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
At the end of a very interesting week – one that has seen the two top sides in the country crash out of the Champions League – there will be some questions about the standard of the league, and whether indeed it is as good as it declares itself to be.
It’s a very interesting period for both Chelsea and Manchester City, who lock horns on Monday evening. From Chelsea’s point of view, they are safely through but their manager has almost declared war on the press in the past week. He has shown he’s not afraid to leave out established players, with Frank Lampard being the latest, and he is starting to win a few battles and some of senior players have to toe the line more than they were. It looks like he will get a bit more time to impose his will on a squad who are still essentially Jose Mourinho’s players. With back-to-back 3-0 wins, they come into this game brimming with confidence again; Didier Drogba was back to his brutal self against Valencia in midweek, and Villas Boas is starting to show the first signs of a ruthless streak. That will definitely serve him well in the future, especially in this league. City’s exit was as acceptable as a Champions League exit can be for a side that has spent as much money as they have, and I think we can excuse them on the grounds that it does take a while to get used to the twin demands of the Premier League and Europe. In took Manchester United the thick end of a decade to really sort out the way to cope with competing in two major competitions. I believe they will really kick on at Stamford Bridge; it’s perhaps unfortunate for Chelsea that after just regaining some confidence they find themselves up against a Manchester City side that have a point to prove. Domestically, they have been outstanding; as well as picking up results, they have scored 48 goals in 14 league games – an average of 3.5. With that in mind, I really fancy Manchester City for this one.
A less noble exit from the Champions League for Manchester United has me fearing for Wolverhampton Wanderers this weekend, as they travel to Old Trafford. They’ll be facing a side on the rebound, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s stern words ringing in their ears as they head out of the tunnel. They’ve only lost three games in all competitions this season, but the perception of their current form is very different after this defeat in Basle, and I think this is still very much a team in transition. Although they started the season really well, it was at a time when the players were fresh and still bedding in, and it is a process that takes time. Perhaps we should look at this season as one where United will not be laden silverware, in which they may well come second to Manchester City in the title race. But again I feel they may look at it and feel they have a chance to come back stronger next year, by which time Phil Jones, Ashley Young and Tom Cleverly (when fit again) will all have a year’s more experience as Manchester United players.That is important because it does take a while for a player to adjust to the unique demands of playing for United; even the most experienced tend to take a while to settle in, so those in the earlier parts of their career should be allowed a little more time. Make no mistake about it, they will be embarrassed to be playing in the Europa League in the interim, but long term they will emerge stronger for this. With much to prove in the coming months, I think Wolves are facing United at the wrong time. It’s not a game that will decide Wolves fate, but it will be the ones around them that they need to get something from; they pulled it off last week against Sunderland, and have won two of their last four in the league just to ease the pressure on Mick McCarthy. But I cannot see further than a home win.
The same goes for Arsenal at the Emirates, as they host Everton. The Toffees are good enough to trouble the Gunners, it’s just the difference between the sides is that, while both faced relative crises at the start of the season, Arsenal responded by getting the chequebook out – Everton don’t even have a chequebook! They’ve just had to go with what they’ve got; David Moyes is a master at turning water into wine, but even his powers of transformation are being stretched now. Any steps forward seem to be met with a major step back for them; wins against Wolves and Bolton were met with a home defeat to Stoke. Because of that, I don’t see things changing for them anytime soon. I don’t think they’ll be involved in a relegation battle – they're too good for that – but equally I don’t think there is any way they can qualify for European football, so already, with little more than a third of the season gone, they already know their fate; mundane mediocrity.Even though Arsenal’s run sees them in fifth, I still doubt they are the genuine article in terms of being Champions League challengers. They have played some fairly compliant opponents of late and I’m not totally sure they are going to last the course in terms of challenging meaningfully for the top four. Another worry for Arsene Wenger was that the defeat against Olympiakos showed he doesn’t have a lot to call on in reserve.
The headline for Sunderland against Blackburn is inevitably Martin O’Neil’s arrival at the Stadium of Light – a rather neat symmetry in that his first game in charge of Sunderland is against the same side that provided his opposition in his last game in charge of Aston Villa, 19 months ago. His main problem as he goes in is that he can’t just magic up a striker, so he will face the same difficulties as Steve Bruce did in the last few weeks of his reign; the side are capable of playing some tremendous football in the first two-thirds of the pitch, but have no one in the final part to get them goals. What he can do is improve the confidence in that group of players; you may not see too much of him during the week at the training ground, but as match-time nears, there are few better than him, and that’s where I think he can make an immediate with Sunderland. He’ll also feel fortunate that is Blackburn who are visiting the Stadium of Light; there’ll be a big crowd there, full of expectation as they hope to ring in a new era, under new management. Although Blackburn are coming off the back of a win – only their second of the season, thanks to Yakubu’s four goal haul last week – I can’t help but feel that, in the long term, that will prove to be something of a false dawn. They seem spectacularly capable of shooting themselves in the foot, and they appear so unstable off the field at the moment, and I think that transmits itself to what’s going on, on the pitch. A lot was made of Blackburn fans still lamenting Steve Kean at the end of their win against Swansea last week. While I feel they should have at least acknowledged that they managed to dig out a result, I can see their concerns, but in a sense they are targeting the wrong person by demonstrating against the manager. The most worrying people at Blackburn are those that own the club, because they don’t seem to know what they are doing. There seems no coherent plan for taking the club forward; there has been talk of them mortgaging their future Premier League and television income. I think they ought to be protesting against the Venkys and not against Steve Kean. Although he was appointed by the Venkys, Kean is the man who can affect the players and improve the mood of the fans, as he did last week.
