Wigan v Newcastle
TWO SIDES WITH plenty to play for do battle when Wigan host high-flying Newcastle in the Premier League on Saturday.
While Wigan’s goal is to steer further clear of the relegation zone with another big scalp, Newcastle will be eyeing the final Champions League spot, now a distinct reality given slip-ups from chasing Tottenham and Chelsea.
Chelsea’s preoccupation with the Champions League saw them peter out a goalless draw at Arsenal while Tottenham continued their downturn in form with a loss at QPR, meaning Newcastle is now in the box seat with a three point gap over Tottenham in fourth, and four over Chelsea back in fifth.
Wigan are in the thick of it too, though at the other end of the table.
Roberto Martinez’s men have hauled themselves off the canvas with four huge wins in six league games over the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Stoke and Liverpool.
That leaves them one point clear of the drop after Aston Villa were pulled closer to the mire with a 2-1 loss to relegation-threatened Bolton on Wednesday.
Martinez has been behind much of the revival and will need to draw on all the spirit his side can muster with games against lowly Blackburn and relegated Wolves to come.
“For Wigan to be seven years in the Premier League is an outstanding achievement and if we have to go to the last day of the season, so be it,” Martinez said.
“We are prepared mentally as a club, every point is going to count and it could easily go to the last game of the season. We will give our lives for more points.”
Alan Pardew’s Newcastle have been just as impressive in their unlikely pursuit of European football.
Following Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final win over Barcelona on Tuesday, it would be cruel if they manage to win the final, taking the last English spot in next year’s competition at Newcastle’s expense.
Newcastle clinically dispatched Stoke 3-0 at Sports Direct Arena thanks to a double from Yohan Cabaye and another goal from Papiss Cisse, who has taken his goals tally to 11 from 11 games since joining the club from Bundesliga outfit Freiburg.
With games against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton to come, points will not be easy to come by for Newcastle, making Saturday a must-win.
Swansea v Wolves
(Nathan Dyer, left, has been in excellent form this season – John Walton/EMPICS Sport)
Already relegated Wolves have nothing but pride to gain as they travel to Swansea City in the English Premier League on Saturday.
Since the Molineux-based outfit sacked Mick McCarthy on February 13, they have failed to win with caretaker boss Terry Connor overseeing a run which saw them lose eight times in 10 matches.
And the poor form culminated in relegation from the top flight after title chasers Manchester City defeated them 2-0 on Sunday.
Connor insists Wolves will take the remainder of the season seriously though as they try to end the campaign on a high.
“We’ve got three more games to complete the season, and we need to approach them in right manner,” said Connor after the club’s relegation.
“The Premier League is said to be best in the world so we’ll be honest and competitive for three more games as the performances and results we get may have a bearing on how the league pans out, so we owe it the league and everybody to finish it off.
“We’ll finish the season, we’ll finish it competitively and then we’ll sit down and decide where the club wishes to go and which path to take.”
The likes of Steven Fletcher, Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt are sure to attract attention from other clubs but Wolves chief executive Jez Moxey has rejected suggestions they will be forced into selling their stars.
“We need to address the managerial position at the end of the season, and then, once that’s resolved, address the playing situation,” Moxey said.
“What is for certain is that some players will go and some will be signed but we want to try to keep our best players.
“We’re under no financial pressure to sell, but we also understand the realities of football.”
Connor is likely to use a few of the club’s younger players over the next few weeks with 21-year-old midfielder David Davis set to start again.
Senior players Hunt and Jamie O’Hara (both groin), Sebastian Bassong and Jody Craddock (both hamstring) and Wayne Hennessey (knee) are all sidelined.
Swansea City’s push for a top-half finish could be given a boost by the visit of Wolves as they look to improve on a run of form that has seen them win just one of their last six matches.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has taken the chance to experiment with the side given their safe position but a top-10 finish would be a great result for the club in their first ever English Premier League season.
Alan Tate (calf) and Ferrie Bodde (knee) will miss out for Rodgers’ side.
Sunderland v Bolton
(Sunderland have endured some disappointing results recently – Peter Byrne/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
Bolton manager Owen Coyle will hope his porous defence can manage a clean sheet against a misfiring Sunderland side on Saturday.
Sunderland have failed to score in their past four games but come up against the third-worst defence in the Premier League this weekend.
Coyle will be pushing his defenders to continue Sunderland’s goalless run as Bolton make a late-season dash to avoid relegation.
