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Apr 20, 2012

Running the long race

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: Chelsea drag their tired bodies to the Emirates in a must-win game for their top-four hopes; Adebayor urges Spurs to be 'men' and beat QPR; Bolton look to make use of their two games in hand; and Reading will be involved in this feature again from next season.

On their last legs?

As the final whistle blew on Monday night at the Emirates, Tottenham's Harry Redknapp and Newcastle's Alan Pardew must have breathed a sigh of relief; Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo would likely have exploded with delight had he not been focused on the test of Barcelona in midweek. While Chelsea are on a high after FA Cup and Champions League wins, Wigan's 2-1 upset of Arsenal on home soil has opened up the race for third and fourth place in the Premier League once more - a race that could get even more interesting if the Blues continue their ascent and beat the Gunners on Saturday.

Chelsea's fatigue will come into the equation as they were forced to play late on Sunday at Wembley, faced Barcelona in an energy-sapping win on Wednesday night and then got the early game on Saturday as well. No thanks to those who decide the fixtures, three games in the shortest possible period will certainly test the Blues' stamina and squad depth, while captain John Terry is still busting a gut by playing on with broken ribs.

Di Matteo has described it as the club's most important week of the season and it may well be vital to his own hopes of taking over the hotseat at Stamford Bridge. A defeat would render the top four no more than a distant hope, but if they continue their fine run then suddenly the Italian will look like a prime candidate to take on the role full time. No-one can argue with the impact of RDM since AVB was let go.

Still, the game would have to go some to live up to the 5-3 classic at Stamford Bridge earlier this season when the Gunners showed some heart to come from behind twice to claim the victory courtesy of a stunning Robin van Persie hat-trick.

A run of only one defeat in 11 games for the Gunners has them coming into some form, but there are still the same old signs. A shock defeat at QPR at the end of March, coupled with the Wigan loss, shows that Arsene Wenger's defensive nightmares are not over yet. Worryingly, for all their passing and attacking intent, Arsenal had to rely on Thomas Vermaelen popping up in the box to head their only goal against the Latics, and it is clear that there will be a major shake-up (not sheikh-up) at the Emirates in the summer.

Time to be a man

Having had their FA Cup final dream destroyed 5-1 by Chelsea, Champions League-chasing Tottenham travel to QPR on Saturday hoping to take advantage of any slip-ups - and ideally a draw between Arsenal and Chelsea. Harry Redknapp's men are only inside the Premier League top four on goal difference after a run of one win in their last eight games (coinciding somewhat with the 'Harry for England' talk, of course) and need to bounce back quickly if they are to keep hold of their dignity, not to mention their manager.

Urging his team-mates to show their masculinity, loan-striker Emmanuel Adebayor said: "This is the moment where we will see who is focused and who is not focused and who is really a man. We are in a difficult moment but we have to come out, we have to show character. We are at QPR on Saturday. We have to show personality and win there."

QPR, meanwhile, seem to think that they will need 38 points this season, not the magic 40, if they are to stay up. "It's difficult to say how many points we will need as it changes every week," defender Clint Hill told the Fulham Chronicle. "Some say 37 points, some say 39, so maybe if we can get in between that then hopefully we'll be safe."

As they currently sit two points clear of 18th-placed Bolton, who have two games in hand, that would mean at least six points from a rather tricky set of fixtures in their final four games of Tottenham, Chelsea, Stoke City and Manchester City. If they can manage to keep 11 men on the pitch - something they have only managed to do 27 times out of 34 so far - then they may stand a chance.

Trotters have a Fab week

Bolton got a major boost this week as midfielder Fabrice Muamba was released from hospital after his heart attack on the pitch against Spurs last month. Just 30 days after he collapsed, he has recovered enough to be sent home and was quick to, as he put it in a short statement, "pay tribute to every single member of staff who played a part in my care".

Muamba's miracle recovery will surely have a huge impact on his team-mates, who are battling relegation and, remarkably, Coyle has not ruled out the 24-year-old pulling his boots on and playing again at some point in the future. "From where he came from on that Monday, it was way beyond their wildest dreams even as specialists who'd seen and done it all," he said. "You can't rule anything out. Considering where he's come from in such a short time then it's a case of never say never. The thing about Fabrice is that he came from the Congo - he's had to fight and scratch all his life anywhere."

Because of his collapse, the Trotters have two games in hand that, if won, would see them level on points with Aston Villa (35). First up, though, are Swansea and Owen Coyle's men will need to focus on keeping pace with their rivals this weekend before a massive game against Villa on April 24 that could ultimately decide if they sink or swim.

Next on the agenda

Midweek saw the first of next season's Premier League teams make their way forward as Reading secured promotion from the Championship with a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest. It was only in 2006-07 that the Royals were impressing in the top-flight under Steve Coppell and, since late 2009, Brian McDermott has worked wonders to get them back. Taking to Twitter, many lauded the impact of former Blackburn striker Jason Roberts in getting them there and his 18-month contract will come to an end just as their first season back at the top finishes. It's almost as if he knew.

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