ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action, as a few old rivals prepare to go head-to-head...
It’s derby weekend in the Premier League. We’ve got three interesting looking local clashes, each of which has something different to offer.
First up is Everton versus Liverpool, perhaps the fiercest fixture on the Premier League calendar – there have been more red cards in this particular match up than any other.
The best Merseyside derby I’ve seen was the 4-4 draw in the FA Cup of 1991 which precipitated the end of Kenny Dalglish’s first spell in charge of Liverpool. The Reds lost the lead four times that night and it was one of the most extraordinary derby matches I’ve ever witnessed.
There have also been those all-Merseyside FA Cup finals and, more recently, Dan Gosling’s 118th minute winner which helped pave the way to Wembley for Everton in 2009.
There are all sort of reasons for enmity between the two parties, but it is a unique derby for me in that my experience of it is that it doesn’t just divide a city, it divides families.
There could be some awkward moments around dinnertables on Merseyside
Whereas in most derby matches you tend to find that a family is either entirely one team or the other, on Merseyside you will find brothers who support different teams. You also tend to get a fair few players that grew up supporting one side playing for the other, which is always an interesting quirk.
I rather fancy Everton coming into this game. It may not be a fashionable thing to say, but we’ve seen a couple of wobbles from Liverpool, while Everton pushed Manchester City all the way last week - albeit it quite a defensive fashion.
Everton won last season’s corresponding fixture very comfortably. The score that day may have only been 2-0 but the Toffees' superiority was greater than that might suggest. It was certainly one of the darker days of the Roy Hodgson era at Liverpool.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect it to be as one-sided as it was last year, but I think Everton have got a really good chance of kick-starting their season with a derby win.
Arsenal will be looking for a similar spark as they make the short trip to White Hart Lane for the North London Derby against old foes Tottenham - always a high-octane match and a proper occasion.
Often football in London can lack passion, you go to Chelsea quite often and there are lots of people that if they weren’t at the match would be at the opera applauding politely because a Premier League football match is a fashionable thing to be seen at.
But I think when you go to Tottenham against Arsenal - especially at White Hart Lane, which is still a very old fashioned arena in the very best way - you’ve got the earthiness of a derby despite it being in the capital.
The balance appears to finally have swung and for the first time in a generation Tottenham go into a derby in a better state than the Gunners.
The last time one could have said that would probably have been in the late ‘80s, when Terry Venables and David Pleat both led Tottenham to third place finishes.
Since then, Arsenal have had it all their own way and even when Tottenham have challenged them, generally Arsene Wenger's side have managed to find an answer.
But Tottenham, after coming back from that horrible setback of being
beaten 5-1 by Manchester City, have really turned it around and look
like a genuine top four side. Arsenal appear to be lowering their
expectations all the time, and there seems to be a bit of fear going
into this match. So I think this North London Derby is likely to go the
way of the hosts.
Rafael van der Vaart scored three goals in derby matches last season
While things will be getting rather raucous up in North London, in the west of the capital, Fulham against Queens Park Rangers looks like being the quiet London derby - the one without quite so much of an edge to it, certainly to the neutral observer.
It’s one of those derbies that perhaps slips beneath the radar because the two sides have fiercer rivalries with Chelsea than eachother. It’s also not a match-up we’ve really seen much down the years. When QPR were enjoying their ‘glory days’, Fulham were in the lower divisions, while Fulham’s resurgence under Mohamed Al Fayed coincided with Rangers’ decline.
I think it’s a derby that’s yet to make a name for itself. Perhaps this is the weekend to start.
Martin Jol’s side seem to take one stride forward and two backwards at the moment, which is a worry for the Dutchman. I get the feeling their relatively small squad has been rather overwhelmed with the amount of games that they’ve been asked to play.
QPR are getting better week-by-week as the new players assimilate, for that reason I think that QPR will go to Fulham full of hope.
The two teams shared a ground seven or eight years ago while Craven Cottage was being re-developed, but I don’t see this being a particularly friendly occasion and I think QPR have a really good chance of getting an away win, and those are very valuable commodities for the sides that are likely to be at the bottom of the Premier League.
