The top two usher in the return of the Premier League at a ridiculous time, while Everton fans prepare to vent their spleens. Also: Aaron Ramsdale gets to dirty his gloves…
Game to watch – Manchester City v Liverpool
Arsenal fans might dispute whether these are the best two teams in the Premier League right now but there can be no doubt that this is the modern era’s best rivalry. And after a season’s break prompted by Liverpool being bobbins, Pep Guarduola and Jurgen Klopp are back at it.
We deserve City versus Liverpool after a 427-day international break, even if Klopp has a point about the scheduling. Why is not only the best game of the weekend but one of the biggest games of the season kicking off before Football Focus has finished?
GMP have their reasons and the Premier League has a few million of them, but still… we need to hope that a potential classic doesn’t fall by the wayside while jet-lagged stars shake off their globetrotting exploits.
For all Klopp’s moaning, at least Liverpool should be used to it. And you can bet his bleating is reserved for us plebs outside the dressing room. Inside, Klopp will be rallying his troops to take their chance to usurp City at the summit, with the champions facing a potential fall to fourth if the Reds take maximum points at the Etihad.
There are blueprints already laid out this season for stopping City and penetrating them. Arsenal suffocated the champions at the Emirates recently and, less than a fortnight ago, Chelsea showed how they can be pierced with pace on the break. Which makes Liverpool a dangerous foe for Guardiola and co.
But, of course, City can offer those opportunities safe in the knowledge that they will create their own, especially down the flanks if Trent Alexander-Arnold goes walkies and leaves Jeremy Doku to roam the City left.
We can only hope both managers go balls out, even if the timing – in the weekend and the season – might prompt more reserved tactics.
Team to watch – Everton
Goodison is a glorious old ground. Cramped, rickety and, sadly, in need of the replacement on its way. But what it lacks in facilities and finish, it more than makes up for in atmosphere, especially when the locals are irate. And it is possible we are about to see Goodison at its angriest on Sunday afternoon.
Evertonians have good reason to be pissed off. Their team takes to the field for the first time on Sunday since the Premier League stripped the club of 10 precious points. Those players will be fuelled by the fire coming from the Gwladys Street End and relish the fact that the scorn is being poured on a different target.
The home fans are more used to flinging flak at their underperforming own, but the Premier League punishment, coupled with a vast improvement in Sean Dyche’s side’s performances could prompt a more united Everton than we have seen for years.
The United that Everton are facing need to be ready. The Red Devils have so often wilted amid hostility and, unless Erik ten Hag’s men have grown some bollocks over the international break, it’s entirely possible that they could cave in again, even if they aren’t the intended target of Everton’s fury.
Manager to watch – Ange Postecoglou
Tottenham were flying until the final week before the international break. Then pretty much everything that could go wrong, did.
Spurs surrendered the league’s last unbeaten record by losing 4-1 at home to Chelsea in a game that, weirdly, they received more credit than the victors on account of their bold approach to dealing with injury set-backs and indiscipline. Then they went to Wolves, depleted but emboldened. At least until added time, when Spurs snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
That left Postecoglou and his men reeling at the start of a fortnight off. They return to action on Sunday when Villa, themselves transformed by top-class coach, rock up in north London.
Postecoglou will still be without his first choice centre-back pairing, his preferred midfield dynamo and the league’s most creative player, with Yves Bissouma and Cristian Romero both suspended and Micky van de Ven and James Maddison written off until the new year.
Big Ange is happy to be the focus of the scrutiny as the rest of us wonder if Spurs can really cope with so many set-backs. He spoke this week of relishing the spotlight amid the struggle: “all eyes are on me… internally, externally – everyone is looking.” Which may be true, but none of us are daft enough to think he will do anything different.
Player to watch – Aaron Ramsdale
The Arsenal goalkeeper will get the opportunity his dad certainly feels he deserves to reapply for his old job when Arsenal go to Brentford on Saturday evening.
Ramsdale has been made to sit on the bench for every Premier League and Champions League test since the September international break, with David Raya establishing himself as undisputed first-choice, even if Mikel Arteta attempted to kid us on by suggesting he has dual No.1s.
His selections since have confirmed that to be bullsh*t, leaving Ramsdale sat on the sidelines, despite some ropey performances from Raya. But the Spaniard can’t even sit on the bench on Saturday when Arsenal face his parent club, so Ramsdale has the chance to prove why he is too good to be back-up.
It is difficult for goalkeepers to grasp such opportunities. Ramsdale could be left redundant if Arsenal turn it on, and the last thing he needs to be doing is seeking out chances to catch the eye. That only leads to bad decisions and Ramsdale cannot give the critics more fuel in the wake of his admission over his concentration struggles.
All Ramsdale can do is give the manager a decision to make ahead of the next games – Lens in midweek before Wolves go to the Emirates next weekend. We can already guess what that decision might be, but the England goalkeeper, as a minimum, needs to make it as awkward as possible for Arteta to bench him once more.
EFL game to watch – Rotherham v Leeds
The Championship’s return offers the chance to see the closest challengers to leaders Leicester this weekend, with Ipswich able to leapfrog the Foxes if they win at seventh-placed West Brom on Saturday evening.
Before that, though, to Rotherham we go for some Friday Night Lights as Leeds head from west to South Yorkshire to take on Rotherham.
Third-from-top against third-from-bottom ought not to be much of a contest, especially given the form both sides were in prior to the international break. But the Millers might benefit from the new manager bounce. At least, they might if they had appointed one.
As it is, Rotherham are still whittling down the candidates to replace Matt Taylor, who was axed before the international break, leaving interim management team Wayne Carlisle, Scott Brown and Dan Green to welcome Daniel Farke’s side to the New York Stadium. The trio might take heart from Leeds’ away form – the promotion chasers have lost three of their eight away games so far and won’t get an easy ride from a sell-out home crowd.
European game to watch – Juventus v Inter Milan
Not only in the Premier League is it first-versus-second this week. Though Klopp must be hugely envious of the Sunday night scheduling of the Derby d’Italia, with Juve and Inter given a day and a half longer than Liverpool and City to recover from the international break before one of the most pivotal games of the season.
At the Allianz Stadium on Sunday night, Inter have the opportunity to put five points between them and their closest challengers. Juve have a handy cushion on the chasing pack but more of a concern for the hosts will be the prospect of falling so far off the Nerazzurri’s pace.
Juve’s players may be fresher, with the Old Lady’s boys having played fewer than half the number of minutes than Inter’s stars over the international break. But Inter, looking for their seventh consecutive win, have been on fire through the first third of the season, out-scoring everyone – thanks in no small part to Lautaro Martinez’s dozen strikes – and conceding fewer goals. Can Serie A’s second-best defence clog up the league’s most-potent attack?