Chelsea clash will show Liverpool progress

Match of the weekend: Liverpool v Chelsea

The context of this clash at Anfield is very different to those of recent years. Whereas before this was a meeting that went some considerable way to deciding the destination of the title, this season it sees the best team in the country visit a side who would be delighted and relieved to finish fourth.

However, that is what makes this game far more intriguing than many of those that have preceded it.

Liverpool have won three on the bounce now. Those wins may have come against Bolton, Blackburn and Napoli, but they give cause for optimism that Roy Hodgson is finally beginning to get his message through to his players, and that the shadow of the ownership row has now lifted from over the club.

Chelsea may be champions and go into the weekend five points clear at the top, but they have not looked great on the road recently. A goalless draw at Aston Villa and a win at Blackburn which Rovers feel they should have got a point from fell either side of Wolves performing a lot better at Stamford Bridge than the 2-0 home win suggests.

Still, Liverpool would have felt a lot better going into this match if Florent Malouda had been out. After Carlo Ancelotti ruled him out of action, the Chelsea boss has now revealed he is fit to play. The Frenchman has to be one of the form players in the Premier League at the moment. He’s joint-top scorer with seven goals, and he has formed an excellent partnership with Ashley Cole down the left-hand side.

I expect Chelsea to win this match, but the way Liverpool handle their toughest test of the season so far will speak volumes about what sort of state they are in right now.

Under pressure: Roberto Mancini (West Bromwich Albion v Manchester City)

If the Manchester City boss was looking for respite for an easy way to arrest the slump his team is currently in, then The Hawthorns is not the place he is going to get it.

City have lost their last three games, and they will go to West Brom having lost each of their last four games there in all competitions.

The Baggies were unlucky to have had two men sent off at Blackpool, but they almost managed to snatch a draw at Bloomfield Road despite being down to nine men for over an hour. No one could have begrudged them a point of they had managed to equalise on Monday night.

Mancini is starting to realise that the pressure that comes with all that money doesn’t just come from inside the club. Every team wants to beat City, because they want to prove that just because they have spent millions doesn’t instantly make them a top side.

If the Baggies can get something from this game (and, looking at their league position, why not?) and then City lose the derby on Wednesday, talk of him getting the sack will no longer be just on the back pages, but in the Eastlands board room.

Upset of the weekend: Bolton Wanderers v Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Redknapp will have a task on his hands trying to get his players focused on a trip to the Reebok after their win over Inter on Tuesday.

He and his players – especially Gareth Bale – have been showered with plaudits since that match, but they could easily be sent back crashing to earth with a bump.

Tottenham’s record at Bolton is awful – they haven’t won there in the league since 1996 – and although they have often managed to salvage a draw or even a win following European matches, they have started sluggishly and will often fall behind.

Owen Coyle was full of praise for Redknapp in the build-up to this match, but he will know that Tottenham’s biggest threat in this game is themselves. If Spurs can maintain the form that saw them beat the European champions, then they will win easily. But, if Harry doesn’t get their heads right, Bolton will be ready to capitalise.

Player to watch: Kevin Nolan (Arsenal v Newcastle United)

The fact that the Newcastle skipper is up at the top of the scoring charts with Malouda and Carlos Tevez is very impressive, especially considering he’s playing for a promoted side.

Nolan has developed a great partnership with Andy Carroll, learning the best positions to take up when the big men jumps for a header in order to be first to his nod-downs, and he’s proved this season he has got the finish to match.

He had a very similar relationship with Kevin Davies during his best days at Bolton, and Newcastle are reaping the benefits.

I do think that talk of him getting an England call is going a little far though. Since Emile Heskey quit the national team, England don’t really have that kind of player. Peter Crouch is nowhere near as effective in that role as Carroll.

However, he is certainly doing the business for Chris Hughton, and his anticipation and strength should see him cause Arsenal some problems at the Emirates as he and his team-mates look to avenge the drubbing they got in the Carling Cup recently.

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