Sunderland, England – Premier League action resumes this weekend with Saturday and Sunday serving as the appetizers to Monday's main course.
In a fixture that needs no introduction, Manchester United will host Manchester City at Old Trafford for a high-profile derby that could effectively seal the title race.
United comes into the weekend enjoying a 15-point lead over City. A win for the home side would see the lead extend to 18 points with just seven league matches to go.
It would seem an insurmountable lead for City, but after last season's dramatic finish, we learned that the title is not awarded until it is clinched mathematically.
While the two Manchester clubs were neck-and-neck through the final couple months of last season, this term has been all United. The Red Devils are riding an 18-game unbeaten run in league play, a stretch that has seen them drop just four points. The Citizens, by comparison, have dropped six points in just their last five Premier League outings.
But despite its league dominance over the course of the season, United comes into the contest in slightly sputtering form. The club was on track for a Treble a month ago, but exits from the Champions League and FA Cup in favor of Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, have derailed an otherwise superb campaign. Even United's last two Premier League outings, 1-0 victories over Reading and Sunderland, have been less than convincing.
United's season can be personified by the form of Robin van Persie. The Dutchman got off to a flying start upon his arrival at Old Trafford from Arsenal late in the summer. His high strike rate propelled United's dominance, but goals have been hard to come by in recent months.
Van Persie produced the lone goal against Sunderland last time out, but his shot took a wicked deflection off of Titus Bramble, who was subsequently credited with an own goal. Sir Alex Ferguson, though, has backed the striker to snap out of his funk.
"Robin doesn't need a rest, that's for sure," opined Sir Alex. "He's a strong lad with a great physique.
"It's disappointing he wasn't awarded the goal at Sunderland - I can understand that because it took a wicked deflection. His shot was fantastic - it was hit with such venom that it's not surprising it took a deflection. But his ability to maneuver his position at that point was excellent. The goals will come. All strikers have little dry spells - you always hope it ends quickly. It's just part of being a striker."
In order to compensate for United's lack of offensive output in recent weeks, the defense has needed to be on point. What was regarded as a weakness at the beginning of the season has turned into one of the team's greatest assets. The Red Devils have not conceded a goal in league play since earning a 2-1 victory over Southampton on Jan. 30.
United's defense will need to be at its best against a City side that hit for six goals in the corresponding fixture last season.
Sunday's Premier League action will be a bit busier leading into Monday's massive clash.
Tottenham welcomes Everton to White Hart Lane for a match that could have major implications on the outcome of the race for fourth place. Spurs have lost two of their last three Premier League contests but have managed to climb to third place while Everton, riding a three-game winning streak, enters the weekend in sixth place on 51 points, six points adrift of Tottenham.
Liverpool has an outside chance of claiming a top-four finish but will need to finish the season with a perfect record to give itself the best opportunity to do so. That run starts Sunday as the Reds host West Ham at Anfield.
Chelsea, which has dropped to fourth place, remains in the battle for a Champions League qualification berth. The Blues will have the benefit of hosting a Sunderland side on Sunday that is winless in its last eight Premier League contests.
Rounding out Sunday's action, Newcastle welcomes Fulham to Sports Direct Arena and QPR battles Wigan at Loftus Road in a relegation "six-pointer."
Arsenal remains in contention for a fourth-place finish as the Gunners enter the weekend in fifth place with 53 points. They will hope to apply some pressure on teams returning to action Sunday with a victory over West Bromwich at the Hawthorns on Saturday.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Southampton will try to continue its fine form under Mauricio Pochettino with a positive result against Reading at the Madejski, Aston Villa attempts to climb out of the relegation zone with points against Stoke City at the Britannia and Norwich City hosts Swansea City at Carrow Road.