Villa, Newcastle in basement battle
While Manchester United and title rivals Manchesater City resume their slugfest for Premier League silverware, Aston Villa and Newcastle United meet on Tuesday in a relegation dogfight that neither would have expected to be embroiled in.
Both are mired in deep trouble and staring anxiously downwards at the clubs behind them. For beleaguered managers Paul Lambert and Alan Pardew, a victory cannot come soon enough.
Villa languish one place above the drop zone, a point ahead of Reading, after one win from their last nine league games. Newcastle sit one spot above Villa and have managed just two wins in their last 14.
Two Cup exits to lower division opponents in the space of a week has left Villa's already shredded confidence in tatters.
Scot Lambert was tempted away from Premier League rivals Norwich City during the close season to help revive Villa's fortunes after a 16th place finish last season.
But the Midlands club struggled from the off, defeat in their first two games setting the tone for a first half of the season that reached a low in late December with an embarrassing 8-0 defeat at Chelsea, followed by a 4-0 home loss to Tottenham Hotspur and a 3-0 reverse against Wigan Athletic.
That was until this week when Villa's hopes of a Wembley Capital One (League) Cup final appearance were extinguished by fourth-tier Bradford City, followed by an FA Cup defeat at Championship (second division) Millwall.
Newcastle also had high expectations after an unexpected fifth place last season.
But the northeast club, hindered by injuries to key players like Hatem Ben Arfa, have struggled. Top scorer Demba Ba's departure for Chelsea earlier this month has also left a shortage of firepower, with the onus now on Papiss Cisse to consitently deliver.
Pardew's remedy has been to look across the English Channel to France, adding to the Gallic flavour at Newcastle by signing Mathieu Debuchy, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran, Massadio Haïdara and Moussa Sissoko.
"It was obvious last weekend against Reading (2-1 home defeat) that we needed to make changes very, very quickly and we have done that," Pardew said.
"There were key areas in the team which needed strengthening. Some of the transfers we have accelerated - ones we were perhaps going to do in the summer - and we have had to accelerate them because of the situation we are in and the injury problems we have had.
"The players we have brought in - without giving too much away - will add some pace to our team, some energy and energise some of the players we already have."
Manchester City have the chance to narrow the gap on United to two points, albeit for 24 hours, when they travel south to face bottom side Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.
Roberto Mancini's have hit top form, taking 18 points out of 21, but will be missing captain Vincent Kompany who is out with a calf injury.
United, who like City eased into the FA Cup fifth round at the weekend, host 15th-placed Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
The south coast side, back in the top-flight this season, were minutes away from beating United at home in September until Robin van Persie scored twice in three minutes at the death to win 3-2.
In other matches, Arsenal host Liverpool at the Emirates on Wednesday while third-placed Chelsea visit Reading.