Game to watch – Tottenham v Liverpool
From the amount of panic and counter-panic happening across the internet (and the Mailbox in particular), Liverpool really could do with a performance this weekend at White Hart Lane that is a) more than 20 minutes long and b) involves some shooting from inside the box. The fact that Liverpool have not lost to Tottenham since November 2012 when Gareth Bale was still a thing at Spurs and Stewart Downing a rather less sexy thing at Liverpool should be an excellent omen but could instead provide added pressure. The enmity between Spurs and Liverpool supporters has been growing in recent years and the questions of Reds fans about James Milner at left-back, Jordan Henderson as a defensive midfielder and Daniel Sturridge out wide could increase in volume if they fail at White Hart Lane.
As fascinating as Liverpool’s lunchtime line-up will be (we suspect no room for Sturridge and a welcome return for the pace of Sadio Mane), Mauricio Pochettino’s selection is equally compelling. The pairing of Harry Kane with Vincent Janssen obviously worked against Palace, but Liverpool are a very different side with very different tactics. Will the Argentine be tempted to bring back the dynamic Dele Alli, and who would be dropped to the bench? At the moment the obvious candidate would be Kane, but that would be a bold call to make so early in the season.
“This game is completely different to the last two we played. They are a pressing team. They don’t give away a lot of spaces,” says Klopp, who may as well be describing his own side. That tactical parity led to a 0-0 draw in Klopp’s first game in charge of Liverpool in October, but the German promises that things have since improved: “We have become more experienced. We feel stronger together, we’ve had good moments together.”
There’s a growing sense that Liverpool need a few more good moments before the unforgiving footballing vacuum that is the international break. This is already bloody big.
Player to watch – Christian Benteke
“We’re not signing Messi,” said Damien Delaney and no fool would argue with that sentiment, but what Crystal Palace have signed is a striker with an enviable record of 51 goals in 118 Premier League games, which makes him comfortably the best striker Palace could realistically hope to attract. Delaney’s point was actually that Palace have signed a striker who needs service, but the one thing Palace are not lacking is service. Goals have been in short supply, but in Andros Townsend, Yohan Cabaye, Wilfried Zaha and Jason Puncheon, they have pace, guile, directness and delivery. Benteke should thrive.
First up on Saturday are Bournemouth, so expect Palace to ‘enjoy’ the lion cub’s share of possession at Selhurst Park; it would not be surprising to see Benteke having fewer than 20 touches throughout the game; equally not surprising would be Benteke scoring at least one goal.
“He’s a tough nut, strong and hard to get the ball off. When it goes out wide you worry where he is. If it goes anywhere near him in the box, ten times out of ten he’s going to win it. We dealt with him well apart from his goal.”
Steve Cook was speaking about Zlatan, but there may well be a reprise on Saturday afternoon if Palace remember that they have not signed Messi but a really very good target man.
Team to watch – Manchester United
Who else? Along with the Liverpool-infused panic, one of the themes of the week has been the sheer fun to be had watching this new Manchester United. Rub your eyes but is that Zlatan up front? Pinch yourself but is that potentially the world’s most complete footballer in midfield? And is that Paul Pogba alongside him?
Saturday tea-time sees them visit Hull and you get the feeling that the relative ease with which Jake Livermore and Curtis Davies dealt with Leicester and Swansea will not be replicated against a United side that, quite frankly, makes us giddy even as Premier League neutrals. Do we want them to win the title? Probably not. Do we want to watch them every week? God yes. Jose Mourinho may eventually make this side a functional winning machine but for now there is pure fascination – with Marouane Fellaini’s resurgence, with Wayne Rooney’s ongoing fight to produce one moment to justify his selection, with Pogba being Pogba.
Ideally, Manchester United breeze past Hull, Manchester City cruise past West Ham, and then we can count the days, hours, minutes until September 10. Welcome to Manchester, both.
Manager to watch – Tony Pulis (West Brom)
Your only permanent signing is Matty Phillips, your first home game of the season starts with an early opening goal but ends in defeat, you spend midweek being knocked out of one of only two competitions that could conceivably bring any real joy. And then you’re thrust onto TV to face a newly promoted club at home. The signing of Benteke has undoubtedly bought Alan Pardew time but there is no such release for Tony Pulis, the favourite of many bookmakers to be the first Premier League manager to jump or be pushed. Jay Rodriguez may arrive on loan but will that be enough to appease fans who ended last season bored senseless and struggling to be grateful for survival?
