Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Will Wenger and Arsenal learn from their mistakes?
Arsenal's season is slipping through their trembling fingers. After a beginning that suggested a title challenge, the club find themselves, predictably, looking over their shoulders at the prospect of losing out on a top-four finish to Everton. "We have to look behind us and of course try to look in front of us," said beleaguered manager Arsene Wenger after the two dropped points in injury-time at home to Swansea City dealt another psychologically damaging blow.
The Gunners' players look bereft of confidence, off the back of six times the humiliation at Chelsea last Saturday. As if the result were not damning enough in isolation, it was not the first instance Arsenal had fallen spectacularly short when the occasion demanded they put up at least some resistance. The state of their defending was staggering, the backline too high, the midfield too loose -- the same mistakes repeated -- as Jose Mourinho's men took relish in easily tearing them apart, perhaps smelling that the harm done to their rivals might be terminal.
Wenger asked that the blame be directed at him for the hiding, and rightly so. For a number of years now, Wenger's teams have struggled versus a higher level opponent -- especially away -- looking tactically naive at best, and inept at worst, leading to very serious questions about the preparation that goes into such occasions. Even the excuse that Arsenal were shorn of key personnel through fitness issues is a weak one, for it opens another can of worms: an injury crisis at Emirates Stadium is too regularly endured.
As the campaign enters its final stages, Wenger's team have two objectives remaining: to hold on to fourth and to end their trophy drought by lifting the FA Cup. As for the former, fifth-placed Everton have momentum, a game in hand, and a home match against Arsenal. Although the Gunners have demonstrated resolve in the past to cling to Champions League qualification, one wonders whether the missing motivation of fending off their north London rivals Tottenham might be a decisive factor this time around.
Arrogantly, the FA Cup glory is being spoken about as a foregone conclusion by some. But the reality is that Arsenal, considering their psychological fragility when pressure bears down on them, are capable of capitulation even if, with all due respect, the opponents are from the Football League -- the expectancy of it all could bring them to their knees. And the distress could continue this weekend, as Wenger's men host Manchester City, who were 6-3 winners when they met in December and have their chests puffed out after a display of swagger at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
How will Moyes' United respond to such a painful loss?
Speaking of managers under pressure, David Moyes' Manchester United host Aston Villa on Saturday lunchtime. Although Arsenal are at least meeting expectations by not exceeding them, United, last season's Premier League champions, are on a downward trajectory. Again, hope that progress -- after the wins over Olympiakos and West Ham -- had been made under Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial selection swiftly evaporated when nemesis City inflicted a 3-0 loss on them, without even having to play at their highest gear for much of the 90 minutes.
That Moyes said after the game that United "aspire" to be at City's level quite rightly made the ears of Red Devils supporters bleed. It went against the grain of what is acceptable utterance about such a rival. It poured vinegar on an already stinging wound. And it was a troubling admission from their current leader of the club's fall from grace. Indeed, even if United win all of their remaining seven league matches, this will be their worst Premier League points total. It was not anticipated that life after the retired Ferguson would be this torturous.
Can Liverpool continue to win with panache?
Positive words can be found here! Yes, after all that negativity, herein follows praise. Liverpool are more than worthy of it, for not only are they playing the best football in England but they are also winning by its means -- my, how this must irk Wenger. Reds boss Brendan Rodgers has overseen quite the progress at Anfield after last season's seventh-place finish, with his team on a run of seven straight wins in the top flight and a point behind table-toppers Chelsea.
Rodgers' David Brent quips have made him easy material for mockery, but it seems his man-management style is effective. Just look at the development of some of the Reds' squad, with Jordan Henderson a leading example of the rise. As mentioned, it is the style blended with substance that will please Rodgers, even if his defence threatens to be their undoing. Yet, a campaign where defending is of a low standard could work in Liverpool's favour when chasing the title because, if there is one thing they can do, it's score goals at will: just the 84 in 31 fixtures. Good luck to Tottenham, Anfield awaits on Sunday.
Should West Ham and Allardyce part ways?
Some of West Ham United's supporters are not happy. Upon the final whistle of their 2-1 win against 10-man Hull City, boos echoed around Upton Park, much to the chagrin of manager Sam Allardyce. "I have never been in place where we have won and got booed," he said. More pertinently, he added: "At half-time the players were talking more about fans booing them than the game. Fans affect players." And so does the manager, Sam, if they are being instructed in such a way that the football is not satisfactory to a club with a history of playing with a flourish.
The Hammers find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Allardyce again looks set to secure another season of Premier League participation, but that alone will not satisfy the demands of some fans. It is unlikely those observers would be content with another 38 displays of similar dross to that which was shown versus Hull. Regardless, West Ham have a chance to put further space between themselves and the strugglers on Monday when they travel to Sunderland, who conversely have ideals to play attractively but have lost four of their past five and are in the drop zone.