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...
Whatever happens across the weekend in the Barclays Premier League, it will struggle to make quite the same impact as Thierry Henry’s re-introduction to English football on Monday night.
His arrival as a substitute in the FA Cup tie with Leeds transformed what had been one of the worst games of the season into an occasion that everyone now will always remember, and it showed he’s still got that sense of drama and intervention he’s carried with him throughout his prolific career.
He carries that into the Premier League this weekend, with Arsenal traveling to Swansea for the first Premier League appearance of Henry’s second coming. And it promises to be the most attractive fixture of the weekend.
Swansea and Arsenal are two sides for whom the purity of football is paramount and for that reason if I was going to stump up the money to go and watch one particular Premier League game this weekend it would be that at the Liberty Stadium.
Swansea have been very strong at home – losing just the once, to Manchester United – and on the face of it a draw would be a good result for Arsenal. But, given Arsenal’s position just outside the top four, they really need to be going to Swansea and winning if they’re going to have genuine hope of returning to the Champions League next season.
A number of the top sides have still got to go to Swansea, and although they’ll all find it difficult I would expect there will be teams other than Manchester United who will win there, and I would imagine that Arsenal would see themselves as being part of that category.
Across North London, Tottenham’s strong form continues. Wins against West Brom and Everton have moved them level with Manchester United and within three points of the summit.In fact, with City not playing until Monday, Spurs could be joint top for a couple of days should they win their home game with Wolves on Saturday, though I’m not sure exactly how much that is worth at this stage.Tremendous credit is due to Tottenham for getting as close to the two Manchester clubs as they have done, but I still struggle to see them as genuine title contenders. I may be forced to eat my words before mid-May, but I still look at their squad and think there isn’t quite the same depth as there is at City and United. I know they’ve managed to cover for the absence of Scott Parker of late, but if Emmanuel Adebayor or Gareth Bale was injured for a length of time they would miss those players rather more, and I’m not sure that the deputies are quite up to scratch. Still, they are doing tremendously well, with 14 wins in their last 18 Premier League games since that 5-1 home thrashing by Manchester City and just one goal conceded in their last six Premier League home games, so they are a mighty tough nut to crack. They have a lot of very difficult fixtures ahead – including trips to Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City. We’ll start to find out a lot more on Sunday week when Manchester City and Tottenham meet at the Etihad Stadium. As for this weekend’s fixture, I can only really see a home win. Wolves are in the middle of a run of tough games, they just keep on coming, they had Manchester United and Arsenal away in December, they’ve already played Chelsea this month and now it’s Tottenham. They’re pinching the odd point here and there but really only when these really difficult games are out of the way and they can play some teams rather closer to them in the table are we going to know what their fate is likely to be.
While there has been some rather unsettling talk - denied by player and club - that Darren Bent could be leaving Aston Villa for Liverpool, there is at least a new recruit on his way to Villa Park in the form of Robbie Keane Therefore we have an LA Galaxy loanee match-up on Saturday, with Keane’s new side facing Everton and Landon Donovan. We’ve already seen the value of the two month loan with Henry at Arsenal, and Villa and Everton will be hoping Keane and Donovan can make similar, if not quite such dramatic impacts. Both clubs could certainly do with a boost. Villa haven’t managed to win back to back games this season, while Everton have managed only two victories in their last seven games in the Premier League. These are two sides not performing to pre-season expectations. Everton have got more excuses then Villa for being underwhelming this season because of Everton’s financial difficulties. Villa I just think are underperforming. I’m told Alex McLeish his players to go out and express themselves, but it doesn’t look that way when they get out on the pitch. They were workman-like and nothing more when I saw them at Bristol Rovers in the FA Cup last weekend and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this game ends all square.
Frustratingly, Blackburn have failed to build on that shock win at Old Trafford, losing at home to Stoke two days later and then going out of the FA Cup at Newcastle. We hear reports two of their better players - Junior Hoilett and Chris Samba - are likely to leave before the end of the transfer window. That will sound the death knell for their Premier League survival hopes, as Samba is immense at the back, while Hoilett is probably their best creative player. If they lose their best players at either end of the pitch, what hope have they got?Perennially under-fire Steve Kean faces one of his old clubs in Fulham at Ewood Park this weekend. Martin Jol’s team are improving, with just one defeat in seven in all competitions, the 5-0 thrashing at home by Manchester United. But for the most part they are looking reasonably solid, and they have enough in their ranks to stay in the division. They’ll fancy their chances at an unhappy Ewood Park.
