Chelsea looking to maintain momentum
This is a pivotal weekend in the Barclays Premier League with a packed Easter program that sees battles across the table. Here are the six games you cannot afford to miss this weekend:
Chelsea vs. Wigan
(Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: Whatever they’re putting into the halftime tea in the Chelsea dressing room is working. Tottenham might be five points in the distance, but the Blues will chase them all the way for fourth. Wigan are involved in their annual Houdini act. Three weeks ago, they were dead and buried. After two wins on the bounce, Roberto Martinez is finding his mojo at the perfect time.
WHOM TO WATCH: How old do you reckon John Obi Mikel is? He’s been around so long that we think of him as a grizzled veteran. He’s actually only 24. His trouble has been getting a coach to actually trust in his talent, and as a result, his Chelsea career has been stop-start. With Roberto Di Matteo, Mikel looks like he’s finally found someone who believes in him.
Over the next seven matches, Ali Al Habsi is going to be the most important player on the Latics squad. The Omani goalkeeper is quite possibly one of the best shot stoppers in the Premiership, but he is also capable of the big gaffe. But I’ve really liked Al Habsi since he made his debut for Bolton. He’s a character who doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously — think Bruce Grobbelaar — and has some real quality.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: Chelsea has lost to Wigan only once. Invariably, they smash the Latics out of sight. That streak will continue at the Bridge, and Fernando “El Nino” Torres will nick a goal or three.
Liverpool vs. Aston Villa
(Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer Plus and 2GO)
WHAT THE GAME IS: On Feb. 26, “King” Kenny Dalglish was back on top as Liverpool claimed silverware in the Carling Cup Final. Admittedly, it was in a slightly tarnished way — they defeated a Championship side, Cardiff, on penalties. Fast forward six weeks, and the King is wearing no clothes. Kenny Dalglish’s reign at Anfield is in serious trouble: Liverpool is mired in its worst league spell since the 1950s, and if the league had started on New Year’s Day, the Reds would be in the drop zone. A run of victories is needed or the Scotsman will be sacked in the summer and replaced by . . . Jose Mourinho. There, I said it!
WHOM TO WATCH: When you’re part of the furniture it’s easy to be taken for granted, but when Steven Gerrard is fit and focused he does make this Liverpool team better. Gerrard knows the sands of time are draining and he’ll have a huge decision to make in May. Yes, yes, he has the contract, but the lad wants medals. Will a Cup double be enough to keep him? No.
When you’re part of a team that plays dour football and is being sucked into a relegation battle, it can be easy to lose heart. That will never be the case for a former Red, Stephen Warnock. The Villa defender is a model professional, the perfect example of a solid player plying his trade and never complaining. Not everyone can be a superstar.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: Given the plight of both these clubs, I’d say if you offered them a point each right now, you’d not have a hand left. They’d both snap them off.
Manchester United vs. Queens Park Rangers
(Sunday, 8:30 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: Boring, boring Man United — aren’t they like a broken record that’s stuck on the same track? Despite having never reached the heights on a consistent basis they’re still the most consistent team in England. They do the one thing no one else can week in and week out: win the tricky games. Monday night’s victory against Blackburn was just the latest example.
QPR have pulled off two stunners in recent weeks, beating Liverpool and Arsenal at Loftus Road. Old Trafford is a different story, and Hoops boss Mark Hughes knows all about it. Hughes spent two spells there as a player hoovering up the medals. But as a coach he always leaves the Theatre of Dreams empty-handed. Sorry, Sparky: Nothing changes this weekend.
WHOM TO WATCH: Ashley Young has had a real up and down season. In spells, he’s been either the best player on the team or a complete waste of money. Luckily for Young England international, he’s being mentored by Ryan Giggs, someone who knows a thing or two about plying the wings in Manchester. If Young listens, learns and responds, Giggs will have his successor and United will continue winning.
