ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN commentator Jon Champion is back to preview the Premier League's weekend games...
I said last week that the shape of many squads could be very different come the end of August, but in fact precious little has happened on the transfer front in the last week. But we’re now approaching the last 10 days of the window and I think we can expect some more frantic activity.
I get the feeling that Luka Modric will probably get his move to Chelsea before the end of the month – it’s just a question of organising the terms of the transfer.
A deal for Modric would be bad news for Spurs – however much money they can bring in – as he’s the arch string-puller, a very special player. My interpretation of Harry Redknapp’s comments is that he’s preparing the ground so the supporters aren’t shocked when Modric goes.
Chelsea certainly need some new blood – that was evident in their performance at Stoke last weekend. It was supposed to be the ‘new Chelsea’, but it looked very much like the old Chelsea – both in terms of personnel and formation.
I’ll be at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening to see a repeat of the fixture I covered on the opening day of last season – Chelsea against West Bromwich Albion. Then, Roberto Di Matteo made his debut as a Premier League manager with West Brom as Chelsea won 6-0; tomorrow he'll be in the home dugout as No.2 to Andre Villas-Boas.
I certainly wouldn’t expect it to be anything like 6-0 again; what Roy Hodgson looks to bring to any club he goes to is structure, discipline and organisation, and although he didn’t have time to apply that at Liverpool, he certainly has managed it very quickly at West Brom.
Villas-Boas didn’t seem to have much of an influence on their game at Stoke, as far as I could tell. I was surprised Fernando Torres played, although he ultimately did pretty well – there were highlights in his hair and highlights in his play. I just felt [Didier] Drogba was the kind of player who could’ve given the Stoke defence a taste of their own medicine.
It’s not a particularly experienced managerial team at Chelsea now. There’s Di Matteo, who’s had brief spells at MK Dons and West Brom; and Steve Holland, who’s not had much first-team experience. It’s a very young ‘brains trust’ on the Chelsea bench and I think how things evolve there could be one of the more fascinating aspects of this Premier League season.
This weekend’s action kicks off with a fixture I’m always amazed doesn’t get more national exposure – Sunderland versus Newcastle. Having been up in the North-East just last week and having experienced the fixture many times in the past, I’d say it was one of the biggest games going.
There were two very dramatic meetings last season – Steve Bruce’s job was hanging by a thread after a 5-1 defeat at St James’ Park, while it took a 94th-minute equaliser from Asamoah Gyan to rescue a point in the reverse fixture. But I think the balance may have swung slightly – Newcastle are still in somewhat of a recruitment phase, trying to fill the gaps at left-back and up front caused by the departures of Jose Enrique and Andy Carroll, while Sunderland made a promising start to the new season last week at Anfield.
Having gone behind and also conceded a penalty, they steadied the ship as the game went on and earned a good point. With just shy of 50,000 people crammed into the Stadium of Light, this will be the occasion of the weekend.
Saturday lunchtime will also see one of the traditional Blue Riband fixtures of the Premier League as Arsenal play host to Kenny Dalglish’s new-look Liverpool. This is a bit of an awkward fixture for the Gunners as it’s sandwiched between the two crucial Champions League play-off matches against Udinese, and their squad is already stretched by injuries to the likes of Jack Wilshere, the departures – imminent or otherwise – of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, and now the three-game suspensions for Gervinho and Alex Song.
Arsenal look vulnerable at the moment and will continue to do so until they get some more players in. Liverpool, with their new recruits, can go to Arsenal with genuine hope of getting something; if they have any aspirations of a top-four finish, this is the kind of match they need to win. Despite it being so early in the season, it could be a very significant day in the battle for Champions League spots.
I said last week I was worried about Blackburn’s prospects this season and, having seen them struggle against Wolves last weekend, I see no reason to change that view. I was amused to see the link with Raul: I can’t see there was ever really much chance of somebody of his stature going to Blackburn in their current state, and it was yet another slap in the face for Venky’s, with the Spaniard joining David Beckham and Ronaldinho in spurning their public advances.
What they need – having selected from a first-team pool of 12 or 13 players last week – is more bodies. It’s not just quality they need, but quantity: their bench last weekend was full of kids. For those reasons they’ll be ideal opponents for Aston Villa in Alex McLeish’s first home game in charge.
Speaking of home debuts, Swansea will make their home bow as a Premier League side when they face former manager Roberto Martinez and his Wigan Athletic team on Saturday. I think Martinez can take a lot of credit for Swansea’s rise, which has been finished off by Brendan Rodgers – he is responsible for establishing the style of football they play and also brought in several of the players still at the club.
Swansea showed at Manchester City, albeit in a heavy defeat, that they can play some really nice football; the question is whether or not they’ll be able to get enough results in doing so to survive. What I do know is that anybody who goes to watch Swansea play will enjoy the experience.
You sense this is one of those fixtures where Wigan may opt for a slightly more pragmatic approach. They’ll have identified Swansea as a team likely to be around them come the end of the season, and will know defeat isn’t an option. I was surprised to see Franco Di Santo – a player with an abysmal goalscoring record in this country – start last week against Norwich, with Hugo Rodallega languishing on the bench. They need to resolve any issues as soon as possible and get the Colombian back in the side: there’s a good reason so many other Premier League sides are keen on snapping him up.
One man who knows a thing or two about deflecting the advances of other clubs towards his players is Everton manager David Moyes, who will see the fact he has been able to keep his squad together thus far this summer as a minor triumph, although I think he’ll endure a nervy 10 or 12 days waiting to see if anybody makes a serious move for Phil Jagielka.
Sadly, I think that’s where Everton are at the moment: despite all the good work Moyes has done over the last decade, they're a selling club, however much the fans are crying out for big signings.
Fans of Saturday’s opponents Queens Park Rangers have also been desperate to see their club add a few new faces, and I’m sure Neil Warnock will be delighted to hear that new money is coming in, with Tony Fernandes buying a 66 percent stake in the club.
They were reminded of the harsh nature of the Premier League by their 4-0 defeat to Bolton. Things that they would have gotten away with in the Championship, they didn’t get away with against Bolton and Warnock will be keen to add to his squad quickly.
On Sunday, Norwich will be in for a difficult time against the Premier League's arch pragmatists, Stoke. I saw the Canaries in their opening game at Wigan last weekend and thought they were decidedly dodgy at centre-back, with Ritchie De Laet and Zak Whitbread both seeming to have mistakes in them, which is always a worry.
Wolves will be strong at Molineux throughout the season and, although Fulham are a solid side, I’d fancy Mick McCarthy’s side to get another win in their first home match of the campaign.
It’s difficult to go against Manchester City at the moment, even though Sunday’s opponents Bolton Wanderers had a great result last weekend. Sergio Aguero was of course sensational when he came on against Swansea. I’m not convinced he’ll be quite enough to fully close the gap on Manchester United, although I’m sure he’ll light up the Premier League this season.
Tottenham may be glad they can wait until Monday to travel to Old Trafford, as something catastrophic always seems to happen to Tottenham whenever they go to Manchester United. There’s been Pedro Mendes having a goal ruled out despite the ball being well over the line, the outrageous penalty decision that resulted from Michael Carrick taking a tumble in the area a couple of seasons back, and last season’s farce with Heurelho Gomes stopping play and allowing Nani to score that very controversial goal.
In all of those games Spurs have started well and come undone, and Harry Redknapp will go with his tin hat on, especially given the fact they’re already depleted by injuries and in the throes of trying to strengthen the squad.
Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of
Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA
Europa League and more. Watch ESPN’s live and exclusive coverage of Chelsea v West Bromwich on Saturday from 4.45pm.
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