Saturday 14 March ~
While the media focus this weekend will be on Man Utd v Liverpool, where victory for the home side would kill off what remains of their visitors' title hopes, there are also several games between teams who are to varying degrees worried about starting next season in the Championship. Fulham's trip to Bolton is ostensibly a mid-table clash, with Roy Hodgson's side still maintaining slender hopes of UEFA Cup qualification. However, Fulham have had a distinct downturn in fortunes in recent weeks, a run that has included four consecutive home defeats and left them only six points above the bottom three.
While a victory might put them back into contention for a European spot, a more likely avenue to the UEFA Cup is by topping the fatuous Fair Play League where well-behaved Fulham currently lead the way. Bolton, on the other hand, have had a resurgence in recent weeks, winning three of their last five games, and they won't be lacking in confidence given Fulham's inability to win a single game away from home this season.
Further down the table, Hull City play Newcastle at the KC Stadium where the home team will look to build on last week's 93rd-minute win at Fulham. Phil Brown has attempted to play down the significance of the game: "It doesn't count for anything other than the next opportunity to get three points." However, as is customary with managers feeling the pressure, he sought to deflect attention on to some of Hull's rivals: "Teams on 34 and 35 points are not out of trouble by any means and with ten games left there are lots of twists and turns left in the season." Newcastle have the hardest run-in of any side in the bottom eight, but Michael Owen is expected to make his latest return from injury and, while his heyday is long past, he is still capable of winning a game by himself.
At the bottom, this weekend also sees 19th-placed Middlesbrough host Portsmouth, who are directly above them. The visitors' Sylvain Distin is one of several players whose form plummeted during the fraught regime of Tony Adams but has improved markedly under Paul Hart. He insists that he confident about his team's prospects, while stopping distinctly short of issuing a rallying cry: " Right now it would not be professional for me to think what if we went down, what am I going to do? Am I going to stay? I just have to do my best." Boro's Gareth Southgate is equally sanguine: "Over the course of 28 games we are where we deserve to be – but thankfully it is a 38-game season." If Boro could repeat their performance against Liverpool from a fortnight ago Southgate's worries would be over, but his side have lurched badly since and the trip to Stoke a week today could yet prove to be decisive. Miguel Anton