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North East meets North West in the Premier League

ESPN staff
December 14, 2012
The Red Devils are on the rise. Can the blue side of Manchester respond? © PA Photos
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The North East can play a significant role in the title battle of the North West this weekend, as champions Manchester City visit Newcastle while leaders United host Sunderland.

Elsewhere, Liverpool have a chance to boost their top-four credentials while Everton and Tottenham both face tricky fixtures in their pursuit of Champions League football.

For talking points and predictions for every weekend game, allow ESPN to preview the Premier League schedule.

Newcastle v Manchester City

Form: The home side have been in shocking form in recent weeks, with one win - a red-card aided home victory over Wigan - and five defeats to their name. Manchester City, meanwhile, have picked up 11 points from their last six games - a run that looks better viewed that way, rather than just five points from the last four (after losing to Manchester United last weekend).
Key battle: Demba Ba has kept himself in among the goals in recent weeks, but really needs to produce something special in this one to help his side get a positive result. With Vincent Kompany likely to be out, going up against an inexperienced (but prodigiously talented) Matija Nastasic could give him a chance to impress.
Player to watch: Samir Nasri took an absolute pasting at the hands of pundit Gary Neville following his contribution to City's derby defeat on Sunday - and not just for his part in Robin van Persie's winning goal. If he is selected, the Frenchman has a real point to prove.
Talking point: Has Roberto Mancini lost the dressing room at City? Reports this week suggested the Italian's abrasive manner had finally rubbed too many people the wrong way following the derby disappointment, but results on the pitch will prove more illuminating than any media speculation.
Bet of the day: Tip Manchester City to bounce back with a reasonably comfortable 2-0 away victory at 7/1 with bet365
Prediction: 0-2

Liverpool v Aston Villa

Form: Brendan Rodgers' side have won the last two games on the trot, an uptick in results that has contributed to their collection of 11 points from their last six games (fourth in the form table). Aston Villa have also improved in recent times, as a current four-match unbeaten streak (three draws and a win) has erased the memory of two successive defeats prior to that.
Key battle: Christian Benteke is a behemoth of a forward, a youngster of rare power and finishing ability. Martin Skrtel usually relishes such battles, but even he may be taken aback by the Belgian - as so many defenders have been this year.
Player to watch: Absent from the West Ham game, the importance of Luis Suarez to Liverpool was underlined as Jonjo Shelvey started as a 'false nine'. But the Shelvey-led side scored three goals away from home, so it will be interesting to see if the same creative intent remains with Suarez back as the focal point of attacks.
Talking point: Dragged back into first team contention almost by necessity, Joe Cole has made a couple of notable contributions for his side in recent week. Against all odds (and also against time, with the January transfer window fast approaching) can he secure a stay of execution at Anfield?
Bet of the day: Steven Gerrard is the only Liverpool player to have appeared in every minute of every league game to date this season. The captain - and likely set-piece taker - has scored more goals against Villa than any other club in his career so take him to score anytime at 15/8 with bet365
Prediction: 2-1

Manchester United v Sunderland

Form: Five wins from the last six games (the only aberration, that defeat to Norwich) is form that justifiably has United out ahead in the league table - especially after beating Man City last weekend. Sunderland, meanwhile, have accrued seven points over the same period - with the midweek beating of Reading sparking Martin O'Neill's side back into life.
Key battle: If Sunderland are to cause Manchester United any real problems, they are likely to come from unpredictable winger Adam Johnson. The former City benchwarmer being kept quiet by Rafael - or Patrice Evra if a bit of flank-switching goes on - could go a long way to ensuring United avoid any mishaps at Old Trafford.
Player to watch: Wayne Rooney has taken something of a backseat role (at least among the headlines) to Robin van Persie this season, but his team-mates are in no doubt about the Englishman's equal importance to the side. After two goals last Sunday, he could run riot in this home encounter.
Talking point: As good as United are going forward, they remain defensively suspect. Sir Alex Ferguson will surely want his side to show better backline resilience - a strong possiblility once Nemanja Vidic finally returns to the lineup (which could happen in this one) - if they are to maintain their advantage in the title race.
Bet of the day: Let's keep things simple - United to be winning at both half-time and full-time is 8/15 with bet365
Prediction: 4-1


Norwich v Wigan

Form: Norwich are flying in the league at the moment, even if they did lose 4-1 to Aston Villa in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday. They ended Swansea's good run with a deceptively straightforward 4-3 win at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday while at home they have won their last four. Two of those wins came against Manchester United and Arsenal and while their margins of victory are always slim, they have only lost four league matches all season. For a side like Wigan, currently 18th and without a win in their previous three games, a trip to Carrow Road is a daunting task.
Key battle: He may only have four goals to his name this season but Grant Holt is still the man for the Canaries. He netted against Swansea and will be looking to go on a run by giving Wigan's defence a tough afternoon. The Latics' James McCarthy was on the scoresheet twice against QPR but he may have to rein in how much he gets forward to deal with Holt and his free-scoring brethren.
Player to watch: Robert Snodgrass. The Scottish midfielder provides a touch of class for his side and is a dead-ball threat with his left peg.
Talking point: Sebastien Bassong allegedly suffered racist abuse at Swansea but will no doubt be cheered heartily by Norwich fans in compensation. The Cameroon international was also on the scoresheet last week and don't bet against him banging in another to end a tough week.
Bet of the day: Norwich to break their recent habit and win by more than one goal in a 2-0 victory is 10/1 with bet365
Prediction: 2-0


