Manchester City and United cannot afford derby day defeat
Premier League preview: can a title challenge go up in smoke before the end of September?
A MONTH after kick-off and the Premier League season is getting into its stride with the 'big six' already in position at the top of the table after just four games.
There's not much doubt about the big game this weekend: the Manchester derby on Sunday will be the main event. But there are plenty of other sideshows, not least the west London derby between Chelsea and Fulham and Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey's date with Stoke.
Then there is the "rainbow laces" debate, which will also provide plenty of talking points. All Premier League clubs have been sent brightly coloured laces by gay-rights charity Stonewall, designed to kick start an anti-homophobia drive, but only Everton have confirmed that some first team players will wear them.
There has been criticism of the campaign and the way it has been handled. The Premier League is unhappy it was not consulted while the involvement of bookmaker Paddy Power has added more intrigue as it is regarded as a "third party commercial link" by some.
There will be as much interest in the players' boots as their performances this week.
Man City v Man United:
The Sunday afternoon clash between City and United will be uncharted territory for the two managers, Manuel Pellegrini and David Moyes, who will be getting their first taste of the battle for Manchester. How they approach the game remains to be seen and opinions are divided. Both teams have a relatively disappointing seven points from four games, and that means they cannot afford to lose, say some. Others predict a hell-for-leather goal-fest.
What is certain is that, for the losers, seven points and two defeats in the first five games of the campaign will severely compromise their title chances.
Neither team has been brilliant so far this term, but City's lacklustre performances have been more alarming than those of United. With David Silva still missing, Pellegrini will be hoping that one of his other midfield schemers provides a creative spark. From a United perspective it will be interesting to see whether Moyes goes with two up front. After all the drama surrounding Wayne Rooney over the summer and this season, surely he won't relegate the England striker to the bench and go with one up front? Indeed, Rooney's form could prove the difference between the teams.
Chelsea v Fulham:
Jose Mourinho is in uncharted territory. His magic touch appears to have deserted him and, after four games without a win, his Chelsea side cannot afford any slip-ups against out-of-sorts Fulham on Saturday evening.
One of Mourinho's problems is that he has over a dozen midfielders, most of them playmakers, to choose from. With such an array of attacking options Mourinho must decide who his main weapons are. Conversely he has only three front-line strikers, none of whom are on form. Surely the Special One won't be tempted to start at home without a recognised striker as he did at Old Trafford? Stranger things have happened.
Whatever the formation, failure to beat Fulham, with only one win all season, would precipitate a genuine crisis.
Arsenal v Stoke:
Aaron Ramsey has been a revelation for the Gunners this season. With six goals in seven games and a series of all-action performances he has finally blossomed into the player he was expected to become before the horrific broken leg he sustained against Stoke in early 2010. So how will he feel coming up against the team and player that caused it? Surely being reacquainted with Ryan Shawcross on Sunday lunchtime won't throw him off his stride?
It will also be interesting to see if Mesut Ozil gets any special treatment from the Stoke defence.
Whatever happens, the Gunners look confident enough at the moment to claim all three points, even though they are rarely at their best playing the big physical teams like the Potters. Don't expect them to keep a clean sheet though.
Liverpool v Southampton:
Can the Reds revival continue? The only unbeaten team in the league welcome Southampton to Anfield on Saturday and will be confident of a win.
Last week Southampton were unlucky to come up against an inspired goalkeeper in Jussi Jaaskelainen of West Ham. The bad news for them is that Simon Mignolet in the Liverpool goal has been just as impressive this season.
Not everything is going in Liverpool's favour, though. Philippe Coutinho is out for six weeks, and Brendan Rodgers has a few injuries among his defenders, but with Daniel Sturridge on fire up front they should emerge with all three points.
Cardiff v Tottenham:
Spurs have been impressive so far this term and their Europa League game against Tromso on Thursday will not have taken much out of them, so they will be confident of claiming the spoils in Cardiff.
However, the Bluebirds have adapted well to life in the top flight and their win over Man City showed that they are not to be trifled with, at home at least. This Sunday afternoon clash could be intriguing.
The weekend's other fixtures:
SATURDAY Norwich v Aston Villa
Newcastle v Hull
West Brom v Sunderland
West Ham v Everton
SUNDAY Crystal Palace v Swansea ·