Game to watch – Liverpool v Manchester United
By law, every international break should be followed by a potentially firecracker Premier League clash. Next month, when we have all paused to watch Jordan Henderson take approximately 4.27 seconds too long to think about his next move against Germany and Brazil, we will then reconvene for Arsenal v Tottenham. Purr.
This weekend it is Liverpool v Manchester United. It is Romelu Lukaku being barracked for 90 minutes. It is Philippe Coutinho cutting inside and shooting from 25 yards. It is an over-eager Ander Herrera getting himself booked in the opening 30 seconds. It is one exciting young English player knocking the ball past another and racing towards the byline. It is Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho, embracing, screaming, butting chests and then embracing again. It is 16 Conclusions. For once, it is not just Daniel Storey feeling all tingly.
The little voice at the back of all our heads is saying ‘but remember last season’ yet Mourinho himself has promised us that this Manchester United has massively improved after the purchases of Lukaku and Nemanja Matic. There is no more transition. This is a team that needs to challenge for the title and teams that challenge for the title do not travel to rivals in far worse form and play for a point. They see a team that has won just once (against a poor Leicester) in their last seven games and smell blood. They are ruthless. They send a message. They put down a marker. The kind of safety-first approach that earned them a point on Dread Monday will not and should not be tolerated by United fans this Saturday.
When this fixture was played almost 12 months ago, Manchester United had 13 points from seven games, had scored 13 goals and conceded eight. They were seventh. Now they have 19 points from seven games, have scored 21 goals and conceded just twice. They are second. This is undoubtedly a far better United side; the only thing missing is a victory over rivals worthy of the billing. A team boasting Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan simply should not be leaving Anfield without a goal; and that’s what makes us certain that this will be a far, far better spectacle than the dirge of last October.
We are ready. Bring it on.
Player to watch – Alexis Sanchez
The Sun told us on Thursday morning that ‘nobody at Arsenal knows what frame of mind the sulky striker will be in ahead of Saturday’s trip to Watford’, and it seems that Arsene Wenger has the answer to that mystery: “I will have to speak to him.”
It does seem sensible. Now we have never met Sanchez but we get the impression that his response to midweek World Cup disappointment will be some sadness and a fair amount of anger and guilt, followed by an overwhelming desire to destroy the Watford back line on Saturday tea-time. “When you don’t have the World Cup, you focus on your club,” says Wenger, and he has managed through enough World Cup cycles to know how this stuff works.
Sanchez was excellent against West Brom and then effervescent against Brighton before the international week, making any suggestion that he would ‘down tools’ look ridiculous. Even putting aside the professionalism of a committed footballer, ‘downing tools’ when trying to convince Manchester City and PSG to pay you massive wages for a free transfer would be ludicrous. Whether Sanchez is motivated to play for Arsenal for the right reasons is irrelevant; he is still Arsenal’s most dynamic and dangerous player at a time when they simply need to keep knocking over the opposition to establish themselves in the top-four reckoning and convince sceptics that they still remain relevant.
Team to watch – Watford
Work your way down the Premier League table to find a manager likely to be in contention for a top-six job (who isn’t already in one) over the next three years, and unfortunately for Sean Dyche, you bypass Burnley and you reach Watford and Marco Silva, who is making the Hornets very, very watchable as well as difficult to beat this season. Well, difficult to beat unless you are Manchester City, who could rock up and stick six past just about any team in the world if they were in a rambunctious mood. Aside from that pasting, Watford have played six Premier League games, scoring 11 goals and conceding just six. That should make them the choice of any Premier League neutral who is bored of watching West Brom, Stoke and Leicester long ball their way to just enough points to survive.
We have said plenty elsewhere about Abdoulaye Doucure but not nearly enough about Richarlison, who has come to England from Brazil just a few months out of his teens and been truly magnificent. He is energetic, determined, relentless and physical, somehow pulling off the admirable trick of simultaneously being Watford’s greatest goal threat and most prolific tackler. In quiet moments, we like to imagine Marco Silva team talks where he just says the words “shoot” and “tackle” over and over to an eager Richarlison.
Watford have been pretty easy to ignore over the last two seasons but you can ignore them no more. As Peter Goldstein wrote after the first game of the season – a thrilling 3-3 draw with Liverpool: ‘The club is named Watford FC. They’re known as the Hornets. They wear yellow and black. Watch them this year and enjoy.’ Just make sure you don’t switch off too early – only the two Manchester clubs have scored more goals in the final 15 minutes of Premier League games this season.
Manager to watch – Ronald Koeman
It’s always Ronald Koeman. Or at least it feels like that. The last thing you need when you buy half a football team is to be handed an incredibly difficult set of opening fixtures, but that excuse ran out the minute they were absolutely woeful at home to Burnley. Slow, ponderous and rather too fond of speculative efforts from outside the box, the Toffees lacked the dynamism or guile to get past a packed Clarets defence. The good news is that they face a limited Brighton side this Sunday; the bad news is that failure to beat a limited Brighton side will make Koeman’s exit a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
The most worrying aspect of that Burnley defeat was that Koeman actually seemed to believe his Everton team played well. We hope for his sake that he hasn’t spent the intervening two weeks patting himself and them on the back when they need a kick or two a few inches lower.
One-on-one battle to watch – Joel Matip v Romelu Lukaku
These two have only met once before, and the good news for Liverpool fans is that Lukaku barely got a kick. Literally. He touched the ball 32 times (only once inside the penalty area), won just five of 16 duels and lost possession 14 times. It wasn’t pretty. But then it has rarely been pretty for Lukaku for Anfield; in six games there he has scored just once, for West Brom back in 2013. In fact, as this Sky Sports piece testifies, ‘despite averaging an attempt every 27 minutes over the last three seasons, Lukaku’s currently on a remarkable run of no shot in his last 204 minutes played at Anfield’.
Eleven strikes already this season shows how many goals you can score in this Manchester United side while still wasting chances, and Lukaku could end up with 30 goals purely because he will never be starved of service, but to be mentioned in the same breath as Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero, he needs to make an impact in the biggest games by taking one of two or three half-chances as well as taking two of seven or eight against the minnows. The only goal in a 1-0 win would be the dream scenario for both him and Jose Mourinho.
Football League game to watch – Derby v Nottingham Forest
It’s a mid-table Championship clash between a team who have scored just three goals in their last four Championship games, and one who have conceded eight in the same time frame. Neither are in form and neither are in danger of troubling the play-offs. But this is the East Midlands derby and it could well make Daniel Storey cry, so watch and enjoy.
European game to watch – Atletico Madrid v Barcelona
It has been over seven years since Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona in La Liga, but they pretty much always lose 2-1 and quite often get a man sent off, so this is almost never a Catalan cruise. Even with Barca in the kind of ridiculous form that has brought nine straight wins – featuring 13 goals from Lionel Messi – they will be wary about playing a team beaten only once this season. Expect them to use every trick in the book to stop Messi; the smart money is on a flurry of yellow with a splash of red. And a 2-1 win to the visitors.
Writer to watch – Sarah Winterburn