United will shadow box before Chelsea Cup tie

Rafael Benítez will watch the XI Ferguson fields for the trip to Sunderland with interest as Manchester United's advantage in the league means a shadow side can be chosen to protect key personnel for Monday's FA Cup replay at Chelsea. In central defence Ferguson may rest Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic or both – if one does play, he will not do so at Stamford Bridge. And in attack expect Wayne Rooney and/or Robin van Persie to be on the bench, at best. Further intrigue can be found in who wears the No1 jersey at Sunderland. Anders Lindegaard has not been selected since an FA Cup third-round replay against West Ham United on 16 January. With a 20th championship all but done and dusted might the Dane finally receive a recall? Jamie Jackson

City stage identity parade at Newcastle

For the Manchester City side 15 points behind Manchester United, the home game against Newcastle United can be viewed as a final try-out for places for the champions' two biggest games of the campaign. Both of these could be against Sir Alex Ferguson's team in consecutive Manchester derbies in the league (on 8 April) and FA Cup semi-final (six days later), if United beat Chelsea in Monday's quarter-final replay. The thinking is that whoever impresses Roberto Mancini when Newcastle United visit should be difficult to dislodge. So those with the prime concerns are Samir Nasri, Carlos Tevez, Edin Dzeko, Kolo Touré, James Milner, Aleksandar Kolarov, Javi García, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott who, in varying degrees, are all unsure of selection against Alan Pardew's side. JJ

Sauve qui peut starts in earnest

After the international break squeaky posterior time resumes for those clubs in a competition no one wishes to be a part of: the race to beat relegation. Last time out Paul Lambert's Aston Villa scrapped to a 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers, who are squatting squarely over the drop-zone trapdoor. Now Villa have eight more "cup finals" starting with Liverpool's visit on Sunday before Stoke City, Fulham, Manchester United, Sunderland, Norwich City, Chelsea and Wigan Athletic are encountered. JJ

Stoke may like to think on Charlton and Curbishley

The rumour in the Potteries is that Tony Pulis could leave Stoke City at the end of the season. The manager has vehemently denied it, saying of his chairman, Peter Coates: "With Peter it is not just a football relationship but a personal relationship as well. I class him as a friend and I mean a friend." Yet this is football, so anything could happen and it is a fact that some fans have begun to call for him to walk. They – and Pulis, if he does come to consider his future – may wish to recall how the fortunes of Alan Curbishley and Charlton Athletic took a tumble when they parted in 2006. Curbishley has not worked since 2008, following a two-year stint as West Ham United manager, while the Addicks were relegated from the Premier League the season after his departure. JJ

Norwich's goal must be more of them

Ricky van Wolfswinkel does not join Norwich until this summer but the club, who have confirmed his £8m capture from Sporting Lisbon, will hope that his approaching shadow can galvanise their existing strikers. They will maintain that they cannot score if the team is not creating chances, and that is currently the case, but the bottom-line statistic is nonetheless depressing. Norwich have scored five times in the league since the turn of the year and only two of them have come from recognised strikers. David Hytner

Adkins prays lightning doesn't strike twice at Emirates

Reading's new manager has painful memories of his previous visit to Emirates Stadium, when his Southampton team were stuffed 6-1 in September; yet that might be some way down his list of worries. The squad he has inherited are seven points adrift of safety, they have lost five on the spin in the Premier League and they have the worst defensive record in the division. This would appear to be the ultimate home banker. But, if Nigel Adkins reasoned that he had nothing to lose when he accepted the job, he will certainly apply the logic here. Could the new broom and a sense of liberation prove inspirational? One other thing: with Arsenal it is never wise to bank on anything. DH

Spurs need top-four tonic at Swansea

The feeling persists that André Villas-Boas' team are more at ease when they play away in the Premier League. At White Hart Lane, when visitors tend to mass players behind the ball, Tottenham have struggled to prise them open. Precious points have been dropped, most recently in the anxiety-inducing 1-0 defeat by Fulham, and the majority of their wins have been by the slenderest of margins. On their travels, though, their quick counter-attacking style has been easier on the eye, they have been more free-scoring and, generally, more threatening. They sorely need a top-four tonic at Swansea on Saturday. DH

Benítez must decide if Terry is on A or B list

Since Chelsea's captain, leader and legend returned from serious knee trouble on 12 January he has started in seven of the club's 18 fixtures. Three of them have been in the Europa League and three others in the FA Cup against lower-league opposition. Only one has been in the Premier League. Benítez has spoken about the difficulty of getting Terry back to match fitness and how it has influenced his selection of the player, but an uncomfortable truth has taken shape: the interim manager turns to Terry in the club's B-list games. With Chelsea facing Southampton in the league on Saturday and Manchester United in the FA Cup less than 48 hours later, Benítez will pick Terry in one of them. A top-four league finish is the priority but the Cup tie feels A-list. Which one does Terry play? DH

Simpson takes it on the chin from Pardew

Newcastle's one-time Manchester United right-back, Danny Simpson, has become disgruntled as, very much the club's forgotten man, he has lost his place to France's Mathieu Debuchy. Even worse, when Debuchy is unavailable, Davide Santon switches from left-back to deputise. Today at Manchester City, though, Debuchy and Santon are both absent injured, so Simpson will almost certainly start. Out of contract at the end of this season he is playing for a new deal either on Tyneside or, most probably, elsewhere. A strong performance at City, though, could see him start Thursday's Europa League quarter-final first leg at Benfica. Meanwhile, in the technical area, Alan Pardew will feel the full force of the bitter March wind on his face. Under pressure from one of his daughters, Newcastle's manager has finally shaved off the beard he grew for previous Europa League trips to Ukraine and Russia. Louise Taylor

Time for slow-burner Connor to light the wick

On Sunday Connor Wickham turns 20. It is nearly two years since the England Under-21 striker swapped Ipswich for Sunderland for an initial £8m, with that fee reportedly set to rise to £12m depending on assorted appearance-related clauses. In 23 Premier League appearances, most as a substitute, he has scored once and recently returned from a month's loan at Sheffield Wednesday. Martin O'Neill has seemed unsure about a player signed by Steve Bruce but, with Steven Fletcher ruled out for the season by injury, now is the time for Wickham to step out of the shadows and aid Sunderland's fight against relegation. He may begin on the bench against Manchester United at the Stadium of Light but Wickham is unlikely to stay on it for too long. Sunderland's survival may depend on their expensive slow-burner finally fulfilling the potential that left Tottenham Hotspur, among others, frustrated when he finally opted for Wearside. LT