With the international break now over, national team players have returned to their daily duties at the club level. FIFA’s governing bodies in each continent always face a strenuous task in terms of scheduling international matches and avoiding fixture congestion. Unfortunately, it’s the players who run the risk of returning to their respective clubs having potentially picked up injuries, minor niggles, and accumulated fatigue. Nonetheless, league matches must resume and the Premier League enters Week 4 with a marquee matchup from Old Trafford to kick things off – the Manchester Derby. Manchester United will host Manchester City in a critical encounter between the 2 Premier League’s title favourites.
The renewal of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola’s bitter rivalry from their time in Spain has added an extra element of intrigue and there will surely be fireworks to come on Saturday morning. Not to be outdone, Antonio Conte will look to defeat his Italian counterpart Francesco Guidolin on Sunday, as Chelsea attempt to make it 4 league wins out of 4 away at Swansea City. And can Liverpool end their 2 game winless run in their home opener against the reigning champions, Leicester City? This, and much more, in this week’s Premier League prediction segment.
Manchester United v Manchester City (Sportsnet, 7:30 A.M. EST Saturday)
The international break could not have come at a worse time for either of these clubs. Both sides were full of momentum after winning their opening 3 league fixtures, but some personnel changes might need to be made for the highly anticipated derby. Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan suffered a thigh injury in Armenia’s 3-0 friendly defeat to the Czech Republic, while left back Luke Shaw was sent home from England duty after feeling some discomfort in his right leg – the same leg he broke in 2 places against PSV Eindhoven which required season-ending surgery last season. Both are questionable for their visit to Manchester City, although the latter could yet feature. Manager Jose Mourinho will be desperate for both players to be fit, as they have excelled in this fledgling season.
Mkhitaryan’s cameos as a substitute have been electric, while Shaw has been excellent both defensively and in an attacking sense out on the left flank. To compound Mourinho’s selection headaches, Ecuador’s Antonio Valencia only returned from his national team duties on Friday, leaving only a measly 24 hours of match preparation if he is to play against City. On the other side of Manchester, Pep Guardiola also has a major selection dilemma after Sergio Aguero was handed a 3 match ban by the FA following his elbow on West Ham’s Winston Reid. The Argentine striker, who is arguably the finest player in the Premier League, has scored 4 goals in his last 3 appearances against United, and his absence will surely hurt the visitors.
But there is no doubt that the status of this match has been greatly enhanced by the simmering rivalry between the 2 respective managers from their time in Spain. In their 16 previous meetings, Guardiola holds the better head-to-head record against Mourinho, winning 7 and just losing 3, while drawing the other 6. Yet, Mourinho remains the only manager in world football to have been able to stop Guardiola from winning the league title in a season (with Real Madrid in 2011-12 season). In terms of silverware, Mourinho has won 22 trophies to Guardiola’s 21.
Reports suggest that there could be a Premier League record 900 million viewers tuning in to watch the Manchester Derby, and it surely promises to be an explosive event. Old Trafford will be rocking as both sides look to earn the bragging rights within the city and abroad. This monumental clash will end at least one team’s perfect start to the season, and without their talisman, Sergio Aguero available, that fate looks likelier to fall upon City.
Bournemouth v West Bromwich Albon (TSN 5, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
Bournemouth’s loan signing of Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere on transfer deadline day was a real statement of intent for a club of their size. The Cherries play an expansive and attractive style of football but adding Wilshere to their midfield ranks may just give them the spark that they need to create more goal scoring opportunities, however injury-prone the Englishman may be. Eddie Howe’s side almost picked up their 1st victory of the season at Selhurst Park a fortnight ago, but Scott Dann’s 90th minute header salvaged a point for Crystal Palace.
For Bournemouth, it was a sucker punch that felt more like 2 dropped points rather than a point gained. Despite being at home on Saturday, the Cherries will find it difficult to break down a tough West Bromwich Albion side. Tony Pulis was reportedly unhappy with his club’s transfer activity this summer, but the Baggies’ boss will nonetheless make sure that his players are fully focused at the task at hand. West Brom will be content to sit off and let Bournemouth keep possession, and set pieces may just be Albion’s best bet at snatching an away goal.
Middlesborough v Crystal Palace (Sportsnet One, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
Middlesborough will aim to extend their unbeaten run to 4 league matches at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday. The hosts have looked relatively comfortable so far in their 1st season back in the top flight under manager Aitor Karanka, picking up a win and 2 draws. On the other hand, Alan Pardew’s Eagles have not been able to arrest a horrible dip in form – stretching back to last season.
Palace have only won 2 of their last 24 league matches dating back to last season – a dreadful run which really should be turned around given the fact that Palace spent £51 million on new signings this summer. This current Crystal Palace squad may not be good enough yet to challenge for a European spot, but they certainly have too much quality to be mired in a relegation battle. Yet, a solitary point from 3 matches so far points to a tough slog if things do not improve, and given Middlesborough’s good form to date, a share of the spoils may be the best that Palace can hope for.
