Game to watch – Arsenal vs Tottenham
The easiest pick of the lot this week anyway, but there’s actually something quite unusual about the first north London derby of the season. For the first time in a while, it’s Tottenham who are under the most pressure.
That’s not to say that an away win wouldn’t immediately raise questions of Arsenal’s supposed November ‘curse’, but it’s Mauricio Pochettino who described his “embarrassment” at his side’s last display. While Arsenal were coming from two goals down in Sofia, Tottenham were lacklustre and uninventive at Wembley.
The obvious response to any criticism of Tottenham is to point to an unbeaten record in the Premier League, but that can quite easily be flipped on its head. Should Tottenham lose at Arsenal on Sunday lunchtime, they could well head into the international break five points off the top four. Coming only a month after the stand-out performance of this Premier League season against Manchester City, that’s quite the disappointment.
That said, do not underestimate Tottenham’s ability to raise their game for the big occasion. With a style that prides itself on disturbing the opposition’s play rather than imposing their own attacking style, Tottenham won the most games between top-six sides last season. They have already beaten Manchester City and drawn with Liverpool this year. We can’t bloody wait.
Player to watch – Loris Karius
This week, photos emerged of Karius in Liverpool training being buffeted with the same sponge pads that rugby players use to practise their scrummaging. That’s less of a dig at Watford’s style of play and more a representation of Karius’ continued fight against Liverpool goalkeeper disease.
Dropping a goalkeeper is a difficult business. As with Shay Given and Joe Hart at Manchester City, it becomes a ‘thing’ far more than any other position simply because the decision is so final. There is no resting or rotation with goalkeepers (at least not in league games), and thus any changing of the order becomes significant. In making Karius his No. 1, Jurgen Klopp wasn’t directly saying “sorry Simon, you can get lost now”, but that’s inevitably how it comes across.
Which all makes Karius’ form quite important for Liverpool, and thing haven’t started well. The German will take time to settle in the Premier League (like David de Gea, remember), but when the defence isn’t doing an awfully good job of protecting you during your first games in a new country, you need to be at your best. Karius has been far from that.
Like Ferguson with De Gea, Klopp has no choice but to lie in the bed that he has made. One thing is for sure: If the opposition see you training with rugby pads, they’re even more likely to test you out. Prepare for crosses to the head of Troy Deeney (Deeney’s 14/1 to score a header, for any betting rascals).
Team to watch – Manchester United
I almost made Jose Mourinho the ‘manager to watch’ but then realised that he will be consigned to the stands at the Liberty Stadium, which could make for the most tedious watch since the film Cold Mountain.
Instead it is Mourinho’s team who must impress after a dreadful fortnight. 4-0 defeat to Chelsea was shambolic, but failure to beat Burnley at home and limp defeat in Turkey smacked of a club for whom nothing is going right. Manchester United could indeed have scored five or six against Burnley but, y’know, they didn’t. If my Auntie had balls she’d my uncle, and we don’t go and see Uncle Sharon anymore. Not after Boxing Day 2013.
With the international break here again (I know, we’re excited too), only a win will do for Manchester United at a ground where they have lost both of their last two league visits. Did David Moyes’ 4-1 opening-day win there enact some sort of Bela Guttman-style curse?
Ken Early wrote an excellent piece this week in which he pointed out that United’s style under Mourinho (lots of shots, lots of possession, but relying upon a moment of individual magic to open a team up) is actually quite old hat in comparison with the fluidity of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. This weekend United fans need to see not just a victory but a performance with the swagger shown during the first half against Leicester City. That win is the glaring exception to the rule.
Still, the result is king. If United lose to Swansea, they could feasibly head into the third international break of the season (I know, we’re still excited too) in the bottom half of the Premier League, behind Watford, Everton, Southampton and Bournemouth.
Manager to watch – David Moyes
And by watch, I mean watch like one of those video nasties that make you feel a little ill. Like one of those fail videos that kids watch where a skateboarder falls from his board with one leg either side of the railing. Like that horror film that makes you watch through your fingers before deciding that the kitchen surfaces need wiping down so you’ll be in the other room. Like watching a man propose to his girlfriend and not only be turned down but told that she’s seeing his best friend and that your dog prefers him so can she take him too.
Reports suggest that Moyes will be sacked if Bournemouth beat Sunderland on Saturday. I’m not even sure if Moyes himself has got the fight to argue with that.
