Arsene Wenger under scrutiny as Arsenal plays Aston Villa
Mired in a "vicious circle'' of poor results and increasing unrest among fans, Arsene Wenger's position as Arsenal manager has rarely been under such scrutiny heading into Saturday's home match against Aston Villa in the Premier League.
With the club on the verge of making it eight seasons without silverware, even Arsenal's players have been forced to defend the credentials of their esteemed coach, whose record of qualifying for the Champions League every year since 1997 is under threat.
"I don't want to focus on the negativity,'' Arsenal winger Theo Walcott said. "I just want to focus on the positive side of the team, because I know how good those guys are, and get to where we should be.
"We've got the best man in the job to get our heads back to where they should be.''
After losing at home to second-tier club Blackburn in the FA Cup and then Bayern Munich in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League, another defeat at Emirates Stadium to a Villa side battling against relegation would be hard to stomach.
Arsenal is four points behind fourth-place Tottenham in the fight for a finish in the Champions League positions, which Wenger views as the equivalent of winning a trophy.
The north London rivals meet next Sunday at White Hart Lane in what is shaping up to be a defining match, and Arsenal needs to be within touch of Tottenham after this weekend.
"A bad period for a club is also a good opportunity to show how united and strong you are. We have a good history of that at Arsenal,'' Wenger said Friday, after insisting he had no thoughts of quitting.
"I have a contract until the end of 2014 and at the moment we are on a short-term plan. This is for two reasons, because I am here for a long time and as well I have to consider what I want to do. That will be decided in 2014, not before.''
Tottenham visits West Ham on Monday, by which time Manchester United could have virtually sewn up the title.
The leaders will be protecting a 12-point lead over Manchester City when they travel to play last-place Queens Park Rangers on Saturday. City could therefore find itself 15 points adrift by the time they kick off against Chelsea on Sunday, which increasingly has the feel of a head-to-head for second place with Chelsea only four points further back in third.
"It's very difficult at the moment but I think the season is not finished,'' City defender Kolo Toure said. "We are not going to give up now. We will keep going, putting United under pressure until the end of the season.''
City manager Roberto Mancini is hoping to have captain Vincent Kompany back fit after missing the last four games with a calf injury, shoring up a defense that looked shaky in a 3-1 loss at Southampton in the champions' last league match.
United manager Alex Ferguson, who is likely to be without striker Wayne Rooney at QPR because of a sinus problem, said the pressure isn't just on his team with 12 games left.
"I can understand from Manchester City's point of view why they are talking about us dropping points,'' Ferguson said. "But the fact of the matter is, they will drop them as well.''
At the other end of the table, Reading hosts Wigan in a match between two teams in the bottom three. Also Saturday, it's: Fulham vs. Stoke; Norwich vs. Everton; and West Bromwich Albion vs. Sunderland.
Sunday's other match sees Southampton travel to Newcastle. Seventh-place Liverpool, which was eliminated from the Europa League on Thursday, has the weekend off.
The weekend of Premier League action could be overshadowed by the League Cup final between Swansea and fourth-tier club Bradford at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.