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 By James Dall

Manuel Pellegrini has Robin van Persie to thank for keeping title defence alive

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Weekend fixtures

Saturday
Newcastle vs. Liverpool
Arsenal vs. Burnley
Chelsea vs. QPR
Everton vs. Swansea
Hull vs. Southampton
Leicester vs. West Brom
Stoke vs. West Ham

Sunday
Man City vs. Man Utd
Aston Villa vs. Tottenham

Monday
Crystal Palace vs. Sunderland

Weekend battle: Manchester derby

Manchester City should win the majority of their games. This is because their team is better than most other teams. The romance-shattering truth is that football matches invariably end with the expected result. The moments that leave our hearts aflutter are the exception rather than the rule -- it's just that our brains rightly choose to repress the banal. Hence, City, with their ocean of money splurged on talent, should be doing better than six wins from 15 matches in all competitions this season.

We are on only the cusp of November, so caveats are inevitable. Indeed, the club's manager Manuel Pellegrini was keen to stress as such following their disappointing Premier League defeat at West Ham United, which was preceded by a two-goal lead relinquished to threaten another failed Champions League campaign and then followed by an exit from the League Cup inflicted by Newcastle. He said: "We are just starting the season, and we have 87 points left to play for. So it is early. We'll continue fighting, as there is no title being handed out at the moment."

In an interview with the Telegraph before his side's win over City, Hammers boss Sam Allardyce said the following of Pellegrini and others: "There are two types of coaches: There's coaches like me who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust ... [then] there's Manuel Pellegrini, who looks like he won't adjust, even in the Champions League. He seems to favour what he's got. City are quite open."

Now, Pellegrini won the Premier League title and lifted the League Cup last season, so he's doing something right. But, as with every being (even Allardyce), there's room for personal refinement. It is down to just how stubborn the Chilean -- not an inexperienced manager at 61 -- intends on being. If we are talking Arsene Wenger levels of inflexibility, then further trouble could be afoot.

Manuel Pellegrini admitted to being worried about Manchester City after their defeat to Newcastle.

Pellegrini's chance to respond in the league comes in the Manchester derby on Sunday. City put seven past Manchester United in their two meetings last season, albeit against a David Moyes-led team. Speaking of whom, Moyes surely falls into Allardyce's bracket of the coach who prefers to "adjust" rather than dictate. His playing-not-to-lose mindset jarred with a club accustomed with relentless winning, and ultimately it seemed to be a factor in his dismissal.

Life under Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford has not been as raucous as United fans probably hoped, but at least the late draw at home to Chelsea on Sunday provided some nostalgic relief of dramatic goals gone by. Despite decorum stating otherwise, it is possible Pellegrini was celebrating when Robin van Persie denied the Blues victory, as otherwise City would be going into this weekend's fixture eight points adrift of the leaders, and with that the title defence would probably have been gone.


Under pressure: Aston Villa

How quickly this sport's grasping hands tear at your ankles and dunk you in a cold bath. For Aston Villa, their start to the season just felt too good to be true. Even though they managed 10 points from their opening four top-flight matches of the campaign, there were warning signs. Depending on your life outlook, Villa's scoring with their first and only shot on target in a 1-0 win at Stoke on Aug. 16 was either clinical finishing in action or an indication of clear-cut chance creation being hard to come by.

Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke needs time to regain match sharpness.

Fast-forward to the end of October, and a run of five straight losses has coincided with not one goal scored in the 450 minutes. Those with a half-empty disposition, raise your glasses at your pessimism. On the brighter side, you can effectively put a line through four of the defeats, considering each of those opponents finished fifth or higher last campaign. But such a passive loss Monday night at previously bottom-of-the-table Queens Park Rangers was certainly troubling. Significantly better invention is required against Tottenham on Sunday.


Finding form: Newcastle

As easy as it was and indeed is to criticise Alan Pardew, then rightfully he should be given credit when it's due. And, boy, has he and his team earned it. Pardew appeared to be backed onto the edge of the Tyne Bridge, with his only option to kiss goodbye to the eight-year contract he signed in 2012 and leap into the abyss. Somehow, though, the Magpies have turned their form around. After a first win of the season was ground out at home to Leicester, victories at Tottenham and City have since followed. Blimey.

In typical Pardew fashion, he said after the impressive 2-0 win at the Etihad: "I do know what I'm doing." And, in a way, it's hard not to admire such smugness. It's maybe that unrelenting self-belief that has got him through the dark times -- lest we forget the Magpies' form had been largely awful since the turn of the year. There is a still long way to go before dubbing this some sort of redemption, and it is doubtful whether Pardew will ever really win the hearts of the Toon faithful, but, for now, Newcastle seem a dangerous opponent.

Liverpool make the trip to St James' Park on Saturday lunchtime with a sense of unease. The Reds may be unbeaten in their last four league matches, but their performances have hardly been convincing, particularly when compared with last season's ability to disintegrate their adversary in the opening minutes. Mario Balotelli has been the easy target for criticism, deflecting attention away from manager Brendan Rodgers, who bought the Italian and seven others who have failed to make a significant impression so far at Anfield.

Alan Pardew's attack-minded second half subs paid dividends against Mauricio Pochettino's side.
Alan Pardew has defied his critics with a run of three straight wins in all competitions.

Statistically speaking (via ESPN Stats & Information)

* Manchester City have won five of their past six Premier League games against Manchester United.

* If City win this weekend, it will be the first time they've won four in a row over United since a run of four consecutive victories from March 1969-December 1970.

* United's Wayne Rooney is back from suspension this weekend. No player has scored more goals in Manchester derbies than Rooney (11).

* Chelsea take on QPR this weekend, and that spells bad news for manager Harry Redknapp. He's never taken a point from Jose Mourinho in seven attempts.

* Mario Balotelli scored in Liverpool's Capital One Cup fixture, but he's still chasing his first Premier League goal. Balotelli has not scored in any of his past 23 Premier League matches, dating back to his stint with Manchester City -- and of the 20 players across Europe's "Big Five" leagues this season with at least 30 shots, Balotelli is the only player yet to score a goal.


Any other business: Tottenham

The sheer scale of the job Mauricio Pochettino has on his hands at White Hart Lane is revealing its unpleasant and insecure self. Do not be fooled by the distraction of cup competitions: Just like the win over Asteras Tripolis, Wednesday's victory against Brighton is misleading. There's an ingrained malaise at Tottenham, one they are struggling to shake. Speaking after the home loss to Newcastle, Pochettino said: "It's not tactical or physical, it's our mentality." Who could blame the Argentine for looking longingly back at his former job at Southampton?

James Dall is an associate editor at ESPN FC. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesDallESPN.

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