Having a brother who has won everything while captaining his national team must be quite humbling. Yet, Anton Ferdinand, the younger brother of Rio, has quietly gone about building both a solid career and sterling reputation. He’ll be tested to the fullest this weekend as Wayne Rooney is flying. Unfortunately for Anton, John Terry thrust him into the spotlight this season for the worst reasons and the QPR defender has a tough summer of headlines ahead of him.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: QPR have won only once in their entire history at Old Trafford. Once. In 130 years. Do I need to say more? United will move three points closer to retaining their title.
Arsenal vs. Manchester City
(Sunday, 11 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: There are matches we say are “must win,” and then there are matches that truly are “must wins.” Guess which category this falls into? Arsenal must win to keep their noses in front of Tottenham. City must win to keep alive any slim title hopes. Emirates Stadium becomes the center of the football universe this weekend as a result.
WHOM TO WATCH: Who is the only Arsenal player to appear in every league game this campaign? You might be surprised to learn its Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Since the departure of Jens Lehmann, Arsene Wenger has hemmed and hawed over his keepers, but this year he finally decided to keep faith. He has been rewarded as Szczesny has shown considerable improvement and has almost eliminated the big mistake from his game. Almost.
Going back to the fans who once adored you is always emotional. But for Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri, Kolo Toure and backup keeper Stuart Taylor, sentiment will have to wait. Three of these players must raise their performances to the level that persuaded City to pay big money for them or this trip back to the capital will be one they’ll want to quickly forget.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: Over the past two weeks, I’ve said that City will take all three points, and I've have been wrong every time. Third time is the charm.
Newcastle United vs. Bolton Wanderers
(Monday, 10 a.m. ET, exclusively on FOX Soccer)
WHAT THE GAME IS: The Magpies keep hanging around on the periphery of Champions League qualification despite manager Alan Pardew insisting they have no chance. Well, maybe, but Newcastle have virtually locked up a Europa League spot. At the other end of the table, Bolton are buzzing from the inspiration that Fabrice Muamba is supplying.
WHOM TO WATCH: Papiss Demba Cisse arrived in Newcastle, unknown and unheralded, for a fairly large sum of cash from SC Freiberg. He cost the club close to $16 million. It now looks like a bargain. The Senegalese international has scored seven goals in six matches and looks as if he’s been playing in the Premiership for years. The “Toon Army,” known to be partial to free-scoring number nines, are rightly saying: “Andy Who?”
Adversity can make a team go in two different directions. They either pull together or fall apart. Since the horror of the Muamba’s illness, the Trotters have come together collectively. This makes picking one player impossible. Six different scorers in their last three league matches suggest to me that this club is not going to be relegated this season.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: The formbook screams for a home victory, but I think there will be some spoils shared today.
Fulham vs. Chelsea
(Monday, 3 p.m. ET)
WHAT THE GAME IS: Two matches in three days are tough on any team, but for the lesser lights, this is when a lack of depth in the squad really comes home to roost. Fulham, who usually make Craven Cottage a fortress, have won only half their home matches this campaign. It’s not good enough. With points and prize money at stake they’ll want to be at their best for this London derby day. Chelsea might be vulnerable here — their minds could be wandering.
WHOM TO WATCH: With 19 goals on the campaign in all competitions, Clint Dempsey has established himself as the finest American outfield player in a generation. The Texas native knows this is his shop window and that the best way to get a move to the biggest clubs is to score against the biggest clubs. I expect him to keep scoring — and to move in the summer. The list of Dempsey’s suitors will be long.
According to reports, Petr Cech was finished at the Bridge if Andre Villas-Boas had remained manager of the Blues. Thankfully for the Czech keeper, his new boss, Roberto Di Matteo, still rates him — and so do I. This might not have been his finest season ever, but he is still one of the best in the world at his position. He can both win matches and save them.
WEBSTER’S WISDOM: I fancy Fulham to make this a tough match for Chelsea.