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Local rivals poles apart in London derby

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

Magath's chance to stamp authority

Felix Magath's reputation as a relegation specialist will be tested at Craven Cottage.
Felix Magath's reputation as a relegation specialist will be tested at Craven Cottage.

Aside from the great escape in the 2007-08 season, Fulham’s 13-year stint in the Premier League has never been more under threat than it is right now, which goes some way toward explaining why their third manager of this season will make that long walk across the pitch to take his seat in the curiously positioned Craven Cottage technical area Saturday.

Felix Magath’s entrance into the Premier League has hardly been greeted with delight by all, given that he has no Premier League experience and has developed a reputation for training sessions as brutal as they are draining.

However, the highly experienced former Bayern Munich boss has a perfect chance to silence the doubters when archrivals Chelsea visit for his first home game as Cottagers boss.

Magath’s self-belief and proud record of never being relegated in his long career will be tested to the full at Fulham, yet the side he inherits has all the hallmarks of a team that has been cruising in neutral for most of this season.

Experienced performers such as Brede Hangeland, Scott Parker and Darren Bent have long track records of solid performances in the Premier League, but they have been unable to lift themselves to their familiar heights this season. Magath, who was hired on Feb. 14, needs to relight their fire.

As for Chelsea, Jose Mourinho has brought about the expected revival, confirming that success follows wherever he opts to take his expensive coats. Some at Manchester United must now be regretting their decision not to offer him a peg for those garments at Old Trafford last summer.

Precisely 1.9 miles separates Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage, yet the feeling in recent years has been that the derby element of this fixture means a little more to Fulham fans than it does Chelsea followers, who have tended to have their sights focused on more significant prizes.

For 90 minutes, at least, the battle between top and bottom in the Premier League will captivate all concerned.

Wenger and Stoke

When Arsene Wenger finally decides to walk away from Arsenal, it is highly unlikely that he will select Stoke-on-Trent as his first-choice retirement location. The Frenchman has plenty of less-than-fond memories of his previous trips to Stoke City, with their rugged, direct version of the game.

While his old nemesis Tony Pulis has been replaced by Mark Hughes, it is clear that Saturday’s fixture is not one he is relishing.

“We had some bad memories and some good memories at Stoke,” he said on Thursday. “It is a stadium where before the pitch was narrow and difficult to play. As well, it was a bit more open to the wind, but we have shown recently that it’s down to our performance on the day. What is important is how well you play on Saturday when the kickoff starts.”

Hughes is taking longer to make his mark at Stoke than he would have wanted, and with his side hovering just three points above the relegation zone going into this weekend, their upcoming games against Norwich, West Ham, Aston Villa and Hull will become crucial unless they get a positive result against the Gunners.

Saints deserve the credit

Dejan Lovren celebrates his goal against Liverpool.
Dejan Lovren celebrates his winner at Anfield.

Having beaten Liverpool 1-0 in September, Southampton will look to complete a Premier League double when they host the Reds on Saturday as boss Mauricio Pochettino and his players seek to ensure their hugely impressive season does not fizzle out.

With their position in the top flight long since secure, the disappointment of crashing out of the FA Cup at Sunderland amid a desperately below-par display last month lingered at the club’s Staplewood training base and may have played a role in their defeat at West Ham last weekend.

However, with a full house expected for an early-evening game at St Mary’s Stadium, this fixture represents a huge test of Liverpool’s increasingly promising challenge for the Premier League title.

Southampton’s high-energy pressing game proved too much for the Reds as Pochettino’s men won at Anfield back, and while Brendan Rodgers' men have certainly improved since then, Saints would argue they are a more complete team as well.

This could well be the game of the weekend, and expect the home side to come away with at least a point.

Hughton pressure intolerable

What was Norwich City chief executive David McNally thinking when he suggested to the media he was weighing up potential contenders to succeed manager Chris Hughton last month?

Some would argue that McNally’s own position should have been under discussion after he appeared to go out of his way to destabilise the Norfolk club, yet the uneasy truce between manager Hughton and his point of contact at Carrow Road continues for now, at least.

McNally’s argument appears to be that Norwich should improve on their 11th-place finish of last season, but that target may prove to be beyond most managers working at a club lacking the glamour, pulling power and finances of most of their Premier League rivals.

It was to Hughton and Norwich’s credit that the players responded to McNally’s comments by turning in a display against Tottenham that merited the 1-0 victory they secured; if they manage another win when they take on relegation rival Aston Villa on Sunday, the “crisis” talk likely will disappear. Should they suffer defeat, though, the unnecessary pressure on Hughton will inevitably mount once more.

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