It’s always nice returning to Premier League action after an international break, which simply can’t match the intensity and excitement of the best league in the world. The qualifiers do have a certain drama to them but the overall quality isn’t up to scratch and watching mismatched nations playing out one sided wins will never live up to a hard fought Premier League six pointer. One who certainly doesn’t appreciate the drama of an international break though is Rafa Benitez who, amusingly, is now without his two best players due to injury, which goes to show that the internationals may have repercussions in this week’s fixtures.
Saturday Fixtures; all kick-offs 3pm unless stated.
Aston Villa vs. Chelsea (12.45pm)
On paper this looks like it could be a really good game between two sides who like to play attacking football at pace. In reality though both sides will be fielding players who have been travelling around the world this week on international duty and with this match coming so soon I’d be surprised if either side are at their best. Ancelotti’s Chelsea, courtesy of a larger squad, may be able to shake off the tired legs more easily and because they have more quality in general, I think they’ll edge a tight game at Villa Park.
Arsenal vs. Birmingham City
Arsenal have been in fine form so far this season and the break may have done them some good, giving players like Rosicky and Walcott a chance to get themselves fitter and pushing for regular inclusion after various injuries. Birmingham fans will be boosted by news of an upcoming spending spree thanks to their new owner, but how that impacts on the current squad it’s hard to predict; it could force them to show their worth or leave them nervously looking over their shoulders until January. Either way, they’re yet to properly gel as a team so far this season and will struggle at the Emirates against a top Arsenal side.
Everton vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Everton’s injury troubles persist but with Arteta and Jagielka both now tentatively back in training and Yakubu now almost ready for the first team again, morale in the camp will be boosted. More importantly, Steven Pienaar may be fit to return and add much needed spark to the midfield that drew with Stoke last time out, which would be timely indeed as Tim Cahill and Johnny Heitinga will be tried after travelling from Australia this week. Wolves were beaten by Pompey last time out, and while there’s no shame in that, becoming the first scalp of a winless team will do little for the morale of McCarthy’s men and I think this is an away trip that will pose too big a challenge for them.
Manchester United vs. Bolton Wanderers
Bolton picked up an impressive point from Tottenham in the last round of fixtures and (I’m assured) took the game to the Londoners at times. Their form has picked up dramatically after a very poor start to the season and Megson will go to Old Trafford determined to put United through their paces. The Champions have to be favourites for this one but will miss Wayne Rooney more than people realise and it will be a test of the depth of Ferguson’s squad after letting go certain players over the summer. I think United may scrape through, but a draw would not surprise me in the slightest here today.
Portsmouth vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Harry Redknapp’s return to Portsmouth comes at an intriguing time, with Portsmouth finally getting a win under their belts in the last match and with Spurs held by Bolton after a couple of big wins. Pompey have brought in Avram Grant and if he can work peacefully alongside Paul Hart then it could be a shrewd move – despite being quite unpopular as Chelsea manager he did a reasonable job and brings some experience to the South Coast side. Spurs will be boosted by the return of Jermaine Defoe and there are scripts there just waiting to be written, but Pompey have looked OK in recent weeks and this’ll be a tight affair.
Stoke City vs. West Ham United
Now I rate West Ham under Zola, or at least, I think they are better than they’ve shown thus far this season and I think it’s a matter of time and injuries until they get going. However, they are quite a lightweight side – they often play some really lovely football which is great to see, but have few real enforcers who can fight for three points. When embarking on a trip to the Britannia stadium, that becomes a problem, because Stoke are in many ways the opposite of the Hammers, dogged to the core. They scrapped a point from Everton last time out, but I think with their famous home advantage, today they’ll get all three.
Sunderland vs. Liverpool
Sunderland were hugely unlucky not to take a very unlikely three points home from Old Trafford in their last match and doubtless Anton Ferdinand won’t be allowed to forget his own-goal for many years. However, they showed that they have the spirit and the quality to match the big boys with that performance and Bruce has got a fine partnership going up front with Darren Bent finally looking like the player he’s supposed to be. Liverpool are badly weakened by the loss of Torres and Gerrard and have had defensive troubles in recent times – if Sunderland can get at them early and not let them settle, I’m sniffing an upset.
Sunday Fixtures; kick-off times as shown.
Blackburn Rovers vs. Burnley (1pm)
This is going to be a fiery occasion that’s for sure, with the rivalry between these sides almost more fierce because it has been contested so sparsely in recent years. Burnley, somewhat surprisingly, look to be favourites going into the game as they sit in the top half of the table. However, their home form is what’s put them there as they maintain two 100% records: they’ve won every home game and lost every away game. Allardyce will be desperate to maintain that run after they were outclassed by Arsenal last time out, and will hope his side can rediscover the form that saw them beat Villa. This will probably be a hotly contested derby, and a draw could well be on the cards but if there’s to be a victor, I think it will be Burnley.
Wigan Athletic vs. Manchester City (4pm)
Wigan slipped up to lowly Hull in their last game before the break, but for tis fixture they return to the DW Stadium which was of course the location of that epic win against Chelsea, and that will spur them on. City are of course a tough task for any side now, but like many top teams will be affected by their players’ globe-trotting exploits, and the constant media speculation surrounding Robinho is unlikely to be helping matters. Still, I think City have enough strength in their squad to get a result from this game and expect an away win, but Wigan could easily pull of another shock.
Monday Fixture; 8pm kick-off.
Fulham vs. Hull City
Hull picked up a vital three points against Wolves before the international break and that will have made for an easier week for Phil Brown. He will still be feeling the pressure though and knows that he needs to start stringing some results together to get their season on track. Fulham have struggled for consistency this term, with occasional glimpses of what they’re capable of undermined by some very poor, dispirited displays. They need to turn Craven Cottage into the stronghold it was last season again, and this is an ideal fixture with which to start that off. The break should have done them good, so I think this is a home win.
What are your thoughts on this weekend’s Premier League fixtures? Any of my predictions you disagree with? Leave a comment below and let me know how you think the weekend will pan out…