Bolton stunned Aston Villa 2-1 on Tuesday to drag Alex McLeish’s men closer to the relegation zone and take themselves to within a point of Wigan and Queens Park Rangers.
Tuesday’s game was decided in a frantic three-minute period when first Stephen Warnock scored for Aston Villa before a penalty from Martin Petrov and a goal from David Ngog ensured the visitors went home with three points.
Coyle’s side have a game in hand on May 2 against Tottenham but are more likely to earn points against Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion and Stoke in their run home.
Bolton have won four and drawn one of their past seven Premier League games and have a decent spread of players who can hit the back of the net.
The likes of Chris Eagles, Ivan Klasnic, Kevin Davies and Petrov are the most dangerous in front of goal.
It is an area that Sunderland have found tough recently with their last goal coming in the 3-3 draw against Newcastle on March 31.
Martin O’Neill’s side scoring troubles take on extra significance with their past two games having been against Wolverhampton and Aston Villa, two sides who have leaked goals for most of the season.
If Bolton’s central defenders David Wheater and Zat Knight can keep Nicklas Bendtner and Stephane Sessegnon quiet at the Stadium of Light, they will go a long way to claiming their first clean sheet since February and just their third for the season.
Despite having failed to score, Sunderland have managed three draws in the past month, which is impressive considering that key defenders Titus Bramble and Wes Brown, as well as defensive midfielder Lee Cattermole are all currently on the injured list.
None of those players will be back on Saturday, while the visitors may have Darren Prately available for selection.
Sunderland are 11th on the table with 44 points and do not have much left to play for this season.
In contrast, Bolton are 18th, a point and a position on the table away from safety and desperate for a result on Saturday.
West Brom v Aston Villa
(Mark Antoine-Fortune faces a late fitness test – Jon Buckle/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
Aston Villa’s relegation fears appear to be deepening by the week ahead of Saturday’s trip to West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League.
Manager Alex McLeish was subjected to a barrage of abuse before and after Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at fellow strugglers Bolton, a result that leaves Villa with only one win in their past 13 games.
Bolton’s Martin Petrov responded to Stephen Warnock’s opener on the hour mark within three minutes before David Ngog sealed the comeback almost immediately to wrench Villa within three points of the drop.
The fans immediately vented their fury at the ex-Birmingham boss who took their rivals down at the end of the 2011 season before crossing the city.
And, with a tough game at the Hawthorns to come as well as a home game with Tottenham and away trip to Norwich on the final day, Villa are now facing the most unlikely of relegations.
Two teams out of Villa (36 points), QPR (34), Wigan (34), Blackburn (33) and Bolton (33) are likely to go down but the latter four have better form and Bolton have a further game in hand.
Roy Hodgson’s West Brom pose the next real threat to Villa’s safety and are in hot form.
Wins over Blackburn, QPR, and Liverpool on Sunday, highlight a fine run of three wins in four games, with a 4-0 loss at Manchester City the only blotch in their copybook.
Marc Antoine-Fortune (hamstring) failed a late fitness test for Liverpool but should be fit in time to face Villa while Steven Reid, James Morrison and Zoltan Gera are all still unavailable.
Striker Darren Bent (ankle) is the key absentee for Villa and they could dearly do with his goals for the run in.
Stoke v Arsenal
(Robin van Persie has been off form recently – Sang Tan/AP/Press Association Images)
Arsenal’s bid to secure an automatic Champions League place continues with a clash against Stoke City on Saturday.
Arsene Wenger’s men have won just two of their last five English Premier League matches, giving the in-form Newcastle United some hope of finishing third.
Injuries have affected Arsenal in recent weeks, with Mikel Arteta and Theo Walcott ruled out for the rest of the season.
Spaniard Arteta has been a big loss in midfield, while the form of prolific goalscorer Robin van Persie is also worrying.
Van Persie, who still tops the Premier League scoring charts with 27 goals, has netted just once in his last seven outings.
Arsenal’s reliance on the Dutchman was always set to hurt them at some point this campaign, with their recent struggles coinciding with van Persie’s poor form.
Joining the likes of Arteta and Walcott on the sidelines are Francis Coquelin, Per Mertesacker, Emmanuel Frimpong and Jack Wilshere.
But the visitors should still have enough quality to secure all three points against mid-table Stoke at Britannia Stadium.
Tony Pulis’ men cannot be relegated and are unable to book a European berth for next season.
Normally reliable in defence, Stoke have failed to keep a clean sheet in their last eight games, including in the 3-0 loss to Newcastle last time out.
