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Feb 22, 2013

Wenger left fighting on one front

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

Arsenal: February blues

There's no shame in losing against one of the best teams in Europe. Sure, Bayern Munich's victory was routine, and perhaps there's some regret to be had that all three of the visitors' goals were avoidable. But the Gunners have become so accustomed to soft concessions that they only have themselves to blame - when you can't teach Pavlov's dog new tricks, a time comes when you must conclude that he might never learn from his mistakes.

There's shame in losing against a team from a lower division, though - and for the second time this season at that. Indeed, it is the FA Cup defeat to Blackburn which will sting longer, in spite of the more recent stumble being on a grander stage. Again in February, Arsenal find themselves having no trophy to fight for, and instead they must battle their own demons as they strive to recover from the psychological blows of all-but two Cup exits in a matter of days. Fourth, and with it Champions League football, is now the target, an achievement infamously dubbed a 'trophy' by their manager Arsene Wenger.

The debate continues to rage over the future of Wenger, who on Monday was riled at a report in the Sun that suggested he was set for a new contract following the Blackburn loss. The Frenchman deemed this a calculated story and, after 17 years of being receptive to the media, let his anger rise to the surface - and who can blame him. The rant diverted attention away from the crux of the issues at the club, however: the hierarchy. Stan Kroenke remains silent, while confidence is rock bottom that they will either back Wenger sufficiently or, alternatively, take action by replacing him with someone fitting.

Aston Villa, winners of their first game in nine attempts last time out, await this weekend at the Emirates when a pick-me-up is desperately needed. Arsenal's league form is decent, with three wins managed in their last four matches. Trouble is, Tottenham Hotspur, who sit four points higher in fourth place, are in ruder health, and it remains to be seen if this current Gunners squad have the minerals to play catch up. Time for some of that fabled 'mental strength' Wenger so often preaches in his post-match interviews.

Man City v Chelsea: The fight for second

Much has happened since February 9, but let us not forget that was when Manchester City played their last league match and lost 3-1 at Southampton to allow Manchester United to open up a 12-point lead at the top on the following day. A 4-0 win over Leeds United in the FA Cup has since followed, but that was at home against a Championship side out of form. And while that competition is City's only feasible chance of silverware, Roberto Mancini must be wary of his team taking their eye off the Premier League ball.

A triumph for Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium would see the Blues just a point off their second-placed hosts. Having only recently been pushing United for the title, City now must fend off being usurped as runners-up. Compared with his stage last season, the champions are 10 points worse off, and it is this regression that has mounted pressure on their Italian manager, who receives little sympathy considering the finances he has had at his disposal.

As for Chelsea, three wins in all competitions following their defeat at Newcastle had helped to muffle the haters, until unconvincing progress in the Europa League turned back up the volume. Benitez accepts Sunday's trip to Manchester is a "massive" game, and one suspects that had they headed into this match off the back of a decline then his job would have been under genuine threat. As it stands, it seems he will last until his contract's end: in the summer. And yet the axing of Roberto Di Matteo continues to bemuse even now, as the Blues' win over Wigan finally meant Benitez has accumulated more Premier League points than his predecessor - albeit in two more games.

West Ham: Is Sam the right man?

"We can't play any better than we played," were the peculiar words of Sam Allardyce after West Ham slumped to a 2-1 loss at Aston Villa. On the same evening, Hammers co-chairman David Gold wrote on Twitter: "Disappointed for the fans who travelled hundreds of miles on a miserable day to lose to a team in the bottom three. We should do better." Unsurprisingly, this sent tongues wagging that the end could be nigh for Allardyce before his current contract expires in the summer.

The departure of Paolo Di Canio at Swindon this week has done little to temper the speculation, the Italian having played over 100 games for the Hammers - although Gold has stressed this week that "Big Sam is our man". Yet, while the club are placed a seemingly comfortable 11th in the division, just three wins have been accrued in 15 games, with nine of those ending in defeat. Survival should be secured, following the strength of their start to the campaign, but it appears Allardyce still has much to do to convince the club to hand him an extension. The power of persuasion continues on Monday evening at home to in-form Tottenham.

Wigan: Rinse and repeat

Three points from a possible 18 see Wigan at the bottom of the Premier League form table. And three points separate them from safety, with 12 matches to play. It was at the 30th-game mark last season that Roberto Martinez's side embarked on a superb run of form that ultimately saved their top-flight status. They won seven of their last nine matches to climb up from 19th to finish in 15th. A similar revival looks likely to be needed if the Latics are not going to return to the second division from which they were promoted in 2005. A crunch fixture at Reading takes place this Saturday. Indeed, this is genuinely big, as two points separate the pair, with both in the drop zone.


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