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Manchester derby has big title implications; Hodgson rebounds


A quick look at storylines entering this weekend's Barclays Premier League action:

The atmosphere has been ramped up by the usual cross-city sniping (though a City groundsman's Facebook page, focusing its rage on "the Theatre of Complete Tosspots" adds some novelty), but "big" matches have a habit of disappointing - remember Manchester United vs. Arsenal in December? And the last match between United and City, in November, was a dreary goalless draw, so it's probably best to steer clear of any cheerleading for tomorrow's derby. It might be terrible.

The result, however, will be important in an unpredictable title race (potentially "decisive," even in Ferguson's estimations) and as a yardstick for City's progress and ambition hundreds of millions of pounds into Sheikh Mansour's project.

A win for United would not end the title race but it would virtually wipe out City's hopes of staying with the top two right to the line: United (top) has a five-point lead on City (third), and a game in hand. A City win, however, would preserve this intriguing three-way chase and give Arsenal, which plays Wolves at home, an opportunity to close to within a point of United's lead.

City was criticized for playing for a draw at the Emirates earlier this season, and that mind-numbing November fixture suggested contentedness with a tie. The same approach would be understandable tomorrow; City is inconsistent to the point of contrariness, while United has dropped only two points at home this season (two other top-five visitors, Arsenal and Spurs, failed to even score). City has finished four of its last five meetings with United goalless.

Roberto Mancini hasn't signaled a change of tack so far, describing the key difference between his team and Alex Ferguson's as "a winning mentality." Asked if beating United was a necessary step in changing that, the manager said: "No. Uh, could be, could be one step, but I think for us it is important to win something in the end. Europa League, FA Cup, or the Barclays Premier League."

If ever United can be said to be showing chinks in its armor, it is times such as these. The only surprise in the end of its admirable-but-not-mind-blowing unbeaten run was that it came so late, and at the hands of Wolves. With Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans injured, Chris Smalling will make only his fourth start of the season, alongside Nemanja Vidic, in United's defense. A draw might stick a spanner in the works but City, which in Carlos Tevez and David Silva has players capable of exploiting any uncertainty that change of personnel might create, will disappoint if it doesn't play to win.

In a case of fantastic timing, West Bromwich Albion has announced Roy Hodgson as its new manager on the same day as Daniel Agger is widely quoted describing Liverpool under his stewardship as: "awful; we were s---t." There's barely any comparison between the two jobs, however, and once the dust has settled on Albion's unpopular decision to axe Roberto di Matteo (hired and fired for being a promising rookie, in the space of 18 months) this looks a reasonable appointment.

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Yesterday the bookmakers stopped taking bets on Chris Hughton taking charge, but that would have been a strange move if di Matteo's sacking was meant to apply the paddles to West Brom's fading Premier League heartbeat. Hughton has shown himself worthy of work at this level, but comes with no stronger guarantee than the man displaced. Hodgson, if we rewind just a few months, has a good recent record in an emergency.

Even if you suspect, as many do, that Hodgson's CV acquired an undeserved sheen thanks to Fulham's surprising run to last year's Europa League final, the fact remains that he rescued the west London side from almost certain relegation in 2008. West Brom won't want to compromise the style of play to which it has become accustomed, but the defensive robustness that is Hodgson's calling card will go down far better at the Hawthorns than it did at Anfield. West Brom has scored more than the three teams below it and three above it, but only Blackpool has leaked more at the back.

It's almost impossible to hear the word "friendly" without hearing "meaningless" in front of it, so common is the discourse here in England, where first teamers who'd try and run off a shotgun wound in a competitive fixture regularly withdraw from friendly duty with a sudden and mysteriously brief injury. In an effort to change that, the FA -- apparently acknowledging that it has lost the club vs. country battle -- is considering forcing international absentees to sit out the subsequent league match.

It seems rather draconian, especially after a World Cup in which most of England's regulars looked to have played their way out of a shirt in any case, but then Fabio Capello's professed disposal to change hasn't exactly radically transformed the lineup in the six internationals since. The positive reaction to Jack Wilshere's first senior start seems determined to drive change from another angle, but that seems hopelessly optimistic.

Not because Wilshere, who played the first 45 minutes of England's 2-1 victory over Denmark, is no good. He is a delightful player to watch, and is sure to keep improving at Arsenal, where his youth will not deter Arsene Wenger as it might Capello for next month's trip to Cardiff. Even if there is a whiff of premature hype about Wilshere's reception in the English media this week, it's the England manager that encourages doubt.

First of all he played Wilshere in the center of a flat midfield four with Frank Lampard, as if that was the best way to get the most out of either player. Expected to stifle his forward-thinking instincts, Wilshere didn't even do a bad job, but it is frustrating that Capello gave him the wrong role with which to audition for a bigger part. The second frustration was Wilshere's removal at halftime, just as West Ham's Scott Parker (winning only his fourth cap since 2003) was introduced.

Parker is 30, so there is relatively limited mileage in a partnership between him and Wilshere for England, but Wednesday's match was just the kind of occasion to try it. Parker's consistency in a dynamic ball-winning role should put him a long way ahead of the passivity of Gareth Barry (who is only slightly younger), and would give an eager young playmaker like Wilshere the freedom and opportunity to impact a game the way he has done for Arsenal.

The friendly certainly won't feel meaningless for Aston Villa: England finished the match with Darren Bent, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing on the field, and Glen Johnson (who provided a terrific assist for Young's goal) showed enough defensive weakness to suggest that Kyle Walker might not finish his next call-up as an unused substitute.

Gabriel Agbonlahor was only missing at his own request (for "family matters"), and Marc Albrighton, currently at Under 21 level, has been one of the Premier League's most exciting and consistent deliverers from wide areas this season. Contributing to the England team is not a direct measure of league stature (West Ham's average finish, in the three seasons either side of the 1966 World Cup, was 12th), but it can't hurt.