FOX Soccer Exclusive
Villa, Wigan face grueling stretch
Manchester United won its 20th league title on Monday with an emphatic win over Aston Villa. But summer signing Robin van Persie's first half hat trick also ensured that lowly Queens Park Rangers and Reading lived to fight another day for their place among England's top 20 clubs. Now, Villa hosts Sunderland at Villa Park (live, FOX Soccer, Monday, 3 p.m. ET), a game that carries as much significance for the Black Cats as it does for the Villans.
Sunderland boss Paulo Di Canio has lifted his side with back-to-back wins against local rival Newcastle and Everton. His players will be high on confidence ahead of Monday's clash as relegation is still a possibility. Two more wins should be enough for survival.
Villa, on the other hand, are still hovering above the Barclays Premier League drop zone. They'll definitely put up a fight as United winning the league against them definitely left a bitter taste in their mouth. Few expect Villa to take all three points as they've been known to let late leads slip this season. With Sunderland in a buoyant mood ahead of the match, the odds look stacked against Villa.
“The mission, the priority, is to stay up,” said Di Canio ahead of Monday’s clash against Aston Villa. “But we can’t relax – even when we get the points we need to stay up. I want to get across my mentality – win every game! If we have 40 points with six games to go, I want to finish with 58 points."
Like Sunderland, Newcastle sits on 37 points, just above Villa. Goalkeeper Tim Krul is ruled out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, a major blow for the Magpies' survival bid. Luckily, they won't have to be tormented by Liverpool's Luis Suarez, (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET), who misses the final games of the campaign through suspension for violent conduct. The Uruguayan attempted to bite Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic during last Sunday's game at Anfield.
This bodes well for Newcastle as Suarez is second in league scoring. Fans will remember the superb solo-effort against the Magpies in the 1-1 draw in Liverpool earlier this season. Suarez brought the ball down in his stride while fighting off Fabricio Coloccini then rounded Krul and passed it into the net.
Alan Pardew's squad has the talent to avoid being sucked down into a survival fight. The French flavor he has added to his team looked quite tasty in the beginning, but injuries to players like Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa put a dent in the side's efforts of putting a consistent run together.
A win at home to Liverpool, which is not impossible, would see them move closer to safety. But Pardew will want his men to finish as far away from the drop zone as possible. You can expect the Geordies to be in full voice on Saturday at St. James' Park.
Reading take on QPR at the Madejski Stadium (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET), a game in which the West Londoners will most likely head back to Loftus Road with all three points. The Royals haven't won since early February and it’s tough to imagine them picking up any points from now until the end of the season. Brian McDermott's sacking definitely came at the wrong time, but at this point of the season even he could not have saved the Berkshire club from going down.
“We made it perfectly clear to the players after Norwich that we need to win every game,” Reading boss Nigel Adkins told reporters this week. Let’s not hide away from where we are in the division, it’s always going to be a massive challenge. We’re at the wrong end of the division and we won’t hide from that."
If Villa win this weekend, QPR and Reading will be resigned to the Championship. Nothing surprising here, as it was always going to be a big ask for Harry Redknapp and Adkins to keep the Premier League strugglers up. A draw or defeat for Paul Lambert's Aston Villa side would give the bottom two a slim, but an unlikely chance of staying in England's top flight.
Wigan still have a game in hand but play Tottenham this weekend at the DW Stadium (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 10 a.m. E.T). The Latics beat Spurs 1-0 at White Hart Lane in November and will hope for a similar result in the reverse fixture this Saturday. Roberto Martinez will want to make up for last week's 2-0 defeat to West Ham, but Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs are on the march for a Champions League place. If Tottenham put in a performance as they did in the last 25 minutes against Manchester City last Sunday, Wigan will have no chance.
"The players have been very focused on the league,” said Wigan manager Martinez. “Their performances have been phenomenal. Arguably, the games at Manchester City and West Ham were our two most dominant performances away from home. You shouldn't just judge football on results.”
Martinez will need to then focus his team on crucial matches against West Brom, Swansea City and Arsenal. In essence, we could see Wigan and Villa lay it all on the line on the last game of the season.
More Stories From Manesh Upadhyaya