It’s squeaky bum time for many teams in the Premier League, as there are only eight matches left in the season. Not only are Manchester rivals United and City fighting it out in a title race that could go down to the wire, several sides are in contention for European places, and at the other end of the table, the battle for survival rages on.
With the margin next to nil from here on, every match is of great importance for the sides who are chasing some sort of prize. With that in mind, what matches this weekend are or could be of especially great significance?
Wolves v. Bolton
The seven-match Saturday slate includes a classic relegation six-pointer, as woeful Wolves, rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table, take on Bolton, who sit just outside the danger zone after seemingly finding a bit of form at just the right time.
Usually, a sacking is done in an attempt to improve a struggling situation, but Wolves aren’t any better under caretaker manager Terry Connor than they were prior to sacking Mick McCarthy in mid-February. Since starting Connor’s tenure with a creditable 2-2 draw at Newcastle, Wolves have lost four in a row, and in those four defeats, they’ve been outscored 14-1.
As a result, Wolves now sit bottom of the table on only 22 points, four points behind Bolton, who are looking for their third win in three consecutive six-pointers. With back-to-back 2-1 home wins over survival rivals QPR and Blackburn, Owen Coyle’s side has moved up to 17th, and a win at Molineux would move them a point and a spot above Blackburn, who host league leaders United on Monday evening. Four of Bolton’s eight wins this season have come away from home, but they’ve lost their last four away league fixtures, so even with Wolves struggling, three points will be quite an achievement.
However, with what Wolves have shown – or rather, not shown – recently, Bolton should fancy their chances to come away with at least a point. But Wolves have the quality to produce much more than they have recently and through much of the season, and they’ll know that they can’t afford to not step up and put for their best today. It’s not too late for them to save their season and their place in the Premier League, and while a win won’t bring them out of the bottom three, it will prove a much-needed boost of confidence.
Newcastle United v. Liverpool
Coming into this season, it looked like a certainty that Liverpool would be a serious contender for a top-four place. After replacing Roy Hodgson with King Kenny, their form greatly improved in the second half of the season, and they had spent big in the summer to add to their January haul of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll. On the other hand, Newcastle weren’t expected to do very much, especially as some of their best players had departed.
But as the two prepare to tangle at Sports Direct Arena on Sunday, Newcastle are in the hunt for fourth, while Liverpool are on the verge of dropping out of the top seven. Thanks to the sensational form of Demba Ba and a terrific managerial job by Alan Pardew, Newcastle have remained in contention for a Champions League place far longer than anyone would have expected. At present, they sit sixth in the table, five points behind Tottenham, who sit fourth, and level on points with fifth-placed Chelsea. Newcastle’s next five matches are all winnable, and good results in that run could mean that a visit to Stamford Bridge in early May could, at the very least, decide fifth place and a guaranteed place in the Europa League.
For Liverpool, a place in the Europa League is already locked up and hope remains alive for a Carling Cup/FA Cup double, but the holy grail of the Champions League looks to be beyond their reach. They were in the thick of the hunt at the turn of the year, but their form has taken a dive since. The mere fact that they have three wins, two draws, and seven defeats in 12 league games in 2012 is a sight for sore eyes for Liverpool supporters, but the manner of the poor results and who they’ve come against no doubt makes it harder to take. For example, in Liverpool’s last two league matches, they threw away a late 2-0 lead in a 3-2 defeat at QPR and then inexplicably lost 2-1 at home to Wigan, who went to Anfield having won only one of their previous 14 Premier League matches.
If Newcastle take their current win streak to three tomorrow, not only will it keep their hopes for fourth going strong, it’ll also increase the pressure on Liverpool and King Kenny, whose place atop the throne is suddenly looking a little tenuous.
Blackburn Rovers v. Manchester United
Arguably the most stunning result of the season happened on New Year’s Eve, when Blackburn, then bottom of the Premier League table, went into Old Trafford and scored a 3-2 win over Manchester United, who looked all set to end the year in top spot.
United would lose their next game 3-0 at Newcastle, and at that point, many were likely questioning whether or not they’d be able to stop rivals City from taking the title. But since that defeat, United have taken 28 of a possible 30 points, with the lone ’blemish’ being their comeback from 3-0 to 3-3 at Chelsea. That blistering form has seen them catch up and move ahead of City in the table, and coming into this weekend’s fixtures, they hold a three point lead over their archrivals.
United have had their issues at Ewood Park, having won only twice in their last 11 league visits there, so they‘ll be wary of a potential bump in the road. However, as much as they’ve struggled to win there in recent times, this is as good a time as any for them to break that hoodoo. Outside of that defeat at Newcastle, United’s away from this season has been stellar, and just as their home form won them the title last season, away form could win it this season. United are 11-3-1 away from home this season, far and away the best mark in the league.
Still, Blackburn will approach this game confidently, and they need a positive result themselves. They’re currently sitting 16th, but only three points separate Steve Kean’s side and the bottom three, with QPR and Wigan both on 25 points. Points won’t be easy to come by down the stretch for Blackburn, as they have matches against United, Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea down the stretch, along with a tough trip to Swansea. It could well be that picking up positive results in a couple of their toughest matches could make as much difference as their six-pointer against Wigan on the season’s penultimate weekend.
But to maximize their chances to take points off of United for the second time this season, Blackburn’s defense must stop Wayne Rooney, who has 17 goals in his last 17 games in all competitions and 28 for the season, and Antonio Valencia, who’s as good as any right winger in the game right now. Easy enough, right? Right.