It’s been safety first for Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish so far, but a home game against Wigan is perhaps as good a place to start playing more expansive football as any.
There’s no doubt he’s got the personnel to play in a more dynamic fashion, but given his recent past he is desperate to make a good impression on the fans and avoid risking defeats – as a result they’ve drawn too many games.
Wigan are showing all of the weaknesses we knew they would show this season, and they look set be close to the relegation zone again this season, though whether they’re in it or not at the end of the campaign is another matter.
Villa's Charles N'Zogbia will face former side Wigan for the first time
I spoke to one very well-known Premier League manager last week and he believed Wigan would escape because they’ve been in this scrap so frequently in recent seasons. They know how to win the crucial games and it may well come down to that. However those crucial games are perhaps six or seven months away, and at this stage anything they can get at Villa Park would be viewed as a bonus.
Blackburn reverted to type last weekend after their extraordinary win over Arsenal - they were very much second best at Newcastle.
There’s no way they’ll get anything from Manchester City, despite the lingering clouds of the Carlos Tevez affair. Although they beat Arsenal, that was more down to the Gunners’ short-comings than Rovers’ strengths, but I struggle to see them getting anything other than beaten against Manchester City.
We’ve just seen the first couple of examples this season of Manchester United being rather slapdash. Their defending for Peter Crouch’s equalising goal at Stoke last weekend wasn’t too clever, and they then gifted a draw to Basel having effectively won the game in the opening 20 minutes.
Despite that, and Norwich’s back-to-back wins over Bolton and Sunderland, I can’t see beyond a Manchester United win over the Canaries this weekend. I can’t imagine that for the third game running they will be moments of sloppiness permitted by Sir Alex Ferguson. The first match I ever went to was a 5-0 win for United over Norwich at Old Trafford, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scoreline this time round.
Sunderland are the biggest conundrum of the Premier League so far. You look at their squad and they should be doing far better than they are, and the arrest of Titus Bramble hardly helps the mood.
Visiting the Stadium of Light this weekend will be West Brom seem to have got into a rather nasty losing habit. I expected them to be doing rather better having seen them play well in defeat to Manchester United and Chelsea, but losing is a hard habit to kick
The pressure is back on Sunderland, and given their last home performance - that emphatic 4-0 win over Stoke – I can envisage them return to winning ways against the Baggies.
Alan Pardew will be delighted with his side's start to the campaign
Wolves have been disappointing in the last couple of weeks, while Saturday's opponents Newcastle are looking more and more solid with each passing match. The Magpies aren’t going to make anyone leap out of their seat in excitement, but they’ve been quietly impressive.
With Yoann Cabaye and Chiek Tiote in midfield, the engine room of the team is particularly strong and that’s making up for the shortcomings in other areas. They also look well drilled at the back, and it seems Alan Pardew may have turned a sow’s ear in to a silk purse.
It’ll be a similar story at the Reebok - Bolton seem to be going backwards, while Chelsea, despite giving away a late goal in the Champions League, are improving and will expect to win again.
The Blues are just beginning to settle a bit under Villas-Boas. Juan Mata is fitting in well and Fernando Torres – despite his dismissal last week - has shown some signs of form.
Bolton were delighted to have Stuart Holden back last week, but now it appears he needs further surgery and will be out of action for a further six months. He arguably is their best and most influential player so it’s a huge blow to their season.
Stoke were terrific against Manchester United last weekend. There’s great steel to this Stoke side, which is admirable, and although Swansea will play some pretty football and weave some patterns that are nice on the eye, I find it difficult to see beyond Stoke’s pragmatic approach in this game.
It’s just a question whether the Europa League has an affect to Stoke. They won’t have endured a lengthy midweek journey like they did to Kiev and back last time out, but some of their energy and vigor may still be sapped.
But I think they’ve learnt from that trip to Kiev and I think Stoke could kick on at Swansea.
ESPN broadcasts live and exclusive coverage of the Barclays Premier League. For more information visit espn.co.uk/tv
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