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February Fever: A weekend review

Manchester United’s comeback at Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening will be seen mostly in the context of their cross-city battle for the league title, but Javier Hernandez’s header will undoubtedly have raised cheers from some unlikely sources. If Chelsea had any hope of finishing ahead of either of their Mancunian rivals, it surely died when their collapse and the resulting four point swing left them closer to Norwich than Fergie’s men.

More pertinently, if Liverpool beat Tottenham on Monday night there will be three teams within a victory of the prized fourth place. Given that Arsenal, the lowest placed team in this scenario, have just received a timely boost to their goal-difference, Chelsea could be overtaken by any of those teams if they fail to win next weekend. Indeed, a win for the Reds tomorrow night may just confirm the fight for top spot as a two-horse race and leave five teams within touching distance going into the North London derby.

For Spurs, the next three games will likely shape their season. Sandwiched between their trips to Anfield and the Emirates is a home tie against Newcastle, and their attitude will show whether they see themselves as challenging those above them or holding off the chasing pack. If it’s the latter, they will probably look to avoid defeat in their away games and win all three points at home. If however, they have a higher aim, they simply have to try and win every match. February will reveal much about Tottenham’s belief and Harry Redknapp’s mindset – will they adopt their usual attacking mindset and risk allowing those below them to gain ground in pursuit of glory, or will they look to consolidate their position by frustrating those immediately below them?

Meanwhile their old pals down the road need a good month to get themselves back into contention. Three points is three points, whether you win by six goals or one, and Arsenal will have been banking on taking them from a team as woeful as Blackburn. As such, they have the tally they will have expected to have prior to kick off and now face the real challenges of a rejuvenated Sunderland and a Tottenham side they have failed to beat in their last three league encounters. With the distractions of the FA and European Cups, Arsenal need to put their noses to the grindstone from here on in. They may, as previously mentioned, be a single victory away from fourth, but that could easily become three by the end of the month.

Much like the Gunners, Liverpool have put recent disappointments behind them and have built up a real head of steam. The question is whether this will carry them through two titanic clashes against Tottenham and Manchester United. Their revival will mean nothing if they fail to win at least one of these, and they need more than that to put themselves in the thick of the battle for fourth. One could also ask whether Luis Suarez’s return from suspension might actually unsettle a side that has hit form of late. As wonderful a player as the Uruguayan is he did not find the net nearly enough in the first half of the season, and his style does not fit with the successful tactics of recent weeks.

And what of Newcastle? Most of us assumed they would hit a roadblock after they played the top teams. Then we wondered how they would cope without Ba and Tiote. The answer is ‘fine, thank you very much.’ They still have to visit Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea, but their response to adversity and hard-working style is endearing. Far more importantly, it is effective. Having added attacking cover in the form of Papiss Cisse the Magpies will now have real hope of earning a European spot. They have earned the right to be considered as challengers to the more established sides on merit rather than just goodwill.

With so much at stake in the next three weeks, February could be the month that makes or breaks the seasons of the Premier League’s second-tier. Will Spurs keep pace at the top, or be reined in by their pursuers? Who, if any, from Liverpool, Newcastle and Arsenal will gain ground, and who will fall out of the reckoning? And finally, returning to the original point, just how shaky is Chelsea’s position after that incredible comeback at the Bridge?

Oli Moody

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