Premier League preview: Battles at both ends hot up on penultimate weekend
It is possible that the lead in the title race could change hands three times, while eight sides battle the drop.
Last Updated: 02/05/14 8:06pm
Manchester City can take to the summit at Everton on Saturday, but could then be pegged back by Chelsea on Sunday, as they face Norwich City, and Liverpool on Monday, who travel to Crystal Palace.
At the opposite end of the division, Sunderland have hauled their way out of the drop zone and will want to maintain forward momentum at Manchester United, while fellow strugglers Cardiff City will endeavour to pile pressure on out-of-sorts Newcastle United.
West Ham United, who open the weekend against Tottenham Hotspur, and West Bromwich Albion, who go to Arsenal on Super Sunday, are not safe yet, and Fulham know they have to take something from a trip to Stoke City if they are to get back on the right side of the line.
Aston Villa have been in freefall of late and desperately need to stop the rot at home to Hull City, who will be looking to guarantee safety, while the only game with nothing riding on it will be staged in South Wales as Swansea City host Southampton.
Last weekend could not have gone much better for Manchester City, and they now have their sights locked on top spot. Victory in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Saturday Night Football will edge them into pole position on goal difference and allow them to put the ball firmly back in the court of their title rivals. Everton will, of course, have something to say about that though. Defeat at Goodison Park would bring an end to their top-four bid, but success would lift them to within a point of the UEFA Champions League places and keep them very much in the mix.
Prior to kick-off on Merseyside, much of the focus on Saturday afternoon will be aimed towards events at the foot of the division. The most intriguing tussle takes place at Villa Park as Paul Lambert attempts to halt Aston Villa's untimely slide against Hull City. A run of no win in six since stunning high-flying Chelsea has seen Villa dragged back into trouble - with five defeats suffered during a serious slump. They can take some comfort from the fact that they have played a game less than a number of those around them, but points on the board are all that matter at this stage. Hull would appear to have accrued enough to ensure that they will consolidate in their first season back in the big time, with Steve Bruce's side looking to complement top-flight safety with FA Cup success.
Sunderland dragged themselves out of the bottom three with a crucial victory over Cardiff last time out, with seven points now taken from their last three outings. Form has been found at just the right time and an air of optimism has swept into Wearside. Ensuring that they remain on an upward curve will be no easy task, though, as they travel to Manchester United on Saturday. Interim boss Ryan Giggs got off to a winning start against Norwich, meaning a feel-good factor has also returned to Old Trafford towards the end of a forgettable campaign that will be most noted for the dismissal of David Moyes just 10 months into a six-year contract. United can still finish sixth and guarantee a Europa League spot, so ending with a flourish is the sole target for the dethroned Premier League champions.
As mentioned, Cardiff City came unstuck at Sunderland last weekend to leave them with it all to do in the battle beat the drop. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have hit rock-bottom - literally - and know that anything less than two victories from here is unlikely to be enough. They will feel that their cause could be aided considerably by a trip to Newcastle United, as the Magpies' wings have been seriously clipped. Six straight defeats mean the end of the season cannot come quickly enough for Alan Pardew and his side, with a beleaguered boss on Tyneside needing to get into the summer and rebuild before calls for his head, which are growing in intensity, become impossible to ignore.
Fulham will be hoping that they are not left to rue the two points they dropped at home to Hull City, with a two-goal lead whittled away on home soil to leave the capital outfit second-from-bottom. Felix Magath has, however, overseen a reversal in fortune that has delivered seven points from a possible 12 to keep the Craven Cottage faithful believing. Stoke City will be no pushovers on Saturday, though, especially in front of their own supporters. Mark Hughes' men boast the best home record outside of the top six, with the Britannia Stadium having become something of a fortress again to carry the Potters into the top half.
The last of those sides still not mathematically safe are West Ham United, who kick-off the Premier League weekend with a derby date at Upton Park with cross-London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. It is unlikely that Sam Allardyce's side will be dragged into the bottom three from here, as they sit five points clear of the trapdoor, but they are limping towards the finishing post. The inconsistencies which have blighted West Ham's campaign have returned, with four successive defeats casting doubt over Allardyce's long-term future at the helm. Questions are also being asked of the man who will occupy the away dugout on Saturday afternoon, with Tim Sherwood growing increasingly frustrated at reports he is to be replaced in the summer regardless of how Spurs finish. It is still possible that he could end the season inside the top five, and he would have every right to point to that as a decent return on what he was asked to do.
The last of Saturday's fixtures takes place at the Liberty Stadium, with Swansea City entertaining Southampton. Garry Monk, another of the Premier League's managerial rookies, hit his target last weekend as the Swans ensured that they will remain among the elite with a 4-1 hammering of hapless Aston Villa. Attention can now turn towards improvements in the summer window and kicking on in 2014/15 without the distraction of European football. Southampton will also be looking to open the next campaign in a stronger position than they finish the current one, with impressive progress being made on the South Coast. The Saints are virtually guaranteed to finish seventh, and that represents a sizeable step in the right direction.
Sky Sports will then deliver another Super Sunday double-header, starting with Arsenal's home date with West Bromwich Albion. Victory for the hosts will cement a top-four standing and ensure that their run of UEFA Champions League qualification is stretched into a 17th year. West Brom will want to spoil the party, though, and end any lingering relegation fears. Having pulled four points clear of the drop zone, the Baggies know one more positive result is all that is required to retain their seat at English football's top table.
When the eyes of a global audience then descend upon Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will have the chance to move into top spot when they take on struggling Norwich City. Victory over Liverpool last weekend has fired Jose Mourinho's side back into the title picture, and domestic honours are now all they can achieve following their exit from European competition at the hands of Atletico Madrid in midweek. Norwich's ambitions at this stage are much more conservative, with a 17th-place finish enough to keep them happy. Unfortunately for Neil Adams and his troops, they face two heavyweight tussles in their quest to snap out of a five-match losing sequence and get their head above water - with a visit from Arsenal to come on the final day.
Monday Night Football will ask another serious question of Liverpool's title credentials, with Brendan Rodgers looking for a positive response to the Reds' setback at the hands of Chelsea when they go to Crystal Palace. Manchester City showed them the way last weekend, as they left Selhurst Park with a 2-0 win, and Liverpool have to follow suit if they are to keep their fans dreaming of a first title success in 24 years. There is every chance that they will have fallen to third by the time they take to the field, so ignoring league tables and focusing on the task in hand will be the name of the game when Rodgers attempts to inflict back-to-back defeats on a Palace side that has been rejuvenated under the tutelage of Tony Pulis.