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Jan 30, 2014

Chelsea, Man City meet in blockbuster

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend’s topflight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

The game of the season

If you are to believe the version of events being persistently promoted by Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho in recent weeks, this season’s Premier League title race features just one horse, and it wears sky blue colours.

Manchester City will get the chance to prove him right on Monday night, as what could be one of the defining matches of this season sees Mourinho's Blues take on a City side whose insatiable appetite for goals should ensure they break the current Premier League record for a season. That stands at 103, set by Chelsea in their title-winning 2009-10 campaign under Carlo Ancelotti.

City’s five-goal hammering of Spurs on Wednesday, coupled with Chelsea’s failure to beat West Ham at Stamford Bridge on the same damp London evening, went some way to backing up Mourinho’s suggestions that his side are destined to play second fiddle to league leader City. But the Portuguese, a serial trophy collector, has never been one to accept second-best easily.

Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Manuel Pellegrini’s City at Stamford Bridge in October may have been laced with enough good fortune to dilute its significance ahead of the eagerly anticipated rematch, but Mourinho has made a habit of thriving on matches of this magnitude during his remarkable decade at the top.

It says much about City’s stunning strength in depth that Sergio Aguero’s hamstring strain is only a minor concern for the side who have belatedly overtaken Arsenal at the top of the table, with the consensus among most observers suggesting Pellegrini’s dream team will sit in that cherished position when the final ball of this season is kicked.

Although it is hard to argue against that vision on current form, the one man who has the capacity to ruffle the feathers of Pellegrini and upset the momentum of his fearsome team will not even kick a ball at the Etihad Stadium on Monday night.

His name is Jose Mourinho and, as those who have crossed him down the years will testify, he loves nothing more than an improbable challenge.

Pardew's golden chance

Newcastle manager Alan Pardew feared he would not get to the end of January with Yohan Cabaye still among his ranks, and so it proved, with the 19 million pound deal that took the France midfielder to Paris Saint-Germain representing good business for a 28-year-old midfielder who made it clear he wanted to leave Tyneside.

Replacing Cabaye is a task that now falls to Pardew, with his belief that the players he has in his ranks can plug the void left by the star of his midfield set to be put to the test in the most fevered atmosphere imaginable.

Sunderland come to St James’ Park on Saturday, and you need to spend a few days in the sporting goldfish bowl that is the North East to appreciate just what this fixture means to a region that will come to a standstill for the biannual domestic dustup. Don’t tell the Tyne-Wear natives that the rest of the world will merely be looking in as casual observers, as when you are involved emotionally in the story, this is the fixture that defines a Premier League season.

Pardew’s record of winning just one of his six derby matches against Sunderland is less than impressive, and his programme notes for the game Sunday sees him urge his players to “win and lose with dignity and grace,” in a direct reference to the extravagant scenes of celebration displayed by Paolo Di Canio as his Sunderland team won 3-0 at St James’ Park in April 2013. Will Pardew live up to that advice if he is a winner this time?

Newcastle new boy Luuk De Jong may be among the debutants in a black-and-white shirt, while Argentine forward Ignacio Scocco could make his Sunderland bow in a game neither may have been too familiar with prior to their recent arrivals in the North East of England.

Come the close of play in their first derby match for their new clubs, all concerned will appreciate that this is a match that takes on biblical importance to those watching in the stands.

Hughes struggling again

Mark Hughes made a bold prediction that Queens Park Rangers would never be involved in a relegation fight again so long as he was manager after he plotted their escape from the drop zone on the final day of the 2011-12 season, but he was sacked a few months later, having started the spiral that led to QPR’s relegation.

He admitted he was fortunate to get another chance in the Premier League when Stoke came calling last summer, but results so far have done little to rebuild the faith and confidence in a manager who again finds himself embroiled in a relegation scrap.

The visit of a rejuvenated Manchester United to the Britannia Stadium on Saturday is hardly an ideal scenario for ex-United striker Hughes, who will know that further employment opportunities will be hard to come by if he fails once again at Stoke.

Sherwood's big test

“It’s easy to play this game when the sun is shining and you are winning, but it’s how you react when things are not going your way that really matters,” Tottenham boss Tim Sherwood said earlier in January.

Those words will be put to the test, as after collecting 16 points from a possible 18 in his first six games as Spurs boss, the 5-1 hammering by Manchester City at White Hart Lane on Wednesday presents Sherwood with his first big test as a Premier League manager.

Anything less than a victory at Hull may not be good enough for Spurs to maintain their push for a top-four finish, with the reaction Sherwood gets from his players likely to be crucial to his hopes of remaining Tottenham head coach for the long term.

Fear of February curse for Arsenal

Arsenal’s recent tale of woe when they play in February makes for grim reading.

FA Cup exits against lower-league opponents, Champions League defeats to AC Milan and Bayern Munich and League Cup final losses have all been part of the mix for Arsene Wenger’s men in the second month of the year since 2007; this year, they are facing the prospect of another daunting challenge.

Sunday’s Premier League clash with Crystal Palace at Emirates Stadium is followed by games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Liverpool again in the FA Cup, before Bayern come to London in the Champions League. Could Arsenal’s February curse be about to strike again?

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