It’s back to business in the Premier League this weekend as England’s victory over arch rivals Scotland on Tuesday brought to an end the final international break of the year. We are approaching a crucial period in the season, as clubs begin to prepare for a demanding winter Premier League schedule which has so often curtailed encouraging starts and triggered alarming slumps in form. While there is plenty to look forward to in the latest round of fixtures, here are FIVE things that should be of particular interest:
Arsenal head into their crunch tie with Manchester United on Saturday evening having failed to beat the Red Devils in their last six meetings. Although the Gunners will regret not registering a win against David Moyes’s calamitous United side last season, they will be confident that they can stop the rot on the weekend, as Louis van Gaal’s already depleted squad suffered another costly casualty over the international break with the injury of Daley Blind. The Dutchman now joins fellow defenders Marcos Rojo, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones and Rafael on the sidelines, leaving United with a dearth of defensive options ahead of the fixture in North London over the weekend. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger must feel that this is as good a time as ever to face United, and a victory would also give his side a psychological advantage over their rivals for Champions League qualification.
Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini is currently under the greatest amount of pressure that he has had to endure since he took over at Eastlands last season. His side are on the verge of a limp exit from the Champions League group stages, and their indifferent form in the league has left them eight points behind the indomitable league leaders Chelsea. The Chilean could have done with a relatively straightforward fixture this weekend to record a much-needed comfortable win, but in Swansea City, they face a side that are bound to cause problems. The South Wales outfit have made an excellent start under Garry Monk, and they go into the game full of confidence having beaten Arsenal a fortnight ago. Stoke City, Newcatle United and CSKA Moscow have all proven this season that the Etihad is not the fortress it was once considered to be, and if the Swans approach the match with a similar mentality, we could have a very tight game on our hands. Anything other than a win for Pellegrini will push him ever closer to the precipice.
While Pellegrini might be having a tough time in Manchester, spare a thought for Brendan Rodgers. His Liverpool side have been quite frankly dreadful this season, and could sink as low as 13th by the time they take to the field against Crystal Palace on Sunday. The Reds suffered another huge setback this week with the news that Daniel Sturridge is set to face another six weeks out through injury, and they could even be without the misfiring Mario Balotelli for the trip to Selhurst Park as the Italian faces a fight to regain full fitness after a hamstring strain. This potentially leaves Rodgers with Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert – neither of whom have scored in the Premier League this season – as their only two recognised centre forwards for the match. Rodgers will be hoping against hope that they can open their accounts on the weekend, otherwise the calls will only increase for 41 year-old to be sacked – just six months after nearly guiding Liverpool to a first league title in 24 years.
Alan Pardew was a pariah on Tyneside at the start of the season, with his Newcastle side’s terrible form since the start of the year sending the Toon Army into meltdown as the 53 year-old was made public enemy number one. Alan Pardew remains a pariah eleven games into the season, but at least his team is winning games. Indeed, the Magpies are on a superb five-game winning streak, and if they overcome QPR at St James’s Park on Saturday and other results go their way, they could even finish the weekend in the Champions League places. Although a club of Newcastle’s size should surely be aiming for Europe, years of underinvestment under Mike Ashley’s watch has meant that a mid-table finish is considered a success for the Magpies. In this regard, Alan Pardew is surely doing exactly what is expected of him, and while it is highly unlikely that Newcastle will end the season in the top four, a Europa League berth is a possibility if spirits in the camp remain high and the results continue to come. It will be interesting to see how long the anti-Pardew brigade holds out if the team they are supposed to be supporting keeps on giving them the victories that they crave.
Much was expected of Hull City and Tottenham Hotspur on the eve of the new Premier League season; the former had been the star of the show on transfer deadline day with a number of high-profile signings, while the latter were looking forward to life under Mauricio Pochettino after a forgettable 2013/14 campaign with first Andre Villas-Boas and then Tim Sherwood at the helm. The reality has been somewhat disheartening for both sides. The Tigers have struggled with consistency as the big-name signings of Hatem Ben Arfa, Gaston Ramirez and Tom Ince – now on loan at Nottingham Forest – have failed to deliver, while Spurs have found it difficult to adapt to Pochettino’s high-energy pressing style, losing five games already this season, four of which have come at home. The Sunday afternoon clash at the KC Stadium therefore represents a chance for one team to kick-start their stuttering campaign while also heaping further misery on their opponent.
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