DAVID SMITH - Friday, December 30, 2011
Clint Dempsey will look to help Fulham take all three points against Zak Whitbread and Norwich while Brad Friedel and Tottenham look to keep pressure on the league's elite when they visit Swansea.
Norwich City - FC Fulham
Clint Dempsey has been on a hot scoring streak lately, and will hope that Zak Whitbread and Norwich will be his next victims when the Cottagers visit Carrow Road on Saturday.
Dempsey is once again looking to be Fulham's top scorer for the season, with a trio of goals in the team's last five games effectively accounting for all seven of their points during that stretch.
They are still considered underdogs against the recently-healthy Whitbread and the Canaries, if only because of their usual struggles on the road, where they have only picked up a single win in nine tries.
Norwich have failed to win over their last three, most recently being run over by the Tottenham freight train in a 2-0 post-Christmas loss, and will hope to send their home fans happily into the new year with a victory.
For Norwich, forward James Vaughan along with defenders Elliott Ward, Ritchie De Laet and Daniel Ayala are all missing through injury, while defender Kyle Naughton is suspended.
Fulham's most notable absence is starting keeper Mark Schwarzer, although his temporary replacement David Stockdale has done a more than adequate job in the meantime. In addition, midfielders Steve Sidwell and Simon Davies along with Zdenk Grygera are all out with injuries.
Swansea City - Tottenham Hotspur
Brad Friedel and third-place Tottenham will likely need a win on their trip to Swansea on Saturday if they hope to keep within shooting distance of the pair of Manchester teams atop the Premier League.
While sitting a full seven points behind the the Premier League leaders, Tottenham are looking to be the lone team outside of Manchester to still have an outside shot at the title, particularly taking into consideration their game in hand as compared to the rest of the league.
With both United and City set to face weak opposition over the weekend, a win for Tottenham at promoted Swansea is a must, or they could find themselves entering 2012 with a double-digit gap to the top, and more concerns about holding onto their Champions League spot than winning the country's most elusive silverware.
They received a huge boost with the news that Rafael van der Vaart's hamstring pull was less serious than suspected, meaning the Dutchman could be in the lineup on Saturday.
Otherwise, midfielder Aaron Lennon, defenders Michael Dawson, Younes Kaboul and Ledley King are out injured, while forward Jermain Defoe and Tom Huddlestone are questionable.
The Swans will be missing midfielder Ferrie Bodde and defender Alan Tate, while the status of both Neil Taylor and Nathan Dyer is still questionable.
FC Chelsea - Aston Villa FC
Brad Guzan should continue to start for Aston Villa, and will hope that the team can continue to pile on Chelsea's misery when the two teams meet in Stamford Bridge on Saturday.
Villa defender Eric Lichaj is in the final stages of recovering from a long-term injury, and will not be included in the team's lineup for the game.
While Chelsea have been decidedly mediocre as of late, with three straight draws effectively pushing them out of the title race, the Villans have struggled even moreso, winning only once in their last seven.
Guzan has done an adequate job in filling in for usual starter Shay Given, although against perhaps Villa's toughest string of opponents, has found little chance to turn his good play into points for the team.
Forwards Darren Bent and Emile Heskey could return for the Villans, giving the misfiring front line a much needed boost. Midfielder Stephen Ireland is also listed as questionable, although defender Alan Hutton is definitely ruled out due to a card suspension.
Additionally, both Lichaj and Chris Herd are unavailable for the back line through injury, and the aforementioned Given is still several weeks away from a return.
Chelsea are also not without their staffing problems; midfielder John Obi Mikel and defender David Luiz are both questionable to take the field, however the suspended midfielder Ramires along with defender Branislav Ivanovic and midfielder Michael Essien will all be out of contention.
West Brom - FC Everton
Tim Howard will be between the nets for Everton on Sunday when they visit West Brom in a meeting of two of the Premier League's lowest scoring teams.
The Toffees and the Baggies have each averaged barely over one goal per game through just over half of the season, and a consistent record of mediocrity looks to have both teams destined for a finish right in the middle of the pack.
They both recorded draws in post-Christmas action, although the Baggies were more impressive in their scoreless result against league leaders Manchester City.
West Brom are without midfielder Zoltan Gera and defender Steven Reid, both due to injury, while the availability of midfield trio Jerome Thomas, Youssef Mulumbu and James Morrison is still up in the air.
