Arsenal's worst nightmare, Big Sam and Andy Carroll
Premier League preview: Arsenal face West Ham , Newcastle go after Man Utd
SUMMER is gone and the football season proper is now underway. The sun-drenched pleasantries of the opening weeks of the season are behind us and it is down to business in the Premier League. There are some familiar names at the top of the table, but some big hitters are languishing lower down the ladder and will need to make up ground soon. It's not quite panic-stations for the teams at the bottom, but the pressure on them to get some points is growing by the week.
Here's what to look out for this weekend:
This time last week Arsenal were unbeaten and being touted as possible title challengers. But their defeat at the hands of table-topping Chelsea brought the Gunners back to earth with a bump and exposed some old failings at the back. And as a result of that loss they now they find themselves down in eighth place, seven points off the leaders.
It all makes this week's clash with West Ham rather critical, as Arsenal cannot afford to fall any further off the pace and need to rediscover their backbone to prove that last week's wobble was just a temporary blip. In that scenario, who are the two people Arsene Wenger would least want to see on Saturday? You guessed it Sam Allardyce and Andy Carroll.
Big Sam has been a constant thorn in Wenger's side and has always relished it when his rather more agricultural teams have got one over on Wenger's slick passing outfits. And in Andy Carroll, Allardyce has his ideal centre forward to monster the Gunners, although he is likely to start on the bench. Even so, it promises to be a trying afternoon for the Gunners' defence.
There has been lots of talk about how Steve Bould has beefed up the Arsenal rearguard, and they kept a clean sheet at Stoke earlier in the season. However, Arsenal have conceded a goal in each of their last six games and will do well to stop the Hammers getting on the scoresheet on Saturday evening.
As for West Ham, there have been rumblings of discontent about Big Sam's style of football, after all Upton Park is supposed to be the spiritual home of the beatiful game. But on the other hand the side are seventh in the Premier League and have a decent chance of scalping Arsenal, so it could be worse.
Last season Manchester United's third defeat of the season came at the hands of Newcastle United, and it could happen again this year. The big difference is that when United last faced the Magpies on Tyneside it was early January, not early October, and a repeat of last season's events at St James' Park would be a major setback for Fergie.
However, the omens are not good for Man United. The experts are all agreed that the midfield looks vulnerable, despite the return of Darren Fletcher and Fergie has a chronic lack of cover at the back, which means an injury to either Rio Ferdinand or Jonny Evans (and that is not an unlikely scenario) could be disastrous.
Add to that the fact that Demba Ba is in fine form and Haten Ben Arfa is living up to his promise and the Toon Army will smell blood. So, given the capricious nature of the footballing gods, that means that it might be worth having a punt on Manchester United.
The way that everyone has been talking about Manchester City over the past few days it would be easy to forget that they are unbeaten in the league this season and are nicely positioned near the top of the table. They might not have kept a clean sheet this season but they have compensated at the other end of the pitch.
After the game against Borussia Dortmund, in which keeper Joe Hart excelled, Roberto Mancini said he would solve "the problem". We will find out if he has or not against Sunderland on Saturday lunchtime.
Sunderland are also unbeaten this season but unlike City have found goals hard to come by. The only Black Cat to find the net this term is Steven Fletcher, so if City can keep himn quiet they should have a chance.
Leaders Chelsea welcome Norwich to Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon and will be confident of maintaining their lead at the top of the table. Norwich's best hope might be that Chelsea are still tired after their trip to Norway in the Champions League this week. Whether than is enough remains to be seen, if not, the likes of Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata could run riot.
On Sunday Liverpool will try, yet again, to get their season going as they entertain Stoke. It looked as though Brendan Rodgers had got things going last weekend when they put five past Norwich and Luis Suarez scored a hat-trick. But last night they threw away a lead at home against Udinese and Rodgers was left doing a passable imitation of Inspector Clouseau's boss in the Pink Panther films.
Stoke might fancy their chances at Anfield, and it will be fascinating to see the reaction of the Kop if the Reds mess it up again.
In this weekend's other games high-flying Everton travel to erratic Wigan, bottom club QPR cross their fingers and head to West Brom and stuttering Swansea entertain disappointing Reading. On Sunday Southampton, who are always good value, face Fulham at St Mary's and on-song Spurs welcome Aston Villa to White Hart Lane. ·