London: Two fiercely intense, always passionate, local rivalries with even more spice than usual take centre stage in the Premier League this weekend when Manchester United face Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur play Arsenal.
The teams occupy four of the top six positions in the table and none can afford to lose in their pursuit of either the title or a top-four finish and the prospect of Champions League football next season.
The other two places in the top six are filled by leaders Chelsea, who travel to Aston Villa, and Manchester City, who are at FA Cup semi-finalists Hull City.
A win for Chelsea on Saturday would lift them to 69 points and put them 10 clear of Liverpool and Arsenal who are not in action until Sunday.
Manchester City, who were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona on Wednesday, are nine points behind Chelsea with three matches in hand. Chelsea will have eight games left after this weekend, City 11.
Tottenham start the weekend in fifth place on 53 points with United sixth on 48 and with a game in hand on Spurs.
Talking about Chelsea’s match, they are unbeaten in the league since the shock defeat at Stoke City back on December 7. Since then Jose Mourinho’s squad have gone 14 straight matches without a loss, drawing only three times during the span.
With their Champions League meeting with Galatasaray coming up, a win will boost their confidence.
Chelsea could be without Fernando Torres (groin), Ashley Cole (knee) and David Luiz (groin, late fitness test).
Villa, on the other hand, will be without Ryan Bertrand, who is unable to face his parent club, while Libor Kozak, Charles N’Zogbia and Jores Okore are all out injured. However, with Christian Beneteke in great form, the hosts will fancy their chances.
Both Spurs and Arsenal have plenty to prove in their third meeting of the season following Arsenal’s 1-0 league win in September and their 2-0 victory in the FA Cup third round at the Emirates in January.
Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League on Tuesday when they drew 1-1 at Bayern Munich but lost 1-3 on aggregate and they come to White Hart Lane without $70 million record signing Mesut Ozil.
The German picked up a hamstring injury in Munich and according to manager Arsene Wenger will be out for several weeks, although he expects Aaron Ramsey to return for the first time since Boxing Day.
Arsenal reached the FA Cup semi-finals with a 4-1 victory over Everton last weekend and retain an outside chance of winning the title but their league form has dipped lately with just one win from their last four matches.
Spurs, who lost to Benfica in the Europa League on Thursday and Chelsea last Saturday, are looking to bounce back from the disappointments.
Manchester United and Liverpool get Sunday’s action rolling at Old Trafford with United showing signs of improvement after what has been a difficult first season for manager David Moyes.
United, who have not finished outside the top three for 23 seasons, have not been in the top five since mid-November but they have kept clean sheets with two wins and draw in their last three league matches and could close the gap on Spurs to two points if they win and Spurs slip up.
“To see Man City doing well, and particularly Liverpool, is really difficult,” United striker Wayne Rooney said. “It’s not nice when we know we are capable of being up there challenging and we haven’t been doing that this season.
“However, it means we have to step up and get back up there because the feeling we’ve had this season is not a nice feeling at all to have. As a group of players and a team we haven’t been good enough this season and we have to put that right. We are hoping to put up a good show on Sunday.”