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 QPR vs Manchester City live on ESPN from 4:30pm on SaturdayYou’d have no difficulty identifying the surprise package of the Premier League season so far. Newcastle United sit in third place after ten matches, having made their best start to a season since Sir Bobby Robson’s tenure as manager. It’s helped that they’ve not had to change their team much, it will be interesting to see what happens when injuries and suspensions begin to bite. Their fixture list to date has perhaps been a little kind, but they’ve got a trio of games against the current top three coming up, and that will give a truer indication of exactly how good this team can be. Even so, to be ten games into the season and still be one of only two unbeaten teams is a notable achievement. Their success has been based on the most miserly defence in the Premier League, but the impact of the new boys – particularly Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba – has been both substantial and instantaneous, and perhaps some of their opponents have underestimated them somewhat.This Saturday they welcome Everton, who at the start of the season you would probably have tipped as the most likely team to trouble last season’s top six. That might still happen, but, Newcastle’s progress is such that they’re looking in better shape than Everton right now. The Toffees’ limitations were shown up against Chelsea and Manchester United, and while a top half finish certainly isn’t beyond them, they are having to adjust their sights because of the strangulation being applied by the lack of money at the club. It’s clearly taking effect and I think David Moyes may privately acknowledge that, though publicly he can’t come out and say quite as clearly. For once, these aren’t the kind of problems being suffered at St James’ Park. There’s a great sense of togetherness, and the thing that strikes me as encouraging about Newcastle than anything else is that they genuinely are a team rather than a disparate group of players.
If Newcastle have been the hares of the early stages of the Premier League race, Aston Villa have been the tortoises. They don’t play particularly expansive football - they are cautious above all else. Norwich may be in a position to exploit that, they are just one point above Villa at the moment. They made that comeback from 3-1 down against Blackburn last weekend and their run of results is reasonably impressive right now. If Norwich can go to Liverpool and draw then surely their ambitions must be at least that at Villa Park?
Arsenal look like being back in business, with eight wins in their last 10 in all competitions, though they were disappointing against Marseille in the week when they were relatively toothless. I suppose they may have paid a price for not starting Robin van Persie, though equally they would pay a price if they did start him every week, given his history with injury. That is a sensible policy from Arsene Wenger to keep his star man out of the firing line on occasions. Park Chu-Young had a rather disappointing night, and didn’t really fill the boots of Van Persie in the way Wenger would have wanted, and you still feel in this Arsenal team, despite the recent results, have some shortcomings. Clearly there are currently positions within the side that are filled by players who are nowhere near the normal Arsenal standard, so while things have picked up, they still have a way to go. Having said that, they’re facing a West Brom side who were extremely poor against Liverpool last weekend. They were a really long way below the levels they had set earlier in the season. Plus there’ll be no Shane Long, which means they have no-one to chase and harry opposition defenders. With home advantage, Arsenal should be looking for another win to push them towards the top six.
Hold the front page; Blackburn are not bottom! It may not last for much longer, but they have managed to climb off the foot of the Premier League. The build-up to the weekend fixture with Chelsea has been overshadowed on two counts; on Chelsea’s side by the John Terry situation and on Blackburn’s by the banning of banners within the ground. Blackburn’s recent record shows just three defeats in their last nine games in all competitions, but that includes just the one Premier League win. I don’t see them making rapid strides forward, I see gradual improvement but they are going to need more than that because they are cut adrift. They are only two points from safety at this stage, but there’s no reason to be any less worried for them as we were at the start of the season. Chelsea come in to the game off the back of two Premier League defeats in a row, a rarity for them. People talk about them as genuine title contenders, but they are already nine points off the pace – that’s an awful lot of ground to make up, even at this stage in the season.
Liverpool are now seven unbeaten, with Suarez catching the eye, week in week out, though I’ve found some of their recent performances to be rather tired, uninspiring and lacking that bit of fire. The game at West Brom is case in point, though perhaps we should give the Reds the benefit of the doubt, as West Brom were so poor that Liverpool didn’t have to play well. What I did think we saw last week was a bit of a glimpse of Liverpool’s medium-term future, it was a rare occasion where they took to the field without either Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher and they coped perfectly well. On Saturday they will face a spirited challenge from Swansea, who will need to work on their away form, having taken just one point on the road so far. They’ve conceded fourteen goals on their travels and just one at the Liberty Stadium so there’s a disparity there that will leave Brendan Rodgers tearing his hair out, but they have managed to overcome most challenges this season and I am sure they will be working on addressing that. However, I don’t see them getting a win at Anfield, I find that too much of a stretch of the imagination.
