Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Relegation a real threat for Allardyce's West Ham
West Ham and their manager, Sam Allardyce, are in a pickle. From being third in the table with two matches of the season played, the club have gradually nosedived to the murky depths of 19th, three points from safety. As though mimicking an all-too-comfy pundit, there's been an opinion voiced that "they'll be fine" when it comes to the battle for survival, because Big Sam will surely have the nous to dig them out of danger. But as the losses have mounted and the performances have continued to wane, it has become feasible that the Hammers could be in the Championship next campaign.
The 5-0 defeat to second-tier side Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup last weekend saw Allardyce prioritise the Premier League and the Capital One Cup semi-final, making nine changes and fielding a desperately inexperienced XI, but the tipping point for some West Ham fans came when it was followed by a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Manchester City with a well-rested side on Wednesday. It is understandable that surviving the drop is priority No. 1 for the bean counters as the financial implications of relegation are severe - particularly for a team set to move into the Olympic Stadium in 2016-17. Yet, for those who don't get their kicks out of spreadsheets, the waving of the white flag leaves you wondering why bother supporting one club over another.
The Hammers are bottom of the Premier League form table, having secured just two points from their past six fixtures, and an opportunity to get back on track comes at Cardiff on Saturday. With his side having been poor both in defence and attack, Allardyce has sought to address the former by bringing in Roger Johnson on loan from Wolves - citing the fact that he is tall as one of his strengths! - while the latter could soon be addressed from within after the news that Andy "Enigma" Carroll is close to a return to first-team action. Allardyce may not get much chance to see them play.
Solskjaer returns to the Premier League
Regarding West Ham's opponents, Cardiff, this match marks Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's managerial debut in the Premier League after he had kicked off his Bluebirds career with a win over Newcastle in the FA Cup. With a cheeky wink and a smile, that result came about thanks to goals of the late variety, and by substitutes no less, cutely mirroring Solskjaer's own playing career. He cannot, though, rely on that type of drama each week for, while exciting for the neutral, it would be a cavalier approach to avoiding relegation. Only a point separates Cardiff and the bottom three. In conclusion: Much rides on this match between two strugglers.
Chelsea have their game face on under Jose
After some stuttering moments, Chelsea are beginning to ominously click through the gears, like they did under manager Jose Mourinho during his first stint at Stamford Bridge. While they may not be playing consistently pulse-racing football, they are totting up the wins, or at least avoiding defeat (like they did against Arsenal, for example). They're unbeaten in eight matches in all competitions, winning six. Most recently, they dispatched Southampton on their home turf as though it were a matter of course, as Mourinho soaked up the vindication when his hooking of Juan Mata had the desired result. Watch out, Hull City - and the rest of the division at that.
Moyes looks to avoid fourth straight loss
Just an exhale and a shrug, because that's what it has come to at Manchester United. Defeat, even at Old Trafford, is no longer a surprise - a damning indictment of where David Moyes and his players are currently at. Whether it is the manager, the players, the ownership or a combination of all three is the subject of debate.
What is clear is that United don't resemble reigning Premier League champions, demonstrated by a loss to Tottenham followed by another versus Swansea City in the FA Cup - denting Moyes' chances of lifting silverware in his inaugural term in charge - and then a third 2-1 defeat in a row at Sunderland in the Capital One Cup.
January is a big month for Moyes, particularly after a failed summer transfer window. Having been camouflaged to an extent by the sagacity of former boss Sir Alex Ferguson, the frailties of United's squad are now being laid bare. Investment is needed in several positions but, unfortunately for Moyes and vice chairman Edward Woodward, January is rarely the time to have your pick of the talent, especially during a World Cup year. It seems, then, that Moyes - like Ferguson - must strain every sinew to squeeze every drop of talent he can from the likes of Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young, or risk missing out on Champions League football, which, akin to the West Ham situation, would not sit well with those in the directors' box.
Walcott-less Arsenal travel to Villa's unimposing home
These Monday matches and their chutzpah to not be played at the weekend. Still, they count in this "round" of games, and hence squeeze into this edition of Premier League Spotlight. Aston Villa take on Arsenal at Villa Park, where Paul Lambert's side have been largely terrible for a while now. Ergo, Lambert is under pressure, particularly after he did a naughty thing by actually voicing his opinion that the FA Cup is not his priority. Regardless, he made only four changes and still saw Villa knocked out by Sheffield United. The Scot's woes were well and truly exacerbated, not helped by the misfiring Christian Benteke, who is without a goal since September 14.
As for Arsenal, they've been dealt a wicked blow this week with the news that Theo Walcott will miss the rest of the season after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Walcott's absence will be felt - he has provided five goals and four assists in his 14 league appearances in half a season already disrupted by injury. And so the clamour for Gunners boss Arsene Wenger to pull another Mesut Ozil-shaped rabbit out of the hat intensifies, for while the Frenchman is well stocked with attacking midfielders he is short on central strikers and also natural wide players. Furthermore, considering Arsenal's position at the top in January, any opportunity to boost their title chances should not be overlooked.