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Critical road test for Manchester City

Check out Saturday's preview from the Barclays Premier League.
Check out Saturday's preview from the Barclays Premier League.
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Rob Stone

A 15-year broadcast veteran, Rob Stone is the lead host for FOX Soccer Match Day, Goals on Sunday and UEFA Champions League coverage. Follow him on Twitter.

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PACKING A PUNCH

Relive the best images from Boxing Day in the Barclays Premier League.

It is hard to believe, but the final weekend of 2012 is upon us. There are several big Barclays Premier League matches to keep an eye on over the next couple of days; Manchester City hopes to bounce back from their stunning Boxing Day loss, while neighbors Manchester United aim to extend their lead at the top of the table. Make sure you catch all the thrills and spills:

Norwich vs. Manchester City (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 9:30 a.m. ET)

With their shocking loss to Sunderland on Wednesday, City became the final team in the Premier League to fall on the road. It’s impressive that they lasted this long. The only goal the Citizens gave up was a soft one – I’m sorry Joe Hart, but you know it too – and with the loss, they dropped seven points behind league leaders Manchester United.

They now face a team, Norwich City, that saw their recent 10-game unbeaten run derailed by back-to-back defeats. The Canaries’ losses haven’t been bad ones – both were one-goal losses to teams that are above them in the standings in West Brom and Chelsea. They are moving in the right direction, and are perhaps catching City at the right time. While the defending champs have just scored 10 of their 34 goals in the first 45 minutes, the Canaries can get a positive result if they take advantage of City's poor first half form.

Don't get me wrong, I love their flair for late drama. Yet, City is too good – and too well paid – to continuously resort to using the final minutes to get their points.

GOALS TO REMEMBER

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Manchester United vs. West Brom (live, Saturday, 10 a.m. ET)

There were long stretches on Wednesday when it looked like United's advantage over City would be trimmed to one measly point. But, as has been the case time and time again this season, United found a way to claw their way back. We should know better by now. The Red Devils produced their typical late-game magic this time thanks to Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and collected another three points. United has recovered a staggering 24 points from losing positions so far this season. That’s incredible resilience.

On Saturday, United will once again be without Wayne Rooney (a knee ligament injury will sideline him for two to three weeks), which means even more pressure than usual on Robin van Persie. With his main assist man out, van Persie will need to do a bit more creating chances on his own.

United sit seven points clear and a win here – combined with a City loss – would leave the Red Devils in an enviable position heading into the New Year. I’ll leave you with a telling pre-game stat for this one: the last three teams that were top of the table at the conclusion of the Boxing Day activities went on to win the Premier League crown. Engravers in Manchester, you have been notified.

JACKPOT!

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Everton vs. Chelsea (live, FOX Soccer, Sunday, 8:25 a.m. ET)

Third place is up for grabs in this game. Heading into the final weekend of 2012, Chelsea have recovered nicely from their November dip. Leading the charge in the midfield is Juan Mata, who has been racking up goals and assists. He looks very confident, and he has really helped Fernando Torres raise his game. Mata’s stunning strike on Wednesday was his sixth in his last eight games in all competitions. Blues manager Rafael Benitez believes in him, and I’m wondering when the Spanish national team will feel the same way.

As for Everton, the Toffees have dealt with Marouane Fellaini’s three-game suspension well so far, winning both matches that he has had to sit out. It’s hard to point to just one player who has stepped in and picked up the slack – Everton’s four goals in their last two games were scored by four different players. That kind of production sums up David Moyes' philosophy.

Arsenal vs. Newcastle (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET)

The Gunners were able to fully enjoy the holiday as they postponed their Boxing Day match with West Ham because of the London tube strike. So Arsenal should be fresh for this home encounter against a Newcastle side that has started to become desperate.

Do you remember back in late September when Newcastle extended Alan Pardew's contract by eight years? Since then, they have had three wins in 14 league games. Eight more years of that? Uh oh.

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The Magpies have tumbled all the way down to 15th in the standings, and now have to be included in any relegation conversation – can you imagine saying that after their wonderful fifth-placed finish last season? If the Gunners can overcome this floundering side and secure their fourth straight win, the north London side should rightly claim a top-five spot.

Sunderland vs. Tottenham (live, FOX Soccer, Saturday, 7:30 a.m. ET)

Watch out everyone, because here come Spurs. This in-form Tottenham squad is up to fourth in the league table with 10 wins and 33 points.

They added to their surge up the standings with a win over struggling Aston Villa on Boxing Day, in which Gareth Bale notched his first Barclays Premier League hat trick. That must raise the eyebrows of those who have overlooked his impact this season: Bale has been crucial to Tottenham’s success, and Wednesday’s performance finally put the spotlight on him. While you can’t ignore the fact that Spurs dropped four goals on a Villa team that has been in the giving mood lately – a whopping 12 goals given up in the last two matches – Tottenham’s offense has been running smoothly and they deserve to be in the top four. A win this weekend could even see them slide up to third.

ENDLESS RACE

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It won't be easy – Sunderland shocked Manchester City at the Stadium of Light on Boxing Day, and will get to remain at home for this match-up. If the Black Cats can secure another upset win, they can officially put the relegation zone in their rearview mirror.

Come back!

I miss Major League Soccer. A lot. I can’t wait until the end of the shortest off-season in the world so the longest season in league memory can begin. Is it March yet?

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