Rafael v Bale, Walcott v Enrique, offbeam Tiote and Chelsea's struggle

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses the StatsZone app – from FFT and Opta, available now – to preview the best of the weekend's Premier League action...

Gareth Bale was initially ruled out of the Manchester United versus Tottenham game because of concerns over a hamstring strain, but Harry Redknapp is now optimistic his left-winger will be fit to start on Sunday.

Sir Alex Ferguson will be disappointed if Bale makes the game, but will remember that he hasn’t fared particularly well against Manchester United over the past couple of seasons. Rafael has played very bravely and aggressively against him both with and without the ball.

When United have possession, the Brazilian has pushed up high to force Bale back inside his own half. When United don’t have the ball, Rafael has stuck tight and tried to intercept the ball before it gets to Bale, not allowing him to get up to full speed to dribble with the ball.

This has had both positive and negative consequences – at Old Trafford last season Rafael nullified Bale so well that the Welshman’s pass completion ratio was below 50%, but in the previous game at White Hart Lane, his impetuousness resulted in him picking up two bookings, and United had to hang on for a draw.

If Bale doesn’t start, Redknapp may turn to Niko Kranjcar, despite the Croatian’s quiet performance at the Emirates last weekend. Moving Luka Modric out wide would be another option, but with Scott Parker absent from the centre of the pitch, it’s unlikely Harry Redknapp will want to further weaken his central midfield zone.

We will also have a good winger versus full-back battle in the Liverpool-Arsenal game at Anfield, where Theo Walcott will be up against Jose Enrique. Walcott enjoyed a great second half against Tottenham last weekend, and as a classic confidence player, will be eager to pick up where he left off.

In his first meeting with Jose Enrique this season, however, the Spanish left-back clearly got the better of him. He played quite deep, meaning Walcott was unable to exploit any space in behind him, and was instead forced to cross in tight situations, of which all six were unsuccessful. In fact, Jose Enrique actually completed more successful crosses himself.

But the Spaniard’s form has dipped slightly over the past few weeks, and with Liverpool at home and their defence likely to play higher up the pitch, Walcott might fancy his chances of taking him on – and will look to recreate his famous assist for Emmanuel Adebayor back at Anfield back in 2008, albeit with Robin van Persie applying the finishing touch this time.

Cheick Tiote is brilliantly energetic, fierce in the tackle, decent positionally, but probably not a particularly talented passer. At the start of his time at Newcastle, the Ivorian seemed to be aware of his limitations on the ball, and played short, safe, sideways balls to more creative teammates.

But last weekend as Newcastle lost a 2-0 lead to Wolves, Tiote often attempted more ambitious forward passes, which frequently went astray and meant Newcastle conceded possession cheaply. That was particularly frustrating given Newcastle’s lead, where ball retention should have been their main concern – at 2-0 up, Tiote gave the ball away seven times from 24 passes.

It will be interesting to see Tiote’s approach this weekend when Sunderland come to town. The Tyne-Wear derby is typically a frantic game which sees the ball given away frequently, so Newcastle could do with some sensible distribution from the centre.

West Brom are very much the underdogs in their home game with Chelsea, but are coming off the back of an excellent 4-0 win over Sunderland in their last Premier League outing.

While fans will be delighted with the sudden deluge of goals, Roy Hodgson is more likely to be content with the solid performance at the back, as West Brom’s display without the ball was highly impressive. They managed to complete 15 of 17 attempted tackles, and all 10 of their clearances were successful.

This is likely to be a difficult test for Chelsea, against a side who will sit deep and keep it tight between the lines. Juan Mata will be starved of space between the lines, and Daniel Sturridge won’t get much behind the defence: it will be tough for the visitors to make the breakthrough.

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