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Feb 1, 2013

Half an albatross around Liverpool's neck

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

Liverpool: A trip to the champions

To be knocked out of the FA Cup by lower-league opposition smarts for longer than a few days. As any manager does, Brendan Rodgers fronted the blame - but he needed little invitation to point the finger. Indeed, his faith in youth was not rewarded, and ergo his words - which usually lean, and on occasion suffocate, on the positive - after the loss at Oldham were thus: "When you get the opportunity, you have to take it. If not then it can be very difficult for you."

If it was needed, the result served as yet another X-ray of the extensive surgery to be carried out at Anfield. Indeed, Rodgers' 'project' is one of the long-term, should he be afforded the time to do so. But football is short-term these days. One minute to the next the mood among fans can swing from delirium to despair. And such, when the Reds deservedly took a two-goal lead at creators-of-their-own-downfall Arsenal, the ambience was up, only for a downer to follow as the advantage was relinquished.

Still, a point at the Emirates is a decent result, so they say - although such is the Gunners' decline perhaps a draw is not so satisfactory. Further confusion is found in the conclusion: to go two up is good, to then concede two is bad. Whatever the meaning, the fact is the Reds are still to beat any side in the top ten of the Premier League this season. Where better to end that run when they travel to the champions Manchester City on Sunday?

Aston Villa: Stand by Lambert

From the last 18 points on offer, Aston Villa have managed to recoup just the two, which even an optimist would describe as ghastly form. The most recent failures came on Tuesday night when they suffered a 2-1 home defeat versus fellow relegation candidates Newcastle United. This result sees Paul Lambert's team in the drop zone courtesy of their -26 goal difference. And, it seems (at the time of writing) with little investment in recruits forthcoming, it is here they are set to stay until May.

"If I have to go with this group, I have to go with it," Lambert said this week, seemingly putting a brave face on matters as owner Randy Lerner resists the temptation to buy Villa's way out of this mess à la Queens Park Rangers, who are throwing money at the transfer window and seeing what sticks. And, although the Loftus Road way would not be wise, at least a modicum of bolstering would have been sensible to aid Villa's cause.

Their performance versus Newcastle, one of the first half being dire and the second half improved, was indicative of their current plight, with the younger squad members struggling to find consistency in the top flight. Lambert reflected: "In the second half, I can't fault them. I'll never reveal what I say at half-time, that's always private, but it's the first time I've seen a standing ovation when we've got beat. That was an incredible thing."

Three of their next four matches see them face Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City, which does not bode well. But to get rid of Lambert now would not be the right decision. At 42 years old, and given the impression he made at Norwich, the Scot is a manager with potential, it would be busting Villa's nose to spite their face. If it is to be relegation for them then so be it - at least stick with Lambert and let him continue with his vision.

Norwich: Jekyll & Hyde

Norwich currently have the joint-worst Premier League form, 'joint' for they accompany fellow wrong 'uns Villa at the foot of the table of green, grey and red dots. And this is coupled with the infamy of becoming the first top-flight side to be knocked out of the FA Cup by non-league opposition since 1989. Following a run earlier in the season of ten matches unbeaten and six wins accrued during that time, the Canaries are without a victory in their previous seven, with five of those ending in defeats.

That downturn has seen them slither from seventh in the table to 14th. Seven points is a relatively comfortable buffer between them and the bottom three for now, but manager Chris Hughton will rightly have cause for concern at this dramatic change in fortunes. That said, their display against Tottenham on Wednesday was more like the Jekyll-Norwich we saw earlier in the campaign as the point they earned was the least they deserved. QPR are the next opponents on Saturday lunchtime, which is big.

Newcastle: French fancy

Some relief could be sighed in the North East during midweek as Newcastle picked up only a third win in 15 league attempts. As if to rub Villa's noses in it, this was a team boosted by the Ligue 1 additions of Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy, as well as the return to fitness of the excellent Yohan Cabaye after injury.

Unlike Villa, the Magpies have indeed spent but, unlike QPR, they have done it in measured fashion. It has been argued by some that with the continental influx at St James' Park an identity is being lost, yet the counter-argument is that by these means, with the scouting work of Graham Carr backed by Mike Ashley's more considered money, the Magpies could yet save their season, even if it is sans a clutch of Geordie boys.

A dollop of realism is needed for this Tyneside cassoulet, though, as, while the extra ingredients will certainly assist, a an infusion period for some will be needed - and it is Chelsea and then Tottenham next on the horizon. "We worked hard to integrate the players," reflected Pardew post the scalp of Villa, showing that those within the Tyneside club are conscious that time is not on their side in the race to rectify what they have spoiled and avoid the drop.

Fulham/West Ham: Slipping

Truthfully, this section was pencilled in for either Fulham or West Ham, depending on the outcome of their meeting in West London. The home side were triumphant, but that does not mean they are out of the woods yet. On the opening day of the 2012-13 season Fulham beat Norwich 5-0 and subsequently went top of the Premier League table. On that August day the sun shone and all looked rosy in West London. Since then, however, their form has declined steadily as, although they rose to 12th this week, they've won three times in 16 games.

They host Manchester United on Saturday evening (gulp), having recently put up little fight versus the table-toppers in the FA Cup and, after the Red Devils broke a run of three games without a win at Craven Cottage last season by spanking them 5-0, the omens are not great for the husky-voiced Martin Jol. Similar, if not worse, goes for West Ham.

The Hammers, having enjoyed a positive beginning to their return to the top flight, have gone off the boil. They have the third-worst form in the division, with just four points managed from a possible 18. Previously considered an opponent that would make you sweat for a result, Sam Allardyce's men are, uncharacteristically, proving a soft touch, in particular in defence, where they have recently been leaking goals. Indeed, ahead of their home game versus Swansea this weekend, the Hammers have kept just one clean sheet in their last ten league matches at Upton Park.


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