QPR v Fulham

Form: After last weekend's 2-2 draw with Wigan, Queens Park Rangers are the record holders for the longest winless start to a Premier League campaign. However they have not yet lost under new manager Harry Redknapp. Fulham looked earnest and accomplished against Newcastle on Monday but they have not won away since September.
Key battle: As he showed against Arsenal last season, Adel Taarabt can be hard to handle for any defence and if he can drive QPR forward then they may just get a chance to open their season's account. Fulham captain Brede Hangeland returned from a three-match suspension against Newcastle and will be stopper-in-chief again at Loftus Road. His future has been up in the air this week and he will be keen to ensure no QPR forward gets the better of his defence.
Player to watch: Jamie Mackie. If only there were 11 of him then life would be much easier for Redknapp. As there is not, he will have to play like a decathlete for the rest of the season and cover all his side's deficiencies.
Talking point: Christmas is cancelled for QPR, or so insists Redknapp. There is enough time for a man like 'Arry to turn any club's fortunes around but they need a win, now. A London derby is the perfect opportunity to achieve that and it would certainly feel like Christmas for fans if they can deliver it.
Bet of the day: Take QPR to grab that elusive victory, 1-0 at 15/2 with bet365
Prediction: 1-0


Everton are in the driving seat for Champions League football © PA Photos
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Stoke v Everton

Form: The Potters, unbelievably, are currently second in the form table - one of only three teams to have gone unbeaten over the last six games (four wins and two draws). Everton, however, have only lost once (against Reading) in the same time frame, picking up nine points after two wins and three draws in the other contests.
Key battle: Charlie Adam against Leon Osman promises to be an interesting midfield battle of contrasting styles and attributes.
Player to watch: Everton are currently in possession of the all-important fourth spot in the table; if they are to keep it, they need master poacher Nikica Jelavic to keep coming up with crucial goals in tricky-but-winnable away games like this one.
Talking point: Is Sir Alex Ferguson really keen on Asmir Begovic? Reports have spread that the United boss is considering the league's clean sheet king as a solution for his ongoing goalkeeping dilemma, but is he really significantly better (or more reliable) than David De Gea or Anders Lindegaard?
Bet of the day: If in doubt, tip a draw. That's our motto anyway, at 11/5 with bet365
Prediction: 1-1


Sunday

Tottenham v Swansea

Form: Three wins and three defeats over the last six games for Tottenham, an erratic run of results that has had fans alternately praising Andre Villas-Boas and then calling for his head in ever more confusing fashion. With 11 points acquired, Swansea have actually been more productive over the last six games, although last weekend's home defeat to Norwich means they perhaps enter the game with confidence knocked.
Key battle: With Gareth Bale still returning from injury, if you can stop Jermain Defoe you might just stop Tottenham. That's a lot of responsibility for Ashley Williams to deal with, but it's the sort of challenge he seems to thrive on.
Player to watch: Spurs have the leakiest defence of any top four contender (although Man Utd run them close - even if they are much more prolific at the other end). The return of Jan Vertonghen to centre-back, once left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto is fit again, cannot come soon enough for the team.
Talking point: Spurs are firmly in the hunt for Champions League qualification, but Swansea will move above the north Londoners with an away win in this one. Is it too outlandish to think Michael Laudrup's free-flowing side could be playing in European competition next season?
Bet of the day: We fancy it because they are so damn entertaining to watch - Swansea to score in either half is 4/1 with bet365
Prediction: 3-2


West Brom v West Ham

Form: A little over three weeks ago, West Bromwich Albion were third, two points above Chelsea. While that inflated position was unlikely to last, they probably didn't expect to lose their next two matches to beatable opponents in Swansea and Stoke City. Like their hosts, West Ham have also recently beaten Chelsea and they looked dangerous against Liverpool on Sunday.
Key battle: In West Brom's last win against Sunderland, Shane Long scored one and was a threatening presence throughout. He may enjoy a return to form at the Hawthorns as the Hammers' defence has not kept a clean sheet in over a month.
Player to watch: Most things that are good about West Ham are connected to Mark Noble and the midfield battle will be more about who can use the ball better when in possession, something the 25-year-old excels at.
Talking point: Diving. Santi Cazorla threw away his integrity in foxing the referee that Steven Reid had tripped him in the box during West Brom's loss to Arsenal last time out. However, Chris Brunt did foul Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the second penalty, converted again by Mikel Arteta, and the Baggies will be more watchful against the Hammers on Sunday.
Bet of the day: Take a punt on a 3-2 victory for West Brom at 40/1 with bet365
Prediction: 3-2


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