Game to watch – Liverpool v Arsenal
For a while it was Manchester United. Before then the role was shared between Crystal Palace, West Ham, Southampton and Swansea. Sunday offers an opportunity for Arsenal to bloody a few noses and audition as Liverpool’s new bogey team.
The champions have been slowly and tentatively piecing together any lost momentum in recent months, scoring one, two, three, four and five goals in their last five games. But a Premier League defeat in north London, combined with a loss to the same side at Wembley six weeks later, betrayed more than a few chinks in the armour.
Arsenal know both their hard-fought win at the Emirates and penalty shoot-out victory at the national stadium came with caveats. Liverpool slowed down considerably after the restart and the Community Shield can be happily disregarded if the circumstances suit. Mikel Arteta and his players deserved and received praise that was accompanied with a self-acknowledging ‘but’.
So this is a chance to make a statement that won’t be muffled by cries of Liverpool not trying, or certain trophies being meaningless. Arsenal can lay down a clear marker as to where they find themselves at this point of the evolution.
And have no doubt: they are capable of maintaining their perfect record while curtailing Liverpool’s. Arteta has moulded a dogged and determined side out of what he was left in December, adept at some quite wonderful things on and off the ball. This is a team playing for its manager. There are few things more formidable.
Liverpool know and have harnessed that very same power to become one of the best teams in the world. The freakish nature of their first game against Leeds was soon lost amid a haze of utter dominance away at a supposed challenger to their throne. Chelsea had their moments but that was the champions at their imperious best.
Arsenal are yet to really face that incarnation of this team, but have no reason to fear the task that lies ahead. They can hurt Liverpool. They can halt Liverpool. And the Reds could quite easily cut another potential threat down to size. It does feel as though there are more than three points at stake.
Player to watch – Thiago Silva
While much of the focus will be on who resides between the posts, or perhaps even the continued development of Kai Havertz, another engrossing Chelsea story line could reach a definitive conclusion this weekend. Thiago Silva must be in contention to start against West Brom.
Frank Lampard might be reticent to throw him straight in at the Premier League’s deep end, but the manager will also be mindful of what he described as “a perfect 60 minutes” for his new centre-half.
“He can’t even speak the language at the minute but that’s not even a problem because his presence and the way he commands people around him is already showing that to me in training and in our game,” Lampard said of “a leader with authority” who impressed midweek against Barnsley.
It could honestly be the best time to introduce Silva: with Andreas Christensen suspended, Antonio Rudiger outcasted and Fikayo Tomori still seemingly untrusted. Matheus Pereira and Grady Diangana will undeniably test a 36-year-old not yet acclimatised to a different style and club but a solid hour against Cauley Woodrow and Patrick Schmidt is ample preparation for anything.
Manager to watch – Chris Wilder
He might still be the safest manager in the Premier League in terms of job security. Sheffield United realise they would risk a global incident by unseating Chris Wilder from his Bramall Lane perch. But he and they could really do with turning this slump around.
Not since September 2013, under David Weir in League One, had the Blades suffered at least five consecutive league defeats. For Wilder, one has to venture back to Northampton’s days in League Two’s mid-table for such a run. Three losses at the end of last season and two to start this leave both in relatively unfamiliar territory.
Wilder has already accepted a need “to tighten up on a few things” and “look at ourselves and do so much better” ahead of a “tasty” encounter with Leeds. It will be interesting to see how United fare not playing on a Monday evening, if nothing else.
Only a fool would put setbacks against Wolves and Aston Villa solely down to the fixture scheduling but the Blades will be happy for any form of normality. Playing on a weekend at Bramall Lane against a team they beat three times in four Championship games could galvanise them.
It was Leeds they pipped to automatic promotion in 2019, in no small part thanks to a 1-0 win at Elland Road that March. Wilder’s pop at “muppets from Leeds” the following month when their Premier League return was confirmed adds a little spice to proceedings – although it should be noted that he and Marcelo Bielsa share a mutual respect.
“Listen, don’t mention anything about bottle and b*llocks or about us dipping out,” Wilder added then. How he would leave to end this run against that team.
Team to watch – Manchester United
The good news is that Manchester United won the title the last time they lost their opening two Premier League games. The bad news is that 2020 is not 1992, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not Sir Alex Ferguson, Bruno Fernandes is not Eric Cantona and Ron Atkinson’s Aston Villa were not Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
From being out-coached by the oldest manager in the entire Football League, Solskjaer will pick on someone roughly his own age at Saturday lunchtime. Graham Potter will happily stick the knife in further and crack a charming smile while doing it.
But this match presents a curious scenario: imagine watching with absolutely no context as to who the teams are and which manager is in charge, but in the knowledge that one was appointed in March 2019 and given hundreds of millions to spend on a Champions League team with perennial title aspirations, while the other was an oft-criticised choice to replace a popular figure straight after a relegation battle months later and asked to lead a stylistic transformation on a budget. It would be difficult to identify which is which.
It damns Solskjaer and the United hierarchy that Potter and a club pulling in entirely the same direction has managed to implement a more defined approach at Brighton in less time and with a fraction of the finances.
Defeat is almost unthinkable, although the concept of United being forced into a panicky last week of the transfer window armed with more money than sense is anything but. Even a draw would add a few millions onto Jadon Sancho’s valuation.
Yet there is already a sense that United need to win, to beat a team that swept Newcastle aside and deserved more against Chelsea. Their schedule consigned them to a season of playing catch-up; their form might only compound that issue.
Football League game to watch – Bournemouth v Norwich
Watford’s first game against bitter rivals Luton in 14 years is the connoisseur’s weekend choice but those of us with no imagination or charisma will glance at the fixtures and be comforted by Norwich’s visit to Bournemouth.
Both will be in contention for an immediate top-flight return. Bournemouth have started with a 3-2 win over Blackburn and a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough, while Norwich followed up an opening 1-0 win at Huddersfield with a 2-2 draw against Preston.
Their two Premier League matches last season produced a total of one goal. On second thoughts, just stick Watford v Luton on.
European game to watch – Roma v Juventus
The Andrea Pirlo experiment had an ideal test subject in Claudio Ranieri’s bewildered Sampdoria last week. Cristiano Ronaldo pitched in with a customary late goal but Aaron Ramsey, Dejan Kulusevski and Gianluca Frabotta all thrilled in Turin.
Roma will be a less welcoming opponent, and thus a more reliable barometer. They finished fifth last season to Sampdoria’s 16th. But the downgrading of a 0-0 draw against Verona to a 3-0 defeat due to fielding the ineligible Amadou Diawara should get a few backs up.