Burnley – Manchester United
The importance of United beating newly promoted Burnley this weekend can’t be overstated. Well actually, I suppose it probably can; it’s not like Louis van Gaal will be out on his ear if they lose, a draw wouldn’t end their chances of Champions League qualification, and a win wouldn’t necessarily be a sign of continued success to come. But Manchester United’s start has been so very lacklustre, a sopping wet blanket thrown over the promising sparks that crackled in the pre-season. Burnley are probably the weakest team in the division, and have lost their first two games. One feels that, even with United’s injury list (which is substantial), even though they’re yet to click in an unfamiliar formation, and even though Marcos Rojo will not be approved in time to play this weekend, Manchester United should never be losing to Burnley. They have assembled the most expensive squad in the history of British football, worth £401.2 million. Burnley’s starting XI cost around £5 million, 12 times less than the cost of Angel di Maria alone. A loss here would be more than just a wet blanket on the mood at Old Trafford, van Gaal may as well be donating to ALS. It’s strange; last season under Moyes, the intuitive feeling was that United’s form was down to some mental shortcoming. It was, after all, the team that had won the league the season prior. A lot of onlookers blamed the dreadful year on the players’ utter lack of confidence in Moyes and his methods and thought that, especially after van Gaal was appointed, a new manager with a winning aura would do as much to invigorate the team as anything else. It looks like that alone will not turn Manchester United back into the confident team from two season ago. On Saturday though, van Gaal must at least rustle up enough of the old feeling to beat Burnley.
Manchester City – Stoke City
Stoke will have hoped to have had a win under their belts before they faced the champions. A narrow loss to Villa and a dour draw to Hull has given them a very plain start indeed, and with City seemingly already in top gear, joy for the Potters is unlikely to be found this weekend. Mark Hughes has actually assembled a rather handsome squad, with a bevy of smart attacking players built on the ever-steady defence. Loanee Victor Moses joins Bojan, Marko Arnautovic and Peter Odemwingie in the attack, completing a group hallmarked by pace and a willingness to run at opponents with intent. Charlie Adam and Stephen Ireland are a couple of savvy passers of the ball and, if worst comes to worst, there’s always professional lamppost Peter Crouch to aim at. Of all of the mid-to-lower table clubs, you could argue that Stoke have the best squad, certainly in terms of a mixture of youth, promise and experience. Unfortunately, Manchester City have the best squad in the league as a whole, possibly in the world, so it shouldn’t make too much difference on Sunday. Just how stacked the reigning champions are was perfectly demonstrated last week when Stevan Jovetic scored a tidy brace; a player who made only a handful of appearances last season is now showing himself to be more than able to understudy Sergio Aguero. In the meantime, the not-fully-fit Aguero has started to develop the useful habit of turning into the world’s best super-sub, scoring with literally his first touch against Liverpool. Yikes.
Newcastle United – Crystal Palace
Crystal Palace have just appointed Neil Warnock as their manager, finally filling their vacancy after weeks of uncertainty. Warnock, though, is probably not an appointment to really get the Palace fans’ hearts racing. Most recently remembered in England’s top flight for being sacked just before QPR really became a circus, a lot of people forget the excellent work he did with Rangers in the Championship the season before their promotion, leading them to first place and somehow coaxing some consistently magical performances out of Adel Taarabt. After his sacking, he then, perhaps unwisely, attempted to tackle the equally-volatile Leeds United job, which ended with him parting ways with the club in April last year with the team hovering just above the Championship relegation zone. He is far from the worst option out there for Palace. But Pulis was so loved, and as one Twitterer put it, “Sacking Tony Pulis and hiring Neil Warnock is like divorcing your smoking hot wife and marrying Neil Warnock”. How quickly and successfully Warnock will be able to remould a team which had become so married to the best of the Pulis Philosophy will be the question for Palace this season. Newcastle, although still winless after the first two games, will be hungrily looking at this turbulent Palace situation as one from which they can take all three points. Their new signing, Remy Cabella, is a very skilled and elusive dribbler, and “ginger Pirlo” (stick to the “space monkey” jokes, Roy) Jack Colback will be buoyed by his recent England call-up.
Everton – Chelsea
Jose Mourinho will be coming up against a very good Everton team this weekend, populated by a few of his old charges, Romelu Lukaku and Samuel Eto’o. Lukaku was never really a Chelsea player and the whole world breathed a happy sigh of relief when the news of his transfer to Everton broke. One suspects that he would love nothing more than to score against his old employers (and compatriot Thibaut Courtois) then jog smugly past Jose to really show him what he’s missing. He might even bearhug Roberto Martinez again, that’d be nice. Eto’o looked wily and willing, if not totally effective, as a striker last season with Chelsea, and he had some choice words for Mourinho after he’d left, even if he denies any rift now. Funnily enough, Chelsea have suddenly got a few striking problems of their own, with Diego Costa likely to miss the Everton match with a hamstring injury. Fernando Torres is apparently on his way to replace Mario Balotelli at Milan, so only Didier Drogba, a little older now and much less the force he used to be, remains as a starting option. Costa’s injury has turned out to be less serious than first feared, but it still poses a problem for Mourinho against Everton. The Merseysiders are pushing for Champions League qualification and so, technically, are proper rivals of sorts to Mourinho’s Chelsea. He will want to knock them down a few pegs on Sunday, but without a strong presence up top it will make it significantly harder to do so. He might be relying on an Eden Hazard blinder, or for Drogba to turn back the clocks. With Costa having looked completely at home in English football, Martinez will be thankful he gets to take on this slightly wounded Chelsea team. All this while promising Chelsea youngster Christan Atsu (on loan at Everton) has to sit out. Atsu should probably have a little chat to Lukaku about the Chelsea loan system while he’s there.
Tottenham – Liverpool
Here he comes, he’s back, back with a vengeance, back to thrill us all and set the world on fire! Back with undershirt slogans, with unsaveable penalties, with a staggering array of variations of the mohican hairstyle. He’s bringing back the sulk, the screamer, the red-card-because-I-can, the training ground bust-up! It’s Mario! Super Mario!
Liverpool will just be hoping he can do something to fill the cavernous hole that Luis Suarez has left (the one in the Liverpool attack, not the one in Chiellini’s shoulder). Balotelli is capable of being one of the most devastating players in the league, but also one of the most diabolical. Even in the worst Milan team of all time, he scored 30 goals in 54 games. He will score for Liverpool, of that you can be sure, and some of the goals will be wonderful. It might be best not to try and predict anything about what will happen here; just let Mario go to work, sit back and enjoy the show. He scored twice on his AC Milan debut…