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Nov 23, 2012

He who laughs last

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Chelsea: What a pickle

It was as if Roman Abramovich needed little persuasion to pull the trigger - as if, maybe, Roberto Di Matteo had not been his No.1 target to be the next permanent manager of Chelsea. It has been mooted by all and sundry that the Russian pines after Pep Guardiola, having been seduced by the coach's work at Barcelona prior to his current sabbatical. Perhaps, then, Di Matteo's dramatic sacking, just a matter of hours after a 3-0 Champions League defeat at Juventus, should not have come as a surprise.

But in spite of Abramovich's infamous reputation for having an incredibly itchy trigger finger, few predicted the Italian would be ousted so swiftly (and before Mark Hughes) following a loss to a very good team. Just how many would have emerged from Turin with a positive result?

One could argue that Di Matteo took an unnecessary gamble with his selection in a game that was not the right time for experimentation, but who could have blamed him for trying Eden Hazard as a 'false nine' having endured the falsest of nines in the shape of £50 million Fernando Torres?

The treatment of Di Matteo, who seems a good man, has evoked fist-shaking from some - although the no doubt sizeable pay-off will take the edge off for him, you would imagine.

Regardless, lifting the Champions League and FA Cup while taking the team to third in the Premier League table so far (and playing some snazzy football in the latter) arguably does not warrant a P45. But this is the Chelsea of the modern era, with Abramovich's impulsive ways seeing them embark on new chapter after new chapter. He has overseen five permanent managerial appointments since taking over at Stamford Bridge in 2003.

Di Matteo might well look on glumly as Rafa Benitez goes about his business with a win-win situation ahead of him in the final Champions League group game: if the Blues fail to qualify, Roman was vindicated; if the Blues do qualify, Roman was vindicated.

Furthermore, a striker who is not made of fear and shadows should arrive in January, finally serving as a missile to be fired into action by the trio of creative fuses playing behind him. Good luck to Benitez though, for his debut match in charge is against champions Manchester City on Sunday.

QPR: He who laughs last

Oh, how Mark Hughes must have indulged in a chuckle this week. His side - his bottom of the table, winless side - were beaten by Southampton in a textbook six-pointer at the weekend, and this column suggested that the manager of the losing team would be unlikely to be in a job come Monday. Somehow, though, Hughes remains, in spite of the money spent and the performances to date, while, along the road, Di Matteo has gone.

The Welshman just might turn things around (stranger things have happened) but it wouldn't be outlandish to suggest that he probably would have gone by now had owner Tony Fernandes not backed himself into a corner by so publicly supporting him, via Twitter, after each worrying result.

The Malaysian's post-match comments on Saturday, however, made no mention of Hughes - an indication, perhaps, that his support is wavering. A sacking after this weekend's trip to Manchester United would be in the realms of the pointless, but if Rangers slip up on their forthcoming trip to Sunderland, surely the (reportedly expensive) axe will come down fast and hard.

Tottenham: Rod for his own back

Another manager who probably observed events at Stamford Bridge with more interest than others is Andre Villas-Boas, as he suffered a very similar departure earlier this year.

It is possible the Portuguese welcomed the distraction after he came in for some heat of his own following Tottenham's 5-2 North London derby defeat at Arsenal. However, it was not the performance of AVB's charges (Emmanuel Adebayor's idiocy aside) that raised eyebrows, but his post-match comments.

"I think we were on top from the first minute to the last," was the peculiar verdict he gave BBC Radio 5 live, despite his opponents enjoying 66% of possession and over twice as many shots on target. A home game against in-form West Ham United awaits, after a midweek trip to Lazio, when the head coach might be advised to aid his cause by dropping 35-year-old William Gallas, who has been in sometimes desperate form this season.

And while any Mad Hatter scribblings that AVB's days are numbered need be doused in petrol and threatened with a match, the Spurs boss could certainly do with halting a three-game losing streak.

Norwich: On the defensive

Hurrah for proper defending, and kudos to Chris Hughton for treating us to it. Norwich have embarked on a five-match unbeaten league streak and have conceded just once in that run - which, we think you will agree, is rather impressive.

It is suggested that the reason behind this upturn in form (prior to the win over Arsenal, the Canaries had not triumphed this season) was the international break. As so few of Hughton's players left Carrow Road to represent their nations, the former Newcastle boss and his staff were afforded time to work on the shape of the team.

Whatever the cause, it is to be applauded, and not to a patronising rhythm. Norwich's performance against a lacklustre Manchester United was excellent, and no freak after the Canaries also made Arsenal look like an unimaginative crop.

Norwich visit Everton on Saturday - a side stung by a second loss of the season, which was also Reading's first win - and, after topping last season's 12th-placed finish under Paul Lambert looked a tall order, Hughton and his men should look ahead with optimism. Indeed, speaking after the United scalp, the manager reflected: "The satisfaction you get when you succeed at a club of this stature is even more thrilling than it would be if I was at one of the top clubs in England."


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