A north London derby to relish, a tough test for QPR – and how will Rafael Benítez fare against West Brom?
Last Sunday the best-run club in the Premier League got their just rewards when they lifted the first major trophy of the season; on the same day, one of the worst-run clubs in the Premier League got their comeuppance when they were beaten at Manchester City. Then the pressure of operating badly in a nonsensical setting with an imbalanced squad led their manager to have a "frank exchange of views" with players, before castigating fans who have been castigating him and may now castigate him further for having the temerity to castigate them. What a palaver! Roberto Di Matteo's last Premier League match in charge of Chelsea was a defeat at West Bromwich Albion: who would back against the Baggies pushing Rafael Benítez towards a similar fate even if Romelu Lukaku is not allowed to play and score the winner to stress the extent of the Stamford Bridge shambles?
Swansea's season is already a success but the task now for the widely lauded Michael Laudrup is to ensure it does not peter out. Liverpool showed them in their last league outing what can happen if their focus is blurred and resurgent Newcastle have the capacity to do the same. Of course, the players omitted for the rout at Anfield will return and that means there could be a fascinating duel between Michu and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who will make his first Premier League start if Fabricio Coloccini fails to overcome a back injury. The 23-year-old was superb in Newcastle's Europa League win at Metalist Kharkiv and subduing the Premier League's signing of the season would be a perfect way for Yanga-Mbiwa to show that he, too, was a shrewd acquisition.
A meeting of two managers with similar philosophies and equally amusing abilities to put preposterously positive spins on even the most blatant failures. So the post-match press conference should be a gas. But before that, we could have a fine match, with Wigan seeking to gather more end-of-season momentum and Liverpool searching for a side that could make their summer peaceful: the January recruits Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have made strong first impressions and if they keep that up between now and the end of term, then that may just help persuade Luis Suárez to resist the suitors who will surely come courting the Premier League's most exciting player.
With Champions League qualification looking up for the winner and almighty muckstorms forecast for the loser, this match is so massive that you immediately wonder if certain participants are going to be able to cope. If Spurs have to field Emmanuel Adebayor, for instance, can they count on him to perk up rather than blow up? And will Arsenal overcome the strange anxiety that has already constrained them early in matches on so many occasions this season? That is the first part of both sides' getting their heads right. The second relates to their playing plans – most intriguing, how will Arsenal neutralise Gareth Bale, who could subject Carl Jenkinson to the most torrid test he has ever endured? They probably won't, which means the Gunners are going to have to outshoot their hosts. If ever a game promised goals and cards, this is it.
Sunderland are not yet safe, either from relegation or from allegations that they are a despicably boring outfit whose demotion to the second tier would be blessed relief to regular Premier League watchers. But Martin O'Neill knows their problem and, a little like Messrs Martínez and Rodgers, he could extract traces of progress from defeat at WBA in the last outing. The shift to 4-4-2 looked promising, as Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher showed signs of working well together and, most of all, Stéphane Sessègnon produced his best performance of the season after being moved to the right wing. If the Beninese funster is in the groove again on Saturday, then he and Dimitar Berbatov will make this meeting worth attending.
Reading's graduation from relegation certainties to survival contenders began in mid-December when, following six straight defeats, Brian McDermott decided to send his team out in a new formation, switching from the 4-4-2 that had long been the Royals' insignia to a 4-5-1. Suddenly Reading, hitherto rooted to the bottom with a solitary win from their first 17 matches, went on a run, winning four and drawing two of their next eight matches. Pavel Pogrebnyak, previously only a bit-part player, started every one of those games, as the striker best-suited to fulfilling the lone front-man role. So his red card in last week's defeat against Wigan presents Brian McDermott with a problem for the trip to Everton: does the manager ask one of his available strikers, such as Noel Hunt or Adam le Fondre, to try, and probably fail, to replicate the Russian's prowess as a target man? Or does he instead interpret Pogrebnyak's suspension as an opportunity to start again with the 4-4-2, which may not be such a bad thing given that the solidity initially imparted by the five-man midfield disappeared during the defeats to Stoke and Wigan in their last two games. Besides, the goals that brought the reinvigorating victories after the original formation change were all scored late on in matches – after McDermott had thrown on additional strikers and gone back to 4-4-2. The lesson from the last couple of months, then, is that Reading are more difficult to infiltrate when they are set up in a 4-5-1 but still not difficult enough so, especially in Pogrebnyak's absence, they may as well go to Goodison Park with all guns blazing. With Everton vulnerable defensively and still less than deadly in front of goal, Reading may just survive the fusillade.
If Manchester City's defeat at Southampton convinced Sir Alex Ferguson to change his plans and field a nigh-on full-strength team against Everton before the first leg of their Champions League tie in Real Madrid, then Real's victory in Barcelona this week may have had the opposite effect. The demonstration of Real's prowess on the counterattack emphasised how dangerous they will be at Old Trafford next week and gave a timely reminder to Ferguson that he can ill afford to risk certain players getting injured this weekend. Norwich, then, can expect to face a United team without Robin van Persie, David de Gea and Patrice Evra, and it will be intriguing to see who the manager deploys in the centre of defence, since it will give a likely indication as to whether Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will start against Real, or Jonny Evans will be rewarded for his splendid showing in the first leg.
Against Chelsea last week Jack Rodwell, contrary to many people's expectations, looked like a genuinely high-calibre box-to-box midfielder, diligent defensively, forceful in the challenge, smart with the ball, potent when surging forward and even an aerial menace from corners. It was delightful to see a young player seize his chance with such style and relish and it will be even better if he can keep it up. Roberto Mancini may not deploy as many in midfield as he did against Chelsea but Rodwell deserves to retain his place and it would be wise to give him the opportunity to improve his match fitness with the Manchester derby just a few weeks away: suddenly Rodwell looks like he could be a significant participant.
After Queens Park Rangers were overwhelmed by Southampton at Loftus Road in November, Mark Hughes lost his job. St Mary's is a fitting place for QPR to get an unnecessary reminder that Harry Redknapp hasn't done a great job so far since replacing him. He has made their defence more solid but they are not going to amass the victories they need if they remain impotent going forward, averaging fewer goals per game under Redknapp than they did under his hapless predecessor, as well as fewer passes and far less possession. Even their proportion of successful tackles is lower under Redknapp than it was under Hughes, which almost counts as an achievement. Southampton have the spirit, system and incision that QPR lack and it seems that only another outbreak of defensive bungling could deprive the Saints of victory on Saturday. And there may be a way for Redknapp to trigger one: start Christopher Samba up front and launch the ball towards him. The Congolese has not improved QPR's defence since the club clutched him in desperation in January but could wreak havoc up front, who have already conceded seven goals in two meetings with the similarly direct Stoke and West Ham this season. Route One looks the only way for Rangers to avoid defeat at Southampton.
Will tickets for this one be full price? Stoke and West Ham offer less actual football than anyone else in the Premier League – fact. Opta statistics for this season show that on average the ball is in play for just 60 minutes and 27 seconds for Stoke matches, while West Ham are the next least productive, providing a average of 62 minutes and two seconds. So Saturday's meeting at the Britannia promises to be a feast for everyone who enjoys watching ballboys get a thorough work-out and players faff, wheeze and jostle ahead of set pieces.