Also on Saturday, Chelsea host in-form Sunderland. Chelsea will perhaps be more worried about being just one point ahead of Arsenal than they are about being eight behind Spurs, because the top four is the be all and end all for clubs of Chelsea’s stature.Their form continues to frustrate their supporters, and now they’ve lost Didier Drogba to the Africa Nations Cup for the time being as well. Sunderland have chiselled out five wins in their seven games under Martin O’Neill, which tells you what a bit of confidence can do for a squad. Belief has been restored and the players have shown just what a good squad O’Neill has inherited. He’s quite a fortunate man in that regard. He’s gone to the club where the squad probably doesn’t need major surgery, it just needs a cutting edge added to it.
At the moment Liverpool, with the boost of the win in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final, seem to be riding out the absence of Luis Suarez, but I wonder if Saturday’s game with Stoke is where they will start to miss him. The Potters are just the sort of side Liverpool tend to struggle against. Kenny Dalglish’s side will stand up to the physical challenge, no doubt, but Stoke could cause them real difficulties. Stoke are in good form and Andy Carroll will be meat and drink to Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Stoke get a result, even though their away form isn’t great.
Manchester United, remarkably, are facing up to the possibility of a third consecutive Premier League defeat, something that very rarely happens. What was slightly alarming in the FA Cup victory at Manchester City was the way they lost the initiative and nearly lost the three goal lead against ten men. They’ll have taken less confidence from that game than perhaps they might.But Bolton are just the sort of opposition United would want to try and get themselves back on track, because Bolton still look a remarkably nervous team, despite winning two of their last four games. There’s enough in the squad for them to survive, but at present it’s almost impossible to see them getting anything at Old Trafford.
West Brom are in one of their lulls. They seem to be a side that goes on runs of either good results or bad results, and they’re in a bad trot at the moment, with one point from their last three games.They’re still six points clear of the bottom three, but they’ve only won two of their ten games at home and that will be a frustration and a concern for Roy Hodgson. They’ve got nearly twice as many points away as they have at the Hawthorns, and that’s something that he’ll be working on. One of those away wins came at Carrow Road in September, but it’s this weekend's opponents Norwich who go into the match in better shape, sat in ninth place with just one defeat in their last six Premier League games. It’s tempting to say this is going to be a draw because West Brom are less of a force at home then they are on their travels and Norwich are just looking pretty solid at the moment.
Newcastle finally appear to have found a bit of form again, having suffered a run of two points in six matches. They’re coming off the back of that 3-0 win against Manchester United, so it’s now two wins in their last three. But the losses of Demba Ba and Chieck Tiote are significant, as is the fact that stories are beginning to circulate suggesting the better players could well be sold. This is the template Mike Ashley has come up with - they buy low, and sell high once they’ve developed players - and unfortunately the likes Ba and Tiote fall into the category of potentially saleable players. This Sunday they host a Queens Park Rangers side appearing for the first time under a new manager in Mark Hughes, and there is always that new manager honeymoon period affect to consider. It’s two months though since Queens Park Rangers won, and while they go there with a chance of getting something, I would still be surprised if Newcastle don’t win.
The latest round of action ends on Monday evening, when Manchester City make the short trip to Wigan. At the moment we’re left wondering exactly how deep the ‘crisis’ at Manchester City really is. Monday’s match may offer some answers. They really do seem to be missing Yaya Toure in particular, and will again be without Vincent Kompany thanks to his four match suspension. And you have the manager complaining that he doesn’t have enough players and please would the board spend some money, which I think to any fair minded neutral individual seems a fairly remarkable state of affairs. Wigan have got a very good record against Manchester City over the years. The worry for Roberto Martinez is that his team has produced an upsurge in form but that upsurge is only producing draws. They’ve drawn with Liverpool, Chelsea and Stoke, all admirable results but they need to get wins from somewhere. I think it’s beyond the bounds of credibility to think they’re going to beat Manchester City, so I think Wigan’s travails continue.
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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