With just one win in their last eight league outings, Stoke have slipped to 14th on the table with little to play for in their remaining matches.
The likes of Salif Diao and Mamady Sidibe are sidelined.
Pulis is likely to persist with striker Jonathan Walters, who missed several chances in the loss to Newcastle.
“Jon could have had a hat-trick – and not a very difficult hat-trick. I’m not picking on him because he’s done fantastic for us and kept going,” he said.
“The best thing about him is that he will never stop getting into positions. His attitude and strength of character is fantastic and that’s why we pick him every week.”
Everton v Fulham
(Stephen Kelly is set to return for Fulham – Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport)
Fulham defender Stephen Kelly will play through the pain barrier to take part in his team’s English Premier League match against Everton.
Kelly, 28, suffered a minor wrist break in Fulham’s 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea on April 9, and had to sit out his team’s 2-1 victory over Wigan last week.
This Saturday, Fulham make the trip north to take on Everton, who are fresh from earning a point in a thrilling 4-4 draw away to champions Manchester United.
“Things have been going really well recently and I’ve been enjoying my football,” fullback Kelly said.
“Hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m back playing. I sustained a slight break to my wrist but it’s something that I can hopefully get over and play with a cast on it.
“I’ll be looking to get back into training this week and get the confidence built up again.
“It’s a matter of getting back into training and hopefully it will feel good and I’ll be available at the weekend for the game against Everton.”
Fulham are unbeaten in their last four matches, winning three of them, along with a credible draw against Chelsea.
They have risen to ninth on table, level on points with comparative heavyweights Liverpool, and Kelly said the squad have set the bar high for the run-in.
“We’ve been playing well and if we can continue our good form, and the good performances that we have been putting in, then there’s no reason why we can’t get to 50 points and then build on that,” he said.
“We’ll be looking to finish in the top eight, which is definitely achievable with the points we’re on and the games coming up.”
They are unlikely to have an easy ride at Goodison Park, with David Moyes’ seventh-placed team motivated by the opportunity to finish above neighbours Liverpool for the first time since 2004-05.
Everton came from 4-2 down to take a point off league leaders United on Sunday, and will be sure to pose a threat through in-form striker Nikica Jelavic, who struck twice in the match at Old Trafford.
Fulham are without defender Zdenek Grygera (knee), midfielder Steve Sidwell (groin) and forward Bryan Ruiz (foot) for the match.
Everton must make do without Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year fullback Leighton Baines (hamstring), as well as midfielder Jack Rodwell (hamstring).
On-loan Dutchman Royston Drenthe has been suspended by the club indefinitely due to disciplinary reasons.
Norwich v Liverpool (Saturday 5.30pm)
(Carragher insists Liverpool will be motivated, despite having little to play for – Peter Byrne/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
Liverpool players will be fighting for a starting berth in the FA Cup final when they travel to Norwich in the Premier League on Saturday.
With the trip to Carrow Road coming just a week before the Wembley showpiece against Chelsea, places in Kenny Dalglish’s side are up for grabs according to defender Jamie Carragher.
“It’s all to play for in terms of cup final places,” Carragher told the club’s official website.
“But we’re going into these games to get three points because we need to move up the table. Of course, if you perform well in these games, you have a greater chance of playing in the final.”
“And certainly, we all want to play in the big games. There are two games now before the final and I’m sure the manager will mix it up because the Fulham game is just before the cup final.”
“Saturday’s match could have a similar effect to the Blackburn game. If you look at that game, I think a few of the players forced themselves into the side against Everton (the FA Cup semi-final, which Liverpool won 2-1) through their performances against Blackburn.”
With so much on the line, Liverpool fans can expect a better performance than their last one in the Premier League, which saw them slump to a 1-0 home defeat against West Bromwich Albion.
Once again luck was not on Liverpool’s side but their league form is alarming, with Dalglish’s men having won just three of their 15 matches in 2012.
Norwich have also tailed off slightly, winning just two of their last 10 league encounters after a brilliant start to the season.
Safety was Norwich’s main goal this season and it has been secured comfortably, but the challenge is now for Paul Lambert’s side to finish strongly and win themselves a top-half finish.
Liverpool are just as concerned about remaining inside the top-10, with home matches against Fulham and Chelsea and a tricky trip to Swansea City to follow Saturday’s fixture.
Both sides have minor injury lists, with Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva (both knee) the only long-term casualties for Liverpool, who are likely to welcome inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard (hamstring) back for the match.
Former Liverpool defenders Zak Whitbread (calf) and Daniel Ayala (knee) have been sidelined recently for Norwich, although the former could return in this fixture.
