Things have been pretty busy in the soccer world recently at least as far as this site goes, what with the African Cup of Nations in full swing and the FA Cup 4th Round ties and 5th Round draw over the past few days.
Let’s not forget the bread and butter though. Premier League action heats up again with a round of midweek games, starting with four tomorrow and then five on Wednesday. Three of tomorrow’s matches are extremely, extremely important and so I wanted to give you a brief preview of what to watch for. These games are the definition of the term “six-pointers”, as each of the six teams involved are in the relegation fight and could either go three points closer to safety or three more points behind the teams they’re chasing in the battle to remain in the Premier League.
Middlesbrough (13th; 22 pts) vs. Wigan (17th; 20 pts):
This will be game #1 of the post-Jonathan Woodgate era at Middlesbrough. Say what you like about Woodgate and how injury-prone he is, but he’s a quality center-back and his presence will sorely be missed at the Riverside, especially as Boro have already conceded 37 goals this season. They’ve won just once in their last six league matches and only twice at home all season. Both Tuncay Sanli and Gary O’Neil should return to the lineup, however, and that will be a boost to Gareth Southgate’s club.
Marlon King should be set to make his debut for Wigan after recently joining the Lancashire side from Watford. King is a serviceable striker who will help Wigan up front; they’ve scored only 23 goals in as many matches this season. They’ve won just once away from the JJB this year but have earned points in five out of their last seven league games, including their sole road win at Derby. As a sidenote, this will be Wigan’s 100th match in the Premier League.
Bolton (15th; 21 pts) vs. Fulham (19th; 15 pts):
Out of the six clubs I’ve highlighted today, I think these two need a victory the most.
Bolton lack any type of scoring punch now that Nicolas Anelka has continued his nomadic ways and moved to Chelsea, and the likely signing of Aston Villa central defender Gary Cahill doesn’t address that need whatsoever. The Trotters have won just twice in their last seven league games and those wins came against Derby and Birmingham. El-Hadji Diouf and Abdoulaye Meite are both away due to African Cup of Nations duty and that doesn’t help matters at all.
One thing that does work in Bolton’s favor, however, is Fulham’s awful road form. Bolton have been solid at home this season (5-3-4) and Fulham have picked up only four points in eleven away league matches so far (0-4-7). The Cottagers actually hadn’t won away from home in the 2007 calendar year either, so Bolton should have the advantage tomorrow in that regard. Fulham will need Clint Dempsey to have a good game tomorrow if they have any hope of gaining a much-needed three points.
Sunderland (18th; 20 pts) vs. Birmingham City (16th; 20 pts):
Sunderland will head into tomorrow’s match with a much-weakened side as Michael Chopra, Danny Higginbotham, Grant Leadbitter, Ross Wallace, Kieran Richardson, Carlos Edwards, and Dickson Etuhu will all be out and each of those players has had an appreciable role with the club this season. The Black Cats have shown improvement recently with two wins in their last five league matches, including the dominant 2-0 win against Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light on January 13. Kenwyne Jones is capable of scoring every time he walks onto the field and Birmingham will likely have trouble containing him in the air.
The Blues have the most away wins (2) out of any team in the bottom seven in the Premiership and will likely hand James McFadden his first start since his recent move from Everton. Mauro Zarate has joined the club on loan as well and trust me, this kid is a star in the making. He scored the winning goal for the Argentine U-20 team in the final of last summer’s FIFA U-20 World Cup against the Czech Republic, and was the co-top scorer in the Argentine Apertura in 2006-2007 with 12 goals. Birmingham are healthy and will have every opportunity to steal a victory on the road, although they’ll have to earn it as Sunderland are 5-3-3 on home turf this season.