ESPN commentator Jon Champion on the Premier League
ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion
looks ahead to the weekend's football action. Watch live and exclusive
coverage of Wigan v Chelsea live on ESPN from 4:30pm on Saturday
Perhaps the most interesting question we’ll see answered this weekend is how Manchester City react to their first Premier League defeat of the season.
They’ve got another tough game against Arsenal on Sunday, but my expectation is that City will bounce straight back. The defeat at Chelsea will have just concentrated the mind a little - if that were needed - and they’ll come back strongly against Arsenal - this could be the end of Arsenal’s lengthy unbeaten run of seven wins and a draw in their last eight games.
City were slightly unfortunate at Chelsea in that they dominated for the first half hour, before letting it slip. Obviously the sending off of Gael Clichy didn’t help them, but it offers hope to other teams in the Premier League title race that there are one or two signs of fallibility still at Manchester City. For all the wonderful football they’ve been playing and the swagger that they’ve shown, they can be beaten, and we now know that – it was important that someone showed it at some stage prior to Christmas, and Chelsea, in that sense, have done the rest of the Premier League a bit of a favour.
However you could also argue that, in a sense, the monkey is off City’s back now – it sounds strange to say that a defeat in some cases can be beneficial, but not being constantly conscious of defending an unbeaten record can allow a team to be less inhibited as the season goes on, so I think over the long term it may even be seen secretly – although they would never acknowledge it publicly – as quite a good thing.
They’ve had a very good start to the season and just had this little reality check, and they’ll be hoping its straight back to business from the Arsenal game onwards.
In the meantime, Manchester United have got the chance to go top, albeit possibly just for a couple of hours, with their match at Queens Park Rangers kicking-off four hours before that of their rivals.
United are doing, really, what we expect them to do, which is to bounce back from the disappointments of the defeat to City and their elimination from the Champions League. If there’s one feature of Ferguson’s quarter of a century in charge it is that phrase of Iain Dowie’s – bouncebackability. If they have a setback they come roaring back and if you look at their medium term results since that 6-1 mauling at Old Trafford, it’s now five wins and a draw in the Premier League, so they’re going reasonably nicely. The swagger of early season is a long distant memory, but Manchester United are still tough nuts to crack.
I’m not sure Alex Ferguson will be quite as upset as perhaps certain sections of the press have been about the loss of Nemanja Vidic, because I’m led to believe he was questioning the Serbian’s future at the club beyond this season anyway. He was wondering whether perhaps we’d seen the best of him and was considering moving him on in the way he decided to sell Jaap Stam when many people regarded him still as being at his peak.
I think a similar situation might well have been developing with Nemanja Vidic, but that’s been taken out of the manager’s hands now because he’s unavailable for the rest of the season. I don’t see that as a major impediment to Manchester United in the rest of their Premier League campaign.
The best game I’ve seen in the Premier League this season was Manchester City’s visit to Loftus Road. QPR gave the league leaders a real examination, and although City ultimately came through in the end to win 3-2, Queens Park Rangers will really try and get at Manchester United in the same way.
But Manchester United are old hands when it comes to going to potentially quite hostile venues like Loftus Road, and I see them coming through with a win this weekend.
Elsewhere, this is also a really important week for Blackburn. Not only have they got West Brom at home on Saturday, they then face companions in distress Bolton at Ewood Park in a local derby on Tuesday. The most striking thing about their last match – the late defeat at Sunderland - was that there was no Plan B. They took the lead but then there was no change of strategy, they were denied what looked a legitimate second goal but they always looked like they were going to concede. There was no attempt to try and solidify the side on the field of play and for that reason they looked vulnerable, and in the end it wasn’t a great surprise that Sunderland managed to breach them not once but twice in the last six minutes. There are also now suggestions of financial difficulties – promptly denied by the club’s owners. It’s difficult to discern fact from fiction with all the contrasting stories emanating from that club at the moment, but what is certain is that they need a home win against West Brom and then they need to follow it up by getting something against Bolton, so it could well be a defining week for Steve Kean.
Everton have lost their last two games a goal to nil against Stoke and at Arsenal. They are lacking a reliable goalscorer. Louis Saha is one of those strikers that goes on a run of scoring, but when he’s not in a sequence, he can be something of a liability. I think he’s a terrific player to watch, his movement is almost feline, but he’s not in a run of goalscoring at the moment and Everton need him to find his scoring boots fairly quickly because they’re back in the lower half of the table again and there will be four or five matches before the returning Landon Donovan will be able to feature. They’ll be comforted that Sylvain Distin is fit again, but will be concerned by the number of home games they have lost this season - four so far, which is unusually high for an Everton side before Christmas. This weekend they face Norwich, tenth in the table, four of their five wins have come at home, though, and even though they’ve won two of their last three games, Everton will feel they’re due a win and I think they might just get it against Norwich.
