The simultaneously humbling and riveting race for fourth continues.
All four squads are in action over the next three days, three are alive in competitions outside the Premier League, and watching the fixture list is now a necessity.
v. Chelsea at Stamford Bridge
Saturday 11:00am EST
Probably the toughest draw of the weekend, at least on paper, Villa travels to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea. While they haven't lost since Liverpool visited Villa Park, Martin O'Neill and company have dropped more than a few points they likely shouldn't have. They've drawn seven matches in the new year---three in which you could argue it was a good-to-great result (United, Arsenal, and Spurs), but four that have to be seen as opportunities lost (West Ham, Stoke, Wolves, and Sunderland).
Two of their three wins in 2010 have come away from home---at Craven Cottage and the DW, both sites of Liverpool atrocities earlier in the season. But Villa haven't taken all three points at Stamford Bridge since the 2002-2003 season, and Chelsea is coming off a 5-0 trouncing of Portsmouth. That's not likely the best indicator of how things will play out tomorrow morning, but it's going to be difficult at the least.
v. Portsmouth at White Hart Lane
Saturday 11:00am EST
From the toughest match-up on paper to the easiest, as Spurs welcome a dizzied Portsmouth to White Hart Lane. Pompey are nearing a firesale, and although they took points of Tottenham in this fixture last year, history won't likely repeat itself tomorrow. Spurs have won four consecutive league matches and ousted Fulham from the FA Cup midweek. They're getting plenty of goals, most notably from Roman Pavlyuchenko, the formerly disgruntled, underused Russian striker who's now pouring them in.
But the road is going to get a lot tougher for Spurs come April. Their successes in the FA Cup mean they'll have a brutal three-match stretch at the end of the month. The date with Pompey at Wembley in the semi-final means that the Arsenal match is now at the front end of an eleven day stretch that only a Liverpool supporter could enjoy---Arsenal and Chelsea at home, United at Old Trafford. But that's getting ahead of myself, as this weekend there's nothing to indicate a shake-up.
v. Wigan at City of Manchester Stadium
Monday 3:00pm EST
Not technically a weekend fixture, but it'll do. City host Wigan in the Monday evening match, and if their recent away form is any indication, the Latics aren't going to pose many problems. Most recently they were thumped 4-0 at Bolton, which came less than a week after they beat Liverpool at the DW. And while the 2-0 loss to Everton (complete with manager wrestling match) was the first blemish on City's home record all season, it's hard to see how Wigan nick any points off City.
Mancini have his side playing some decent football since he's arrived, but the knock on them all season has been their inconsistency. Heavy criticism, coming from a Liverpool fan. But I don't have any doubt that he'll have his boys ready to go come Monday. They're still dealing with a few longer term injury worries, including Steven Ireland, Joleon Lescott, and Wayne Bridge, but the attacking combination of Tevez, Bellamy, and Adebayor is likely going to be too much for Wigan.
We wait until Sunday for Liverpool to host Sunderland---preview for that one up tomorrow. In the meantime, the two biggest stories of the day are that Steven Gerrard has acknowledged his poor form and Rafa confirmed that Albert Riera is likely to be on his way. Surprising stuff, I know.