United receives added midway boost

Defending champions Manchester City fell further behind rivals United last weekend in the derby clash at the Etihad. As we near the halfway point of the season, this weekend’s action is more important than ever for the two Barclays Premier League giants. Will United hold true to form? Can City bounce back? You don’t want to miss any of the thrills and spills:

Manchester United vs. Sunderland (live, Saturday, FOX Soccer, 10 a.m. ET)

The Red Devils are coming off their thrilling last-minute win against cross-town rivals City on Sunday. The big question is how the league leaders will react – does it give them a boost, or will they take their foot off the gas a little bit knowing a struggling but feisty Sunderland side is coming to town? The Black Cats are riding a momentary high after soundly defeating Reading on Tuesday, but they are still fighting to stay out of the relegation zone. These are the type of matches that test a team’s championship character. Their performance in this match will be a good indicator of how the rest of the season will progress for the Red Devils.

And if anything, United should only be getting stronger now. With the mid-way point approaching, there are important bodies that are set to return from injury — Nemanja Vidic is expected to play this weekend, and Shinji Kagawa is getting close to full health. But a word of advice for the Red Devils: be leery. They have well-documented struggles against ‘lesser’ opponents already this season, and the Black Cats played them tough last year: a pair of narrow 1-0 wins for United.

Newcastle vs. Manchester City (live, Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET)

I am equally as curious to see how City will respond at Newcastle on the heels of that deflating and emotional loss to United. While the gap between spots one and two in the league table is now at six points, it’s hardly a gulf one can’t traverse. City faced far worse circumstances last spring – eight points behind United with only six games to go – and they managed to overcome that deficit. The title race is far from over.

Ahead of this match, I ask one thing of Roberto Mancini: please start Carlos Tevez – he will reward you. Actually, while you’re at it, Roberto, please start Edin Dzeko… but on the bench. He will again produce for you in that super-sub role that he is well suited for.

As for Newcastle, they are faced with a real opportunity with this game. They have earned 10 fewer points so far during this campaign than at this point last season, and Monday’s loss at Fulham dropped them to 14th in the standings. There is nothing that can kick-start a season like taking down the defending champs – they’ll certainly be up for the challenge.

West Brom vs. West Ham (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 10:30 a.m. ET)

“Too many shadows, whispering voices, faces on posters, too many choices. If, when, why, what? How much have you got?”

I’m sorry to get the famoust Pet Shop Boys song stuck in your head for the rest of the day, but those lyrics seem to relate to the two ‘West’ Barclays Premier League clubs.

How much have these two got left? The Baggies could be in possession of a Champions League spot after the final whistle in this match. What are the shadows and whispers saying to Sam Allardyce? Is it, "Sam, grow your mustache back?" Or perhaps, "Sam, you know your Hammers can be a top 10 team?" The two most inspiring sides thus far this season will be "kicking in chairs and knocking down tables" at The Hawthorns this weekend.

Tottenham vs. Swansea (live, Sunday FOX Soccer, 8:30 a.m. ET)

Both sides enter this match fresh off challenging defeats, so expect a passionate battle for three points between these two – they both need a confidence boost. Spurs coughed up two stoppage time goals, falling to Everton last weekend, and Swansea’s multiple rallies at home against Norwich fell short. The good news: both squads are firmly entrenched in the top 10 in the Premier League.

This match-up also features two of the league’s top scorers. The first is Swansea’s Michu, who leads the league in goals scored – I can’t wait for his name to begin swirling in the transfer talks. And on the other end of the battle, Spurs striker Jermain Defoe has been on fire lately – will his current form translate to the English national team?

Stoke  vs. Everton (live, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET)

The defense will dominate at Britannia Stadium as these two sides face off. Stoke have allowed a whopping two home goals in league play this season. Asmir Begovic leads the league with eight clean sheets, and the Potters are undefeated in their last 14 league home affairs. On the flip side, Everton’s defense is not too shabby either. A big factor in their defensive success has been goalkeeper Tim Howard, who has a historical moment looming. If he starts, as expected, he will become just the second Premier League player to play in 200 straight matches – fellow American keeper Brad Friedel is the other.

In good hands

I had the opportunity to take in my first US women’s national team game in quite some time on Wednesday. I covered the team extensively during the heydays of Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy. It was good to hear the fan buzz is back with the team. The teenage screams and the pleading for autographs used to singe my eardrums. Now it serves as a pleasant reminder that this team is back in a good place – memo to potential sponsors, please take note.