Hello again.  We’ve all enjoyed the international break and now the final run-in for this intriguing season, with more attention than I can ever remember to the all-important race to stay in the league!  Any of the teams from Bolton to Wigan could be playing championship football next year, or could finish in the top half of the league.  As we get closer to May, I imagine I’ll be handing out more stars for those relegation races than to matches involving the top 5, depending on how that race plays out for the title and for Champions League spots.  We’ll see if Fox follows suit or sticks with, as they have done this weekend, the traditional US followers for United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool.  No four-star premier league matches this weekend, but the full 8 stars have been handed out to the 3 EPL sides playing mid-week soccer in the Champions League.

****:  Must-see.  Cancel all other activities.  Do not even DVR as even in America you might hear the score!
:  Strong match; worth watching live; DVR a must if you can’t see live
**:   Flip through quickly to see the goals, red cards, injuries, and perhaps watch the last 5 minutes + injury time if close
*:    Only if you’re a die-hard

Matches shown in chronological order:

Saturday, April 2 (all times EDT)

*** West Ham v Man Utd, 7:45 am, ESPN2/ESPND & espn3.com [Mason]
The Hammers can’t beat United two times in a row, can they?  Spector & Obinna did the damage, though neither has been starting of late.  Parker was a revelation to Capello and anyone who hasn’t watched West Ham play all season.  Perhaps no longer the anticipated easy fixture for Sir Alex’s team, and will he be wearing a Sam Allerdyce headset or import that Old Trafford 1975-era telephone?  United did thump them in Old Trafford, 3-nil.

** Stoke v Chelsea, 10 am, FSC/FD [Walton]
David Luiz & Terry will get the challenge of defending 100 set pieces as usual at the Brittania, but Chelsea are really starting to look good.  Who will start Saturday and who will get the nod on Wednesday evening amongst Torres, Anelka & Drogba?

*** West Brom v Liverpool, 10 am, FS+ & foxsoccer.tv [Atkinson]
Hodgson has his new side defending better than his prior side did, but I think Liverpool will have something to prove in this one.

Wigan v Tottenham, 10 am, foxsoccer.tv & 4 pm (delayed) FS+ [Marriner]
Will be fascinating to see how ‘Arry uses his squad for this one.  Defoe is a must start, as he gets all his goals against the weak defending teams, and certainly won’t play in Madrid.  Rest Bale again?  Give Sandro a break?  Meanwhile, Martinez and gang will be hoping Spurs are only looking ahead to Madrid as 3 points could get them out of the relegation zone, at least for now.  Wigan upset Spurs at White Hart Lane in the reverse fixture, nil-1.

** Everton v Aston Villa, 10 am, foxsoccer.tv & 5 pm (delayed) FSC [Jones]
Shhhh.  Houllier, clearly losing his grip every day on this team, has now mandated silent training sessions.  But Ashley Young may have been England’s best player over the two internationals, and Bent didn’t do too badly either!  Everton are now probably safe, but would like some positive momentum before the season ends.

*** Newcastle v Wolverhampton, 10 am, foxsoccer.tv & 6 pm (delayed) FS+ [Dean]
You’d think the Magpies will solidify their EPL standing with this one, but we all know Wolves stay in all of their matches and stranger things have happened.

** Birmingham v Bolton, 10 am, foxsoccer.tv only [Oliver]
Europe is slipping away from Bolton, while Birmingham will be heading to Europe next year.  The loss of Holden is a big one.  Birmingham look in trouble and need 3 points desperately.

*** Arsenal v Blackburn, 12:30 pm, FSC/FD [Dowd]
Very unlikely Rovers will fall into the drop zone this week, but they are very far from safe.  Gunners have no selection difficulties given it’s league-only; they should win this one easily.

Sunday, April 3

*** Fulham v Blackpool, 8:30 am, FS+ & foxsoccer.tv [Attwell]
Blackpool’s bright start has faded fast; this would be a big 3 points for Hughes.  The reverse fixture was an entertaining 2-2.

** Man City v Sunderland, 11 am, FSC/FD [Webb]
I continue to maintain my frustration at watching City this year.  They can be spectacular, and there’s no player I love to watch more than Tevez, and they can be incredibly dull.  They are doing enough to warrant Champions League football next year, and that’s clearly what Mancini is playing for.  Every time I give City 4-stars, they disappoint.  Every time I give them 2, they play rousing football.  So here’s 2.

Tuesday, April 5

**** Real Madrid v Tottenham, Champions League Quarterfinal leg 1, 2:45 pm

The biggest test yet for Spurs, who showed they could play Italian style catenacchio against Milan.  Will they park the bus again in Madrid or go for that critical away goal?

Wednesday, April 6

**** Chelsea v Man Utd,Champions League Quarterfinal leg 1, 2:45 pm

And the best match of the week will be last!  Chelsea are resurgent, and they love this format.  Anelka & Terry have mistakes to avenge from their last CL encounter.  I think Torres will get off the mark in this one, but United will get an away goal.