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Dec 7, 2012

Careful what you wish for

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

Arsenal: Pointing the finger

If results are not to your liking, sack the manager. That's how football works. You don't sack the players - perhaps you might sell a couple as an example, but you don't take an axe to 25 contracts. And boards don't sack themselves - that's only the solution when there is no way out of a maze of crisis. No, the man on the touchline, the man in the shirt and tie, is the fall guy. As the face of the club, he'll be the one thrown under a bus, serving to demonstrate that action has been taken by those in better shirts and ties.

Take Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Certainly, there's a case to be made - arguably a strong one - that his time in north London is coming to an end, at least at the club he has managed since 1996. A pat on the back and an ushering upstairs to a director-type role might be the kindest thing to do.

What is happening now, though, is uncomfortable. The atmosphere at Emirates Stadium is poisonous, and Wenger, who has done so much for the Gunners, is losing his battle against the change in mood. This wasn't how it was meant to end.

The Frenchman, his face sick with anguish, fronts up to the press after each crushing result - Silent Stan is happy where he is, thank you very much. Yet maybe the decline at the Emirates is not down to one man. In part he seems to blame, but this appears to be a multi-layered matter, with question marks over finances, both at the club and also in competition with others that, in recent years, have been able to up their short-term games courtesy of oligarchs.

Of course, the Swansea defeat in particular brought the Gunners' issues home: the manner in which the Welsh club out-Arsenal-ed Arsenal, the bargain buys they boasted while Arsenal had Gervinho and will have Thierry Henry (again), and all this coming after the Black Scarf Movement protest - "Where has our Arsenal gone?" maybe a thousand or so people asked.

While getting rid of Wenger right now would not be knee-jerk as such - Arsenal's has been a gradual malaise - it would be rash and without enough thought. Now is a time for cool heads and unity. When this season has played out in the summer of 2013, and the adrenaline has subsided... if there is a plan in place, act then.

But until then, the fans, the manager and the players should remember whose side they're on.

Chelsea: Feeling Blue

Was it worth Rafa Benitez putting down the blogging keyboard for this? For hatred from the fans? For a task that seems impossible no matter the feat(s) during its course? To work for a man who, some might feel, isn't sure what he wants any more?

That midweek reports of a return for Avram Grant were believable emphasised the way in which the daft is liable to occur in west London.

Seven Premier League matches have now gone by without a win for Chelsea. It is worth reminding people that four of those results did not happen under Benitez, instead coming courtesy of 16th-minute darling Roberto Di Matteo.

Yet a 3-1 loss against West Ham United has exacerbated matters for the Spaniard. He is thought of for tactical nous but, his team having dominated the first half at Upton Park, being outdone by Sam Allardyce's introduction of Mohamed Diame splintered what might be considered his only redeeming feature.

While we're at it, some kind words for the Hammers. They occupy eighth place in the table and are capable of forcing any side in the division to sweat for a point or three. Ignorantly branded long-ball merchants by some, they instead play a direct game with thought - surely no team keeps the ball alive better in and around the penalty area than they do.

It was what ultimately outdid Chelsea, who head to out-of-form Sunderland off the back of six goals scored (against FC Nordsjaelland, mind) and a first win for Benitez at the Bridge.

Sunderland: Worry on Wearside

"Out-of-form Sunderland" is an understatement: the Wearsiders have won just two of their last 22 Premier League matches. And more trouble awaits, Sunderland supporters might fear, when Chelsea visit on Saturday - and that despite the Londoners' recent upheavals.

When you consider that games against the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham are also to come in December, the current one-point cushion between Sunderland and the relegation zone looks unlikely to be enough to prevent Martin O'Neill's side being in the drop zone come the New Year.

A defeat will be anticipated against Chelsea, so a positive performance - the sort they produced during the second half of their 2-1 loss at Norwich on Sunday - is what home fans at the Stadium of Light will be hoping for. But while a loss this weekend would be unwanted yet acceptable, a failure in the forthcoming fixture at home to Reading would snowball the winter of discontent.

Manchester derby: Winning losers

Being unbeaten is not the be-all and end-all. Manchester United may have lost three games compared to City's none, but United are the ones who top the table by three points. Furthermore, while City have been held to six draws this season, the most recent of them at home to Everton, United have played out a stalemate against... nobody. They are, at present, winners despite occasionally being losers.

The policy of 'however many you score, we'll score more' is a formula that, plainly, will win a football match. However, it is a method that is risky, as United have often stared at the spectre of defeat this season before, courtesy of their quality up front, pinching the spoils - although their luck ran out against CFR Cluj this week.

Sir Alex Ferguson, guilty of a tactical blunder in the corresponding fixture last season, believes beating City at the Etihad would be "one of our best ever results". As far as Roberto Mancini, the winner of no group games in the Champions League this term, is concerned, it is hard to argue with his opinion that a complete exit from Europe will aid the defence of their title.

However, one can't help but be sceptical that he and his players are "disappointed" to not be in the Europa League.


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