After yet another two-week break for internationals – which saw France, Croatia, Greece and
Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal become the last four European nations to qualify for next year’s World Cup – the Premiership returns this weekend with one of the best group of fixtures I can ever remember. There are Merseyside, Black Country and London derbies; first in the table faces third; two of the top five from last season play each other; and the reigning champions of the top two divisions square off. A fortnight ago, although the fixture list had not looked quite so exciting before the games were played, there were several surprise results and a couple of very entertaining games.
Perhaps the biggest upset came at the Stadium of Light, where lowly Sunderland won for the second time in three games under their new manager, Gus Poyet, as they beat Manchester City 1-0 through a Phil Bardsley goal. Despite the disparity in the two sides starting positions in the table – not to mention the amount each has spent on transfer fees over the last few years – the result actually should not have been too much of a surprise: it was not only the fourth away defeat of the season for City; they had also lost by the same scoreline on their previous three visits to Sunderland. There was more joy in the northeast for Newcastle, who soaked up lots of pressure in their match at Tottenham, but crucially scored the only goal of the game through Loic Remy to claim all three points from White Hart Lane, leaving Andre Villas-Boas’s men to head into an international break with another costly home defeat, just as they had done against West Ham back in October.
In the game that had received the biggest billing – but was far from the most entertaining – Manchester United became the first team to beat Arsenal in the Premiership since the opening day, as former Gunner Robin Van Persie scored against his old club once again and gave David Moyes’s men a narrow 1-0 victory that brought them back to within five points of the top. At Stamford Bridge, Steve Clarke – the former assistant to Jose Mourinho and now manager at West Brom – saw his team recover from 1-0 down to take a 2-1 lead away at Chelsea, but they were denied all three points when the home side were awarded a controversial penalty in the final minute when Ramires was adjudged to have been brought down by Steven Reid and Eden Hazard converted the spot kick. The points were also shared in South Wales as a result of a late penalty, as Swansea had come all the way back from a 2-0 half-time deficit against Stoke to go 3-2 in front in the 86th minute, but Charlie Adam converted from 12 yards to give the visitors a much-needed point.
Elsewhere, Liverpool and Southampton both scored four times to continue their impressive starts to the season, winning at home against Fulham and Hull respectively; Norwich came from behind to beat West Ham 3-1 at Carrow Road, a result that perhaps saved Chris Hughton’s job for at least a little while longer as the Canaries had been really struggling before that win; Crystal Palace earned a credible 0-0 draw against Everton, but remain rooted to the bottom of the table; and Aston Villa dispatched Cardiff, 2-0 at Villa Park.
This weekend starts with Liverpool taking the trip across Stanley Park to take on their local rivals, Everton, with both clubs now led by former Swansea managers, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez. If the Toffees take three points, the two sides would then be level in the league, whereas a win for the Reds would see them – at least temporarily – regain top spot in the Premiership, prior to Arsenal’s home match with Southampton. With the Saints in third and boasting the meanest defence through the first 11 fixtures – during which time they have conceded just five goals – the Gunners cannot expect to repeat their 6-1 victory from the corresponding game last season. The late kick off on Saturday is between West Ham and Chelsea, a match which last campaign saw the Blues suffer their first defeat at Upton Park in more that a decade, but since their 3-0 victory at Spurs, the Hammers have not won again and have managed to find the net only twice.
On Sunday, Tottenham travel to the Etihad to face Manchester City, with both teams in need of three points to stay in touch of the top four as both have struggled in the opening quarter of the season. City’s problems have come on the road, as they have won all five of their home Premiership encounters and last time out they racked up seven goals against Norwich; whereas Tottenham’s issues have been finding the net wherever they play – finding the net just 9 times in their opening 11 games, three of which came from the penalty spot. With Manchester United next up, things do not get any easier for Spurs, so they must start picking up points immediately, otherwise there may be questions about Villas-Boas future with the club – not something I want to see since a new manager every two years has a proven record of maintaining mediocrity. The other match on Sunday sees the Premiership and Championship winners from 2012/13 meet in South Wales, as Cardiff entertain Manchester United, hoping to complete a double over the last two title winners having beaten City earlier in the campaign. On Monday night, West Brom host Aston Villa, while the rest of the weekend fixtures see Crystal Palace travel to Hull; Newcastle – who have enjoyed victories over Chelsea and Spurs in their last two games – take on Norwich; Swansea go to Craven Cottage to take on Fulham; and Sunderland will try to make it three wins out of four (and out of eleven) when they travel to Stoke.
Last time, 4-6; Season, 57-53
Home team listed first
Everton vs Liverpool – Draw
Arsenal vs Southampton – Home win
Fulham vs Swansea – Away win
Hull vs Crystal Palace – Home win
Newcastle vs Norwich – Home win
Stoke vs Sunderland – Draw
West Ham vs Chelsea – Away win
Manchester City vs Tottenham – Home win
Cardiff vs Manchester United – Draw
West Brom vs Aston Villa – Home win