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Sep 30, 2011

Smells like team spirit

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week: Carlos Tevez (surprise, surprise), a chink in Manchester United's armour, draw specialists Aston Villa, Steve Bruce's neck, Everton's 4-6-(-1) formation and Martin not so Jol-ly.

Carlos Tevez: Former captain fantastic

Manchester City were not initially bound for this page, for they had responded to the squandering of their two-goal lead at Fulham by grinding down a resilient Everton the weekend just gone. Then, even a Champions League defeat in isolation versus an outstanding Bayern Munich side would not have been enough to propel them to Premier League Spotlight infamy. Tevez, though, has single-handedly darkened even the skies of this Indian Summer over the Etihad Stadium, his actions at the Allianz Arena striking manager Roberto Mancini down with a splitting headache over how to oversee the swelling ego of a footballer who appears to consider himself bigger than his disturbingly large pay-packet.

Tevez has denied Mancini's suggestion that he refused to be brought on when City trailed 2-0, citing a misunderstanding, having earlier said he was not mentally right for the task. That the Argentine expects the football fan to accept he misunderstood a routine substitution is insulting in its own right. Tevez's subsequent statement in response to Mancini's vitriol pangs of a man - who, in spite of spending five years on English soil, still does not even boast a spluttering of the English language - attempting to cool the white hot animosity that is coming his way. What will be hardest for City supporters to accept is one of their own forgoing the privilege of pulling on a shirt in arguably their biggest match in recent years.

City, as a club, are bigger than their former captain, yet there will be worry that the "bad apple", as Graeme Souness described him, could be the pip that spurts the rotting of the squad from within its core. Now, Mancini - who also saw Edin Dzeko throw a wobbly of his own in Munich, for the opposite reason to that of Tevez - faces a stringent test of his management to ensure the unrest does not unravel the team's harmony, undoing the hard work that currently sees them level on points with rivals United at the summit. Their test this weekend is Blackburn Rovers away on Saturday, when the focus will be on the Tevez-less team spirit.

Manchester United: Hope for the rest of us

A chink in the armour, perhaps? It may not be often this season that the Premier League Spotlight swings in United's direction, so back-to-back draws offers a chance not to be missed. The Red Devils' 1-1 stalemate at Stoke last Saturday was in isolation a positive result for the champions, in particular for a team shorn of their two first-choice strikers and with winger Antonio Valencia at right back. Seventy-two hours later, however, they came within a whisker of being beaten by Basel in the Champions League at Old Trafford, as a crazy 16-minute spell saw three conceded and United's two-goal advantage go up in smoke.

Sir Alex Ferguson blamed "carelessness" for the collapse - complacency a taboo word within the Old Trafford corridors. A mounting injury list is furthermore cause for possible concern, although Danny Welbeck's brace during midweek served as a fillip in light of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez's absences, but a punch in the kidneys of messrs Berbatov and Owen, the latter overlooked for the entirety against Basel. Norwich on Saturday at home should see a return to winning ways for United, the champions with a chance to head into the international break looking imposing. It is worth noting, however, that, in spite of the likes of the buccaneering stopper Phil Jones drawing plaudits this campaign, United's defence has been unusually gaping: every visiting team to Old Trafford has had at least 20 shots at goal.

Aston Villa: Unbeaten into submission

You can look at Villa's league season to date in one of two ways. Way one: Villa are unbeaten and a decent eighth in the table. Way two: Villa have won one match in six, drawing the other five. That the Midlands side have had a habit for the stalemate should come as little surprise. Alex McLeish, their manager appointed from Birmingham in the summer, has hardly garnered a reputation for instilling attacking impetus into his sides.

Last campaign, when Birmingham were relegated under McLeish's stewardship, the club managed just eight victories from 38 matches, 15 of those games drawn while only 37 goals were mustered - the lowest haul in the division. Wigan, also unconvincing thus far this term, await Villa on Saturday. Whether further question marks over McLeish will be raised will depend on which Villa turn up against the Latics - the one that played within themselves in the first half at QPR or the one that broke free of their shackles and performed well in the second period only to be denied late on. McLeish might take note of Jose Mourinho, who recently said: "It's better to lose one game than to draw two."

Steve Bruce: The chopping block

Sunderland's 4-0 win over Stoke City a fortnight ago had brought with it a stay of execution for Bruce. Their result on Monday, though, has re-tightened the proverbial noose around Bruce's thick neck. A 2-1 defeat against newly-promoted Norwich offered a dose of reality post the aforementioned scalp. Another slip-up this weekend, against West Brom, could see the Black Cats in the bottom three. Bruce said his charges "huffed and puffed" at Norwich, yet it is the club's manager that appears to be struggling for air. "Big players kept giving the ball away in silly areas and putting us under pressure," opined Bruce, the man who brought these players to the club as part of Sunderland's yearly carousel of summer signings.

Everton: 4-6-(-1)

Against City last weekend, Everton's plan of frustrating the money men almost paid dividends, as boss David Moyes deployed a starting XI without a recognised forward. Tim Cahill, an attacking midfielder, was the Toffees' main striking outlet as Moyes aimed to stifle rather than outplay the home team. One should not chastise him for this seemingly negative approach, for Moyes was wary that many a side have been ripped apart by Roberto Mancini's men already this season. However, ahead of Saturday lunchtime's Merseyside derby versus Liverpool, the Goodison Park faithful will unlikely accept a repeat of just seeking to avoid defeat. Cahill remains a doubt for the fixture, after sustaining an injury at City, meaning Moyes' hand is forced, or otherwise his 4-6-0 formation is minus in the latter department.

Fulham: Cause for concern

Fulham are the only club in the Premier League yet to record a victory this season. Four draws have saved them from a place in the bottom three, and it is indeed early days in the career of Martin Jol at Craven Cottage to be sharpening the axe. Football nowadays, though, is a sport of the short-term, with each wobble followed by pandemonium. That said, should Fulham fail at home against Queens Park Rangers then the club - who already appear to be paying the price for their Europa League involvement - will be in a scenario where no top-flight three-point haul will have been mustered heading into their meeting with Stoke following the international break on October 15.

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