Fulham were dealt a significant blow with the news that Mark Schwarzer is going to be out for six weeks with a back problem. He, once again, has been quite excellent this season and he’s had quite a lot to do. Fulham have only three Premier League win and are coming off the back of a devastating finish to their game against Odense in the Europa League – their 31st game of the season. While they can look with some comfort to the New Year in the knowledge that the games are going to thin out considerably, they will be wary that following the visit of Bolton this weekend, their next two games are against Manchester United and Chelsea. That makes Bolton, if not a must-win, then really a game they could do with winning. They have every chance of doing so, because Bolton are in poor shape at the moment, with three wins and twelve defeats over the course of the season. I’m surprised that they’re still struggling, because I think they’ve got the players to dig themselves out of trouble, but it’s as if they’re in a little cocoon at the moment and there are questions being asked of Owen Coyle. I know Phil Gartside, the chairman, is fidgeting. He will take council from Eddie Davis, the Isle of Man based businessman who owns the club. Coyle cannot afford many more defeats.
Newcastle, after their terrific start to the season, have taken just one point from their last four games and promptly fallen down to seventh. But the big advantage for them this weekend is the likely return of Fabricio Coloccini in central defence - they had no centre halves last weekend. And even a bigger plus, Cheick Tiote coming back into midfield alongside Cabaye. That makes them very strong in the middle of the park. They’ve got three fixtures in a row that they would expect to take something from; this Saturday's against Swansea, the visit of West Brom to St. James’ in midweek and then a trip to Bolton on Boxing Day, so it’s an opportunity for them to get back on track and back into the top six which I do think is the very height of their ambition. As for Swansea – two points from seven away fixtures outlines their Achilles heel – very good at home, pretty mediocre away, so I think a really good opportunity for Newcastle to get back on track.
Wolves against Stoke is something approximating to a local derby, it’s certainly regarded as such by the supporters of both clubs. Wolves are very reliant on Steven Fletcher for goals – he’s back to form and to fitness and has scored three in his last two games, and they’re just about keeping their heads above water with two wins in their last five outings. I think one of the causes of concern for them at this stage is that Wigan seem to have found their feet finally and there are signs of a revival up in that area of Lancashire and Wolves could be one of the victims if Wigan were to pull away from danger, so, the visit of Stoke, on the back of Europa League duty again, could present a good opportunity to get some more points. But the Potters have won their last three in the Premier League – they’re looking more like the Stoke of early season again, so I predict a very tough afternoon for Wolves.
Finally there are signs of life from Wigan – those wins at Sunderland and West Brom have kick-started their season, yet they’ve not won at home at the DW since August, and that needs to change if there is to be substance to this recovery. Those wins show there is still life in the squad and there is still a will to play for Roberto Martinez – they do like him the players there and admire him – but I can’t see them getting anything against Chelsea this weekend, and I think that will only add to the rather smug sense of satisfaction displayed by Chelsea’s young manager at the moment.I can’t help but feel that Andre Villas-Boas, while he’s got a lot to offer in management terms, is still feeling is way and learning in terms of his PR, and if he’s trying to win friends and influence people I’m not sure he’s going the right way about it with some of his recent comments. But, three wins in a row, and ultimately he will be judged by results by those on high at Stamford Bridge so he’s in rather better shape than he was a fortnight ago.
A win for Aston Villa last week – a rarity this season - but they now face a sterner test in the form of Liverpool. I just see them as a very ordinary, mid-table side, not much more than that, and I would expect Liverpool to prove as much on Sunday afternoon. The Reds have suffered just one defeat in thirteen in all competitions, and although they’re tucked in nicely in sixth, they are five points off a Champions League place, and I do honestly think that top four, as a finishing place, is probably beyond Liverpool, which will be a disappointment to the American owners having spent so much money. They are a work in progress, and it may be next season before we see the best of various new signings that Kenny Dalglish has made, but they’ve got every chance of winning at Villa.
Spurs showed why they’re not quite good enough to be in genuine title contention in their defeat at Stoke last time out. I know they were unlucky with a couple of penalty decisions that went the wrong way from their perspective, but Tottenham succumbed where others who are likely to be in the shake-up at the end of the season wouldn’t have done. As for Sunday's opponents Sunderland, well, the late comeback against Blackburn earned them their first win in seven weeks, in their first game under the enigmatic Martin O’Neill. He can pump the players full of confidence, what he can’t do at this stage is provide goals, because the lack genuine, reliable, Premier League-quality goalscoring strikers. Connor Wickham will be that in years to come, I don’t think the Korean Ji is the answer. There are one or two talks being in place behind the scenes to see if Asamoah Gyan might be persuaded back from the middle-east for the second half of the season but it’s difficult to see that that will be a particularly happy reunion when he returns to Sunderland bearing in mind the way he departed. I don’t see Martin O’Neill being able to improve Sunderland’s prospects in the immediate future other than injecting a bit of confidence, which alone won’t be enough at White Hart Lane.
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
LATEST FOOTBALL NEWS
Spain seal major tournament treble
UEFA dishes out dosh to clubs for Euro 2012
Russia win appeal against Euro 2012 sanction
Nasri banned over behaviour at Euro 2012
Van der Wiel critical of compatriot Robben
He's here, he's there, he's...
The cost of Premier League away travel
FourFourTwo is brought to you by Haymarket Consumer Media & FourFourTwo is part of Haymarket Sport
| International Licensing | © Haymarket Media Group 2010