Arsenal v Spurs could shift the Premier League power balance
Premier League preview: all eyes on north London as the leading pack aim to break clear
AFTER the exploits of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in midweek, can we expect to see Premier League stars attempting outrageous bicycle kicks from all over the park this weekend? Maybe not, but there is still plenty to look forward to as the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea try to extend their lead at the top of the table, and we have the first six pointer of the season as the bottom two clubs, QPR and Southampton, come face to face.
But there is one stand out game to look foward to and it could have huge repercussions for the power balance of the Premier League, if not the destination of the trophy.
On Saturday lunchtime all eyes will be on the Emirates as Arsenal take on Spurs in one of the most significant north London derbies for years. The situation is not that different to how it was when the two teams met last season. The Gunners were in crisis back then too, and Spurs were poised to steal their crown. In the end we got an absolute classic as Arsenal picked themselves up off the canvas after going 2-0 down and ran out 5-2 winners.
The fact that nine months after that encounter Arsenal are facing even bigger problems than they did last time suggests that they are team that is heading in the wrong direction, and certainly there are a growing number of supporters who feel that way.
Spurs, too, do not seem to be quite the force they were last season, but despite the pressure on new manager Andre Villas-Boas there are plenty of observers from beyond White Hart Lane faithful who believe that they could have the beating of the Gunners on Saturday.
Arsenal are a point behind Spurs in the table and are enduring their worst start since long before Arsene Wenger arrived at the club.
Things could have been very different for the Gunners. They opened their campaign with a couple of 0-0 draws, but then began racking up the wins. Things looked good until the international break in October. Since then they have won only one of seven games (in 90 minutes) and what looked like an unexpectedly solid defence has reverted to type and sprung some serious leaks.
However, first-choice keeper Wojciech Szczesny is expected to return to action on Saturday and that could boost the reargaurd, although it remains to be seen whether Wenger is serious about switching from a back four to a back five.
The midfield trio of Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are likely to get another chance to develop an understanding, while Theo Walcott will hope he gets another chance in the front three alongside Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, who are starting to find their feet.
However, Walcott will have to undergo a fitness test and his understudy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also has a hip problem. If neither are fit Wenger will have to choose between Aaron Ramsey, Andrei Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh, none of whom are big favourites at the Emirates.
As for Spurs, will AVB, who appears to dislike the idea of playing two strikers, choose Jermain Defoe or former Arsenal man and Emirates hate-figure Emmanuel Adebayor up front? The clever money appears to be on the Togolese striker rather than the Englishman.
The presence of William Gallas in the Spurs line-up will also get the Arsenal fans hot under the collar.
Spurs have been in good form away from home this term and will be confident of knocking Arsenal further off their stride. But in a frenzied derby encounter like this it is almost impossible to know what to expect. But that is why these games are must-watch affairs.
Of the top three it is Chelsea who face the toughest assingment this weekend, away to West Brom, flying high in fifth under the management of former Chelsea coach Steve Clarke. He has already downed one of his former employers, Liverpool, this season and he would love to scalp the Blues as well.
But Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo will know what he's up against as he was Baggies manager from 2009 until his rather harsh sacking in 2011. Since then things have gone pretty well for the Italian and last season he guided the Blues to the Champions League title. However, he does appear to be encountering his first sticky patch as Chelsea boss and they have only two points from their last three games and have slipped from first to third in the table. He badly needs a win on Saturday.
Leaders Manchester United travel to Norwich hoping for a routine away win. Alex Ferguson has had been forced to watch his side come from behind eight times this season, and that is not ideal for a man of his age. But against lowly Norwich he will surely be expecting a restful afternoon on the bench. However, Norwich are improving after their early season malaise and have already beaten Arsenal at Carrow Road. United should win, but it might not be straightforward.
If United slip up then Man City could replace them at the top of the table if they can beat Aston Villa at the Etihad, and it would be a pretty big surprise if they failed to do that. However, Villa could try to unsettle Joe Hart who has come in for some criticism over his performance for England on Wednesday and has been accused of being "cocky" in some quarters.
At the bottom of the table winless QPR welcome Southampton to Loftus Road in the first big relegation scrap of the season. It really is a must-win for the Hoops as even a draw won't help their cause. Anything other than three points and it could be the end for Mark Hughes, no matter what club owner Tony Fernandez says.
In Saturday's other games, Liverpool, who have just one league win at Anfield this season and two overall, will once again put their faith in Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard as they welcome Wigan, Swansea head to the other side of the country to face Newcastle and Reading entertain Everton.
On Sunday Fulham play Sunderland and Monday night sees Stoke visit the East End to face West Ham.