Game to watch – Manchester City v Arsenal
Ever since Arsenal went an entire Premier League campaign unbeaten over a decade ago, there has been a rush to anoint the successors to their throne. Each team who has avoided defeat in the first few months of a subsequent league campaign is subjected to the same scrutiny: Can they become the next Invincibles?
On only nine occasions in the 13 Premier League seasons since Arsene Wenger’s crowning managerial achievement has a team started a campaign with an unbeaten run of 11 games or more. Manchester United’s 24 matches without defeat at the start of their triumphant 2010/11 season is the closest anyone has come to emulating the Invincibles.
Manchester City are the latest challengers to be forced onto that plate and expected to hit a home run. Not only did their 3-2 victory over West Brom extend their unbeaten run to 22 games in all competitions stretching back to last season, it was a precursor to a noticeable change in conversation.
“To go unbeaten? Well, it’s very hard,” said Kevin De Bruyne when asked earlier in the week. “I don’t think it will be possible. The level of competition is so high, in every team.”
The Belgian can try his utmost to extinguish the flames of expectation, but City are fanning them with each passing game. An away fixture against a free-scoring Napoli side presented their toughest assignment yet, but even after going behind in the first half, they emerged with three points and qualification to the Champions League knock-out stages.
Having already beaten Liverpool and Chelsea, it would be foolish to suggest City’s path to the top has been littered with stragglers. But for the remaining critics, there are asterisks against both victories: Sadio Mane’s red card and Alvaro Morata’s early injury.
A home game against Arsenal, an elite team with no injuries and no suspensions to contend with, provides an opportunity to dispel any doubts. The Gunners have won only one of five away games this season, and none of their last 15 trips to Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham or City. But they do have the talent to change the course of any given game.
With Arsenal’s last away win over a fellow title contender comes a message of warning for their opponents on Sunday. It was in January 2015 when a mature, professional, controlled performance at the Etihad Stadium saw the Gunners secure what felt like a watershed victory. In reality, it was yet another false dawn, and only against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in September has Wenger managed to coax a similarly committed display from his players.
There is only one guarantee when it comes to this fixture: goals. At least one team has scored at least twice in each of their last eight meetings. There have been 44 goals in the last 15 games between these two sides. The last 0-0 came on January 2011. According to the latest odds, a 5-1 home win or 2-1 away win is more likely than another goalless stalemate.
Player to watch – Alexis Sanchez
The man Pep Guardiola wanted – the man who wanted Pep Guardiola – but the man Arsene Wenger resisted the temptation to sell. Until the final days of the summer transfer window when he was suddenly open to negotiations, attempted to include Raheem Sterling in a swap deal, was laughed off, then insisted keeping him was part of a “financial sacrifice” he was always willing to make.
Whatever the situation regarding Sanchez’s failed summer move to Manchester City and any potential future interest in January or next June, the Chilean is an Arsenal player. Wenger stated at the start of the week that he was “not suspicious” of playing the 28-year-old on Sunday, and nor should he be. Far from downing tools, Sanchez is far more likely to use them to unlock or break down any opposition defence he comes up against. This will not be a repeat case of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s non-performance against Liverpool in August.
That does not mean there are no question marks. In nine games this season Sanchez has scored just two goals, and he has looked completely off the pace. Arsenal have secured all manner of victories – late, battling, comprehensive – but unlike in past campaigns, it has been largely without their dogged talisman inspiring them.
City will almost certainly retain their interest in Sanchez into next summer, as will any other side keen on signing a brilliant player on a free transfer. But it is time for him to provide a reminder as to why he was so sought after just a matter of months ago.
Team to watch – Liverpool
A comfortable victory over Maribor on Wednesday did little to appease the critics – Roy Keane has some uncharacteristically dismissive (and quotable) views – but Jurgen Klopp will have recognised its importance. Liverpool have now won as many games in November as they did in September, and half as many as they did in October. The month is three days old.
The demons of a heavy defeat to Tottenham still lurk around Anfield a fortnight later, but consecutive 3-0 victories are a wonderful hangover cure. In which case, a visit to West Ham is a veritable McDonald’s breakfast with full fat Coke.
Which defence will turn up? Will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain finally end his wait to start as many Premier League games for Liverpool as he has against them this season? Can Daniel Sturridge continue his journey back into Gareth Southgate’s thoughts? With Slaven Bilic having not been issued his usual ultimatum of two games or fewer over his job, will his West Ham players have any sort of motivation to even play?
