Tetchiness, tactics and dry-docked flagships

ESPN's man with the mic Jon Champion looks ahead to the weekend's Premier League action.

This round of fixtures throws up two matches which could have significant bearing on matters at the top of the Premier League come the end of the season.

Tottenham just about held off the strong late challenge of Liverpool for a Europa League place at the end of last season, but given the way that the two sides have begun this campaign, you’d say Liverpool are the favourites to challenge for a top-four place.

Not being in Europe is inevitably a positive for Liverpool in the challenge for a Champions League spot, but I don’t think Harry Redknapp will let the Europa League get in the way. He has an enormous squad and can therefore play a shadow team in Europe, which shouldn’t really have any affect on their Premier League commitments.

Liverpool showed signs of frailty for the first time this season in their defeat at Stoke last weekend, it was perhaps a bit of a reality check for them.

They’ve bought well in midfield and attacking areas, though they are still perhaps a little weak at the back, where they’re still reliant on an ageing Jamie Carragher and Glen Johnson is once again out injured. While Enrique is a good signing at left back, in central defence and at right back there are still question marks against Liverpool.

Tottenham made real compromises in their selection for their opening Europa League group game, which shows just how crucial Harry Redknapp believes the Liverpool match is to his team’s season. We will see whether that selection was justified when they take to the pitch on Sunday.

It was fascinating to see the first signs of Kenny Dalglish’s old tetchiness resurfacing last week with his comments about referees. He always operated on a reasonably short fuse when it came to things like that during his first spell in charge. Maybe the honeymoon period is coming to an end and he is just beginning to feel the reality of the situation he’s in, where there are great expectations placed upon him by the American owners.

Times have moved on since Kenny’s first spell in charge and the authorities are now framing their disciplinary rules in such a way that managers are discouraged from even making the slightest comment, even positive, about a referee.

There have been the same old suggestions of ‘mind games’, but it’s very unlikely a referee is going to be influenced by those kind of comments – it’s part of their training now. Perhaps Kenny is perhaps trying a tactic that might have worked 20 years ago, but won't wash now.

It’s the first of many "Champions League play-offs" over the course of the season as we wait to see who emerges as the real threat to Arsenal’s position in the Champions League.

Having rested so many of their players in midweek, and given they also have home advantage, Tottenham should win this one. After the defeat at Stoke, there will be one or two questions in some Liverpool minds that weren’t there before.

Sunday’s other big game sees Manchester United host Chelsea, who at this stage seem even further behind the champions than last year. United have really kicked on, they were terrific at Bolton last weekend and Phil Jones looks like an immense signing in every sense of the word.

There are even people round Manchester United comparing Jones to the great Duncan Edwards. That may seem a little premature, but for people like Bobby Charlton to say that shows how highly he is rated. The fact that he set up two of Rooney’s hat-trick goals at Bolton – despite playing at right-back – tells you how much he has to offer this side, quite apart from his silky-smooth defensive qualities.

The gap has widened because Chelsea have not bought as effectively as Manchester United. They also don't have the same powers of regeneration, as their youth scheme is nowhere near as productive as United’s.

Andre Villas-Boas will have a dilemma over whether or not to play Fernando Torres. He perhaps shouldn’t, given his form and that of his striking rivals. With Didier Drogba still recovering from his bang on the head against Norwich, the best bet would look like being Nicolas Anelka as the main striker with Daniel Sturridge and Juan Mata either side of him.

However, there is pressure from Abramovich to play the flagship signing, as Ancelotti found at the end of last season. I suspect Villas-Boas will be feeling the same heat. 

Although it will be an important game in the title race, it’s far too early for talk of psychological blows. There will be several of these heavyweight ties over the season, so there’ll be plenty of chances to make up ground, though at this stage I’d still put Chelsea behind the two Manchester sides.

Manchester City made their Champions League bow this week and, though dropping points may have been blow to their pride and confidence, what better fixture to get back on track than Fulham away?