Bolton and Aston Villa are another two sides led by under-pressure managers, with very different chairmen. Alex McLeish is earlier in his reign so perhaps that pressure is rather lighter, and working under the patient Randy Lerner will be in his favour. I’m not sure about the patience of Phil Gartside, but the ultimate arbiter isn’t the chairman at Bolton, but Eddie Davies – the Isle of Man based businessman – who owns Bolton Wanderers, and calls the shots very quietly. He must be concerned because it’s five defeats in six in the Premier League; they’ve lost 11 of their last 14 and have the poorest defence in the league (34 conceded, of which 19 have been at home).To add to all that, they face the prospect of losing their best defender, Gary Cahill, in January. It’s not looking great, but I think a lot will depend – as long as Coyle is still in post – on what he can do with the money they can get for Cahill. There is already talk of him bringing in Josh McEachran on a loan deal from Chelsea, provided Cahill ends up at Stamford Bridge, which seems to be the likeliest destination now. I do think they’re up against it, but the visit of a Villa side bereft of confidence – they were really poor when I saw them against Manchester United last weekend - could be just the tonic for the Trotters.
West Bromwich Albion have lost two of their last three games at home, but with the visit of Wigan Athletic, and the return of Shane Long and Paul Scharner, they would be disappointed if they did not keep all three points at the Hawthorns. Wigan have only scored 12 goals all season, and after that morale boosting win at Sunderland, they then crashed 4-0 at home to Arsenal, which is rather more typical of their form this season. Their two wins came against QPR and Sunderland, and I suppose West Brom fall into that category of side, but I think they will be a bit too savvy for Wigan, and I’d be surprised if Roberto Martinez’s men were not still propping up the table come the end of the weekend.
After Fulham’s win against Liverpool last Monday, it does seem that Martin Jol’s system is starting to be embraced by the players. I think one of the problems the Fulham players have had is that after having two managers – back to back – in Roy Hodgson and Mark Hughes, who were both fairly strict in terms of what they expected of the players, they have come across Martin Jol who is a lot more off the cuff; someone who encourages the players to make their own decisions based on what they have in front of them. There are signs that they are getting there, but they’ve had so many games already – this weekend’s fixture at the Liberty Stadium will be their 29th of the season – but they’ve only lost one of the last five and are keeping their heads above water despite their backed schedule. The downside for them is that inevitably injuries will play a part in their campaign, given the sheer volume of games that they have played; they are the oldest side in the Premier League, and Danny Murphy is a casualty of that and will be out a number of weeks with an ankle problem. They’re facing a Swansea side that fascinate me; they are as easy on the eye as any Premier League side. I just wonder whether sides are beginning to work them out. They are very solid at home – their only defeat came against Manchester United – but over the last two or three weeks they have been stifled, firstly by United, and then Villa and Blackburn. If Fulham can do the same then they can expect some sort of success. Then again, Fulham perhaps don't have the players to get in the faces of Swansea – it’ll be an open and entertaining fixture, that’s for sure.
Newcastle will have to show all the resilience that they have shown so far this season if they are going to overcome their injuries to succeed against Norwich this weekend, and beyond. Steven Taylor’s out for the season, Fabricio Coloccini will play no part this weekend and Tiote is still struggling for fitness; three big losses for a squad that is not full of riches, or numbers.They’ve got their three big games out of the way – in United, City and Chelsea – in which they only took a point, which is hardly surprising, but it is back to normality now, and they’ll need the same early season belief at Carrow Road, where Norwich have proved to be a match for some good sides this season. I think they’ll give Newcastle a run for their money, but a lot depends on what Newcastle can do in central defence. Not only have they lost Taylor and Coloccini, but the natural deputy Mike Williamson is still making his way back from long term injury, so it looks like young Tamas Kadar might have to play alongside James Perch, who is primarily a full-back. Steve Morison and Grant Holt will be relishing the prospect of coming up against those two.
Are Tottenham Hotspur title challengers? I don’t think so – I believe Manchester United should be worried about Spurs, especially if they continue to stutter along. But I struggle to see them overtaking Manchester City over the course of the season. I think we have to accept that Manchester City are a couple of steps ahead of Tottenham, in terms of their development and quality, so I don’t really see them as genuine title challengers, but I would be very surprised if they didn’t finish in the top four.If they can keep up their recent form – 10 wins out of the last 11 games is outstanding – then there is every chance that they will be pushing for second-place come the end of the season. After all, Spurs will be unlikely to be playing in Europe after Christmas, and City and United will have to embark on those long trips to unknown European destinations in the Europa League. I wonder what Harry Redknapp makes of the competition now...?Speaking of which, Stoke’s follies in Europe have often been followed by domestic defeat, but after a week’s rest, they’ll be raring to go, and Spurs will have to be wary as Tony Pulis’ men look to kick-start their league campaign at the Britannia Stadium, going into the busy Christmas period.
Liverpool’s unbeaten run of 11 games ended at Fulham, but the biggest problem they face is coping with the loss of Lucas. He has developed into their gatekeeper in midfield, and played a very important role for them in the last two seasons. Queens Park Rangers – 12th in the table, averaging just over a point per game which will just enough to see them survive – will reinvest in the January transfer window, thanks to Tony Fernandes, and that will strengthen their bid to stay up. Three of their four wins have come away from Loftus Road, but I can’t see them going to Anfield and getting another one because this is a new-look Liverpool side who have started to look comfortable in their own skin. While Kenny Dalglish has spent big over the last year, I think it is safe to say we’ve not seen over £100 million worth of improvement. Even so, you’d be foolish to bet against Liverpool for this one.
Jon Champion is football commentator for ESPN. This season, ESPN’s live television football coverage includes the Barclays Premier League, the FA Cup, the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, England U-21 matches, Dutch Eredivisie and international friendly matches.
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