Excuse my yawning. It’s been a week of [insert inexcusably horrific merry-go-round sponsor that changes seemingly every five to ten minutes I refuse to identify by name] Cup in the U.K. and “journalists” in Spain legitimately claiming La Liga’s title race to be over after Real Madrid failed to score a goal. And oh my god, France! More yawning. Bouts of yawns! Please make all of the yawning stop!! Is the black from the constant scroll of lopsided score lines across the continent thanks to manufactured dream teams us dying?? Yet we barely lived, I exclaimed!
The people need some Premiership action to soothe their soul. So, wake up from your slumber and prepare yourselves for a return to proper full fledged football this weekend. Get in!
A few of this weekend’s matchups to salivate and lament over:
Southampton v. Manchester United
This is a massive encounter to keep your eyes on. Southampton have been underwhelming by their standards thus far this season. They’ve scored four goals in total and have already dropped points against Swansea at home, Huddersfield away and Watford again at home. Not to mention, the Saints at full strength and at their St. Mary’s home were knocked out of the aforementioned League Cup by Championship side Wolverhampton in the second round. #SUPERYIKES
The lack of scoring has been their downfall so far. Their Italian ace Manolo Gabbiadini, who is fighting for a potential starting spot on Italy’s World Cup roster (Simone Zaza is busy trying to complete his Euro 2016 quarterfinal penalty run up still), is not bringing his usual fire. The pomp isn’t there. Besides his one goal tally, he has been quiet to say the least. The club hinge on his numbers to progress and he is playing himself out of the starting lineup completely (Shane Long started ahead of him in Southampton’s recent victory over Crystal Palace). For me, he is their key. He simply knows where the goal is and can finish. A number 9 forward. Combined with a usually dangerous Dušan Tadić on the wing and reliable captain and stalwart Steven Davis in the middle, Southampton should normally be a handful. I do look for them to bounce back this weekend and expect St. Mary’s to return to being the tricky trip away it has demonstrated itself to be over the years.
It should be noted, Manchester United are coming into this match with their own issues. After dropping their first points of the season drawing away at Stoke City, a match which saw them revert back to their inefficiency in the final third and lack of creative bite to break down a parked bus defence, they have lost superstar Paul Pogba to injury. Although, the two goals Stoke scored are the last goals United have conceded. That’s a plus. And the forwards have been hugely contributing by slotting three past Basel in the Champions League group stages and four past Everton, the latter a flattering score line based on performance. Both of those victories came at the fortress of Old Trafford; however, and their ability to finish teams off away will be the focus on Saturday.
United will be the heavy favorites, especially with Romelu Lukaku purring. Nemanja Matić and Marouane Fellaini are in lustrous form holding the midfield. And the best goalkeeper in the world, David de Gea, spends his time between the woodwork for the Red Devils. But something has me, as a United fan, nervous. Phil Jones, an extremely solid defender when fit, can be prone to and is, frankly, due a mistake. And the lack of an out and out left back leaves the side vulnerable against a pacy and technical winger. Sprinkle in the fact that United have a recent history of wasting scoring chances, a fatal flaw away from home in particular, and we have a clear opportunity at an interesting tactical battle in the making. Southampton boss Mauricio Pellegrino will not fear facing Jose Mourinho and will look to exploit the Pogba-sized hole in midfield. If it is Ashley Young or Daley Blind at left back for United, expect Tadić to fancy himself to prosper.
Any points would be a huge result for Southampton and I fully expect them to play tight and hope to possibly snatch a goal late on. On the other hand, anything but victory would be an astounding disappointment for the co-leaders. They must attack and not get frustrated. United will have to continue to try and maximize goals from set pieces, especially if they are playing against all eleven men behind the ball. If you cannot fragment an all out defence, goals from corners and free kicks are a must. Mourinho has to keep playmakers on the pitch and give them time to get on the ball. Anthony Martial is toying with defenders at the moment. Marcus Rashford may have finally found his consistent shooting boots. And Jesse Lingard is always an option possessing both lightning speed and a confidence that puts most prize fighters to shame.
A barnburner in the making.
Stoke City v. Chelsea
It has been an interesting season for Stoke up until now. I am sure their fans are frustrated with their meager five point haul after 5 matches, three of which came from an early one nil surprise win over Arsenal on the second weekend. Stoke are famously solid at home and that is exactly why I think this match against the champions will be one of interest. Manager Mark Hughes has his men deployed to frustrate. He has a stable of high quality defenders at his disposal: Ryan Shawcross, Geoff Cameron, Bruno Martins Indi, Kurt Zouma and Kevin Wimmer, for example. He has Darren Fletcher and Joe Allen to lean on in midfield. Two experienced and level headed footballers utterly unimpressed by any opposition. And he has the blossoming firepower upfront in Cameroonian and exquisitely named Jean-Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting alongside the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri, Jesé and Mame Biram Diouf. On paper: Stokelona. On the pitch: mostly Brokelona. This is a very good team with plenty full internationals. Their inconsistency is worrying as is their inability to produce against supposed lower teams. It is fine to get four points from Arsenal and Manchester United. But to then also get just ONE point from West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United? Nah, bruv. Not going to cut it.
