City to target Arsenal's flank like they did at Eastlands when Johan Djourou and Vermaelen played at full back.
Manchester City vs Manchester United
Monday April 30th
Eastlands on Easter Monday. With only two games remaining in the season after this clash there is a good chance that the outcome of this game will decide where the title ends up. Equally if either team enters into this game with a lead of three points or more, it could very well see them crowned champions against their fiercest rivals, an idea simply to unpleasant for many Mancs to even consider.
Unlike other games which have been mentioned in this piece, there is little to be gained from looking at the previous league meeting for clues as to how this game may pan out. Whilst not taking anything away from City but the 6-1 does certainly stand out as an anomalous result in many aspects. It is hard to imagine United being as poor defensively as they were in October. Jonny Evans alone has improved significantly since that day. Equally in both games against each other this season, the losing team has lost a centre back to a red card thus totally changing the game, Roberto Mancini and Sir Alex Ferguson will both be reminding their players of their responsibilities before they walk out.
The context of the game will obviously determine each sides approach. If City enter the game, with their two point lead still in place, they may feel that a draw is not the worst result with games against Newcastle and QPR to come. If they were to get a draw, a win the next week at Newcastle, no easy task mind, would secure the title.
United will likely need a win, and that's exactly what they will get. The pressure of the occasion, the fact that United have so much experience on their side as well as their good record at Eastland's lately (unbeaten in their last three visits) will see them edge a victory and put them in pole position with two games to go. With both teams visiting the North East in the last two weeks of the season, City head to Newcastle whilst United travel to the stadium of light, there may still be one or two twists left but it will be advantage Manchester United at the end of this game.
Prediction: United win