Aston Villa v West Brom – Ciaran Clark v Peter Odenwingie
The flying Nigerian made a goal-scoring return to fitness last weekend against Wolves and will be the Baggies main release outlet should they come under pressure in this fiercely contested all-Midlands clash. He is extremely difficult to mark due to his propensity to drift on to either wing but if – as expected – the more experienced Dunne is entrusted to keep Shane Long quiet it will fall to Clark to monitor such movements.
It’s a big challenge for the Harrow-born centre-back and he will need to place total trust in his full-backs. Having played right across the Villa back line already in his 23 appearances he should have the nous to know what’s expected of him and not get pulled out of position. If he does Blunt and Morrison will be looking to capitalise on any gaps.
Fulham v Everton – Zamora and Johnson v Jagielka and Distin
Rarely do we stray from individual match-ups but here is a fascinating contest between two strikers who have developed a psychic understanding of each other’s movement over several seasons pitting their wits against one of the best centre-back pairings around. Principally Zamora is the figure-head whilst the Ex-Toffee Johnson prowls and roams on the flanks. Obviously Everton’s best chance for a clean sheet here is to cut the service off at the source by preventing the ball reaching either player and allowing them to link up to such good effect. This can partly be achieved by employing the nearest man to close down Fulham’s chief orchestrator Danny Murphy hard and quick at every opportunity. However that’s easier said than done especially with Johnson’s constant probing runs into the channels where he becomes the source himself for Dempsey who looks to ghost into dangerous areas. Like Clark above Jagielka and Distin need to entrust their full-backs, not get pulled out of shape and keep on top of Bobby Z at all times. The aerial duels alone will be a crucial factor in this one.
Man Utd v Man City – Alex Ferguson v Roberto Mancini
This is a game that both managers will be viewing as one they must avoid losing at all costs and consequently we could see two midfields flooded with bodies with very little space available until the game stretches late on. As the derby cliché goes – it might be decided by either a moment of brilliance or an individual mistake.
It won’t have missed Ferguson’s attention that his midfield is looking a little vulnerable of late which is why he over-compensated at Anfield last week. Mancini meanwhile is experiencing a similar lack of faith with his attacking personnel who were firing on all cylinders in August and September. Dzeko and Nasri seem to have relapsed into the stale form from the latter half of last term.
Both league fixtures were nail-bitingly tight last season and fans of each club were frustrated at the attrition being shown. A tweak in formation, a gamble off the sub’s bench and the game was there for the taking. Fortune favours the brave, particularly in such tense encounters but which gaffer will be willing to take such a risk with so much at stake?