MANCHESTER, England (AP) Chelsea’s advantage at the top of the Premier League has been skewed in recent weeks by playing more game than its three title rivals.
After the upcoming set of midweek matches, the top-four picture will be much clearer.
Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal play games-in-hand on Tuesday and Wednesday, seeking wins that will tighten up an already exciting title race.
City has the toughest task as it heads for a derby at Manchester United, which is out of title contention but desperate to dent the championship hopes of its fierce rival. Liverpool can move a point behind Chelsea by beating Sunderland at home, while fourth-place Arsenal – seven points off first place and looking the most vulnerable of the title contenders – hosts Swansea.
Here are five things to know about the midweek matches in the Premier League:
TESTING TIMES FOR CITY
Man City better have enjoyed the 5-0 romp against last-place Fulham on Saturday – it’s the easiest game it’ll have in some time.
The Manchester derby marks the start of a pivotal four-match, 20-day period for City that will see its title credentials severely tested by trips to Old Trafford, Emirates Stadium and Anfield.
Come through those games unscathed and the road to a second Premier League trophy in three years will be clear.
Chelsea has a six-point cushion over City having played three more games, and will look at the schedule of its main title rival and be happy to have points on the board.
”It is not just the United game,” City defender Pablo Zabaleta said. ”We need to win all of them.”
City has won on its last two visits to United – a 6-1 thrashing in October 2011 and a 2-1 victory last April that briefly delayed its neighbor securing the title.
Wayne Rooney may have to shoulder United’s attacking burden for the rest of the season following a knee injury to strike partner Robin van Persie that has ruled him out for up to six weeks.
The England international looks up to the task.
Rooney’s two goals in Saturday’s 2-0 win at West Ham – which included a memorable strike from almost 60 meters that looks to have sewn up the goal-of-the-season award – means he has scored in three of his last four league matches and has 17 goals this season for club and country.
His partnership with Juan Mata, who should get more starts in his favored No. 10 position because of Van Persie’s injury, will be key to how United end the campaign and whether it can snatch a top-six finish that will secure a Europa League spot.
Mata started there against West Ham and looked a different proposition after some ineffective performances out wide over the last two months.
”It worked well,” Rooney said of his link-up play with Mata. ”Obviously Juan is a very talented footballer, got a good footballing brain and when he gets in positions you know as a forward you can make runs and he can see you.”
Liverpool has scored 23 goals in its last seven games to cement its tag as the great Premier League entertainer – and the strikers at the center of the scoring spree have their eyes on a record.
With 47 goals between them this season, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are only eight behind the Premier League best for a strike combination – set by Peter Beardsley and Andrew Cole for Newcastle during the 1993-1994 campaign.
That haul was achieved when there were 42 games in a league season.
Suarez and Sturridge have eight games to break the record, starting with Sunderland on Wednesday.
If anyone is going to drop out of the four-pronged race for the title over the next few weeks, it will most likely be Arsenal.
Chelsea exposed the threadbare nature of Arsenal’s squad by routing its London rival 6-0 on Saturday, a result Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger described as a ”nightmare” in his 1,000th match in charge.
His midfield options have been devastated by injuries to Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, and striker Olivier Giroud is starting to struggle with the burden of being the team’s sole attacking focus.
”The players are deeply disappointed as we all are, but now I think let us prepare for the next game,” Wenger said after the loss to Chelsea. ”We are in a situation now where after such a disappointment that the next game becomes vital.”
EVERTON EYES FOURTH
Given Arsenal’s predicament, Everton manager Roberto Martinez’s claim that the race for fourth is far from over doesn’t look so fanciful after all.
Everton is eight points behind Arsenal, but has a game in hand over the Gunners and hosts them at Goodison Park on April 6.
If Everton beats Newcastle on Tuesday and Arsenal fails to win against Swansea, the gap between the clubs is very makeable. Tottenham currently separates the pair, two points ahead of Everton but having played a game more.