Arsenal v Liverpool: huge clash will reveal their title chances
Premier League preview: this week could decide which teams are genuine contenders for the crown
IT'S time to fire up the floodlights and get down to business in the Premier League. It's dark, it's cold and the phony war of late summer is well and truly over. Now is the time for teams with serious title ambitions to prove their credentials while there is still time for those who endured bad starts to turn things round.
This could be a defining week in the title race, with several key games and one absolutely crucial one. Further down the table, the fact that only three points separate ninth from 18th suggests that nobody can relax.
Here's the best of the weekend's action:
Arsenal v Liverpool:
Is this the biggest game of the season so far? Neither side was fancied as a title contender back in August, but whoever wins this one will have to be taken very seriously indeed. Arsenal top the table and have been imperious at times since defeat against Aston Villa on the opening day. But much has been made of the fact they are about to experience their first tough run of the season, and that they are looking down the barrel of a third home defeat in a row. Mathieu Flamini was crucial to Arsenal's early-season solidity and in his absence they have struggled, and the game against Chelsea only highlighted the Gunners' lack of strength in depth. The big guns will be out for this one, but who will shore up midfield? Third-placed Liverpool bounced back from their own rocky patch with a fine win over West Brom last week and Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge they have the most potent attack in the league. It's been a good week for the club's owners, Fenway Sports Group, as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, a win in this one would be the icing on the cake, and it's not out of the question. Could be a cracker.
Newcastle v Chelsea:
Second-placed Chelsea kick off the weekend's action on Saturday lunchtime in the knowledge that a win over the Magpies will put them top of the table. Jose Mourinho appears to have settled on his preferred line-up and has somehow got Fernando Torres looking like the player he used to be at Liverpool. Chelsea are on a run of six straight wins and Mourinho is back to his feisty best, clashing with City boss Manuel Pellegrini last week. It spells bad news for Newcastle, who will be without defenders Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini. The Magpies have flickered at times this season but have rarely shone and they will be pleased to leave St James' Park with a point.
Fulham v Man Utd
What to make of Manchester United? They were 15 minutes from another Old Trafford disaster against Stoke last week, but ended up with three points. Was that late turnaround down to luck or the return of the United never-say-die spirit? Whatever the answer, it will have galvanised David Moyes side, and with Wayne Rooney pulling the strings they should overpower Fulham on Saturday. If they don't it will surely put paid to United's title challenge, and so the pressure is on. But it's not just Moyes feeling the heat, Cottagers boss Martin Jol is also under the cosh, and the Fulham faithful are losing patience with him. Craven Cottage may not expect all three points, but they will sense that United are not the side they once were, and they will expect their boys to give the visitors a proper work out at the very least.
Everton v Tottenham
Southampton's remarkable start to the season has rather overshadowed the achievements of Everton under new boss Roberto Martinez. The Toffees lie in sixth place just one point behind Spurs, and a win on Saturday would likely propel them into the top four and possibly as high as second. Romelu Lukaku has been monstering defences all season and goalkeeper Tim Howard has been a rock at the back. They will face a tough test against Spurs, but Everton, and their fans, will not be daunted. Spurs have had a fine start to the season and their away form has been impressive, but there are signs that the early impetus is starting to slow. And despite having the likes of Andros Townsend in the side, the Lilywhites have only nine goals this season. The visitors may have to settle for a draw on Sunday.
Cardiff v Swansea
Not a match that will affect the top of the table, but the first ever Premier League Welsh derby should be quite an occasion and with only two points separating the teams there will be more than just bragging rights up for grabs. The atmosphere will be intense and that may mean that the form book counts for nothing. But on paper Swansea must be favourites. They have the proven Premier League talents, but who knows what will happen on the pitch.
The weekend's other games:
Hull v Sunderland
Man City v Norwich
Stoke v Southampton
West Brom v Crystal Palace
West Ham v Aston Villa