Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Liverpool: The cupboard is bare
Well, that wasn't in the script, as they say. 'They' being ignorant to Liverpool's penchant for snapping like peanut brittle. The Brendan Rodgers Project was never going to go off without a hitch and, hence, their shock loss against Aston Villa last weekend was not a shock at all, but rather a part of the process that only the deluded did not see coming. Alas, the result leaves the Reds 12th in the table, seven points from the relegation zone. Conversely, with a glass-half-full outlook, they are seven points from fourth.
Their chance to provide the Anfield faithful with some Christmas cheer (festive relevance!) comes at home to out-of-form Fulham - more on them shortly. Trouble is, Rodgers has a conundrum. You see, he feels certain players are pooped: "If we're honest, there are a few who could do with that breather, especially mentally. It's something for sure I need to have a wee look at."
It is well-documented, though, that beyond an acceptable first XI the cupboard is decidedly bare. And so, with four games in the space of 12 days, Rodgers' mettle for juggling his squad before the much-needed transfer window opens - when Daniel Sturridge and Tom Ince will apparently arrive - will be tested to the max.
Eight-year-deal Alan is in a spot of bother. In short, his team are making a right hash of mimicking last season's achievements. In more detail, they've lost six of their last seven and are only just keeping their heads above the deep waters of the relegation zone. And Pardew is concerned ahead of their meeting with QPR, telling the Shields Gazette: "Usually, reporters say it's a must-win game - I'm telling you it's must-win. That's what we need to do."
So serious is the manager that he cancelled the club's Christmas party [the scrooge] and also lamented their failure to bring in "one more senior player" during the summer - something supporters have been screaming about from the Tyne Bridge since September 1.
But it isn't all doom and gloom for the barcodes, as their level of performance was vastly improved during a 3-1 loss against champions Manchester City. Revert to recent type against QPR, however, and the silver fox will be looking decidedly grey ahead of a tough run of games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton.
Aston Villa: Vim and vigour
Remember Alex McLeish? Villa fans do, no matter how hard they try to forget. The turgid stuff played under the Scot was perhaps, though, pushed further down into the darkness of the memory bank by their brilliant 3-1 win at Liverpool at the weekend. This was a performance of grit, of vigour, of the fearlessness to express - see Christian Benteke's luscious backheel for Andreas Weimann's goal as evidence of all three.
That the side which vanquished the Reds was the youngest Villa team of the Premier League era merits further applause. While three points is not the most comfortable cushion between them and the bottom three, a run of five games unbeaten at least warms the cockles in that part of the world. Lambert was right to bask in the glory of his achievement - "I think the whole performance was fabulous," he beamed - but the often dour Scot is the type to guarantee his players will not get carried away. And they must resume their focus, as they have a trip to Chelsea on Sunday.
Norwich: All hail Hughton
Nice guys don't necessarily finish last. Norwich City manager Chris Hughton appears as nice as they come, but that hasn't stopped him and his side putting together an unbeaten run that is only bettered across Europe by Barcelona. The Canaries are ten Premier League matches unbeaten and fully merit the plaudits that have been belatedly falling at their feet. A 2-1 triumph over Wigan brought them into double figures as well as demonstrating resolve as they bounced back from a League Cup exit.
They next face West Brom, before home games against Chelsea and Manchester City when one would think their blemish-free record will come to a sticky end. However, lest we forget that it was at Carrow Road that Norwich made Arsenal and Manchester United look so useless in attack. Indeed, as touched upon regarding Lambert, ensuring players remain grounded in a time ruled by overpaid prima donnas seems to be the key to his success. "They are a very down-to-earth, level-headed group, but we have to work very hard for everything we get," Hughton said of his players.
Please don't do this to us, Fulham. You remain in our hearts as the team that can flutter its come-hither eyes and make us weak at the knees, but of late you've become a little flabby around the edges, failing to strut your stuff. Furthermore, we don't like to see Dimitar Berbatov upset, for this does not sit well alongside his achingly, ice cool image.
Just one win has been accrued in the Cottagers' last nine matches, making manager Martin Jol gruffer than usual in his post-match interviews. A five-point buffer is just about enough to ensure the panic button isn't being readied, but certainly there is reason to become aware of its location. The absence of Bryan Ruiz through injury has been troublesome, as it is his type of swagger that helps to identify Fulham and make them a force. A trip to Anfield beckons on Saturday evening.
Everton: A sticky situation
Here's a statistic brought to you by the fine people at Opta: "Since the start of last season, Everton have won only one of their six Premier League games without Marouane Fellaini (17%), compared to a 41% win percentage with him in the side." Fellaini of course is now suspended for three matches following his retrospective punishment for a headbutt on Stoke's Ryan Shawcross (stop sniggering at the back). The microphone-headed Belgian will miss games against West Ham, Wigan and Chelsea, as the Toffees seek to turn draws into wins - with over half of their fixtures thus far ending in stalemates. Let's see how they get on, eh?