“I’m absolutely delighted with the way we’ve done it this season because we’re still in the Premier League. Anybody who dispels that as not being an achievement at clubs like West Bromwich Albion, they’re in cloud cuckoo land and I really mean that,” said Pulis in May. Sorry Tony but there are West Brom fans who would like to see the dice rolled and there are plenty of neutrals who will be cheering on Boro on Sunday. Why the hell else would we tune in for Sunday’s first instalment of Super Sunday?
One-on-one battle to watch – Romelu Lukaku vs Ryan Shawcross
Two goals for Lukaku in this fixture last season meant that the Belgian won his personal battle with Shawcross, but only a Roberto Martinez side could be 3-2 ahead at home with ten minutes to go and contrive to lose 4-3. This time Lukaku takes on Shawcross in the knowledge that two goals will probably be enough; Martinez has given away to Ronald Koeman, who will be more than happy to see his side ‘mix it’ with Stoke. This could be a fun watch, and not in a ‘how can Everton get bullied into cocking this up?’ kind of way.
Astonishingly, Lukaku has not scored a Premier League goal since early March as spring clearly brought disaffection with life at Goodison Park, but he should start on Saturday afternoon after he came off the bench and changed the game against West Brom. Waiting for him will be Shawcross, who has the added incentive of a far-more-likely England recall under Sam Allardyce. Getting schooled by Lukaku would not be the most compelling argument for him to take a squad place alongside John Stones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling.
Football League game to watch – Newcastle v Brighton
The return of Chris Hughton – who will surely receive a rapturous reception only matched by that afforded to Rafa Benitez – adds a soupcon of interest but really, this game does not need a gimmick. It’s the Championship’s biggest spenders against a Brighton side that has spent the square root of c**k all since they narrowly lost out on promotion last season. The Seagulls have surprised some by starting strongly just months after heartbreak, with the addition of Glenn Murray on loan already reaping significant rewards. Theirs is a settled and effective Championship squad.
In the other corner is a bizarre collection of largely Premier League players, led by a Champions League and La Liga-winning manager. They will be missing Dwight Gayle and Aleksandar Mitrovic, but they can still turn to Ayoze Perez, scorer of two goals in midweek and presumably rather keen to have a pop at being a striker again.
With a packed St James’ Stadium full of half-p***ed fans after Saturday afternoon on Quayside, this will look and feel rather a lot more like a Premier League clash than almost any other game across the country. Enjoy.
European game to watch – Bayern Munich v Werder Bremen
Shall we watch Burton Albion v Derby County on Friday night or shall we instead take in Carlo Ancelotti’s first proper match as Bayern Munich manager? Or shall we not watch either and spend time with our loved ones instead because we are not Daniel Storey? Let’s all pretend for a second that we are indeed Storey (poor Livvy); the choice is not really a choice and not just because he/you is/are a Nottingham Forest fan.
Nothing less than quite convincing victory will be enough for Ancelotti on Friday night, especially as the visitors’ main threat is still coming from the 37-year-old Claudio Pizarro. At the other end of his footballing career is Renato Sanches, who turned 19 last week and began training with his new club after the small matter of becoming a European champion with Portugal. We would like to see him given a little run-out please. Or at least we would if we were Daniel Storey and had an obsession with young footballers.
Punt of the week – Batshuayi and Costa to score
We backed Arsenal to beat Leicester last week so well aware that we’re not building up customer confidence but we do fancy Chelsea to bring Burnley crashing down to earth on Saturday and for Antonio Conte to unleash a partnership of Michy Batshuayi and Diego Costa and for both to score. At 3/1.
Where is Mike Dean?
At Palace deciding whether Christian Benteke used his elbows.
It's Mike Dean's world and we're all just living in it.#CelebrityRefs
— Celebrity Refs (@CelebrityRefs) August 20, 2016
Ten live matches to watch (because having a social life is overrated)
– Bayern Munich vs Werder Bremen (Friday, 7.30pm, BT Sport 3)
– Burton Albion v Derby County (Friday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Tottenham vs Liverpool (Saturday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Hull City vs Manchester United (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
– Newcastle v Brighton (Saturday, 5.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Napoli v AC Milan (Saturday, 7.45pm, BT Sport 3)
– West Brom vs Middlesbrough (Sunday, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Man City v West Ham (Sunday, 4.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona (Sunday, 7.15pm, Sky Sports 1)
– Monaco v PSG (Sunday, 7.45pm, BT Sports 2)