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. Watch live and exclusive coverage of West
Bromwich Albion versus Liverpool live on ESPN from 4:45pm on Saturday
Firstly, a word on last week's big match – and huge result. I was lucky enough to be at the Manchester United v Manchester City game and I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching. I think that the scoreline was false, in that three of the goals came in the 90th minute or thereafter, but it was clear was that the result was anything but false. I was surprised at the adventurous way in which City approached the game. Mancini has had them in a straitjacket in previous big games – like last season's derbies, when he seemed content with a draw. He clearly feels confident enough to ask his team to play more expansively – and that's great news for the rest of us; we're going to enjoy watching Man City a whole lot more without that frustration of thinking “There’s so much more that these players could be doing but their manager won’t let them”. I was also surprised by the way Manchester United capitulated. I’ve rarely seen a United side who didn’t even seem to be trying towards the end, but the way that they conceded a couple of the late goals suggested as much. The only word of caution I would issue to those saying this is a definite shift in power and that Manchester City are definitely going to win the league, is that we've been here before. There were times 15 years ago when Newcastle were challenging Manchester United; I remember sitting at St. James’ Park watching Phillipe Albert score that outrageous chip in a 5-0 win over Manchester United and people said this is a definite shift in power, Newcastle are going to win the league – and of course they didn’t. History shows that Manchester United will bounce back; I just think it will be rather tougher for them this time because they’re up against a money machine.
And so to this weekend, and I think we can expect to see a few big changes in the Manchester United line up for the game at Everton. I don't think a trip to Goodison is quite as daunting a fixture for them as it has proved to be in previous seasons, and I'd expect them to bounce straight back.Their ears will still be ringing from what Sir Alex Ferguson has had to say in private, but he has already publicly scapegoated a couple – Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, and Anderson is also in his sights, which is very rare for a manager that always likes to keep things in-house. It shows the depth of Ferguson’s anger.David Moyes will be feeling distinctly unfortunate that Everton are next to play United, because it’s rather like being the manager after Ferguson: you'd rather not be next in line. Nobody would want to face United after that derby, especially as Everton played 120 minutes in midweek – a night after United played much of their shadow squad, whereas Everton can't change it round very much. I think it’s all pointing towards Manchester United.
Everton lost in extra time to Chelsea, who this weekend face Arsenal in a game that looks much closer than it might have been a few weeks ago. The Gunners' run of seven wins in eight games hasn't come against any great teams; you can only beat what's in front of you, but this will be a more realistic guide to how much improvement there’s been, and they’ll do well to get anything at Stamford Bridge.Arsenal are still some way short of being a top four side. I know they’ve risen up to seventh in the league but they are lacking in certain areas and I’m still not convinced about them defensively. Thomas Vermaelen came back but got injured, so he’s a doubt, and he's a big presence they need available.I just look at the rest of the side and although there are promising signs – Park Chu-Young played very well in the League Cup and looked like a player that could grace the Premier League stage – they're still thin in certain areas and you'd have to fancy Chelsea to beat them at home.Speaking of Chelsea though, I was really disappointed to see their attitude at QPR last weekend. Some things haven’t changed: they were a petulant bunch under Jose Mourinho and now they seem to be a petulant bunch with a petulant manager as well, judging by the way that Andres Villas-Boas reacted to the referee, who I thought didn’t have a bad game actually. Building a siege mentality might have worked for Sir Alex Ferguson for 25 years but it doesn’t become Villas-Boas: he’s an intelligent young individual, and he must realise that people can see through his fairly blatant tactics of trying to wind the authorities up over the officials in the hope for more favourable decisions in the future. I think we’ve gone beyond that and I would hope the FA come down fairly hard on him for what he said about the referee.
And so to Manchester City against Wolves part two: a league game in Manchester after the midweek League Cup tie at Molineux. Wolves played really well in Wednesday's first half, and then were swamped; it’s difficult to see anything other than a Manchester City win.Although they've a big Champions League match at Villarreal on Wednesday, City will be back to something approaching their A-team – and at Molineux their reserves put five past Wolves. True, Mick McCarthy made changes for that game too, but it’s not the sort of fixture that Wolves need at the moment as they try and dig themselves out of a hole of their own making. There were one or two moments to encourage them in coming from two down against Swansea last weekend, but really their season isn't going to be decided by Manchester City away, it’s going to be the games against the teams around them in the lower reaches of the table – like, perhaps, Swansea, who got a draw at Molineux.Last week Mick responded in typically forthright fashion to those calling for his head by calling them idiots. It’s always a bad sign when a manager starts having a go a the fans, but Mick’s slightly different in that he’s a no-nonsense Yorkshireman who's not bothered what people think of him. The person he needs to make sure still has respect for him is Wolves owner Steve Morgan, who’s a fairly sensible individual. I don’t think Mick’s fixture will be judged on what happens against Manchester City. I think it’s the ensuing weeks against the weaker teams that will decide what happens.
