Rodgers faces biggest test as Liverpool take aim at Man Utd
Premier League preview: big games for City and QPR as United face old rivals
FORGET the FA Cup, the Premier League is back with a bang this weekend, with some of the biggest games in the English football calendar to look forward to. The most eye-catching match-ups take place on Sunday when Man United face Liverpool and champions Man City head to Arsenal, but there are some pretty tasty games on Saturday too with Harry Redknapp's QPR facing his old side, Spurs, and a massive six-pointer between Aston Villa and Southampton.
Without doubt the most eagerly anticipated game of the weekend for neutrals will be the visit of Liverpool to Old Trafford as they face Manchester United. It's a clash that is unlikely to have huge significance in the title race, but it does pit two of the fiercest rivals in Europe against each other, and there is plenty of history between the two sides.
Last season Luis Suarez, recently returned from an eight-match ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra, refused to shake the United defender's hand prompting something close to hysteria. Fortunately things have calmed down since then, and relations between the two clubs are now relatively good.
However, that has not stopped Liverpool throwing a couple of grenades in United's direction. Firstly, new Reds signing Daniel Sturridge announced that Liverpool were the biggest club in the country, and then manager Brendan Rodgers announced he wanted to build his side around 'Scouse' talent, and pointed out that United's talisman, Wayne Rooney, comes from Merseyside.
This is probably the biggest game of Rodgers's reign at Liverpool and could set the tone for the rivalry between the two managers.
However, Alex Ferguson will not be fazed. His side are seven points clear at the top of the table and have taken 25 points from their last nine games. In Robin van Persie he has the Premier League's best marksman and the defence looks a lot steadier now that Nemanja Vidic has returned from injury.
This is a real test for Liverpool however. They are languishing in eighth place and also face away games against Arsenal and Man City in the next few weeks. In Sturridge, Rodgers at last has some support for Luis Suarez, but the Uruguayan is likely to plough a lone furrow up front on Sunday. Liverpool have not beaten any of the teams above them in the league this season and it would be quite something if they managed to buck that trend this weekend.
The second part of super Sunday sees Manchester City travel to the Emirates to take on Arsenal. It's hard to know quite what to expect of this game as both teams are somewhat erratic. City's failure to sell their ticket allocation has prompted a debate about seat prices in the league, but there are likely to be other debates to be had after the match.
City have a terrible record at Arsenal, and have not beaten the Gunners at home in the league for 37 years. However, Roberto Mancini's troops really need three points from this game whatever happens between United and Liverpool earlier in the day. If United slip up and they fail to capitalise it will not bode well for their chances of defending their title, and they cannot afford to let United extend their lead.
However, City are likely to be without Sergio Aguero, which could mean that Mario Balotelli gets one more chance to prove himself. More of a problem could be the fact that Yaya Toure is away with Ivory Coast as the African Cup of Nations begins. Arsenal will also be without an Ivory Coast star, but Gervinho is less important to their chances than Toure is to City's.
The main question for Arsenal fans is whether Theo Walcott will play through the middle once again and, if he does, how successful he proves to be.
Saturday's games do not have the heavyweight feel of those on Sunday, but the match between QPR and Spurs could be a humdinger. Harry Redknapp will be desperate to get one over on his old club and his successor at White Hart Lane, Andre Villas Boas.
The two managers are involved in something of a feud after Redknapp appeared to take a dig at AVB, by suggesting that it was easy to manage Chelsea. AVB, of course, was fired by Roman Abramovich last season and he responded to Redknapp’s taunt by explaining that the pressure at Stamford Bridge was beyond anything most people ever experience.
He now has Redknapp's old job at White Hart Lane and will be anxious to prove that he has the beating of 'Appy 'Arry.
Which brings us back to the match at Loftus Road. Aside from the egos of the two managers there are other issues to consider. Bottom-of-the-table QPR desperately need some points. They are five points adrift of Southampton and their great escape needs to get going right away. They beat Chelsea last time out and another win could get the fans really believing in them.
Spurs have won four of their last five games and are looking good in third place behind Man City, but this is a local derby with a personal edge and implications at both ends of the table. It could be a humdinger.
For a bona fide relegation fight this weekend look no further than Aston Villa's clash with Southampton. Villa are in something close to disarray. Paul Lambert's side conceded 15 goals in three games over Christmas and then drew 2-2 with Swansea on New Year's Day. They beat Ipswich in the FA Cup but were humbled by Bradford in the League Cup on Tuesday.
The omens do not look good for the visit of fellow strugglers Southampton, who are one point and one place behind them in the table. The Saints’ form is hardly scintillating, but they have lost only two of their last nine league games and will know that victory at Villa Park would give their survival hopes a massive boost. They will fancy their chances.
The weekend's other games see Everton play Swansea at Goodison Park, third-from-bottom Wigan travel to Fulham, struggling Newcastle visit Norwich, Reading, who are second from bottom, entertain high-flying West Brom, Chelsea travel to Stoke and Sunderland host West Ham.