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Friday, April 6, 2012
City's title hopes could be over

By Ravi Ubha

A title race that promised to go down to the wire in the Premier League could instead be realistically over by the end of this weekend. Manchester United is sizzling, and noisy neighbor Manchester City is fading ahead of a daunting trip to North London. Elsewhere, rejuvenated Chelsea attempts to put the heat on Arsenal and Tottenham, and Liverpool aims to halt its terrible skid. Here's a closer look at this weekend's action.

Game of the week: Arsenal vs. Manchester City

This is one week when the attention thrust upon controversial striker Mario Balotelli has been good for Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini. After Balotelli quarreled with teammate Aleksandar Kolarov in last week's damaging 3-3 draw with Sunderland and reports suggested he had a bust-up with Yaya Toure -- the midfielder denied any tiff -- Mancini partially blamed the media for being fixated on his fellow Italian.

Mario Balotelli
Mario Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov argue over a free kick during last weekend's match versus Sunderland.

"Every time Mario does something, is like a war," Mancini told reporters. "There are other people on and off the pitch that do worse than Mario, and no one says anything because maybe they play for an important team or are not like Mario."

But the focus shouldn't be on the polarizing Balotelli. He did, after all, score twice against Sunderland and didn't turn into a bad boy overnight. When City was in full flow, Balotelli acted much the same.

More time should be spent dissecting the past month in what ultimately appears to be a disappointing campaign for the expensively assembled blue side of Manchester. In March, the Sky Blues lost to Swansea City and drew with Stoke and Sunderland -- seven points dropped -- while during that same period, United went a perfect 4-for-4 in the league. Indeed, it's been a dramatic turnaround. At the beginning of March, City had a five-point lead over United; heading into Sunday's clash at Arsenal, Mancini's men could trail the Red Devils by eight points if they defeat QPR at Old Trafford in the day's first fixture.

An already hot seat would become hotter for Mancini, leading the manager to utter the rather desperate, "I believe anything can happen."

Key playmaker David Silva has slumped; Samir Nasri missed the Sunderland game with an undisclosed ailment just as he was picking up the slack for Silva; Vincent Kompany's return against Sunderland did little to solidify the defense; and a bizarre injury to Sergio Aguero meant the industrious Argentine striker was absent for a second consecutive game.

Mancini cut an increasingly agitated figure on the touch line before City's late comeback Saturday, far from the calming presence required in a title race. One newspaper in England, the Daily Star Sunday, claimed Mancini was set to lose his job if City fails to secure the title, but another, the Express, "understood" that he'd remain in charge even if City finishes as runner-up.

The uncertainty mirrors City's form.

Mancini, though, is boosted by the probable return of Aguero, and once more, all eyes will be on the team sheet to see whether Carlos Tevez makes his first league start since Sept. 10. The reception for the fit-again Nasri, who left Arsenal in August, is sure to be hostile.

Unlike City, Arsenal began the season disappointingly, then surged and is now in third. The lone recent blemish in the Premier League was a 2-1 loss at QPR this past Saturday. At home, the Gunners have lost once in the league since late August.

"The Emirates is starting to become a fortress, which is what we want it to be," Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, hot for the moment, told reporters.

Another win in North London for Walcott and teammates would kill the title race and lead to more speculation about Mancini's future. But amid all that uncertainty, we can be sure of one thing -- United will bag all three points against QPR.

Mancini insists Manchester United can still drop points. Although that may be the case, the Red Devils now seem unlikely to drop enough points to relinquish their lead. Billed as a title decider weeks ago, United's visit to the Etihad stadium on April 30 could be the day United clinches proceedings.

United should comfortably extend its league-winning streak to eight matches when QPR visits Old Trafford. Victories over Arsenal and Liverpool at Loftus Road helped QPR escape the drop zone, but 10 away defeats match Bolton for joint worst in the division.

Simply scoring would count as success for Rangers, since United has kept four straight clean sheets. Although David de Gea is making the right kind of headlines for his improved form in goal, don't forget the contribution of Jonny Evans, who has deputized nicely for long-term injury absentee Nemanja Vidic.

"There is still a lot of football to be played between now and the end of the season when the trophies are handed out," Evans' central defensive partner, Rio Ferdinand, told the club website with predictable caution. "We have to make sure we apply ourselves in the right way for every game. If we do that, put in the performances and get the results we want, we will hopefully be lifting the trophy at the end of the season."

Potential upset: Chelsea vs. Wigan

Has Roberto di Matteo brought stability to Chelsea? The answer is a resounding yes. Unlike predecessor Andre Villas-Boas, who wasn't given enough time as the team's new manager, di Matteo is keeping the senior players at Stamford Bridge happy. But does di Matteo have a chance to stay on permanently? Probably only if Chelsea wins the Champions League, and call that highly unlikely given the Blues face Barcelona in the semis.

Recently, Chelsea hasn't lost games it might have under Villas-Boas, yet fell to Manchester City and was fortunate not to get pummeled by Tottenham -- two of the top four -- in west London.

Wigan, meanwhile, is in a relegation scrap again. Supporters will hope Saturday that fatigue from a congested fixture list for Chelsea outweighs the euphoria of advancing to the final four in Europe. But Chelsea needs the points, too, because it remains five points adrift of fourth and therefore qualification for the Champions League next season.

The ever-positive Roberto Martinez has seen his aesthetically pleasing team win two straight and go unbeaten in four to only sit in the relegation zone on goal difference. Thank owner Dave Whelan, at least a little, for the change in fortune. The upsurge began after he voiced his displeasure with Martinez, who was perhaps too comfortable in his role and needed a wake-up call.

If only Wigan had a lethal striker to finish off all its chances.

"This team only really starts to get going at this stage of the season when the pressure is at its highest," Spanish midfielder Jordi Gomez told the Wigan Evening Post. The Latics tied Chelsea 1-1 at home in December but have been on the wrong end of 8-0 and 6-0 defeats the previous two seasons.

Dirk Kuty
Dirk Kuyt has not been a favorite under Kenny Dalglish despite his indefatigable work ethic.

One under-fire manager should get relief when: Liverpool hosts Villa

Unless Liverpool wins the FA Cup, it's hard to see Kenny Dalglish surviving as manager. Given wads of cash to spend since replacing Roy Hodgson -- whose record at Anfield all of a sudden doesn't look so bad -- Dalglish erred badly on his three most expensive buys. Liverpool's owners would hardly be confident giving him more money to spend in the offseason, especially given that the side has accumulated one win in the league since the end of January.

Dalglish's treatment of workaholic Dirk Kuyt -- who was linked with Roma this week -- has been particularly harsh. And the manager continues to bench fellow midfielder Maxi Rodriguez, despite calling the Argentine, who scored 10 goals in the 2010-11 campaign, a model professional.

Things aren't any better for Villa, as one win in the past nine matches leaves Alex McLeish's side a mere five points from the bottom three.

McLeish, dissimilar to Dalglish in that he wasn't a popular choice when appointed and generally gets along with the media, will be without top scorer Darren Bent and leukemia-stricken captain Stiliyan Petrov for the game and rest of the season.

McLeish was at the helm when another Midlands team, Birmingham, went down last May. "I don't believe it will happen," McLeish told reporters when asked about the possibility of back-to-back demotions.

If Liverpool wins Saturday, Villa supporters, and maybe McLeish himself, wouldn't be as optimistic.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for You can follow him on Twitter here.