The Cottagers are struggling for Premier League points and goals at present. City will find them quite accommodating opposition, and the fact is that they could put out two, maybe even three different teams for this fixture and win, given the poor form of Fulham right now.

The wider issue for City is how they cope with the twin demands of Champions League and Premier League – the age-old dilemma of teams new to Europe’s premier competition. It took Manchester United six or seven years to get used to it and juggle the two.

Arsenal will also be happy with their post-Champions League fixture – a trip to Blackburn. Despite their debilitating injury list, Arsenal are starting to get one or two players back from suspension. That includes one of the bright sparks in a season of gloom, Gervinho, who is available after serving a three-match ban. They go to Ewood Park as strong favourites.

Two teams enjoying a rather more leisurely paddle than many expected are Aston Villa and Newcastle, who do battle at Villa Park on Saturday. The fixture will pit Shay Given, who is impressing in goal for his new club, against the side he served so well for so long.

Newcastle have looked surprisingly solid this season, which is just as well given they’re not going to score many goals. Alan Pardew would’ve bitten your hand off two months back had you offered him a spot in the top four after four games.

Villa, meanwhile, are settling nicely under Alex McLeish. They should be pretty strong at home, but I think they may struggle to break Newcastle down. They do seem to be a side steadily improving though, which should encourage both the manager and the fans.

Less happy will be fans of Bolton, who saw their side dismantled by Manchester United last weekend – and Norwich at home is just the sort of fixture they need after that.

The Canaries currently look like a side slightly out of their depth. I admire the way they play but I don’t see someone like Grant Holt, a terrific Football League striker for the best part of a decade, scoring the goals to keep them in the Premier League. Equally I don’t see many goals coming from midfield. I would say Bolton have the perfect opportunity to get back on track this weekend.

Everton are publicly going through great angst at the limitations of their squad and the fact they had to sell Mikel Arteta. Still, there's enough quality there that they were able to leave out their captain Phil Neville for last weekend’s game against Villa.

Clearly things are not too bad and there was a lot of spirit shown by Everton in that 2-2 draw. I would expect them to win this weekend against a Wigan side who, although exciting going forward, are always vulnerable defensively.

Swansea may not be vulnerable at the back, but at the other end it’s four games, no goals. That perhaps highlights the difference between the Premier League and the Championship. They have a prolific Championship scorer in Danny Graham, but he’s hardly had a sniff at goal this season.

Brendan Rodgers' team might not have expected much from trips to Man City and Arsenal but they've also drawn blanks at home to Wigan and Sunderland. This time they welcome a West Brom team buoyed by their first win last weekend, and Roy Hodgson's men should be capable of bagging another three points. I think at the moment Swansea are right behind the eight ball.

Mick McCarthy will hope his Wolves side react well following their first setback after being beaten by Tottenham last weekend. If there is an arch pragmatist in the Premier League it’s probably McCarthy, who takes a deliciously realistic approach to games.

I’m sure he’s got Saturday’s fixture with QPR ringed in red on his calendar as one to go for the three points. Neil Warnock is still bedding in new signings; they look competitive now and I’m sure they will be over the coming months, whereas a few weeks ago they seem destined to go straight back down, but they don’t have enough to trouble Wolves unduly.

With Sunderland it never rains but it pours. They seemed to have found arguably the most temperamental footballer English football has seen for a while in Asamoah Gyan, who basically made it impossible for himself on Wearside because of his attitude. In Gyan's absence Bruce needs goals and he needs Nicklas Bendtner to come good. We’re all getting a bit sick of hearing the Dane tell us what a great player he is – it’s time to prove it.

The problem for Stoke ahead of Sunday’s trip to the Stadium of Light is that they’ll be making the lengthy trip back from Kiev beforehand. Tony Pulis has seen most things in a lengthy managerial career but this is a new challenge for him and his team.

Jon Champion is a football commentator on ESPN, broadcaster of Barclays Premier League, FA Cup, Clydesdale Bank Premier League, UEFA Europa League and more.

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