Game to watch – Arsenal v Liverpool
Arsenal have won seven and drawn one of their eight games against the Premier League’s Other Teams, having started the season with defeats to two of the Big Six.
Saturday evening, then, offers Arsenal the chance to prove they can mix it with the best as well as swatting the division’s also-rans to one side.
Liverpool, meanwhile, remain unbeaten but whispers still linger. Having failed to beat either Chelsea or Manchester City, they are somewhat harshly open to a similar charge of flat-track bullying.
And with the Big Six currently dropping fewer points than ever to teams outside their ranks, any game between two of them becomes ever more important; these two teams have dropped two points between them to the ‘Small 14’, while Manchester United are responsible for two of the three defeats suffered in 45 games against The Rest by The Best thus far. These games were always big; they’re bigger still now they represent one of the few times when points will be dropped by at least one of the big boys.
Mainly, though, Arsenal v Liverpool is generally just tremendous fun. Both teams have loads of attacking players in form and their last five Premier League clashes have featured 27 goals, which is very silly indeed; who wouldn’t want more of such antics on a chilly Saturday evening? Anything less than 3-3, demand your money back.
Player to watch – Riyad Mahrez
A goalscorer in each of his last two Premier League games for Manchester City, his winner at Tottenham on Monday night was marked by a quiet tribute to the Leicester helicopter disaster.
He is a man really starting to settle in at City now, but must have had an impossibly difficult week. However awful this has been for Leicester’s players, they at least have each other; they are going through this trauma as a group.
For Mahrez, a Leicester player as recently as July, things are different. While he no doubt has the support and understanding of his City colleagues, theirs is not a shared experience.
With Kevin de Bruyne suffering another injury against Fulham on Thursday night – “We do not know if it is nothing or something serious” was Pep Guardiola’s shoulder-shrug of a post-match assessment – an ever-brighter spotlight falls on Mahrez.
Manager to watch – Mauricio Pochettino
Tottenham’s season thus far could be summarised as getting away with pretty much everything domestically and nothing in Europe. They have played neither as well as 21 points from 10 Premier League games and two top-flight Carabao Cup scalps indicates, nor as badly as one point from three Champions League games suggests.
Spurs have generally been found out by the Premier League and European elite this season; well beaten by Liverpool and Barcelona, they were also stunned by Inter and held at arm’s length by Manchester City.
Against more mediocre opposition like Huddersfield or Cardiff or Manchester United, they’ve generally got the job done but it’s been functional rather than flowing.
With the stadium and Real Madrid situation a constant distraction, Mauricio Pochettino has cut a despondent figure at times over the last fortnight. He has done startling work at Spurs, but even as his players queue up to sign new contracts, uncertainty reigns. It all just looks so laboured, with Monday’s defeat to City ending a huff-and-puff run of four straight league wins by a combined margin of five goals.
When did Tottenham last really play well? Like, really well? It’s genuinely hard to come up with an answer. It’s certainly not been this season – even at Old Trafford they were cack for the first 45 minutes. The honest answer is probably the 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge and that was in April.
It may often be said that a sign of a champion team is winning without playing well, but surely another sign of a champion team is sometimes playing well.
Has Pochettino hit a ceiling at Spurs? Does he need to start planning an exit strategy for his own sake? Collectively, can his players still produce the sort of dazzling football they churned out for fun 18 months ago? The weekend may not provide definitive answers, but this does look a decent time to be facing a Wolves side that started the season well but has begun to falter due to a lack of depth below an established starting eleven.
Team to watch – Chelsea
People shouldn’t really be that surprised to see Chelsea firmly in the title race; it’s entirely in keeping with their recent pattern for alternating proper seasons with banter ones.
And here they very much are, poised to end the weekend second in the table should they take care of business against Crystal Palace and Liverpool fail to win at Arsenal. They’ve also scored 15 goals in their last five games from eight different goalscorers (if you include own goals as one, which we just have).
Ross Barkley has scored in each of his last three Premier League games, Ruben Loftus-Cheek scores hat-tricks now, and Chelsea’s players are scoring for them even when playing for the opposition. Christ, Alvaro Morata’s got two in his last four games.
Can anything stop this Chelsea juggernaut? Probably. Can Crystal Palace this weekend? No.
One-on-one battle to watch – Bournemouth’s attack v Manchester United’s defence
After 10 games last season, Manchester United had conceded four goals and kept eight clean sheets. This season those numbers stand at 17 and one respectively. And on Saturday lunchtime their creaking defence faces a Bournemouth side having a rare old time of it currently.
Only the top four have scored more than Bournemouth’s 19 goals, with Callum Wilson bagging five goals and four assists in 10 games to date – his totals for the whole of last season were eight and two.
An eminently plausible victory for Bournemouth would lift them six points clear of United and potentially leave them fourth in the table after 11 games. Giddy times indeed at the Vitality.
Football League game to watch – Stoke v Middlesbrough
A Stoke side belatedly getting their Championship act together take on bona fide promotion contenders Middlesbrough.
Both sides have just one defeat in their last six, while third-placed Boro are the only team in the division still with a single-figure goals against column.
With leaders Sheffield United facing a tricky trip to draw specialists Nottingham Forest and Leeds not in action until the Sunday, there’s every chance that victory here would take Middlesbrough top of the table, while any win for Stoke would lift them into the top half and firmly into a congested promotion picture.
Plus, as all form, evidence and logic suggests, Arsenal v Liverpool should have goals all over the place and this one should be 0-0. It is therefore nailed on for Stoke and Middlesbrough to serve up some 5-4 shenanigans while the big boys grind out a dire goalless draw at the Emirates.
European game to watch – Real Madrid v Real Valladolid
Because, honestly, who on earth knows what Real Madrid are going to do next? Here they face a Valladolid side three places and two points above them in a bonkers La Liga table that looks far more like an early Premier League effort where two points a game was title-winning form rather than possibly good enough for a Champions League spot if you’re lucky.
Valladolid are unbeaten away from home and have conceded just three goals in five games on the road this season; as such they are perhaps the worst of all possible opponents for Madrid in their current funk. Small-fry that you’ll get minimal credit for beating, yet more than capable of inflicting even more Bernabeu pain on a club still trying to come to terms with life in a post-Ronaldo world.
Writer to watch – Dave Tickner