Premier Preview: Beef, steak and puffed chests

ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action. Watch ESPN’s live and exclusive coverage of Chelsea versus Everton live on ESPN from 4:30pm on Saturday

Gary Neville says that he used to be more up for Manchester United's games against Liverpool than any other fixture in his playing career, which gives you a measure of the magnitude of the occasion.

It all dates back to Alex Ferguson’s arrival in England, and his determination to – to use his later phrase – “knock Liverpool off their perch”. It's something he has now achieved – certainly in terms of league titles, if not in European Cups. Even given Liverpool’s relative fall from grace in recent seasons, you still get the impression that this remains the fixture Fergie rings in red on the calendar. There’s still a big edge to the game.

One or two in the Manchester United camp – particularly Nemanja Vidic – will be pleased that Fernando Torres is no longer a Liverpool player, because he used to torment them in this fixture. Liverpool have a decent record against United at Anfield in recent years; United were tested at Stoke and I think they’ll have a tough job on their hands this Saturday lunchtime as well.

However, Liverpool still concern me – they’ve spent £100 million on players, but they look well short of a side that has seen that kind of investment. Going forward they have the potential to be excellent with Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll – even though the two have clear difficulties playing together – but defensively they have issues that they really need to address.

There’s also the issue of Wayne Rooney, off the back of his England red card. The atmosphere will be electric, so he’ll need to do his best to focus on the game, and not on the inevitable barrage of abuse from the crowd. 

While Manchester City will be favourites for the visit of Aston Villa, Roberto Mancini’s men will have to be wary of the in-form Gabriel Agbonlahor. He has been a slow-burner, touted as one to watch for the past five or so seasons now, but isn’t it great to see a local boy make it to the Villa first team and have such an impact now? He seems much happier under Alex McLeish than Gerard Houllier’s management, and that’s apparent from the displays on the pitch.

I was amused by the story this week of James Collins, who has a foot problem, and is having to play with a slab of steak in his boot! It seems to hark back to the 1940s and 1950s where players didn’t want to miss a single game – it’s actually quite heartening to still see that kind of commitment from players. It also reflects the approach of the manager as well; McLeish is a no-nonsense individual, and he demands the same from his players. 

City still have the Carlos Tevez affair swirling around them, and it’s not going to go away until the Argentinian leaves the club. The whole affair is an indictment of much of modern football and the way it’s run – I don’t think anyone emerges from this with a lot of credit. It’ll also be interesting to see how they balance the demands of the Premier League and Champions League: City host Villarreal Tuesday, after losing to Bayern Munich last time, and it’ll be interesting to see what team Roberto Mancini puts out on Saturday.

At the other end of the table, Wigan host Bolton. It’s too early to call this a relegation six-pointer, because Bolton’s position is a slightly false one. Their opening fixtures have been horrendous; whoever it is that has a grudge against them and works with the Premier League fixtures computer has done a very good job!

They’ve played all the big guns, and I suppose you could say that they have got them out the way, but I would expect them to rise slowly. It’s always difficult to pick yourself up after having taken a battering in the opening games, but I'd expect them to move through the gears, if not smoothly, then reasonably effectively in the coming months. I don’t expect them to be bottom, or even in the bottom three.

However, I don’t see Wigan being very far from trouble: with one win in seven, their basic problem is that they don’t score many goals, even if they do play some nice football.

One Premier League manager said to me last week that he thinks that Roberto Martinez’s side will be OK, simply because they have the experience of being in this position before. It’s an interesting take, and he may well be right, but I just think there is a danger that they could be playing with fire once too often.

Wigan's issue is that they don’t sit comfortably in the league because of the size of their club, the modest size of their support and the fact that one man has to bankroll them. I have a lot of respect for those involved in keeping the club in the Premier League, but I do think it’ll prove to be an unequal struggle.

Chelsea versus Everton is intriguing, not least because the visitors have the best record of any team against Chelsea in the Abramovich era. Everton’s approach doesn’t suit Chelsea – I’m full of admiration for Moyes for the energy and attitude he’s instilled into that side, in difficult circumstances. They were unlucky against Liverpool, but I think they tend to puff out their chests when they come up against the top sides, and I expect them to cause Chelsea a few problems.

