Premier League preview

19 February 2009 02:52
Aston Villa and Chelsea may have something to say about Sir Alex Ferguson's opinion that the battle for the title is now a two-horse race.

The Manchester United manager was speaking even before his side established a five-point cushion over nearest challengers Liverpool with a 3-0 victory against Fulham on Wednesday night.

Villa are eight adrift, while Chelsea have 10 points to make up, but new manager Guus Hiddink insisted after replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari that silverware in three competitions is his target this term.

Martin O'Neill will be the first Premier League manager to pit his wits against Hiddink early on Saturday afternoon, with the Villa Park meeting live on Sky Sports 1 and HD1.

The Russia coach, who was at Villa Park to scout Saturday's opponents in their Uefa Cup meeting with CSKA Moscow, is combining his international duties with leading Chelsea to the end of the season as a favour to Stamford Bridge supremo Roman Abramovich, who bankrolls both the Blues and helps finance the national side in his homeland.

Villa were given a footballing lesson on their visit to West London earlier in the season, but Chelsea's campaign has stalled somewhat since then while O'Neill has guided his side on a 13-match unbeaten league run.

The Midlands is not a happy hunting ground for the London club, with no wins from their last nine visits to Villa Park and only one goal scored in their last four, although striker Nicolas Anelka has found the net five times in his five most recent starts against Villa.

League leaders Manchester United are not in action until Saturday evening, with Blackburn Rovers making the short journey to Old Trafford to face the Red Devils juggernaut.

Ferguson's men have won their last nine Premier League fixtures and have kept 14 successive clean sheets, with Edwin van der Sar on course for yet another record as he closes in on the European best of 1,390 minutes without conceding a goal set by Dany Verlinden of Club Brugge in 1990.

Sam Allardyce has certainly steadied the Rovers ship since replacing Paul Ince, but the Ewood Park outfit remain in the drop zone and were within seconds of crashing out of the FA Cup to Championship side Coventry last time out.

MalaiseThe only side Ferguson regards as realistic title rivals, Liverpool, must wait until Sunday before taking on inconsistent Manchester City at Anfield.

Mark Hughes' men have been dismal away from Eastlands this season, with just one win to show for their efforts and last weekend's miserable 2-0 defeat at struggling Portsmouth the perfect example of the malaise which has afflicted them on the road.

Rafa Benitez's men currently hold the longest unbeaten home record in the Premier League - 23 games - but have suffered from the fact that they have been held to draws in five of their 12 encounters on Merseyside this term.

Benitez, who is determined not to be distracted by next week's UEFA Champions League meeting with Real Madrid, at least has Fernando Torres fit and firing once again, with the Spaniard scoring three in his last two games against City.

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal supporters cannot expect Arsene Wenger's men to mount a realistic title push from 15 points back, with a top four finish far from certain as they prepare to tackle Sunderland.

Eduardo's emotional return to action with a brace in Monday's FA Cup triumph over Cardiff has been tempered by a hamstring injury which will sideline him for two weeks, but big-money January signing Andrey Arshavin looks poised for his debut.

The Black Cats have a miserable record in North London, with just one point from their seven Premier League trips to the home of the Gunners, during which time they have conceded 20 goals.

Ricky Sbragia's side are on a three-game unbeaten run which has lifted them to 11th in the table, but with the relegation fight still hugely congested there are only eight points from Fulham in 10th to bottom club West Bromwich Albion.

The Baggies make the trip to Craven Cottage on Sunday, live on Sky Sports 1 and HD1, desperate to improve on a shocking away record which has seen them garner a paltry five points from 12 games.

Roy Hodgson's men are formidable opponents on the banks of the Thames, with a record on their own patch which can only be surpassed by Manchester United and Liverpool.

ImpressiveSunday's second live offering on Sky Sports 1 and HD1 sees Everton travel to the North East to tackle Newcastle United at St James' Park.

Chris Hughton and Colin Calderwood continue to lead the Magpies with Joe Kinnear recuperating following major heart surgery, although speculation continues that owner Mike Ashley will bring in an experienced manager on a short-term basis.

Tyneside has not been the happiest of venues for David Moyes' men, with their last victory in front of the Toon Army coming back in October 2000, although they have lost just three of their last 12 against the Magpies.

Paul Hart made an impressive start to his caretaker stint at the helm of Portsmouth by guiding the Fratton Park outfit to a 2-0 victory over Manchester City last time out, with a trip to relegation rivals Stoke City next on the agenda.

With just three points between the two teams and the Potters just one place and one point above the drop zone, the stakes are high at the Britannia Stadium.

Tony Pulis' men are on a disappointing run of form with six of their last eight league games ending in defeat, but they have been beaten just three times on their own turf, with a victory over Man City with 10 men and a draw against Liverpool their most recent results.

Middlesbrough have now gone 13 games without a victory in the Premier League - an appalling run which stretches all the way back to early November - as they prepare to welcome Wigan Athletic to the Riverside.

Worryingly for Gareth Southgate, his side have failed to score in seven of their last eight league outings and the North East outfit are only being kept off the bottom of the pile by virtue of their superior goal difference over West Brom.

Wigan have gone five games without a victory and have lost three of their last five on the road, but remain well placed in the top half of the table under the astute stewardship of Steve Bruce.

Bolton Wanderers will look to the history books for encouragement as they welcome Gianfranco Zola's improving West Ham United side to the Reebok Stadium.

The Trotters have won each of their last five home meetings with the Hammers, scoring nine goals in the three most recent of those fixtures.

Zola's men have pulled clear of the relegation pack in recent weeks, but saw their six-match unbeaten run ended by Manchester United last time out, and must cope without in-form striker Carlton Cole (ankle) in the North West.

Source: SKY_Sports