Everton are missing forward Victor Anichebe, midfielder Jack Rodwell and defender Seamus Coleman.
Derby County - West Ham United
Danny Potts could continue his run in West Ham's starting lineup on Saturday at Derby when they try to keep their hold on one of the Championship's two automatic promotion spots.
Derby County forward Conor Doyle could be included on the team's bench, however has seen little on-field action so far this season.
The Hammers are surging to what looks to be a return to the English top flight, currently holding onto second place and more importantly an automatic promotion spot.
They have fallen off slightly in recent weeks with just one win in their last four, but a victory at inconsistent Derby would help them maintain their slight edge over third-place Middelsbrough.
The Rams are likely safe from any relegation threat, however have failed to hold onto any momentum this season. Their two wins over their previous three broke a six-game winless run, and a finish in the lower half of the standings, albeit a relatively safe one, looks all but guaranteed.
Sam Allardyce has a lengthy list of absences to deal with; backup keeper Marek Stech will be left at home with a shoulder problem while the defensive trio of Guy Demel, Matt Taylor and Abdoulaye Faye are all sidelined, the latter two with calf injuries and Demel with a pulled thigh.
In addition, midfielders Jack Collison and Kevin Nolan along with defenders George McCartney and Julien Faubert are all suspendd for the game.
The Rams are missing defender Mark O'Brien, who is out until next season with a knee injury, along with midfielder Jeff Hendrick who is sidelined with an ankle issue.
Birmingham City - FC Blackpool
Jonathan Spector will be in Birmingham's defense from the get-go on Saturday as they try to get a run at promotion rolling with a home game against seventh-place Blackpool.
With the distraction of the Europa League no longer a factor for the Blues, they are in desperate need to pick up the pace in league play if they hope to make their exile from the Premier League a short one.
Even with a six-point gap behind the final promotion playoff spot, their two games in hand puts them well within reach. However with only a single point taken from their last two, their time for fun and games is at an end or it could be a long, frustrating and ultimately disappointing spring.
Their opponents Blackpool have been strong as of late, losing just once in their last nine, and going undefeated over the previous four games to rise to seventh place. The odds are in the Blues' favor, however, as they have yet to lose at home so far this season.
For Birmingham, Stephen Carr is questionable with a slight knee injury, although defender Liam Ridgewell should be back after sitting out with a thigh problem.
The Seasiders will be without injured keeper Matthew Gilks.
Huddersfield Town - Carlisle United
After making two consecutive starts upon his return from injury, Frankie Simek should be in Carlisle's defense on Friday for their visit to Huddersfield Town.
Carlisle have picked up strength in recent weeks to rise to the cusp of the promotion playoff spots, and are now within one point of a top-six spot.
Standing in their way this weekend is Huddersfield, one of the teams who they would potentially be forced to play if they managed to navigate through the playoffs.
Simek has started and gone the distance in Carlisle's defense in each of their last two games after missing more than four months with injury, and will likely be called upon once again to keep one of League One's higher scoring attacks in check.
FC Walsall - FC Rochdale
Anton Peterlin will occupy his usual spot in Walsall's starting eleven on Saturday when they host FC Rochdale in League One action.
Walsall have spent much of the season flirting with disaster, and are currently sitting just one point above the drop zone.
Fortunately for Peterlin and his compatriots, they are hosting one of the six teams in a worse position, and are distinct favorites to take all three points against second-bottom Rochdale.
They have looked stronger in recent weeks and are currently on a seven-game unbeaten run, although with only two of those resulting in wins are still well in the thick of the race against the drop to League Two.
Rochdale have shown few signs of life over the last three months, winning just once since early-October, and are looking dead in the water with just under half of the season played.
Stuart Holden is still recovering from a long-standing knee injury and will not play any part when Bolton and Wolverhampton face off on Saturday in a relegation six-pointer in Bolton that sees both teams looking to avoid wandering down to the Championship.
Robbie Findley will likely be on Nottingham Forest's bench on Saturday when they host Cardiff City.
Cody Cropper is out for some time following knee surgery and will not join his Ipswich Town teammates on Saturday for their trip to Reading.
Mike Grella will likely be on Brentford's bench on Saturday when they host MK Dons.
Jon-Paul Pittman has returned from his short-term loan to Crawley and will likely be on Oxford United's bench on Saturday for their visit to Torquay United.