Manager to watch – Jose Mourinho
As ever, Jose Mourinho buried a salient point in one of his characteristic complaints. “I know that it is a different way of analysing things for this reason or that reason,” he said on Thursday. “But similar performances for some clubs are magic, are examples of brilliant tactics and amazing attitude by the players, and by other teams the same kind of performance becomes conservative, becomes negative, becomes so many adjectives.
“Just as an example, Tottenham beat Liverpool 4-1, Tottenham beat Real Madrid 3-1, Tottenham didn’t score against Manchester United so my players deserve at least a little bit of credit.”
They certainly do. United succeeded where two sides who rely on their attacking prowess failed: they silenced Tottenham’s attack. Harry Kane was missing, but United stifled then struck late on.
It was the perfect Mourinho performance, and the kind he will target against his former club on Sunday. Chelsea are lurching from one extreme to the other, winning seven of eight games after losing on the opening day to Burnley, losing the following two games, going four unbeaten then being systematically dismantled by Roma in midweek. Antonio Conte attempted to shift the blame after that defensive nightmare, but it was his doing.
But in the back of Mourinho’s mind will be his last Premier League visit to Stamford Bridge, which ended in him asking Conte to tone down his celebrations in a 4-0 defeat. The very least the Portuguese can expect is a goal: he has celebrated one in his last nine away league games at Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.
One-on-one battle to watch – Eden Hazard v Ander Herrera
When Garth Crooks calls upon his boundless fountain of football knowledge to compare your performance to one from a game 35 years ago, you know you’ve done well. “Not since Italy defender Claudio Gentile outwitted Brazil legend Zico at the 1982 World Cup have I seen a marker nullify a top-class player so completely,” he said in April, presumably after choosing Thibaut Courtois in his team of the week so he could talk about Ander Herrera man-marking Eden Hazard.
In his past two games against Chelsea, Mourinho has used Herrera as his main tactical weapon. The Spaniard shadowed Hazard in an FA Cup quarter-final in March, but the plan was foiled when he was sent off for persistent fouling.
The trick was repeated just over a month later at Old Trafford, but this time Herrera carried out his objective to the letter. He scored one goal, assisted another and silenced Hazard throughout. He is something of a misfit under Mourinho this season, but will be put to good use on Sunday.
This actually feels like a Super Sunday, doesn’t it? Anyone fancy 32 Conclusions?
Football League game to watch – Bristol City v Cardiff City
“I don’t think we’re blessed with unbelievable ability. We’re more than the sum of our parts.”
Lee Johnson could just as easily have been talking about Bristol City’s opponents on Saturday as the Robins themselves. They and Cardiff are bloodying the noses of the pre-season favourites.
With the Championship table taking shape after 15 games, many of the expected contenders reside in the top ten. Wolves lead the pack, with Aston Villa, Derby, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Norwich among those chasing. But they are joined by the upstarts; few expected Preston, Sheffield United, Bristol City and Cardiff City to be holding their own.
The hosts on Saturday finished 17th last season but are fourth this. The visitors finished 12th last season but are second this. They have lost four of 30 games between them, and are both flying the flag for the underdog. Johnson, the fifth-youngest manager in the Football League, will lock horns with Neil Warnock, the second-oldest.
European game to watch – Borussia Dortmund v Bayern Munich
The last time Jupp Henyckes travelled to the Westfalenstadion while in charge of Bayern Munich, his side were the Bundesliga leaders while Borussia Dortmund were second. That was in May 2013. Some things never change.
FA Cup game to watch – Shaw Lane v Mansfield Town
If three years at university taught me anything – and it didn’t – it is that Wikipedia is never a trustworthy source. But if Shaw Lane’s page is anything to go by, it can be an amusing one. Under the header of ‘Record Club and ground attendance’ on their page, it simply reads: ‘-v- Mansfield 2017-18 FA Cup’.
For a club officially formed just five years ago, their first FA Cup first-round tie is undoubtedly the biggest game in their history. This is a side who was forced to drop the ‘Aquaforce’ suffix from their name after multiple promotions to comply with FA regulations restricting the use of sponsored club names above a certain division.
At level 7 of the English Football League system, Shaw Lane are one of the lowest-ranked sides still in the competition. And while they face a League Two outfit in Mansfield Town, the Stags have won only one of their last six games. Giant-killing connoisseurs would be well-advised to tune into BT Sport 1 at 12.30pm on Saturday.
Writer to watch – Matt Stead
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