No room for error by stumbling Man City in Premier League showdown with Chelsea

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Chelsea's Thibaut Courtois, left, Eden Hazard, 2nd left, Oscar, center, Diego Costa, 2nd right, and goal scorer Branislav Ivanovic celebrate winning the English League Cup semifinal second leg soccer match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)


MANCHESTER, England — Chelsea can open up an eight-point lead over Manchester City for the second time this season by beating its Premier League title rival on Saturday in the most pivotal match of the campaign so far.

Having worked so hard in December to get back on level terms with Chelsea, City has allowed Jose Mourinho's team to pull clear again after drawing at Everton and losing at home to Arsenal in its last two league games.

For City manager Manuel Pellegrini, nothing less than a victory will do at Stamford Bridge.

"We must close the gap to two points," Pellegrini said.

Throw in a home loss to second-tier Middlesbrough in the FA Cup last weekend and City's form has plummeted — despite star striker Sergio Aguero being back in the side after injury.

Chelsea was also humbled in the FA Cup on Saturday — by third-tier Bradford — but recovered quickly by beating Liverpool on Tuesday to reach the League Cup final.

That win was marred, however, by Chelsea striker Diego Costa stamping on an opponent's leg, leaving the Spain international facing a three-game ban that would rule him out of the City fixture.

With question marks also hanging over the fitness of key center midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who came off with a hamstring injury against Liverpool, Chelsea could be without arguably its two best players this season.

Another sub-plot is the return of City midfielder Frank Lampard to Chelsea, for whom he played for 13 years and where he is the club's record scorer with 211 goals. Lampard came off the bench to score City's equalizer against his former club in a 1-1 draw in September, and didn't celebrate his goal.

Here are some other things to know about the 23rd round of matches in the Premier League:


NO IVORIANS FOR CITY

Ivory Coast's progress to the knockout stage of the African Cup of Nations on Wednesday was bad news for City.

It dashed any faint hopes the champions had of having star midfielder Yaya Toure and new signing Wilfried Bony available for the game against Chelsea.

City hasn't won since Toure, the team's driving force in midfield and a regular source of goals, left for international duty.

With Aguero searching for full fitness after more than a month out injured, goals have suddenly become a problem for City, which has scored only once in three games.


FORMATION FORMULA

Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal must decide whether to stick to his preferred 3-5-2 formation or go with a 4-4-2 set-up demanded by the club's increasingly frustrated fans when the 20-time champions host Leicester on Saturday.

Van Gaal says he finds it uncomfortable to watch United when it plays four at the back, but results show the team is more effective when it lines up in that formation. He changed to a 4-4-2 midway through United's last league game when the score was 0-0 against Queens Park Rangers — and the move paid off in a 2-0 win.

United has won only two of its last six games in all competitions, and is reeling from being held 0-0 by fourth-tier Cambridge in the FA Cup on Friday.


ARSENAL'S ATTACKING RICHES

A torrent of injuries has deprived Arsenal of so many of its best players this season. Now, though, manager Arsene Wenger has a very different kind of selection dilemma.

With Theo Walcott, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey back after long-term problems and playmaker Tomas Rosicky in brilliant form, Wenger has a wealth of attacking riches at his disposal as his fifth-place team looks to climb back into the Champions League positions.

Arsenal — with four straight wins in all competitions — is one point behind United going into the weekend, when it hosts struggling Aston Villa on Sunday.


THE PULIS EFFECT

Want a sure way of avoiding relegation from the Premier League? Hire Tony Pulis.

West Bromwich Albion had slumped to within a point and a place of the relegation zone and was on a run of just one win in 10 matches when it appointed Pulis as a replacement for Alan Irvine at the start of January.

Pulis has never been relegated in his 23 years as a manager, and kept Crystal Palace up last season after taking over a team bottom of the Premier League. And he is already working wonders at The Hawthorns, with West Brom winning three and drawing the other in his four games in charge, conceding one goal.

On Saturday, West Brom hosts Tottenham, which is fresh off reaching the League Cup final.

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