Who’d have thought that Arsenal against Sunderland would be 15th against 16th? And it doesn’t look like things will be settling down for either side anytime soon. I like what Steve Bruce is trying to do with Sunderland, but their issue is in the final third, where they have no one who is consistently going to put the ball in the net.

Although they’ll miss Nicklas Bendtner (who is ineligible under the agreements of his loan), I don’t think he is that man, and theyt’ll have to turn to either Connor Wickham or Ji Dong-Won – both of whom are inexperienced at this level. Arsenal will gradually improve, maybe not to the extent of finishing in the Champions League places, but I can’t see why they won’t end up in the top seven. I do think it’ll be a stop-start campaign for them and that will be very frustrating for their fans, who aren’t used to such inconsistency either on or off the pitch.

Talking of surprises, Newcastle have had an impressive start to the season, but it's still early. They’ll be delighted to be in fourth place and one of only four unbeaten sides, but an improving Tottenham represent their first real challenge. It’ll be a good examination for both teams, as it’ll tell as much about Spurs’ renaissance is genuine – after their early season set-back against Manchester City – and it’ll also tell us just how much they can expect from the season.

If Newcastle can come out of this game victorious, then they can realistically look at a top-eight finish. If they lose – which in my view seems the most likely option – then they shouldn’t be too disheartened; in Yohan Cabaye they have a midfielder who could end up being one of the players of the season. Blackburn's visit to QPR matches two clubs in transition. Under Tony Fernandes QPR should be looking to slowly move up the table, despite the odd hiccup. There’s still work to be done there, and Neil Warnock is looking to bring in a few new faces to the club – Sebastian Bassong of Tottenham being one of them. I don’t think QPR should worry about relegation, but that’s not to say that they’ll have it all their own way.

Unfortunately I don’t think it’ll be a happy ending for Blackburn – their trip to India has merely emphasised their problems rather than sorted them out. I’m not sure how long Steve Kean can continue, because there’s so much unhappiness and antagonism towards him. Couple that with naïve owners and it’s a dangerous combination that could well lead to Rovers' demise.

Two sides also tipped for the drop are Norwich and Swansea. While they're currently ninth and tenth respectively, I’m not really convinced that either side are equipped to stay up; history shows that if promoted sides are going to make a real fist of it, then it tends to be in the first half of the season. Both have had decent starts, but when you look at Hull and Blackpool in recent years, they had flying starts and still struggled badly in the second half of the season.

At the moment, both have eight points and they’ll be wondering where the other 32 will come from. I like the approach of both; I feel that Swansea play the more refined football, but Paul Lambert is an innovative coach. But ultimately, I feel both will struggle despite sitting comfortably in a rather embryonic league table.

Two of Englandr’s Europa League representatives do battle at the Britannia Stadium, as Stoke host Fulham. I’m surprised that both have been as solid as they have. Stoke really amaze me in that they have managed to maintain a decent run in the Premier League – albeit with the odd blip – but their form in Europe has been fantastic. To go to Kiev and nearly win the game was a terrific effort, as was the defeat they inflicted on Besiktas at home. Tony Pulis now has a squad that’s broad enough in terms of numbers and deep enough in terms of quality to compete on both fronts.

Fulham, on the other hand, seemed to be suffering in the league because of their endeavours in Europe, and it was only really a fortnight ago in their 6-0 win over QPR that we got a glimpse of what they’re really capable of. I think they’ve still got the experience from their run to the final under Roy Hodgson two years ago that will keep them going in both competitions.

Speaking of Roy Hodgson, I’m surprised that his West Brom side have struggled somewhat, after a decent campaign last year. They had a difficult start with Manchester United and then Chelsea, but played very well in those matches (despite losing both). A month ago Wolves might have been fancying their chances at the Hawthorns, but they’ve lost four on the bounce.

I know Mick McCarthy has been frustrated with some of the goals they've given away, but he has instilled a strong mentality in that side. The loss of Peter Odemwingie would be a blow to many Premier League sides but Shane Long seems unperturbed by the step up from the Championship.

Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA Europa League and more. For more information visit espn.co.uk/tv http://espn.co.uk/tv

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