Tottenham are more than just about Gareth Bale; Aston Villa's Christian Benteke can give Manchester United problems; and Arsenal's Jack Wilshere deserves a rest
There is no such thing as a one-man team. Sure, Manchester United probably would not be about to win the league without Robin van Persie's goals and Barcelona's struggle against Paris Saint-Germain last week proved that they are not the same side without Lionel Messi. Yet equally United would not win the league if they did not have a proper defence, while Barça are able to support the best player in the world with the best midfield in the world – and arguably of all time – which makes it slightly disingenuous to dismiss Tottenham as Gareth Bale plus 10 extras.
In Hugo Lloris Tottenham have one of the league's outstanding goalkeepers. Jan Vertonghen has been exceptional in defence, Mousa Dembélé has been typically assured in midfield and Aaron Lennon has enjoyed another productive season on the right flank. Tottenham's squad is not packed with spoofers, leaving aside Emmanuel Adebayor for one moment.
Yet only the most blinkered Tottenham fan would argue that Bale is not the key. At his most devastating he has regularly been the difference for them this season, his staggering displays and goals dragging Tottenham out of a hole on more than one occasion. There are several games they would not have won without Bale and that is why there was such panic when he went down clutching his ankle against Basel two weeks ago. Without Bale, Tottenham have lost a winnable Europa League tie against Basel and were held at home by Everton in the league, so it is understandable that André Villas-Boas is desperate for him to return against Manchester City, even if he is not fully fit. Like Messi's cameo against PSG, Bale's could be the spark again.
Sir Alex Ferguson was less than pleased with Andy Carroll's aerial assault on David de Gea at Upton Park, masterfully using the incident to distract everyone from another mediocre display by Manchester United, who were only spared defeat by West Ham thanks to Robin van Persie's blatantly offside goal. However, Ferguson will know that his defence was uncomfortable when dealing with Carroll and United will not have fond memories of their last encounter with Christian Benteke. Aston Villa's Belgian forward is not as good in the air as Carroll but he is far more mobile and he gave United a torrid time at Villa Park in November. Although United recovered from two goals down to win 3-2, how they handle Benteke this time could determine how comfortably they deal with the visit of Villa.
Contrary to reports that have suggested otherwise, John Terry has said that he can play three times in one week and he made a strong case for his inclusion against Liverpool by scoring twice at Fulham. Or at least he would have done if managers based their decisions on defenders on their finishing prowess. Far more important was that Terry was part of a Chelsea defence that kept a clean sheet at Craven Cottage but that still might not be enough to convince Rafael Benítez to pick him alongside David Luiz on Sunday. The Spaniard was making no promises after the 3-0 win at Fulham.
Wigan have twice handed out lessons to West Ham this season, winning 4-1 at Upton Park in the Capital One Cup in September and then beating them 2-1 at the DW Stadium in the league in October. However, it will not be easy for Roberto Martínez's side to register a third win over West Ham, who have been in imposing form at Upton Park all season – only Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham have won there in the league, in games that all four could easily have lost. There is still time for Wigan to pull off yet another escape act but not much and this feels like a match they need to win, especially with trips to Arsenal, Tottenham and West Brom on the horizon.
After Jack Wilshere returned to Arsenal's side against Norwich last Saturday, Arsène Wenger commented that he might have rushed the midfielder back too soon following an ankle injury that had kept him out since the start of March. Wilshere struggled to make an impact and, although this might be coincidental, they scored three times after he was taken off. Yet Wilshere was back in the starting lineup for the 0-0 draw with Everton three days later and once again he was taken off in the second half. It is easy to understand why Wenger is so keen to play the 21-year-old but Arsenal did go on a four-game winning run in his absence, so perhaps there is no need for him to start his third game in a week at Fulham. Wilshere could do with a rest.
Norwich, four points above the bottom three, have won only once in the league in 2013 and, more pertinently, they have drawn six of their past 10 matches. Last season Paul Lambert earned admiration for his innovative tactics and gung-ho attitude but his replacement, Chris Hughton, has been much more conservative and Norwich are the division's third-lowest scorers. It has not helped that Grant Holt has failed to recapture his form from last season while Luciano Becchio, who arrived from Leeds in January, is yet to score for his new side and Kei Kamara, another January signing, has scored once. Reading, who are bottom, are the visitors at Carrow Road this weekend and Norwich are unlikely to get a better chance to let loose.
Victory for Queens Park Rangers would surely only delay the inevitable for them but it would still have an impact on Stoke, whose chances of beating the drop would be drastically reduced. While it would be harsh to revel in someone else's misery, the sad truth for Stoke fans is that there would not be too much sympathy for Tony Pulis's side if they do go down after a five-year spell in the Premier League which has earned them few admirers.
In September, Martin O'Neill suggested that Sunderland's defeat by Everton in their FA Cup quarter-final last season was the start of the malaise that led to his sacking last month. "It really deflated us, perhaps more than I thought at the time," he said. "Even though we had a great performance a few days later against Manchester City at the Etihad. We were the only team to take any points off them last season at home. But it seems to have lingered on. What we have to do – I know there's two seasons separating the two things – is win a game or two."
Sunderland needed to do more than that, though, and O'Neill ended up paying for the slump in form with his job, leading to the arrival of Paolo Di Canio, who inspired the stunning 3-0 win at Newcastle last Sunday. However, the visit of their bogey team, Everton, is an even harder test for Sunderland, who have not beaten them since 2001. With David Moyes's side still clinging on to their dream of a top-four finish, Di Canio might not need to take his suit to the dry cleaners on Monday morning.
Newcastle are too good to go down. They've got too many good players. They'll be fine. That seemed to be Alan Pardew's message a few weeks ago anyway but suddenly the defeat by Sunderland has seen the doubts about their safety resurface. They are only five points clear of the bottom three and defeat by West Brom, where they won 3-1 last season, would leave them looking nervously over their shoulders. After that they have home fixtures against Liverpool and Arsenal and trips to QPR and West Ham. It's far from over.
There isn't a lot left to say about Swansea v Southampton, other than that it promises to be an entertaining, pressure-free match which should be enjoyed by all.