THIS WEEKEND offers the first round of fixtures in a congested December Premier League programme. The title already looks like a two-horse race but beyond Manchester there is far more uncertainty.
Chelsea’s Saturday lunch time visit to Upton Park kicks off the weekend’s action but the match itself seems primed to betray its billing. West Ham have struggled for goals of late while their District line rivals come into this match on the back of successive 0-0 draws where offensive craft has been sacrificed for defensive frugality.
It already seems probable that Chelsea have conceded the title to the Manchester sides but should Rafa Benitez’s charges contrive to lose this match the rancour aimed at their interim manager will only intensify.
Swansea travel to the Emirates on the back of a decent run of form and arrive confident that they have the game to defeat and leapfrog the Gunners, who sit a point and place ahead in seventh.
The Swans will seek to exploit Arsenal’s defensive frailties but should the Gunners be roused by the occasion they will be confident of victory.
Martin Jol welcomes his former side Tottenham to Craven Cottage and will look to former Spurs forward Dimitar Berbatov to defeat the north Londoners. Yet Tottenham arrive on the back of convincing victories over West Ham and Liverpool and may have too much for their London rivals.
Liverpool could cite ill-fortune for their recent inability to win but that would overlook the deficiencies of a team still reliant upon Luis Suarez’s goals. Southampton travel to Anfield in hope of taking a point but should they concede their condition may deteriorate rapidly.
Pedestrian Manchester City have been doing enough to win Premier League matches but win they must to at least temporarily return to the division's summit. Everton took a deserved point at home to Arsenal and would settle for the same at the home of the unbeaten champions.
Some have identified Aston Villa’s trip to Loftus Road as the match in which QPR will claim their first victory of the season. Rangers’ increased industry under new manager Harry Redknapp places them in good stead but their striking options are limited. Paul Lambert, who feels comfortable enough to ostracise one of the league's best forwards in Darren Bent, hopes to extend QPR’s pain.
West Brom will be keen to demonstrate that their defeat at the hands of Swansea was an aberration rather than the beginning of a fall from the third place that is deservedly theirs at this time.
Stoke are perhaps not ideal opponents in the circumstances but Steve Clarke’s side have a similar vein of to steel to the Potters and will hope to their superior finesse will make the difference.
It is tempting to write that the only certainties as Reading host league leaders Manchester United is that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side will fall behind before regrouping to overwhelm their hosts. The match may not assume that character but United will be confident of sitting atop the table on Saturday evening.
Norwich will look to end their run of two matches without a victory as they host misfiring Sunderland on Sunday afternoon. With the relegation zone looming large Martin O’Neill’s side need a turnaround and the absence of Lee Cattermole does not help. The Canaries trio of Wes Hoolahan, Anthony Pilkington and Robert Snodgrass will look to dominate.
On Monday night Newcastle host Wigan in the hope of ending their miserable run. The Magpies have looked a shadow of the team that finished fifth last season but Wigan’s inconsistency gives any opponent hope.