Man United face Van Gaal acid test as Chelsea come to town
Premier League preview: how Chelsea approach Old Trafford showdown will be telling
Another big week in the Premier League looms with one game in particular standing out. Chelsea's trip to Manchester United on Sunday is undeniably the biggest clash of the round, and is likely to reveal plenty about the relative merits of the two teams involved.
That clash, which sees the league leaders take on team in sixth place, may be the most glamorous but theoretically Man City's trip to West Ham is just as crucial as it pits second against fourth.
And there is plenty more to look forward to elsewhere. What sort of reception will shirt-swapping Mario Balotelli get at Anfield, presuming he even makes the team for Liverpool's game against Hull? Can Southampton establish themselves as genuine top four material with a home win against Stoke? Can Newcastle continue their revival at Spurs?
And if you're looking for a good time don't venture to the Stadium of Light, where the Premier League's two most depressed sets of fans will congregate to watch Sunderland, beaten 8-0 last weekend, play Arsenal, whose Groundhog Day shortcomings are as obvious as ever.
Here's the best of the weekend action:
Man United v ChelseaLouis van Gaal wanted to be judged after three months at Old Trafford. That milestone has come and gone with opinions still divided, but Sunday's game will surely provide conclusive evidence of whether United are progressing under the Dutchman. United are one point better off than they were at this stage last season, and have scored more goals. But they have also conceded more goals.
Perhaps the most obvious indication of United's status will come before kick-off. Jose Mourinho is famously risk averse and is without his main striker Diego Costa. He would surely have pencilled this one in as a draw at the start of the season and it would be entirely predicatbale if Chelsea lined up without a centre-forward. But if Mourinho fields an attacking side at Old Trafford it will surely prove that he believes United are there for the taking.
That said Chelsea could regret allowing Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao to come at them all afternoon, and the chances are that United will score. The issue will be how their defence stands up. It will be an intriguing clash, but Mourinho usually gets what he wants and a draw could be the most likely outcome.
West Ham v Man CityAfter the disappointment of their Champions League display in Moscow on Tuesday, City will want to bounce back with a win that would put a modicum of pressure on Chelsea. However, they may not get things all their own way at Upton Park. West Ham's fine start to the season has been overshadowed by that of Southampton, but the Hammers are not above the likes of Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal in the table by accident.
Sam Allardyce's side have been playing with unusual panache this season, and Diafra Sakho has six goals to his name already. However, despite an eye-catching win over Liverpool the Hammers have not convinced against the bigger fish, losing to Spurs, Man United and Southampton (who are rapidly becoming the real deal). Whether they can get one over on City remains to be seen.
City striker Sergio Aguero is in scary form at present and his presence alone should guarantee City a share of the spoils, and with a full squad to choose from Manuel Pellegrini should have enough talent at his disposal to win this one.
Sunderland v ArsenalLast week Sunderland were humiliated by Southampton and manager Gus Poyet has made it clear that he wants his side to make amends. Judging from the terrifying look on his face on Saturday evening his players would do well to heed his advice. On paper, a game against Arsenal might not seem ideal, but the Gunners are in a pretty bad place themselves right now and could be vulnerable.
Despite their unconvincing form, the Gunners will be favourites for this one and that gives Sunderland some freedom to attack them. Poyet won't want to risk another thrashing, but Arsenal have shown few signs of putting anyone to the sword recently. Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez offer a threat going forward, but once again the defence will be patched up, although Mikel Arteta's return in midfield could help.
After letting in eight goals last week Sunderland keeper Vito Mannone will be doubly determined not to mess up against his old club. A shock could be on the cards, but it is hard to know what to expect.
Liverpool v HullThe build-up to this game will be, as ever, all about Mario Balotelli. Will Brendan Rodgers pick the Italian striker after his shirt-swapping antics and lackadaisical performance against Real Madrid? If he does, how will Anfield react? And if he doesn't, how will Balotelli react? Daniel Sturridge is still out injured, but with Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini also available, Rodgers has options. So far he has handled Balotelli well, but this could be his biggest test yet.
As for Hull, they will be without two key figures in defender Michael Dawson and top scorer Nikica Jelavic. That could prove critical, and Liverpool should have enough, whoever plays up front, to take the points.
Southampton v StokeSaints fans are bound to be chuckling over the striking situation at Liverpool. Having sold Rickie Lambert to Liverpool in the summer Ronald Koeman went out and bought Graziano Pelle, who has now replaced Lambert's team-mate, Mario Balotelli, in the Italy team. Liverpool also stole the Saints skipper Adam Lallana, but their replacement is Dusan Tadic, who has also been sensational this season.
Teams that win 8-0 in the Premier League must not be taken likely, and Southampton look even more convincing than they did this time last year. A game against Stoke is a real test of a side's mettle, and a win at St Mary's on Saturday would cement Southampton's place in the top three, and if other results go their way, could see them start to pull away from the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Man United.
The weekend's other games:
SATURDAYWest Brom v Crystal PalaceSwansea v Leicester
SUNDAYBurnley v EvertonTottenham v Newcastle
MONDAYQPR v Aston Villa