Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Laudrup's Swansea are on a dismal run
What if Michael Laudrup wasn't that handsome? If his hair wasn't so confident and his jaw not like that of a ship's hull? Perhaps he'd come in for more criticism because, let's be honest, humans by their media-influenced nurture are shallow. When dating a man or woman you might overlook a missing sense of humour if instead they are pretty to look at.
Take Laudrup's side Swansea, who are renowned for playing itty-bitty passes. That style of play nods the heads of purists and stirs the loins of those whose smut is pass completion statistics. However, from their last six Premier League fixtures, Swansea have won none, managing two points - putting them bottom of the division's form table. Yet not a great deal has been made of this. Just three points separate them from the recently relegation-zoned West Ham, whose manager Sam Allardyce, conversely, had recently and rightly come under intense pressure before they arrested their atrocious run with a win at Cardiff City last weekend.
In Laudrup's defence, lifting a first major trophy in Swansea's 101-year history earns him a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card, while it is noteworthy that over the last weeks in the league they have faced the likes of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Everton. That, though, should not mean he escapes criticism entirely, for against Hull, Aston Villa and Norwich, better than three 1-1 draws are expected. Indeed, such results will suck you into an ugly scrap at the bottom with the unfashionables.
The Dane has not been helped by Michu's lack of form and fitness - last season's bargain buy has managed just two goals in 12 league starts this term, compared to the 13 strikes he'd managed by the same point in 2012-13. There has also been the traditional bedding-in period for the summer recruits, while the extra games on a Thursday night in the Europa League notoriously do not aid a club's freshness domestically. And while they have not featured in Europe since December 12, it could be argued the 10 matches played in that competition have already taken their toll on the players' legs.
Regardless, whether by means of style or grit, the onus is on Laudrup, whose side finished ninth last season, to stem the tension before it spills over the back pages of the national newspapers. "I still have a lot of confidence in the players and the quality they have, the capacity and characteristics they have," he told the South Wales Evening Post. On Sunday, they host a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur, before a vital run of Premier League matches against Fulham, West Ham, Cardiff and Stoke.
Chelsea are overwhelming favourites against United
It would be remiss of a column previewing the weekend's top flight matches not to acknowledge the biggest match of the round. And thus follows words on Chelsea against Manchester United: as mentioned last week, the Chelsea juggernaut is clicking through the gears with the experienced Jose Mourinho at the wheel, as demonstrated by their dispatching of Hull City with relative comfort. Their form will be of concern to United boss David Moyes, who has not eked out a convincing display from his players since, maybe, the 3-1 win over West Ham before Christmas.
There's an apparent lack of confidence to United's attacking play, with the variation limited to balls into the channels and then crosses into the box. Compare that mind-set to Chelsea, who boast the swagger of Oscar, Willian and, last but not least, Eden Hazard, whose performances in particular have been otherworldly.
Mourinho even has the luxury of a benched Juan Mata, whom United would fans would surely welcome at Old Trafford, as the ridiculous onus on the shoulders of 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj continues. If United win at Stamford Bridge then the gap between them and the Blues becomes a not insurmountable six points. Lose a fourth game in five, though, and watch the pitchforks go up.
Man City are set to make it seven wins in a row
Breaking news: Manchester City are looking really good. They've won four out of their last five matches away from home, curing the homesickness which had troubled them during the first half of the season, while goalkeeper Joe Hart has returned to the side, played well and not thrown the ball into his own net. Their form of six wins from as many fixtures is not good news for their title rivals, nor is it for Cardiff, who visit the venue of many a-mauling this season, the Etihad Stadium, on Saturday.
Pardew must keep his head against West Ham
Alan Pardew was Alan Pardew last weekend as he got a bit sweary on the touchline, aggrieved at a goal which probably should have stood but ultimately you can excuse the referee for getting it wrong - having to make a split decision while considering several different factors as a bullet of a shot nestles homemade human error a possibility. Perhaps "Pards" was that bit spikier because he knew a defeat would make it three on the spin, truly halting what had been a positive run. He faces his former club West Ham this weekend when much will be at stake, for Allardyce desperately needs the points.
Nerves will be abound at Carrow Road
Steve Bruce has so far overseen an impressive return to the Premier League for Hull, in spite of owner Assem Allam's best/worst efforts to detract from their achievement of being 10th in the table and five points from safety. Goals have, though, been an issue for the club this season, with 22 mustered from 21 fixtures, hence moves for Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long - though the pair have three league goals between them this term. As for Hull's opponents, Norwich, the alarm bells are sounding louder, after an FA Cup exit during midweek made it eight matches without a win. Their manager Chris Hughton is under scrutiny, all right.