Manchester United have responded to their derby demolition with three wins in which they haven’t conceded a goal. They are the only side in the Premier League to have scored in every game in all competitions this season and clearly while they were down in the depths just under two weeks ago, they are gradually picking themselves up. Knowing Alex Ferguson as we do, we know that he will use that defeat as a spur and a motivation for the rest of the season. He will have said to the players, ‘you must never ever allow yourselves to be humiliated in that fashion again’. So I feel rather sorry for those clubs that Manchester United are going to face in the next few weeks. Sunderland are next in the firing line, but frustratingly for them, they can’t solve their problems until January. Their problem being the lack of a regular goalscorer, and even then it will be difficult because it is not the best time of year to trade. Their position in the Premier League is summed up by their last six games. They’ve won two, drawn two and lost two - they have a problem with inconsistency. I don’t see them being dragged into the relegation battle because they have got too many good players. They will rely heavily on the experience of Wes Brown and John O’Shea at Old Trafford, two of the United old boys, and they will hope too that Connor Wickham builds on his first Premier League goal last weekend because he is a genuine talent coming through, it is just a question of whether or not he is ready for regular Premier League starts.
Queens Park Rangers have a better away record than home, which is surprising as Loftus Road is that has always been quite an intimidating place for visiting sides. However they did show signs of putting that right with the victory over Chelsea. QPR shouldn’t expect the same kind of charity from Saturday evening's visitors Manchester City as they got from their West London rivals – the league leaders come into this game with nine wins and a draw from their 10 Premier League fixtures. They have also scored 36 goals, and my elementary O level maths tells me that would see them end the season with 137 league goals, should they keep it up. In their games so far they have scored a six, a five, and three fours, so they are into big wins and I think that might get another one at QPR, particularly when you Roberto Mancini was able to rotate his squad for the win at Villarreal on Wednesday evening. However the Italian will first need to recover from the concussion suffered after smashing his head on the roof of the dugout in Spain, of course!
Wolves have taken just one point from seven games, but have a chance to inflict some damage on a potential relegation rival, Wigan, who’s record is zero points from seven games. Wolves are better equipped for the battle than Wigan, it’s almost as if the Latics have put the white flag up, judging by the way that they are approaching matches. They continue to play their pretty football, which on one level is admirable but I’m not sure it is sensible. Molineux can become quite a poisonous place when things are going badly, they really do turn on their own team, and if Wigan were to score the first goal I could see it turning quite nasty, and that would make it even more difficult for Wolves. But I would expect Mick McCarthy to have his team coming out on the front foot, he will have told them that this is a big opportunity to get their season back on the right track and I would expect them to win.
Sunday’s match between Bolton and Stoke City is of great relevance as the Potters’ 5-0 FA Cup semifinal win over the Trotters back in April seemed to instigate Bolton’s retched recent run. It was a defeat they don’t seem to have ever recovered from, losing thirteen of their last fifteen games. Owen Coyle wouldn’t claim to be the greatest tactician in the world, but he is one of the better man-managers around yet he is really struggling to get Bolton out of this tail-spin. Stoke are never going to be the most compliant of opponents, though they will be coming back from a 5,000 mile round Europa League trip to Tel-Aviv, and unlike many managers, Tony Pulis insists on playing most of his big names in the competition. Bolton will hope to capitalise on any tiredness, and go full-circle with a win to kick start their season.
Fulham and Tottenham also face the challenge of recovering quickly from their Europa League exploits before they face one-another at Craven Cottage on Sunday. Spurs return from that long, fruitless trip to Rubin Kazan, but of course they sent the a group of youngsters and fringe players, so it won't be as big an issue as it will be to their opponents, who may have won impressively 4-1 at home to Wisla Krakow, but cannot afford to rotate their squad in the same way.Tottenham will therefore come out all guns blazing, and they are playing some tremendous football at the moment. Neil Warnock, who was in the firing line at White Hart Lane last weekend, said that even he was applauding their third goal. Against Queens Park Rangers they gave a display that suggested that they are very genuine contenders for fourth place and I would expect them to confirm that at Fulham. I think Tottenham have done the right thing by sending the kids to Russia and on Sunday I think they will reap the benefits.
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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