World Cup hangover complicates life for Premier League

LONDON: A week of World Cup qualifying drama will weigh heavily on the Premier League this weekend as Chelsea head to Aston Villa aiming to maintain their lead over Manchester United at the top of the table.

Injuries picked up on international duty threaten to sideline the likes ofUnited striker Wayne Rooney and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrardwhile all of the league's 20 managers will be grappling with the emotional hangover suffered by players who experienced World Cup joy and heartbreak.

Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti will look to Didier Drogba to fire on all cylinders after the Ivory Coast striker enjoyed a week's rest in the wake of his country's draw with Malawi which clinched their place in next year's finals in South Africa.

In contrast, goalkeeper Petr Cech, who returns from suspension, will have spent the last few days digesting the disappointment of the Czech Republic's failure to even reach the play-offs for a final slot.

For Villa boss Martin O'Neill, the week has left him with an unwanted headache following Emile Heskey's public declaration that his lack of first-team football at the club might lead him to seek a January move in order to bolster his hopes of starting for England at the World Cup.

Villa also have Ashley Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing and Gabriel Agbonlahor hoping to go to South Africa with England, and O'Neill is determined to prevent them being distracted by thoughts of glory on the international stage.

"Players need to remember themselves here," the Northern Irishman said. "The World Cup is not next week, not before Christmas and not even before Easter. It's a long, long way away."

Spanish defender Carlos Cuellar predicted the toughest test of the season to date for the Villa back four.

"A lot of people said Nicolas Anelka and Drogba could not play together but they have are in great form as a partnership now," Cuellar said. "But we must not underestimate ourselves. We have been defending well and we have to keep that up."

Rooney may be doubtful for United's meeting with Bolton after missing England's final World Cup qualifier with a calf injury.

But United boss Sir Alex Ferguson will have been cheered by the form of Dimitar Berbatov, who struck a 38-minute hat-trick for Bulgaria in midweek, and has Michael Owen fit again as a potential partner.

Harry Redknapp takes third-placed Tottenham travel to bottom side Portsmouth for what promises to be a highly-charged encounter against his former club.

Redknapp, who won the FA Cup in his second spell in charge at Fratton Park, left the club for Spurs last year. He knows some fans will give him a bit of abuse but he has refused to countenance any special security measures.

"People who have got any sense look at what I did for that football club," Redknapp said.

"I took them from the bottom of the Championship to winning the Championship and becoming a top-seven, top-eight Premier League club, winning the FA Cup.

"If people are stupid enough to shout abuse they need their heads looking at in my opinion. Am I bothered about some nutter running up to me? No. I don't need security, I can look after myself."

Sunderland, who were denied a famous win over Manchester United by an injury-time equaliser in their last outing, will seek to end a seven-year wait for a home win over Liverpool.

The combination of Kenwyne Jones and seven-goal top scorer Darren Bent will provide a significant test of a Liverpool defence that has appeared uncharacteristically shaky this season.

Arsenal entertain Birmingham in what will be the visitors' first outing since Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung completed his takeover of the club.

The Gunners have a 100 percent record at home this season and manager Arsene Wenger is determined to extend that run.

"We know that our season will be decided at home," the Frenchman said.