Premier League preview

Relegation D-Day looms for Fulham and Birmingham

The Premier League relegation fight takes centre stage on Saturday with an epic encounter between Fulham and Birmingham top of the bill.

Four teams are scrambling to avoid being left in the two remaining relegation places, while Middlesbrough are not yet certain of safety and Wigan could, mathematically, slide back in trouble.

But the clubs in the most obvious danger are Roy Hodgson's Cottagers and Alex McLeish's Blues, who go head-to-head at Craven Cottage in what promises to be a tense and fraught afternoon.

Out-of-form Reading will find themselves back in the drop zone if they lose at home against Tottenham, while Bolton could be back in the bottom three before they kick-off against Sunderland on Saturday evening.

The game which has the most at stake takes place on the banks of the Thames, and it will be a real sink-or-swim encounter for both sides.

Defeat for Fulham would see them go down, provided either Reading or Bolton take a point or more from their respective fixtures. A draw would not be enough for the Cottagers if the Trotters and the Royals both win.

But a Fulham win would send Birmingham back to the Football League should Bolton and Reading take all three points.


Steve Coppell's Royals have claimed just two points from their last five matches, and have failed to find the net during that unhappy run, while the suspension of Emerse Fae and Ibrahima Sonko suggests that all is not well at the Madejski Stadium.

Bolton's recent resurgence has seen them garner seven points from the last nine available as back-to-back successes against West Ham and Middlesbrough were followed up by an important point at Spurs.

Gary Megson's side, who will be bolstered by the return of striker Kevin Davies after suspension, welcome Sunderland to the Reebok, with the Black Cats having made sure of their top-flight status with a thrilling triumph over Middlesbrough last time out.

That Stadium of Light setback was Boro's third in their last five games, with draws against Manchester United and Spurs the only return they have from the last 15 points available.

Gareth Southgate knows his men still have their fate in their own hands and even a point at home to FA Cup finalists Portsmouth could be enough depending on the results of the sides below them in the table.

Wigan's four-game unbeaten run has taken them to the brink of safety, but that impressive spell will be put to the test when they travel to a goal-hungry Aston Villa side who still have their sights on Europe.

Martin O'Neill's men have racked up 17 goals in their last four games, but remain three points adrift of Everton in fifth after drawing 2-2 against their rivals for a Uefa Cup berth last Sunday.

Victory for Villa would see them leapfrog the Toffees, with David Moyes' men not in action until Sunday with the unenviable task of a trip to Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal.

Title race

The games involving Premier League title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea neatly book-end the weekend's action, with both matches being shown live on Sky Sports 1 and HD1.

Sir Alex Ferguson's side have the chance to regain the initiative in the title race following their 2-1 defeat in last weekend's Stamford Bridge thriller, with West Ham the visitors to Old Trafford.

But the Hammers have won all of their last three meetings against the Red Devils and have upset Ferguson's title ambitions on more than one occasion in the past.

Upton Park boss Alan Curbishley has admitted he feels United deserve to retain their crown, a statement which does not sit well with Chelsea manager Avram Grant.

The Israeli, who produced a series of one-word answers after their recent win at Everton, has become much more vocal after moving level on points with United at the top of the table and guiding the Stamford Bridge side to their first-ever UEFA Champions League final.

Grant was practically jovial in his press conference prior to Monday afternoon's trip to St James' Park to face a much-improved Newcastle, who are finally responding to Kevin Keegan's return.

After his attempts to psyche-out Chelsea striker Didier Drogba backfired spectacularly in midweek, Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez is likely to keep his own counsel on Manchester City's star names ahead of their Anfield clash.

Quite what Sven Goran Eriksson is thinking will also remain a mystery, with City cancelling their manager's pre-match press conference after a week of fevered speculation over the future of the Swede.

The weekend's remaining fixture sees hapless Derby travel to Blackburn on course to claim the unwanted title of the worst side in the history of the Premier League.

The Rams' current 11-point haul is four adrift of the previous low set by Sunderland in 2005/06, and with just six left to play for Paul Jewell's men are unlikely to pass that mark.
Individual match stats and previews

Manchester United v West Ham

West Ham have won the last three league meetings with Manchester United. The last five meetings between the two sides have all been won by a one-goal margin. The last time Mike Riley officiated United v West Ham at Old Trafford he awarded the Red Devils two penalties.

Aston Villa v Wigan

Gabriel Agbonlahor has scored in the last two league meetings with Wigan and has also netted in his last four Premier League outings. Wigan have taken four points in two visits to Villa Park in the Premier League. Emile Heskey needs two more goals to become the 14th player to break through the 100 Premier League goals barrier.

Blackburn v Derby

The last four Premier League meetings between Rovers and County have all been won by a single-goal margin. Blackburn have lost only one game to a team in the bottom half of the table this season. Derby have conceded 14 goals in their last three league games and if the Rams lose this match it will be their worst away run of the season, six successive defeats.

Bolton v Sunderland

Bolton have scored just one goal in each of their last three league games, but those goals have earned them seven points. Sunderland have only kept one clean sheet in their last eight games and have conceded two in each of their last three matches. Bolton are the only team in the Premier League who have not received a red card this season.

Fulham v Birmingham

Only one of the last 13 league meetings between Birmingham and Fulham has ended as a home win. The Blues have only lost one of four trips to London in the Premier League this season. Fulham have won three and lost none of their last eight league games against visitors from the Midlands. Birmingham have gone 17 games without a clean sheet - the longest current run in the top division.

Middlesbrough v Portsmouth

Middlesbrough have the chance to claim their 100th Premier League victory in their 250th league match at the Riverside this weekend. The home side has failed to score in the last three meetings between Boro and Portsmouth. Kanu has scored five Premier League goals against Boro, more than against any other opponent.

Reading v Tottenham

Dimitar Berbatov has scored six goals in two games against Reading this season. The Royals have scored six goals in three games against Spurs this season, but won none of them. Spurs' last four games have ended 1-1. Marcus Hahnemann has made 145 saves - more than any other goalkeeper in the league. Reading have failed to score in their last five Premier League games, only Derby (seven) have been on a worse run this season.

Arsenal v Everton

Emmanuel Adebayor has scored in each of his two appearances against Everton. The Toffees drew 1-1 at Emirates last season ending a run of 11 successive defeats in all competitions against the Gunners in North London. Everton's record Premier League defeat came away at Arsenal in May 2005 when they were thrashed 7-0.

Liverpool v Manchester City

Manchester City have failed to score in the last five Premier League meetings with Liverpool. There have been just four goals scored in the last six league meetings between City and the Reds. The last five meetings at Anfield have all been won by a one-goal margin - the last four were Liverpool victories. Peter Crouch has scored in his last three Premier League starts.