ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
Sir Alex Ferguson has described Sunday’s Manchester derby as the biggest he can remember. There have been a few big ones in the last few seasons, but I would agree with him, especially as the current league table serves as an example of the potential swing in the balance of power in the city that is now England’s undisputed footballing capital.
Manchester United are on a run of 19 consecutive Premier League home wins, a new record that will come under close scrutiny from Manchester City. Over the years they have found a way to beat City at Old Trafford. There was Michael Owen’s late goal and a real arm wrestle in United’s 2-1 win last season.
City are better than they were last year, but their record away to their neighbours is one win in thirty-two since that famous Dennis Law goal in 1974 that sent his old side down.
City will look to last season’s FA Cup semi-final, which they won through a goal from Yaya Toure, as their inspiration and they will look to that rather than league games or the Community Shield, which was a thrilling contest for the neutral but very disappointing for City giving up a 2-0 lead.
We may also have the sub plot of Owen Hargreaves featuring against his former side, which will add extra spice were he to be included on the bench at the club he claimed failed to properly manage his injuries.
United’s last match was of course that draw at Liverpool, a game in which both sides showed a real lack of ambition. United showed too much respect to Liverpool, which was a surprised at that because I’m not convinced that, for all the money Kenny Dalglish has spent, they have shown a tremendous amount of improvement.
They’ve spent an awful lot, something like 10 times as much as Dalglish spent in his entire first spell, which shows how far the game has moved in the last 20 years, and that the cheque book has been opened to a fairly radical extent.
They still lack at the back and I thought Manchester United would have been well placed to exploit that. Jamie Carragher is past his best, Martin Skrtel is not a top four centre back and the right back position has been a problem since Glen Johnson got injured.
They also have the problem of trying to accommodate Andy Carroll alongside Luis Suarez. The more I see of Suarez, the more I think it’s going to be difficult to find anyone to play with him. Their best bet may be to play a 4-2-3-1 with a couple of wide players and Steven Gerrard pushing on from midfield. But where does that leave the £35 million man?
Still, I’d expect Carroll to feature this weekend, I get the sense that Dalglish is very eager to integrate Carroll and play him as much as possible. I think all the press speculation of is he the biggest waste of money ever, knowing Dalglish as we do I think his reaction to that will be to play him whenever he can.
I’ll be at Anfield for Saturday evening’s match against
Norwich, and I’m looking forward to it. Norwich have been better
than I expected so far this term. They have won three of their last four
games and are currently ninth in the table, despite coming in to the
season without a recognised Premier League player.
they may be able to get enough point on the board this side of Christmas
to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up come May. I had them
among my three to go down at the start of the season but I’ve seen
enough to consider reassessing.
Times are currently a touch more worrying for Wolves, five consecutive defeats have left them just a couple of places above the bottom three, but looking at their squad you’d say they should be higher. They shouldn’t have any long-term problems this season.
They’re having a bad spell, but Mick McCarthy will probably be quite happy to get it out of the way early. Saturday’s opposition, Swansea, should be pretty accommodating opponents, in that they play nice football but away from home are quite meek. Brendan Rodgers’ side have lost all four away games and scored just twice on the road. This is an ideal opportunity for Wolves to get back on track.
Aston Villa will be looking to do the same against West Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion, and it will be interesting to see how they react to their first real set back of the league season, that thumping at Man City.
A lot of clubs are going to suffer at the hands of Manchester City this term, so they should have dusted themselves off and be ready to go in this Midlands derby.
It seems that Alex McLeish is at times trying to put square pegs in round holes, for example playing Emile Heskey on the right wing last week. Whatever Heskey’s qualities, pace and being able to beat a man are not two of them.
West Brom, meanwhile, are gradually stuttering back to life after initially failing to build on their good performances of the opening two weeks of the season. They put in a good display against Wolves that was typified by the performance of Shane Long, who displayed the kind of front running you only see once or twice in a Premier League season.
I think he is an admirable player in terms of both his technical qualities on the pitch and his character off it. He brings a lot to whichever club he is at and he will prove to be an outstanding signing for West Brom.
You could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from Bolton after their victory at Wigan, which lifted a bit of pressure and gloom surrounding the club after five straight losses. They’re still in the bottom three, but they won’t stay there. The visit of Sunderland is another opportunity for Owen Coyle’s side to kick on, with a win against the Black Cats enough to see them leapfrog the Wearsiders in the league table.
