West Bromwich, England – The Premier League's fixture list is on the light side this weekend with FA Cup action resuming in England, but two of Britain's most surprising teams will square off on Saturday as West Bromwich Albion welcomes Swansea City to the Hawthorns.
After a 2011-12 campaign that saw them finish with identical point totals (47) and goal differences (-7), it would have been natural to see a slight dip in performance as both sides are under the guidance of new managers.
But both clubs have shrugged off the proposition of a transitional period, playing some smashing football and picking up the necessary results to push the envelope for a European qualification spot. They remain tied on 40 points thus far, just seven points off last season's pace with 10 league games to go.
With Roy Hodgson at the helm last term, West Brom enjoyed a 10th-place finish, viewed by many as an overachievement. So naturally, when Steve Clarke assumed the managerial duties upon Hodgson's promotion to the English national team, expectations were low.
But Clarke built upon last season's success, helping the Baggies to a top-four position for the first few months of the season. West Brom has struggled of late, losing six of its last nine Premier League contests, but if Clarke's men can strike a rich vein of form in the closing months, they will find themselves ensconced in a battle to represent England in European play next season.
Swansea is sure to be jostling for position in the table down the stretch, as well. The Welsh club was the toast of the Premier League last season as Brendan Rodgers had the promoted side playing a superb passing style of play. Even when the results weren't there, the entertainment value was something to behold.
Not much has changed since Rodgers left for Anfield in the summer. In fact, what changes have transpired have been largely positive. The Swans, under the tutelage of Danish tactician Michael Laudrup, adopt the same attractive passing style but with a greater understanding of how to give their possession an end product. They are much more efficient in front of goal as Michu, acquired during the summer from Rayo Vallecano, sits fourth in the Premier League scoring chart with 15 league goals on the season.
Saturday's clash between the two clubs will have major implications for the race for European football next season. And, as if the stakes were not high enough, Swansea claimed a 3-1 victory when the two sides met at the Liberty Stadium earlier in the season, giving the Baggies a bit of added motivation to claim maximum points at the Hawthorns.
There also will be major implications at the other end of the table on Saturday when Reading and Aston Villa do battle at the Madejski. The two sides, separated by a single point, occupy spots in the drop zone and will be desperate for a win to aid their respective pushes to avoid relegation.
Also on Saturday, last-place QPR welcomes Sunderland to Loftus Road while Norwich City takes on Southampton at Carrow Road.
On Sunday, Liverpool will have the tough task of trying to contain Gareth Bale, who has netted 14 goals in as many games across all competitions, when the Reds host Tottenham at Anfield while Newcastle and Stoke City will attempt to overturn losses when they square off at Sports Direct Arena.