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May 10, 2013

Loose ends to be tied at both ends

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

Aston Villa v Chelsea: Differing priorities

Look at this game, eh, with its double meaning and everything. How lovely. The away team, Chelsea, have not yet wrapped up Champions League qualification after Tottenham Hotspur denied them all three points with a 2-2 draw on Wednesday. One win (by virtue of their better goal difference over Spurs) from their final two matches, against Villa or Everton, will be enough to ensure the Blues have the chance to brush this season's bad memories in Europe's premier competition under the carpet.

As for Villa, a victory over Chelsea will guarantee they will be playing Premier League football next campaign - SO IT'S ALL TO PLAY FOR. Villa's upturn in results - they are currently fifth in the form table - has seen the club climb to 13th in the standings, five points above the drop zone. After their time spent in the 'bad place', it is mathematically possible for Paul Lambert's team to finish in the top half of the table, which, while a fine turnaround, is an indictment of the slump in form from those naughty mid-table dwellers.

Benitez's tinkering could come into play at Villa Park, with the Spaniard's team that won't be his for much longer heading to Amsterdam on Wednesday for their Europa League final against Benfica. Benitez was disappointed with his players' defending against Tottenham, in particular when regathering as the visitors counter-attacked. Villa, with eight goals scored in their last two games, are partial to this form of surge, with Gabriel Agbonlahor recently joining Christian Benteke as a force to be reckoned with. All that said, Chelsea put eight past them in December, so hey-ho.

Tottenham: Out of their hands

A point at Stamford Bridge is not to be sniffed at, especially as Tottenham twice battled from behind against a team that had won their six previous matches on home turf, in spite of all that manly booing and sign-making that went before. Spurs remain in the hunt for a top-four finish - a defeat in West London would have been a disaster - but it is now out of their hands, with Andre Villas-Boas having to rely on slip-ups from their rivals. This weekend they travel to Stoke, who, barring an astonishing sequence of events (fingers crossed?), are safe from the drop, before ending their campaign at home to Sunderland, who are still scrapping it out.

Villas-Boas was fine with a point at Chelsea but did take the opportunity in his post-match interview to turn the pressure gauge up on Arsenal and Chelsea to 'cor, blimey, that's some pressure right there' by growling in his way: "The teams they have to play [are] fighting for survival, something can happen. Anything can happen." It was also a positive that Emmanuel Adebayor put in one of his best performances of the season, as the match-turning onus has fallen heavily on Gareth Bale's shoulders of late.

Everton: Moyes to wave goodbye

As this is being typed, the hypnotic yellow ticker is scrolling across the television screen telling me Everton have confirmed David Moyes will leave Goodison Park at the end of this season after 11 years in charge of the club. It goes without saying that Sunday's match against West Ham, Moyes' last home match in charge of the Toffees, will be one of high emotion, with some sad, some glad, some indifferent about the exit of the Scot, who performed well under tight finances but also failed to win a trophy and propel them into the Champions League proper. Time for a sob from the usually steely David before the bloody big step up to come.

Norwich: Nose-diving

Norwich's decline in facts: they have collected only 13 points in 2013, winning just twice in this calendar year. This dramatic downturn in form sees Chris Hughton's team 16th in the table, just three points above 18th-placed Wigan Athletic. At this stage of the campaign, often it is momentum that gets you over the finishing line - instead, the Canaries are nose-diving. Their 2-1 home loss against Villa last time out has made this weekend's match with West Brom a *pulls serious face* genuine must-win, ahead of a trip to the former Premier League champions on the final day. And it seems their manager is weary: "It is hurting at the moment and there won't be much sleep over the next day or so."

Newcastle: Spared by Wigan

When James McCarthy made it 2-1 to Wigan against Swansea on Tuesday night, Newcastle hearts must have sunk. Fortunately for the Magpies, though, the Latics' gung-ho approach leaves them cavernous at the back, and the Swans duly denied Roberto Martinez's men the win that would have seen them climb out of the relegation zone and pull Newcastle into it. The Toon's meeting with QPR is considered a gimme by some, and one they have to deliver in as they face Arsenal on May 19. But don't expect a thriller (although, now that sentence has been written, it might be wise to do so) as these two teams have gone a combined 627 minutes without having scored a goal.

Sunderland v Southampton: All about PDC

Big, big, big game. Big. These two relegation-threatened teams are separated by a point in the table, and success for either should mean safety. Oh, sweet safety, shower us with your kisses! Back-to-back wins looked to have been enough for the Saints, but four matches without a win have seen them plunge, although heart will have been taken from their decent showing at Tottenham. As for Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio evoked a little sick in the mouth from observers as he lapped up John O'Shea's equaliser against Stoke (yes) as if he himself had scored a bicycle kick from the halfway line. A draw would probably suit both.

Manchester United: Farewell Fergie

Small thing this week. Tiny, really. Sir Alex Ferguson, who has been in charge of Manchester United for every month but three of my life, announced he will step down as manager at the end of the season, having secured their 20th league title this season. This is a giant of the game, bowing out to leave a canyon to fill. Sunday, when he takes his place in the Old Trafford dugout for the final time, will be a lump in the throat moment for most, as such is the short-termism of modern football that we are unlikely to see another like Ferguson in our lifetimes.

Fulham: Must do better

You've been rubbish recently. Utter bobbins. Stop that, so we can see Dimitar Berbatov smile again. Cheers.


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