Premier League preview
Domestic action returns to the fore after an international break that brought Euro 2012 qualification to a denouement.
By James Riach
Last Updated: 29/11/11 11:01am
Domestic action returns to the fore in the Premier League this weekend after an international break that brought Euro 2012 qualification to a denouement.
With the top-flight campaign almost a third of the way through, the division has now taken shape and teams are beginning to see where their ambitions lie this season.
The glamour fixture on Sunday sees Chelsea host Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, but perhaps more significantly at the top of the table, unbeaten Manchester City and Newcastle lock horns at the Etihad Stadium.
There will be a full house at Swansea as Manchester United are in town, while Arsenal go to Norwich and there is a fight at the bottom with Blackburn playing Wigan.
Gone are the days when Chelsea contests with Liverpool were tight, tactical affairs between Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez - and thank goodness most people would say. Yet that was a period when both clubs were at the very pinnacle of European football. Times have changed, and with Andre Villas-Boas and Kenny Dalglish in charge, it is a season of rebuilding in West London and Merseyside, although they may well have title ambitions. Liverpool can climb above Chelsea with a victory as Fernando Torres goes up against his former club, although the Spaniard has only scored five times in 30 appearances since his £50m move to the capital. Both teams will be happy to let football make the headlines following recent racism investigations. Watch all the action live on Sky Sports HD1 and Sky 3D.
Top of the table with 31 points from 11 games, having scored 39 goals this season, are Manchester City. It has been quite a start from Roberto Mancini's side - no doubt reaching a zenith across town at Old Trafford when they demolished rivals United 6-1. Having also found their feet in the UEFA Champions League, 2011/12 has begun extremely well for a club that was playing in the third tier not so long ago. Their opponents this weekend, Newcastle, have also tasted life outside the Premier League in their recent history, but their start this year is perhaps even more remarkable than City's. Alan Pardew's Magpies are third in the table and unbeaten, but this fine record will surely be tested at the Etihad Stadium.
The first kick-off of the weekend sees a rejuvenated Arsenal travel to Norwich City, live on Sky Sports HD2 from 12.45pm on Saturday. After a woeful start the Gunners have now settled into a good rhythm and in Robin van Persie they have the league's in-form striker. Indeed, Arsene Wenger has not seen his side defeated since a reverse at rivals Tottenham at the beginning of October. Norwich, therefore, have a stern test if they are going to get anything out of the game but if this season has taught us anything so far, it is that Paul Lambert's team are a well-drilled unit with character and a fair share of talent.
Manchester United have won every game since their disastrous derby defeat, although in the league they only advanced past Everton and Sunderland by a one-goal margin. Keeping things tight at the back has been the priority for Sir Alex Ferguson and, to be fair, they have not conceded a goal in four matches in all competitions. A trip to the Welsh coast to face a plucky Swansea City, however, will be a tough test. Brendan Rodgers's side play an attractive style of football and their pace out wide will test the United full-backs. They have also only conceded just once on their home patch this term. It will be interesting to see what side Ferguson sends out, with a tough fixture against Benfica on Tuesday.
Steve Kean was the bookies' favourite to be the first for the sack back in August yet he still lives a charmed life at Blackburn. Anti-Kean banners are no longer allowed inside Ewood Park, but that did not stop supporters hiring a plane to fly such a banner over the stadium during the defeat to Chelsea. Could a defeat to fellow strugglers Wigan be the last straw for owners Venky's? Roberto Martinez's side have also endured a shocking start and sit bottom of the table, but just one point behind Rovers. Both teams desperately need a win.
Bolton are still in the doldrums but put a big step forward last time out when they thrashed Stoke City 5-0. The pressure had really been building on Owen Coyle but his players delivered for their manager. An away trip to West Brom, though, may be trickier than a home tie against a team who looked leggy from midweek exploits in Europe. The Baggies were well beaten at Arsenal on their last outing although Roy Hodgson will surely send a more expansive XI out at the Hawthorns on Saturday as they look to put breathing space between themselves and the bottom three - a gap that currently stands at just two points.
QPR have lost two games in succession although these have been at home to Manchester City and away at Tottenham. Despite the defeats, Neil Warnock can look at the Premier League table and be satisfied with his side's start, with the Hoops currently in 11th. A two-week rest will have done his squad the world of good, with strength in depth at Loftus Road still the major concern - although they are expected to make new additions in January. For their opponents, Stoke, a home clash with Rangers, who are on the same points as Tony Pulis' side, is a good opportunity to bounce back from their Bolton capitulation.
Sunderland and Fulham have managed just 10 points so far - a total which will not satisfy either Steve Bruce or Martin Jol. Sunderland seem to have turned a corner of late, although are still way off their best. Fulham, meanwhile, are still searching for a bit of rhythm under Jol, who will most likely look to freshen up his squad when the winter window opens. This contest could go either way, but with home advantage, you would probably make the Black Cats favourites.
Finally, Everton take on Wolves at Goodison Park. It has been a dour campaign for the Toffees so far with little positive news to note. However, they may be buoyed by the news on Thursday that Marouane Fellaini has penned a new long-term contract with the club. Wolves picked up a much-needed three points against Wigan last time out - it was not a classic display but Mick McCarthy will not mind. More of the same this weekend could propel his team into the top half.