Anfield test for confident Spurs
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Liverpool v Tottenham: An incentive
There are six Premier League games this weekend, with the FA Cup also taking place - but among them are some doozies. For instance, on Sunday, with the same 4pm kick-off time as Manchester United's Cup quarter-final at home to Chelsea, there is the matter of Liverpool against Tottenham Hotspur.
The latter have earned the right to walk out at Anfield with their chests puffed out with pride after their deserved 2-1 win over Arsenal in the north London derby put them third in the table. A fifth victory on the spin, and an unbeaten run extended to 13 games, would see Spurs - boosted by Jermain Defoe's return to fitness - breathing down the necks of second-placed Manchester City.
Following initial doubts over his appointment at White Hart Lane, not helped by the manner in which he was so willingly written off by some after his time at Chelsea despite what he had achieved at Porto, the stubbled Andre Villas-Boas has had much to grin about in recent weeks.
Spurs are currently on their longest Premier League sequence without defeat and inspired by the brilliance of Gareth Bale (ten goals in his last eight matches), so the multilingual AVB has ensured there is plenty to be Steffen Freund about if you are of a Tottenham persuasion.
As for Liverpool, the incentive is that a win would put them above Everton on goal difference, such has been the Toffees' demise in tandem with the Reds' improvement of late. Brendan Rodgers' team are fourth in the form table and should be in the right frame of mind to finally scalp one of the 'bigger' sides, having so far failed to beat any of the teams that are currently above them in the standings this season.
With Luis Suarez combining well with Philippe Coutinho at Wigan last weekend and Daniel Sturridge set to return from injury, they should be a threat to the impressive centre-back pair of Michael Dawson and Jan Vertonghen. Defensively, though, Rodgers' men have been guilty of individual errors when facing deadlier frontlines than Wigan's - and sloppiness of that ilk cannot be afforded against Bale and co.
QPR v Sunderland: Neutral's un-favourite
They couldn't do it, could they? Queens Park Rangers' 2-1 win at Southampton last time out has given them a whiff of encouragement that the cliched Great Escape could be on. While they remain bottom of the table, victory over Sunderland (coupled with a Reading loss) would see them not in 20th for the first time since December and only a point off Wigan, who are safe in 17th but not playing this weekend.
"We know we've got a huge task on our hands over the last ten games of the season," QPR first-team coach Joe Jordan told the club's official website this week. "March will be a crucial month - it's vitally important we do well this month." Indeed, after Sunderland, QPR face Aston Villa, Fulham and Wigan, all winnable games on the non-existent paper.
There has never been a question of whether the quality to stave off relegation is there within QPR's squad, with the likes of Esteban Granero and Junior Hoilett among a talented crop. Furthermore, the £8 million January addition of Loic Remy could prove crucial - he scored his second goal in three starts at the Saints.
But it is this lavish use of cash that means neutral support for the Hoops is thin on the ground. They've gone about things - the big-money signing of Christopher Samba, for example - in a way that rubs many supporters up the wrong way.
Regardless, Saturday's Loftus Road encounter is also vital for Sunderland, for whom a positive result should just about be enough to pull them away from the genuine threat of being sucked into the mire. The Black Cats have lost three of their last four games, and are without a win in five.
Reading v Aston Villa: Drowning twosome
Oof, this is genuinely big. These two, alongside QPR, currently make up the relegation zone, with a point separating 19th-placed Reading and 18th-placed Villa.
Between them, they have won just three of 12 fixtures, with half of those ending in defeats. With Villa's defence leakier (phonetically) than the vegetable (17 goals conceded in their last five league away games) and Reading having scored the same number of goals at home as Tottenham, the onus will be on the Royals to take the game to their opponents - particularly given that they travel to Old Trafford next.
Stoke are bottom of the form table, having accrued just four points from a possible 18. Last month, I asked whether Tony Pulis, in spite of what he has achieved at the Britannia Stadium, is the right man to ensure that the Potters do not stagnate. With Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters their joint-highest scorers (five goals apiece), one wonders if the manager's tactics are being out-thought and out-fought by divisional rivals. A trip to improved Newcastle awaits.
Norwich v Southampton: Mauricio doubts
When Mauricio Pochettino's tenure at Southampton started with a hard-fought draw at home to Everton and a spirited display that ended in defeat Old Trafford, there was both surprise and a feeling that maybe the club's hierarchy had made the right decision to move Nigel Adkins, whose final game in charge was a 2-2 draw at Chelsea, out of the hotseat.
But after the Argentine managed a first win against Manchester City, of all clubs, back-to-back losses - the most recent at home to QPR - have seen doubts creep in once more.
On Saturday, they travel to Norwich with one eye on results elsewhere as they hover three points above the bottom three. The Canaries are not out of danger themselves and, while a late and dramatic return to winning ways against Everton at Carrow Road helped relieve the stress of it all, a showing that yielded no shots on target at Manchester United last weekend served as a comedown.