London, Manchester highlight weekend
Three huge match-ups highlight this weekend’s soccer action, with a massive London derby on Saturday. The Manchester clubs are also fighting it out this weekend against tricky opponents as City hopes it can close the gap at the top of the table. Finally, the Championship is nearing the end of the season, with millions of dollars at stake for the lucky three teams making the jump to the Barclays Premier League. Reading is already one of the clubs which has booked its place in the top flight. Here’s who you must keep an eye on this weekend:
ARSENAL VS. CHELSEA
WHAT THE GAME IS: A classic London derby between two teams fighting for a Champions League berth next season. Forget Tottenham versus Arsenal. Ever since Chelsea got the big bucks, this is the London derby that matters.
WHO TO WATCH: Robin van Persie is Arsenal’s talisman this season. He’s proven himself as the club’s main leader, and he’s having a career season leading the Premier League with 27 goals to date. With Theo Walcott out wide and Tomas Rosicky in central midfield, the Gunners are pretty tough. But there’s a big hitch: Mikel Arteta blew out his ankle meaning the influential Spanish midfielder will miss the rest of the season. This leaves the far less effective Aaron Ramsey to deputize. Yossi Benayoun is ineligible for this game, as he’s on loan from the Blues.
That’s going to put added pressure on Alex Song as the sweeper-back in front of what has been an erratic back line. Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen can be good — or they can be terrible, sometimes in the space of five minutes. That said, Arsenal have been tough to beat at home, despite the shock loss to Wigan.
Chelsea is not looking ahead of this game. They are in the midst of a grueling ten-day period that included a massive FA Cup semifinal win over Spurs, and a shock 1-0 win over Barcelona. This team will be tired out, and they are not getting any younger. Expect Fernando Torres to get the run-out to give Didier Drogba a day off. Torres’ form has been far better since Roberto Di Matteo stepped in, but he’s still not the all-time, all-purpose threat he once was. Michael Essien is expected to get the start in midfield, with John Terry and Gary Cahill marshalling the back line.
TRECKER’S WISDOM: The Blues want to win this game, badly. But with a tough trip to Camp Nou on Tuesday, don’t expect the Blues to try to kill themselves for three points. Di Matteo will think twice before finalizing his starting eleven. When it’s all said and done, they’ll take a draw without complaint.
QPR VS. TOTTENHAM
(Live on FOX Soccer at 12:30 p.m. ET, Saturday)
WHAT THE GAME IS: The weekend’s other London derby between stumbling Spurs and a very erratic QPR side desperate for points.
WHO TO WATCH: Spurs are in a dismal state, winless in their last three matches. Coming off a serious thumping at Wembley at the hands of Chelsea, Spurs will rely on their talented striker Emmanuel Adebayor. He’s been one of their most positive players and when he gets on the score sheet, Spurs win the game more often than not. Gareth Bale has shown a lot of speed but very little positive service of late. The partnership between Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart is not creating the kind of spark this team truly needs. There’s no doubting the talent here, but Harry Redknapp’s tactics seem to have fallen apart since he was floated as the next England manager. Bluntly, this looks like Arsenal-lite: a team that passes, passes, passes — but can’t score.
QPR are teetering on the edge of the drop zone, and usually follow up losses with wins. They need this one badly, and if they can get a game out of the frustrating Adel Taarabt, they might have a chance. Mark Hughes gets the talented and reckless Djibril Cisse back from his four-game ban, and as long he can keep from getting sent off, QPR will be all right. Bobby Zamora and Joey Barton are critical as well. Both need to show leadership and poise.
TRECKER’S WISDOM: QPR have been very solid in these London derbies of late, and have collected home wins against Arsenal and Liverpool this year. Spurs are the better team by far, but have been dreadful on the road. Don’t be shocked if the Loftus Road lads pull out all three points.
MANCHESTER UNITED VS. EVERTON
(Live on FOX Soccer at 7:30 a.m. ET, Sunday)
WHAT THE GAME IS: A tough test for an Everton side that have nothing left to play for, and a chance for Manchester United to move one step closer to the crown.
WHO TO WATCH: Everton have endured a lot of disappointment this season, and how they recover from their FA Cup loss to Liverpool will be the story here. They were foiled by a gaffe by Sylvain Distin at Wembley, and David Moyes will be looking to boost his team’s confidence to finish the season strongly. Royston Drenthe has apparently been kicked off the side for indiscipline, denying the Toffees of one of their craftiest players. Look for in-form striker Nikica Jelavic to carry the load. Left-back Leighton Baines, who is having another great season, is out of the game with a torn hamstring.
United haven’t been firing on all cylinders, but Paul Scholes remains the man to watch in midfield. He doesn’t have the team turning over like a Rolls Royce, but at this point, even a riding mower will do. Wayne Rooney has been in a mini-slump and it would be good to see him snap out of his funk. David de Gea has been more than competent in the nets after a terrible start to the season.
TRECKER’S WISDOM: Everton will play United hard, but the Red Devils’ march to the crown now looks inexorable. They’ll get all three points.
WOLVES VS. MANCHESTER CITY
(Live on FOX Soccer at 11:00 a.m. ET, Sunday)
WHAT THE GAME IS: This should be a lock-tight cinch for City to pick up some points and keep the title race alive. Wolves are in free fall, especially at home where they have lost their last eight games. Another two home losses and they’ll set an inglorious Premier League record.
WHO TO WATCH: One guy who we must mention — but you won’t be able to watch — is keeper Wayne Hennessey. He’s done the best he could all season long for Wolves in front of a defense so incompetent, it beggars belief. Hennessey suffered a major knee injury last week and will now miss the next six months, making an already lousy season for Wolves that much worse. They didn’t have much in front of him anyway, with Roger Johnson looking particularly poor.
City will throw Carlos Tevez and Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero at them. Unless Wolves soak the field in cement, these two should prosper. Roberto Mancini can’t take his foot off the pedal with rivals United holding a five-point lead. There will be the temptation to give David Silva a rest, but don’t count on it.
TRECKER’S WISDOM: Wolves are already changing the badges on the side of their uniforms to read “Championship.” They’re done, and City should eat them alive.
LEICESTER VS. WEST HAM
(Live on FOX Soccer Plus at 2:30 p.m. ET, Monday)
WHAT THE GAME IS: It’s an nPower Championship Special, as we fly toward the final weekend of play in England’s second division. The Hammers are trying to make an immediate return to the Premier League after being relegated last season.
WHO TO WATCH: Sam Allardyce’s Hammers have to be thankful this match is on the road. The Hammers snapped a poor run of form at home with a 6-0 drubbing of Brighton at the weekend, but their performances at Upton Park has cost them a shot at automatic promotion. They will finish third but have to be ruing the missed chances. Portuguese striker, Ricardo Vaz Te, was one of the winter transfer coups, joining the Hammers from Barnsley. He’s netted ten for West Ham, including a hat-trick against Brighton, since his January sale. Alongside Carlton Cole, Vaz Te has been simply superb.
The Foxes may regret sacking Sven-Goran Eriksson. Leicester have been inconsistent all season long. The big spenders will finish mid-table, and are now looking to play spoilers ahead of the Hammers’ playoff run. David Nugent has been their main man.
TRECKER’S WISDOM: The Hammers won’t be able to gain an automatic berth and look like they might be running on fumes as well. A loss here won’t sink them, but it will give a lot of people pause.