Having cleared the small matter of the Champions League first leg. Manchester United and Chelsea can continue their war of attrition with Liverpool. With both teams gaining positive results and turning in performances that were polar opposites, the upcoming weekends matches will prove vital in both the domestic and European stage.
Manchester United have least time to recover as they travel to the Riverside to face lowly Middlesbrough in Saturdays early kick off. If United record a victory they will move 6 points clear of title rivals Liverpool, who play on Sunday.
The Riverside is never an easy place for the Red Devils to travel. Having drawn 2-2 in the corresponding fixture last season. Even so, United will be looking to build on the two victories against the Teeside club they have accumulated already this season, plus they haven’t been beaten in their last nine matches against the Teesiders.
Middlesbrough though, are fighting for their lives, three points from safety and recently picking up a mere 8 points from a possible 27, every point is precious for Gareth Southgate’s side. And it looks increasingly likely that they will be demoted to Championship status next season.
Hot on the heels of Manchester United are of course Liverpool, some would say they have lost the defensive solidity that was so prominent earlier in the season after two successive 4-4 draws with Chelsea and Arsenal respectively and followed by a somewhat fortuitous victory over lowly Hull. But after a week off, Rafa’s men will be fully focussed on the task at hand, the visit of the messiah Alan Shearer and his woeful Newcastle side. Anything less than three points from this game and its ‘Game Over’ for the Magpies.
The recent stalemate with Portsmouth did not help their cause, with Shearer picking up only 2 points from 12 during his time in charge and to ask his ailing team to usurp a team trying to win their first title in 20 years will prove almost impossible.
Most people, including myself, would discount Chelsea as potential title challengers but they are only three points behind second place side, Liverpool. The trophy of an automatic Champions League place will be foremost in the mind of the Chelsea staff but I feel the players will be more determined to usurp the Anfield club and demonstrate their dominance while reasserting their status as Manchester United main challengers.
This weekend they face Fulham in a London derby that will no doubt be full of emotion. Roy Hodgeson has moulded a hardworking team that are on course for their highest placing, eclipsing the ninth place, achieved in 2003/04. However, they haven’t beaten Chelsea at Stamford Bridge since 1964, so betting against the Blues could be foolhardy.
As another weekend of EPL action draws towards us Manchester United have the chance to put further pressure on their main rivals. If Liverpool start their match six points behind Sir Alex’s team, what kind of psychological effect will it have on Rafa and his troops, especially with Guus Hiddink and Chelsea breathing down their necks. Rafa must remember to look over his shoulder as well as in front, because you can never discount the Dutch master.
A positive result for both United and Chelsea, for me, is vital if they are to take momentum into the Champions League second leg matches. As has been proved many times in years past, energy and belief at this time of the season can be the difference. We shall see who is the greater mental toughness too see out an energy sapping week.