Sunderland played well in defeat at Arsenal last time out, and will be boosted by the return of Nicklas Bendtner – missing thanks to the terms of his loan deal at the Emirates. The Dane could well be the perfect spear-head for Sunderland, who have a terrific team in many areas but have generally lacked a bit of power up top.
They ended up with the 5ft7 Stephane Sessegnon, and it’s always tough with somebody of that size leading the line. The return of Bendtner as a physical presence will be welcome, and it’s now time for Steve Bruce to produce some results.
Putting some breathing space between themselves and Bolton would be a good start.
Neighbours Newcastle are certainly enjoying Premier League life a lot more at present. Few would have thought they would be one of only three unbeaten sides after eight matches, and they have their axis of power in midfield to thank. Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye have both been in outstanding form and compliment each other perfectly.
I must confess to doing a double-take when I saw Shola Ameobi score that terrific goal against Tottenham last week. He has produced the occasional moment like that over the past decade, and then been poor for the next 10 weeks. Alan Pardew will be hoping that this time he keeps it up, but given he’s the wrong side of 30 that’s probably not too likely.
On Saturday the Magpies will host Wigan, who at the moment are pretty but punchless. There is a school of thought that the Latics are well equipped for a relegation scrap, having been there before. That may well turn out to be correct, but they look at the moment like a side who are going to be in and around the bottom three for the duration.
Still, there are signs the Gunners are settling down. Mikel Arteta is no Cesc Fabregas and Yossi Benayoun no Samir Nasri, but while Robin van Persie remains they have hope. There are also signs Per Metresacker and Laurent Koscielny are starting to forge an understanding, and with Thomas Vermaelen on the way back too, there are certainly seeds of encouragement.
Next up, the face the side that seem to represent the antithesis in what Arsene Wenger believes in; Stoke City.
Stoke succeed season after season in getting under Arsenal’s skin. While their strength is at home, Arsenal will be very wary when they pitch up at the Emirates.
I think we have come some way when Tony Pulis’ side were first in the Premier League and this fixture would have been billed as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ - Arsenal aren’t as beautiful as they once were and Stoke are now far from beastly, more pragmatic.
Those Gunners players who have been given a good going over by Stoke will be wary. That has been Arsenal’s problem, in terms of mental strength they have not always had what’s required and this will be a good test for them.
For Fulham it seems to be one step forward, two steps back. The fact they have played so many games and started the season so early has not helped them. They haven’t had a particularly settled side, the highly-consistent Aaron Hughes is only just coming back, Bobby Zamora’s not been fully fit all season, Andrew Johnson’s missed a few games too. Skipper Danny Murphy has succumbed to a knee problem and, given he is the man who makes them tick, it’s been a testing time for Martin Jol.
This weekend they face an Everton side that battle well under David Moyes, but they showed their limitations at Chelsea last week.
Usually, if you rank the wage bills of Premier League clubs, it should roughly mirror the league table itself. Since selling the likes of Steven Pienaar and Mikel Arteta, Everton have gone from having the eighth largest wage bill to 14th. I don’t expect them to finish as low as 14th, but I do think they will be lower than last season.
Blackburn are like a car crash in slow motion – everybody can see they’re in trouble but nobody can stop it. I find it difficult to say anything positive, but at least skipper Ryan Nelsen is nearing a return from a knee problem.
They face a Tottenham team who were well held at Newcastle but are on the up after a shaky start to the season with that five-goal demolition by Manchester City. I like the way Harry is managing his squad and uses his personnel to cope with the demands of the Premier League and the Europa League, and I fully expect him to be victorious this weekend.
QPR look better with their new signings, but still not great. They will be nearer the bottom than the top, unless they add significantly again in January. Equally I think they’re more than good enough to pull away from the bottom three, which they would not have been without the injection of Tony Fernandes’ money.
This weekend they’ll face old rivals Chelsea. It’s strange to think that when Ken Bates was chairman at Stamford Bridge, Neil Warnock was offered the manager’s job but turned it down to remain at Notts County – that’s certainly a sign of how times have changed.
Chelsea were impressive in spells against Everton. They didn’t always play at the tempo you’d wish them to, but when they did they were difficult for Everton to cope with.
Juan Mata is arguably the best of the summer signings; he’s made a fantastic impact and breathed now life into an ageing side. I can only see this London derby going one way and it’s not QPR’s.
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