LONDON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Two months ago few could have imagined a Premier League clash between Manchester City and Chelsea would have little bearing on the title race yet Sunday’s fixture is likely to be eclipsed by top against bottom battles.
With 12 games left, champions City are 12 points adrift of leaders Manchester United, who visit bottom side Queens Park Rangers on Saturday (1500 GMT), while third-placed Chelsea are a further four points behind.
With their title challenges all but over and Champions League spots looking likely, the focus has switched to respective managers Roberto Mancini and Rafael Benitez, who know that any defeat can harm their job prospects long-term.
Benitez is only in charge at Stamford Bridge until the end of the season but his hopes of a more permanent role seem doomed because of his unpopularity with the fans. Meanwhile, media reports have speculated that Mancini could be axed in May.
Chelsea skipper John Terry, desperate to get back in the first team for league matches after a spell on the bench following injury, believes the club have plenty to play for and not just in the FA Cup and Europa League.
“This season has been a little disappointing, we’ve let Man U get so many points ahead of us, but everyone is dropping points and we can still easily get second place,” he said.
“If we can go on a run, with the two boys back from the African Nations (Victor Moses and John Obi Mikel), we have a real chance.”
The Sun newspaper was forced to publish an apology on Wednesday over an incorrect story about a bust-up between Terry and Benitez but whether the former England captain starts at City on Sunday (1330) remains to be seen.
Leaders United in contrast look a picture of harmony having not been beaten since a dead rubber Champions League group game at home to CFR Cluj in early December.
That cannot be said for QPR, who sit seven points from the safety zone after a 4-1 thumping at Swansea City two weekends ago.
Harry Redknapp’s side need to conjure a magical performance at home to United and hope Alex Ferguson’s men have begun to take their foot off the gas, with Wayne Rooney and Phil Jones doubtful with a sinus infection and ankle injury respectively.
Another intriguing clash is fifth-placed Arsenal’s home match with strugglers Aston Villa on Saturday (1500).
A 3-1 home defeat by Bayern Munich in Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 first leg has left nervous Arsenal on the brink of missing out on a trophy for the eighth season in a row and grabbing fourth spot is now crucial.
Arsenal trail fourth-placed rivals Tottenham Hotspur, who visit West Ham United on Monday (2000), by four points in the race for the Champions League playoff spot.
Manager Arsene Wenger’s position as manager could look even more brittle if they lose to Villa, who are a place and a point above the drop zone after a 2-1 win over West Ham United last time out.
Villa boss Paul Lambert has called on his players to gear up for “12 cup finals” in the remaining games of the season, meaning Arsenal face a real battle against their youthful opponents and a crowd who have become increasingly fractious.
Villa could profit from one or both of lowly Newcastle United and Southampton dropping points when they meet at 1330 on Sunday, before Swansea City take on fourth tier Bradford City in the Capital One (League) Cup final (1600). (Editing by Ken Ferris)