Bale's battle for supreme status
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Bale making hay at Tottenham
The signs have been coming. It was only a matter of time before someone in the Premier League put a run of form together and started to gain comparisons with the two best players on the planet: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. While RVP was an early favourite, it's the wing wizard from Wales who has been that man of late with eight goals in his last six games - including a couple of stunners that the La Liga pair would have been proud of - and 12 in his last 13 games for Tottenham.
The stats show that Bale has certainly made improvements in his game. Indeed, he is top of the table for shots on target this season (51); he has scored more away goals than any other player in the Premier League in this campaign; and no player has scored more Premier League goals in 2013 (6). There is also a stat that provides a comparison with the world's best: both Messi and Bale are the only players in the big five European leagues to score six goals from outside the box this season. But, dear readers, that should be where the comparison ends for now.
Yes, he is the form player in the Premier League; yes, he has the skills to go to the very top of the game wherever he ends up; yes, he will rack up a host of awards (though, in the same vein as Ryan Giggs and George Best, it is unlikely to achieve anything at international level). But he cannot be compared to Ronaldo or Messi. Yet.
Messi has 48 goals in all competitions this season, Ronaldo has 39. Last season, it was 73 and 60 respectively. Bale, meanwhile, has managed 22 this season and 15 last year. Is he the best in England at the moment? Yes. But if the midfielder is 'world-class' (which he surely is) then a whole new term has to be coined for Messi and Ronaldo. Perhaps an 'intergalactic class' label - not taking into account any football mad, five-legged, alien life-forms which may be discovered at a later date - could stop the bandwagon rolling on.
Thankfully the 23-year-old has been listening to the likes of Rio Ferdinand and is ignoring the hype; keeping his feet firmly on the ground. When asked whether he could be compared to LM10/CR7, he told talkSPORT: "It's not for me to say. People can talk and say what they want. They have their own opinions. All I can do is keep trying my hardest and keep playing my best football and trying to do my best for the team."
With that in mind, attentions can now turn to the small matter of the derby between Tottenham and Arsenal on Sunday. Despite both fixtures at the Emirates in 2012 ending 5-2 to the Gunners, there is plenty to suggest that Spurs have overtaken their North London counterparts this season and, with Bale in full flow, are targeting the Champions League spot that could determine whether or not they get to keep their star player this summer. The Daily Mail have even begun a campaign called 'Keep Bale in Blighty' but, if Spurs don't secure a top-four finish at the end of the season, then he will almost certainly get a chance to test himself against one his Spanish peers in training, while he'll face the other when Real Madrid and Barcelona meet in next year's Clasico.
Same old story for the Amigo
If things had worked out slightly differently over the summer, Wigan would currently have a new manager in charge and Roberto Martinez would be telling Raheem Sterling to buck his ideas up in training at Melwood, or on a US tour. The Spanish boss was seemingly courted openly by the Reds before they opted for Brendan Rodgers (although chairman Tom Werner claimed they were only ever interested in Rodgers) and now he has a chance to derail Liverpool's bid for a European spot, while simultaneously boosting his own team's chances of survival when they travel to Anfield.
A chat with Wigan chairman Dave Whelan last summer appears to have persuaded the 'Amigo' that his long-term future lies at Wigan, but after claiming he wanted to 'take the club to the next level' it seems precious little has changed. At this stage of the 2011-12 season, Wigan were rock bottom on 20 points and had only won four of their 27 games; now, they have 24 points and six wins to sit in 17th - just above the relegation zone - on goal difference. But you may begin to notice a pattern: in 2010-11, they had 27 points and five wins, and were, er, in 18th place. While the previous season they had 25 points, had won six games, and were in 16th.
Not exactly the highs of Steve Bruce during the Latics' first season in the top-flight (seventh after 27 games; 11th at the end of the season), but even with such lowly positions you have to admit that Martinez has done a fine job at the JJB/DW over the years. As long as the club remain in the Premier League come the end of the season, Whelan won't care where they were in the table at the end of February.
Clarke seeks Chelsea kryptonite
West Brom manager Steve Clarke has learned from the best; after all he was assistant to the great Jose Mourinho at Chelsea as the Roman Abramovich era began to see its first trophy returns a decade ago. Now, Clarke is a manager in his own right and travels back to Stamford Bridge on the crest of a wave as wins over Liverpool and Sunderland arrested a slide that had seen them fail to win in eight games since Boxing Day.
Central to West Brom's recent success has been a player they have borrowed from the Blues. Romelu Lukaku cost Chelsea £18 million from Anderlecht in August 2011, and he has been in sublime form for the Baggies with a brace against Sunderland making it six goals in his last nine games. However he is ineligible for the clash and won't get a chance to show his parent club why they should not splash out Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao or Marouane Fellaini this summer. With Rafa's latest rant causing distractions - it will be interesting to hear the fans' reaction to his recent criticism - Clarke has a good chance to target Chelsea's weaknesses both on and off the pitch.
A wonderful Swan song
A 5-0 win over Bradford in the Capital One Cup final at Wembley on Sunday brought the club a first major trophy in their 100-year history, but a similarly important landmark could be reached this weekend with a win at home to Newcastle: the magic 40 points 'needed' to stay in the top flight. After sealing promotion in 2011 to become the first Welsh team to play in the Premier League, Swansea have gone from strength to strength under Michael Laudrup this season and, sitting as they do in ninth place, have a better chance of finishing in the European spots than they do of figuring in a relegation battle. Still, there will be some relieved Swans fans once that 40-point barrier is broken. The next task? Holding onto Laudrup.