One-on-one battle to watch – David Luiz vs Romelu Lukaku
It’s the battle between the player who Jose Mourinho sold and then Chelsea bought back and the player who Jose Mourinho sold and then Chelsea tried to buy back. No hard feelings, Jose.
Both Luiz and Lukaku have started the season in wonderful form, and it’s not difficult to envisage that this will be an intriguing battle. Both are tall and good in the air but more comfortable with ball at feet, and Antonio Conte may well task Luiz with sticking close to Lukaku while Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta stay at home.
Everton scored eight goals in three games against Chelsea last season, including a Steven Naismith hat-trick off the bench that made you turn to your partner to check that everything was still real. Having kept four clean sheets in succession, Conte will be keen to head into the international break with Chelsea in touching distance of the top.
Ronald Koeman, meanwhile, will know that victory at a stadium where Everton haven’t won since November 1994 would see his side go a point behind Chelsea in fourth. As ever, Lukaku will be key to that mission.
European game to watch – Porto vs Benfica
Having won the title nine times out of 11 from 2003 onwards, Port have hit something of a dry patch in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Since Vitor Pereira left as coach in June 2013, they’ve had six coaches in three years. The latest of those, Nuno Espirito Santo, is tasked with winning back a league title that Benfica have claimed four years in succession. It won’t be easy.
The first O Classico of the Portuguese season takes place on Sunday evening, with Porto needing a win to reduce the current five-point gap to their greatest rivals. Benfica have won seven league games on the spin and not conceded a league goal since September 19, but Porto have only conceded one home goal this season and have won every game at the Estadio do Dragao.
Watch out for Ruben Neves being the real deal, Andre Silva scoring for Porto and Premier League hero Kostas Mitroglou as Benfica’s principal goalscoring threat. That last one is better than it sounds.
Football League game to watch – Bristol City vs Brighton
Huddersfield Town might still just be clinging on to the ‘surprise Championship achievers’ tag until they lose two more games, but two contenders for that award meet at Ashton Gate on Saturday evening.
Even Brighton supporters might have expected to fall back slightly into the pack after a wonderful 2015/16. They missed out on promotion after suffering play-off defeat and final-day heartbreak at Middlesbrough, but crucially kept hold of the club’s key players despite plenty of vultures circling. Rather than struggling to rediscover the heights of last season, Chris Hughton has his side doing exactly the same again. Only Newcastle, with the strongest second-tier squad in years, keep Brighton off the top of the Championship.
Bristol City, too, are enjoying a spell in the sun. Lee Johnson addressed the sale of star striker Jonathan Kodija with a clutch of new arrivals, including Lee Tomlin, Jamie Paterson and Hördur Magnússon. We really do live in a world where Bristol City are signing players from Juventus.
The headline-grabber has been Tammy Abraham, however. The on-loan Chelsea striker is second only to Dwight Gayle in terms of Championship goals, scoring nine times from just 26 shots. Abraham has taken Bristol City into the play-off places. Johnson’s side have won five of their seven home league games.
Punt of the week
There is a golden rule in betting: always arrive late to the party. Ilkay Gundogan has scored four goals in his last two Manchester City matches, so why not gamble on him doing exactly the same against Middlesbrough? It’s not a completely stupid shout, actually. The guys at Betfred do have him at 7/2 to score anytime.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
What better way for David Moyes to have the final nail hammered into his coffin than by Mike Dean awarding a penalty for grappling in the box by Papy Djilobodji, then answering Moyes’ complaints with a classic ‘What do you want me to do?’ look?
Answer: There is no better way.
Ten live matches to watch (because having a social life is overrated)
Sydney FC vs Melbourne Victory (Saturday 8.50am, BT Sport 1)
Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Derby County (Saturday 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Chelsea vs Everton (Saturday 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Napoli vs Lazio (Saturday 7.45pm, BT Sport 3)
Real Madrid vs Leganes (Sunday 11.00am, Sky Sports 3)
Arsenal vs Tottenham (Sunday 12.00pm, BT Sport 1)
Liverpool vs Watford (Sunday 2.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
Schalke vs Werder Bremen (Sunday 4.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Porto vs Benfica (Sunday 6.00pm, BT Sport 2)
New York Red Bulls v Montreal Impact (Sunday 9.00pm, Sky Sports 3)
Watcher to watch – Daniel Storey
Mainly because he’s working Saturday and Sunday while Matt Stead takes off consecutive weekends.