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May 17, 2013

Spurs pray for an Arsenal collapse

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

Arsenal: Wobble they might

Just so much to play for. The title, relegation - boy, are we in for one hell of a final day. Fingers nibbled down to bone at the tension of it all. Should be memorable. Should certainly top last season's drama in the dying seconds. Wait. What? Top spot was settled last month? Wigan's loss at Arsenal on Tuesday confirmed they join Reading and Queens Park Rangers in heading to the Championship? There's only Champions League qualification to be played for? For crying out loud.

But let's hold onto this fight-for-fourth narrative. Let's embrace it, wring it out for all its worth. There's meaning (money) to be had in the quest to finish in the top four. (Considered an Arsene Wenger 'like winning a trophy' quip here, but concluded this page was too good for that.) Anyway, the Gunners travel to St James' Park on Sunday, with Newcastle, much to Tottenham's annoyance, safe from demotion.

Magpies boss Alan Pardew had irked Spurs supporters when he remarked that he cared not if Arsenal gave them a hiding this weekend, with his side to play in the top flight next term. But it was all a joke. Alan was being funny! "I know people will have picked up on my comments about not caring about the result against Arsenal, which were, of course, a joke," he told the club's official website. "It is definitely not the case that I would be happy for us to lose 4-0 against Arsenal on Sunday." See?

Arsenal have Olivier Giroud back at their disposal, after the France international's three-match ban, and he is likely to return to the starting XI, in spite of Lukas Podolski's brace during midweek. Mikel Arteta, though, is set to miss out with a calf injury, which means the oxygen tent Jack Wilshere is kept in is about to be unzipped, ahead of his minor ankle surgery following the season's conclusion. Make no mistake about it, Arsenal having it in their hands means little, for they have the propensity to capitulate.

Tottenham: Only themselves to blame

Tottenham will cling onto that thought: that an Arsenal crumple would surprise no-one. Yet whichever of the North London duo fails in their pursuit of playing in Europe's promised land next campaign will only have themselves to blame - Spurs for letting what seemed an unassailable lead slip following their derby victory, or Arsenal for having fought their way back only to blow it.

All Andre Villas-Boas' men can do at White Hart Lane versus is Sunderland is win, and cross their fingers. Indeed, in theory it is they who have the easier game, with home advantage against a team missing key players through suspension and having to rely on Danny Graham to score his first goal for the club. And who would begrudge them denying Paolo Di Canio another excuse to snarl, thrust his hips and again feast on all that juicy attention.

AVB, for one, believes. "The dream is still alive for us," he said after Spurs' vital victory at Stoke City last weekend. As mentioned last week, the Portuguese is also boosted by the recent form of Emmanuel Adebayor, who, following his wonderful solo goal at Chelsea, came up with the goods at the Britannia Stadium.

Should they achieve their target, they have a squad on which to build. Should they win yet fail, doom and gloom should be tempered by a best ever Premier League point tally for the club - which is evidence they are heading in the right direction under a bright manager.

Chelsea v Everton: Fond (?) farewells

The champions of Europa look to sew up third* in a game of two managers waving goodbye. The send-off Benitez receives from the Stamford Bridge faithful will be worth keeping an eye on, for the man they greeted with such hostility (boo!) has just steered them to yet more silverware in Europe.

Where the Spaniard, with his plumped CV, is headed is unknown, yet David Moyes' path has already been dissected to the nth degree. The Scot will give his last Everton team talk on Sunday, his side having last weekend put in a typically Moyes-ian performance with their intense display that garnered victory over West Ham.

*There's also the chance this may not be the last we've seen of the 2012-13 Premier League season, as a play-off between Arsenal and Chelsea is feasible - all of which has been explained coherently here.

Manchester United: Ta-ra Fergie

After the tears (Sir Alex Ferguson's guard of honour, followed by his off-the-cuff speech in the drizzle on the Old Trafford turf post the final whistle) and the laughter (Ferguson revealing Wayne Rooney's second transfer request in three years has been rejected) comes the Scot's 1,500th and last game in charge of Manchester United.

West Brom, the champions' opponents, have been off the boil of late, with their 4-0 slump at Norwich a third loss on the spin. With little to play for - the Baggies have a top-half finish assured - the only matter of real merit for our attention will be if Rooney is again not named in the matchday squad. That, and officially seeing the back of the game's greatest ever manager.

Wigan: Highs and lows

A befuddling 72 hours for Wigan, then, as FA Cup success was followed by relegation. Having flirted with the drop for three seasons, it seemed inevitable that their luck and pluck would eventually run out. And it was no surprise that it was defensive ineptitude that proved their final undoing, as Arsenal took advantage of leakiness at the back on a soggy night in the capital. Wigan will be missed, for their cavalier approach has made for some hugely entertaining games over the years, but ultimately that was what did for them.


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