Chelsea have been odd this season. As the reigning champions you expect the world. They have started slow (see Burnley loss) yet shown grit (see Tottenham win). They have seemed surprisingly frail at times. For instance, they’ve stacked up red cards (two against Burnley in their opening fixture, and one against Arsenal in their draw last weekend) with a slew of rash challenges. Chelsea just have not started to purely click yet. Álvaro Morata is scoring goals though and Eden Hazard is finally fully fit. Those two haven’t had much time together but could, and should, prove a lethal combination in this league (unfortunately, Willian suffers with the reappearance of Hazard, which is a bona fide travesty as the Brazilian is so skilled and been a consistent bright spot over the last two seasons for the Blues). Also, it is important to add, the west London midfield does feel a bit misshapen since Antonio Conte hasn’t yet mastered his plans regarding finding an ideal running mate for workhorse N’Golo Kanté. Cesc Fàbregas is a much more offensive minded alternative to the sturdy Tiémoué Bakayoko, who can pull strings, break up play and dominate the middle third. Conte plays with wing backs (Marcos Alonso on the left and Victor Moses or new Italian phenomenon Davide Zappacosta on the right) leaving only two availabilities to steady the ship in the middle. Kanté could die and I would still field and expect his corpse to lock down opposing attacks. Sooooo, that leaves only one opening Conte needs to fill with someone who can anchor the midfield as well as link up play to the forward three. The question mark of whom, I believe, has led to some shakiness in Chelsea’s performances this term.
This brings us to this weekend’s meeting: Chelsea surely anticipate bringing home a win. I sense the Potters can frustrate them though and it will be intriguing to see how the Chelsea players react. The Blues back line needs to toughen up and expect a physical battle the few times Stoke do breach the final third. All eyes will be on Conte though and his team selection. The correct duo in midfield will surely dictate this encounter.
Leicester City v. Liverpool
Leicester have had one of the most difficult openings, fixture wise, to a season in history. They have already played and lost to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. And now they face Liverpool for the second time in a week (the Foxes knocked out Liverpool after a 2-0 result in the League Cup a few days ago). That is rough going. Predictably they sit low in the table and seem to be frazzled, compounded by a draw away versus Huddersfield Town. The loss of midfielder Danny Drinkwater on deadline day to Chelsea stung. He was crucial to their balance. And was not aptly replaced. The silver linings have been defender Harry Maguire, who looks a player with plenty potential, the goal scoring form of Shinji Okazaki and the bright sparks in cameo performances from young English winger Demarai Gray. Add those plus points to the elite talents of Kasper Schmeichel in goal and Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy up front, and Leicester can threaten to be the terror they proved to be in 2015-2016. This is a side that should be creating havoc for anyone in the Premiership. They should be fighting for points even against the top 6. Merely surviving in this league is not an option.
Liverpool have been their usual inconsistent selves this campaign. One week annihilating Arsenal four nil, the next getting shamed by Manchester City by five. They’ve also dropped points to Watford and Burnley, teams they should be manhandling. The Reds last won FIVE matches ago so will be looking for domination when they visit the King Power Stadium. They will suit up without the suspended Sadio Mané, without a doubt the crown jewel of Liverpool. They do now have Phillipe Coutinho at their disposal, who alongside fellow Brazilian countryman Firmino, should be a colossal force going forward in the league. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has yet to shine for his new club, but will duly do so over time (he has been deployed on the right but is yearning for a central position). Mohamed Salah has looked settled, chipped in a few goals and adds genuine pizazz to the attack. It’s the defence that is a touch more shocking. Absolutely no human being breathing in the Milky Way is scared to shoot on either perennial sieves Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius. The center halves have been wildly unconvincing, whether it has been Dejan Lovren, Jöel Matip, Joe Gomez or Ragnar Klavan back there. No one coupling has looked to be the answer for Jürgen Klopp’s team. Far from it. And now that injuries are beginning to plague the team (Lovren and Matip a doubt for the Leicester tie), the failed attempt this summer at signing Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk looking all the more a catastrophe.
This match can be a definitive statement for both clubs. Leicester desperately need points to move into the positions they actually envisioned being in. They have lost crucial components from the title winning side (Kanté and Drinkwater specifically), but still retain world class talent. They are at home and will want to turn this impotent start around. More importantly, the Foxes will be frantically attempting to illustrate their ability to beat anyone or cause anyone coming into their arena sincere problems. For Liverpool, it is much of the same. They need to hit pause on their current slide and will be focused on instilling confidence back into the squad. The club have top 4 aspirations and will need to beat the teams below them to achieve that. Liverpool also need to show that they can win despite injuries. They are bigger than one or two players but I have yet to see any sort of punch in a lineup lacking Mané. This will be the test that they hope to overcome propelling them in good stead ahead of the vital and extremely busy next few months.
Buckle in for this one!
Well then, get a pot of tea on. Plate the sarnis. And do not move your eyes from the screen. Some absolute belting matches to watch this weekend as the season begins to get into full swing. Many clubs have begun European endeavors and domestic cup runs so the games come fast now. Teams need to truly focus on their momentum and consistency as dropped points become even more valuable. Whichever match you decide to watch, enjoy, appreciate the plot twists and I hope your team does you justice.