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Jan 18, 2013

Blues mired in misery at unhappy home

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

Chelsea: Boo-nitez

The supporters at Stamford Bridge need little invitation to express their displeasure through the medium of booing nowadays (in fairness, they're not alone in that). For - in case you hadn't (literally) heard - they do not care for their interim manager Rafael Benitez, not since he said something or other about flags (I forget what).

Flags or no flags, Benitez is doing himself few favours if he wishes to endear himself to the haters (although it is debatable whether he is all that fussed about doing so), as Chelsea's 2-2 draw with Southampton, when a two-goal advantage was let slip, means they have now won only one of their last seven Premier League home games. Yikes.

It is an all too easy, and ergo lazy, conclusion to draw that the bitter reception for Benitez in West London is transferring itself to the players, leading to negative results. The fact that the Blues' away form has been excellent - look at the 4-0 win at Stoke City last weekend - seemingly supports this theory, but it is likely that a different set of tactics and mindset from the opposition, and also from Benitez, at Stamford Bridge are also reasons for the stark contrast between fortunes on the road and in the so-called comfort of their own abode.

It was a theory Benitez backed last week before, on Wednesday evening, the Spanish coach turned his attention to wastefulness in front of goal against Southampton (who, as an aside, have lost only two of their last 12 league games, so bravo there), with only three of Chelsea's 18 shots hitting the target.

The Saints match was the Blues' game in hand, and drawing it means they now trail Manchester United by 13 points. To say the title is probably beyond them would hardly be a maverick point of view.

Their next home fixture is on Sunday when they host Arsenal, a team being carried on the 21-year-old shoulders of Jack Wilshere. The corresponding match last season was arguably one of the games of 2011-12, as Chelsea's high line under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas was exposed and the Gunners claimed a 5-3 win.

But Chelsea have already made light work of Arsenal this campaign, easing to a 2-1 win at the Emirates in September. That, however, was when Roberto Di Matteo was at the helm - so who flippin' knows what to think?

Tottenham: Sans Sandro

Tottenham were flat at Queens Park Rangers, never really testing goalkeeper Julio Cesar beyond the Brazilian's superb double save in the early stages.

The point earned at least extended their unbeaten run to six, setting them up solidly for their meeting with Manchester United at White Hart Lane on Sunday. There was a significant blemish at Loftus Road, however, as Sandro suffered a knee injury that required surgery.

The Brazilian has formed arguably the league's most effective central midfield partnership with Mousa Dembele, and his absence, the length of which has yet to be confirmed, will be felt. Scott Parker will come in as the 'spoiler' and 'sitter' but, while he offers similar energy and more experience, he will have a task on his hands to fill the former Internacional player's boots, particularly as he has not started a Premier League game since April 2012.

Remember, too, it was the midfield area that proved so decisive when Spurs ended their 23-year wait for a victory at Old Trafford in September.

Aston Villa: Dark in the Black Country

Heavens above, the skies over Villa Park look bleak. A five-match unbeaten run, capped by a marvellous 3-1 win at Liverpool, suggested Paul Lambert's side had turned a corner. Yet they are now five games without a win, having lost four of those matches and conceded 18 goals.

The most recent defeat came at home to Southampton, albeit thanks to a controversial penalty - but Jay Rodriguez's dive was a convenient deflection of attention from Lambert's side, who were below par until the latter stages.

Villa's recent fragility in defence has meant goal difference forces them into the relegation places, although a chance to breathe a puff of faith back into the supporters presents itself in the Black Country derby against rivals West Brom. The Baggies themselves are enduring a downturn in form, having suffered three straight losses.

The smart money would be on Steve Clarke's side, who boast the third-best home record in the division, to return to winning ways on Saturday evening. Look out, too, for the battle of the Belgians, as Romelu Lukaku goes head-to-head with Christian Benteke, with the former, three years the younger of the two, in particularly devastating form.

Wigan, Reading: Other strugglers

Wigan's rubbish form hasn't been flagged to any great degree - perhaps because it has become customary, and therefore not much to wail about, for them to be iffy for the first two-thirds of a season. Regardless, they've won just one of their last nine Premier League games and are spared a place in the drop zone only by virtue of Villa's comedic defending.

It is expected that Roberto Martinez's side will enjoy their habitual spring renaissance, ensuring that they escape demotion by the skin of their teeth. But football does not always play out to the same narrative. Martinez, who will be without defender Ivan Ramis for the remainder of the season because of a knee injury, should be concerned.

At Reading, though, maybe there is something stirring after three goals in the last eight minutes against West Brom clinched the win that spared them a place at the bottom of the pile. Royals manager Brian McDermott said after the comeback: "It is a big win for us." It is hard to disagree with him.

Saturday's trip to Newcastle is even bigger, as they face a team on a downward spiral. It is the cliched must-win match for the Magpies. A draw would simply not be enough to ease the unrest, with uncertainty over the excellent Fabricio Coloccini's future doing little to calm nerves on Tyneside.


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