I saw Norwich at Liverpool last week and was really impressed. They could have been four down in 20 minutes, but could equally have won the game in the second half, with admirable resilience. The thing that impressed me most about Norwich was their sense of spirit and togetherness: at one point seven of their 11 on the pitch had played non-league football in their career. That’s the thing that comes across from Norwich: there are no stars, no egos, they're a unit rooted in reality – and for that reason I think they are going to be a tough nut to crack, particularly at Carrow Road. This weekend they host Blackburn; a decent midweek result in the Carling Cup, albeit against a mix-and-match Newcastle team, will boost them, but I'd still fancy Norwich to beat them and increase their misery at the foot of the table.
Sunderland must have been delighted last week at Bolton to finally see some good approach play converted into goals, albeit late ones. I can see them continuing in the same vein at home to Aston Villa. Alex McLeish's side were unfortunate last week with the Chris Herd red card, which arguably changed the course of the game against West Brom and has rightly been rescinded since.However, it's a mystery how Alan Hutton stayed on the pitch after virtually cutting Shane Long in two. The referee saw it and chose not to issue any card so there was no possibility of retrospective action, and the only poetic justice was when Hutton later clashed heads with a team-mate and had to go off anyway, clutching his head – although Villa could bring on a replacement, and Long had already limped off. With home advantage I think Sunderland have every reason to hope for three points from the sort of game they need to start to win now if they’re going to rise up the table, and a win would see them leapfrog. They’re still uncomfortably close to the bottom in 14th; I do think they’re better than that but they need to start showing it.
Speaking of which, after losing at home to Sunderland last week Bolton travel to Swansea in what's a bit of a litmus test for them. They seemed to have got their season back on track by winning at Wigan but Owen Coyle has cause for concern at the moment because he seems to be like a jockey cracking the whip and the horse isn’t responding – and that’s worrying for any manager. If Bolton are going to climb up the table they should be winning at Swansea, and if they don’t then it looks like a season of toil for them down near the bottom. But it won't be easy: Swansea are a different side at the Liberty Stadium with two wins, two draws and no defeats, compared to one away point from 15 with a shedload conceded on their travels.
Wigan also need wins, with still just the one win two months ago, but goodness me Fulham are the sort of visitors they'll welcome. Just a couple of points above them in the table, the Cottagers themselves have only won one game, and that was at home where they are reasonably solid; away, they’ve only managed one goal and one point in four games. If Wigan are ever going to win a game, then statistics would suggest that this is the one – but you can’t back them with any confidence. Fulham produce the odd good result and quite a lot of bad ones, but Wigan are producing unremittingly disappointing results – and not showing the happy knack they’ve had in the past two or three seasons of winning the important games.They need to start doing that again soon. I can’t believe they’re going to go on like this so for that reason and because Fulham are so dodgy, particularly away from home, I might stick my neck on the block and predict that Wigan will win this.
In recent memory, West Brom against Liverpool has been an unbelievably one-sided fixture: before last season Liverpool had won nine consecutive times at the Hawthorns. But by last April Roy Hodgson had got a grip of West Brom, having been unceremoniously shown the door by Liverpool; a couple of Chris Brunt penalties meant that the Reds lost, which seemed a hard defeat for Kenny Dalglish to take. Liverpool are a frustrating outfit in that they play some wonderful football – as in the opening 20 minutes against Norwich last weekend – but their finishing hasn't been up to scratch. It doesn’t help that Andy Carroll isn’t looking like a £35m striker; I don’t expect him to start this week because he was given another chance in the midweek League Cup game at Stoke and again disappointed. As for Luis Suarez, I’m full of admiration for his football but not for some of his theatrics, which are getting tiresome now. Referees are pretty wise to him: against Norwich, Peter Walton clearly had to be totally convinced that Suarez been fouled before giving him a free kick, because he’d spend so much time on the ground rolling around.It's a shame because that’s not what goes with the No.7 shirt at Liverpool. The outrageous talent is, but there’s a danger that the good of Suarez will be overshadowed by the bad, and that would be a great pity. As for this weekend, Liverpool will find it tough at The Hawthorns because after a rather dubious start to the season West Brom have got their act together. They haven't played badly at any stage, they just weren’t getting the results to start with; now they are, and this could well be a third consecutive draw for Liverpool.
On Sunday, Tottenham host QPR for the first time in 16 years. Rangers somehow hung on to beat Chelsea in that ill-tempered game last weekend, but Tottenham are going along fairly serenely at the moment. They were held at Newcastle, but home advantage should be enough. Even though QPR are coming off the back of what Neil Warnock describes as the greatest day of his 31 seasons as a manager, it’s difficult to see them getting back-to-back wins against in-form Tottenham.
Finally, on Monday night it’s Stoke against Newcastle, who will have to see this trip as posing a significant threat to their unbeaten Premier League record. True, in the midweek cup game the Potters lost at home to Liverpool; but with their full first team available at home after four or five days' rest, Stoke are one of the most formidable propositions anywhere in the Premier League. They've only conceded one home league goal all season, to Manchester United. Newcastle have lost Shola Ameobi but will have to be at their best. It'll be interesting to see how they stand up to Stoke's physical challenge: they’ve beaten some decent footballing sides but apart from the in derby at Sunderland they’ve not really had anyone who’s been in their faces – and that’s what they’ll get at Stoke. For that reason, I can see Newcastle’s unbeaten record going here.
Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA Europa League and more. For more information visit espn.co.uk/tv
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