Grant Holt’s second-half leveller saw Norwich get a point at Anfield in October and they will head into the fixture with belief they can at least avoid defeat again.
But with so much to play for, an improved performance from Liverpool is expected as they build up to their second cup final of the season.
Chelsea v QPR (Sunday 1.30pm)
(Chelsea will be in a buoyant mood following their midweek Champions League success – Stephen Pond/EMPICS Sport)
Queens Park Rangers’ fight for survival in the English Premier League takes them to Stamford Bridge on Sunday where they meet Chelsea.
Impressive home form – QPR have won their last four fixtures at home, including wins over Arsenal and Tottenham – has seen Mark Hughes’ side move out of the relegation zone.
But an 11-match winless run on the road means they are just one point above the relegation zone with three fixtures remaining.
And the first of those is no easy task as Hughes takes his men to sixth-placed Chelsea, who knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Champions League at the semi-final stage on Tuesday.
“We’ve got to try to address our away form in the final two fixtures on the road,” Hughes said in the build-up to Sunday’s match.
“If we can be disciplined and understand what is required against Chelsea then we could get a positive result. It’s a great London derby for the fans.
“It would be massive if we could get something positive from the trip to Stamford Bridge and then come back to Loftus Road for a huge game against Stoke.”
Hughes believes victory at Chelsea – a side who they beat 1-0 in the reverse fixture in a match that was shrouded in controversy – will play a huge part in keeping the club safe from relegation.
The controversy that surrounded QPR’s 1-0 win at Loftus Road in October came largely due the alleged racial comments John Terry made to Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during the match.
Chelsea also finished the match with nine men, but the severity of Terry’s alleged racial abuse will see him in court in July facing a criminal trial.
In the FA Cup meeting between the two sides in January, the traditional pre-match handshake was scrapped over fears that Ferdinand would reject any approach from Terry.
But the Premier League confirmed that the handshakes before the match would go ahead on Sunday, meaning that Ferdinand – and perhaps some of his QPR team-mates – are likely to refuse a handshake with the former England captain.
Chelsea will head into the match in a buoyant mood after their 2-2 draw at Camp Nou on Tuesday secured them a spot in the final of Europe’s premier club competition, with Roberto Di Matteo’s men to take on Bayern Munich in the May 19 showpiece.
Chelsea have lost just one of their last 15 matches in all competitions but will be without defenders Gary Cahill (hamstring) and Ryan Bertrand (calf) for Sunday’s match, with David Luiz (hamstring) a 50-50 chance of playing.
QPR will be without midfield duo Alejandro Faurlin (knee) and Kieron Dyer (ankle) but other than that, have no injury concerns.
Tottenham v Blackburn (Sunday 4pm)
(Harry Redknapp has received criticism following Tottenham’s recent poor form – Nick Potts/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
Tottenham continue their chase of a Champions League spot when they welcome Blackburn to White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Harry Redknapp’s side are winless in four outings in all competitions, dropping to fifth in the English Premier League.
The in-form Newcastle United have moved into fourth, leaving Tottenham in danger of missing out on a Champions League place.
Tottenham, who are a point clear of Chelsea, are reportedly suffering from tiredness late in the campaign.
Strike duo Emmanuel Adebayor (13 league goals) and Jermain Defoe (10) have struggled to find form, while Gareth Bale has also struggled in 2012.
Since the start of February, Bale has managed just one assist and has failed to find the net.
But a clash against relegation-threatened Blackburn could be just what Tottenham need to give them a boost late in the season.
Tottenham, who could regain Adebayor from his hamstring strain, have won five straight league matches against Rovers, who are three points from safety.
Steve Kean’s men have needed the good work of striker Yakubu (16 league goals), but the Nigerian has netted in just two of his last 10 league outings.
Blackburn midfielder David Dunn said on Thursday three cup finals awaited his team if they wanted to avoid the drop.
“The Wigan game a week after is a really big one. I would say that the next three fixtures are three cup finals for us,” he told Sky Sports.
“I think this year everyone knows it has been a really testing season for us, both on and off the pitch.
“It is going to take a really big effort. At times on Saturday (in the 2-0 win over Norwich), we played OK. I didn’t think it was the best we’ve played this season but we got a result.
“Certainly at this stage of the season a much needed three points is crucial.”
A point would be a good result away at Tottenham before the vital relegation six-pointer against Wigan.
All games kick off Saturday 3pm unless specified otherwise.