Burnley v Hull City (TSN 3, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
Burnley weren’t really at the races in their last game, and they paid for it as Chelsea tore them apart. Sean Dyche’s side are only competitive when the whole team works hard as a unit, and that wasn’t the case at Stamford Bridge.
The Clarets lack in terms of quality, but they generally try and make up for it by doubling their effort and work rate. They are an honest group of players who will give everything, but they need to score more goals if they are to survive in the Premier League. A couple seasons ago, they were relegated from the top flight after they only managed to score 28 goals in 38 matches – way below a goal per game average. So far this season, Burnley have 2 goals in 3 games which remains below par, although they do have 3 points on the board as well.
Hull City travels to Turf Moor on the back of a cruel defeat at home to Manchester United. The Tigers defended admirably for over 90 minutes and really deserved a point for their remarkable application and determination, but teenage sensation Marcus Rashford’s late winner condemned Mike Phelan’s side to their 1st defeat of the campaign. Nonetheless, Hull have picked up 6 points from a possible 9 and their threadbare squad has been bolstered with a few extra bodies, most notably the £13 million acquisition of Tottenham midfielder, Ryan Mason. There is a belief within the club that they can avoid relegation after their successful start, and with Burnley looking to bounce back from a loss, a hard fought draw seems likely between both clubs.
West Ham United v Watford (Sportsnet World, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
After a bit of a sluggish start, West Ham United will look to get their season truly up and running at home to Watford. Slaven Bilic’s Hammers raised expectations after their formidable season last year, and the home crowd at the London Stadium will be expecting their side to dispatch Watford.
The Hornets’ problematic trend of surrendering leads has carried over from last season, as they have already dropped 5 points from winning positions this season (more than any other club in the Premier League). Walter Mazzarri’s side have played well in bits and patches so far, but they need to put together complete performances in order to gain results. It probably won’t happen for them this week, as West Ham do look a cut above their opponents in this one.
Arsenal v Southampton (TSN4, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
Arsenal finally notched their 1st victory of the season at Watford, and history suggests that Southampton are far from the trickiest visitors to deal with – given that they have failed to beat the Gunners in an away league fixture for almost 30 years. Yet, in the past 6 meetings between the sides (in all competitions), Saints have managed to win on 3 occasions, and draw twice.
Arsenal will be wary of the threat posed by Irish striker Shane Long on the counter attack, after he netted a hat trick in last season’s reverse fixture, with Southampton cruising to a 4-0 victory. Saturday’s encounter is sure to be much closer, with Arsenal intent on making up some ground on their title rivals after a poor start.
One suspects that Claude Puel wouldn’t be too disappointed if his side were able to snatch a point at the Emirates, although he would be in dreamland if they were somehow able to end that torrid 30 year away winless run. It’s extremely unlikely but records, good and bad, are made to be broken, right?
Stoke City v Tottenham Hotspur (Sportsnet, 10 A.M. EST Saturday)
Stoke City don’t have an identity anymore. Under Tony Pulis, they were defensively super organized, physical, aggressive, and they bombarded opposing teams with long balls from different angles – corner kicks, free kicks and the trademark long throw-ins from Rory Delap. The bet365 Stadium (formerly known as the Britannia Stadium) was a true, old school fortress but the same cannot be said anymore.
There is no doubt that Mark Hughes has evolved the team over the past 3 seasons, and to be fair, they have reaped the rewards in terms of not only results, but also style of play. Under Hughes, Stoke have recorded their highest ever position in Premier League history, finishing in 9th place. They have matched that feat for 3 successive seasons now, and while they are much easier on the eye now, there appears to be an identity crisis at the club. Despite possessing a wealth of decent attacking midfielders, the Potters do not seem to have enough quality throughout the side to develop coherent and swift passing moves in order to create chances. The loan signing of striker WIlfried Bony is a step in the right direction though.
Tottenham Hotspur were rather fortunate to come away with a point in their last match at home to Liverpool. Spurs could have easily been 2 or 3 goals down by half time, but to their credit they dug in and found a way to avoid defeat. They did it at Everton in the season opener to claw back a 1-0 deficit and draw 1-1, and they also scored a late winner to beat Crystal Palace by one goal-to-nil in their home opener. Mauricio Pochettino’s men haven’t been spectacular so far, but they have found a way to grind out results. Spurs should be able to find enough in the tank to pick up their 1st away win of the season, particularly if Stoke continues down their wayward trajectory.
Liverpool v Leicester City (TSN1/TSN5, 12:30 P.M. EST Saturday)
Inconsistency remains the biggest problem for Liverpool. These huge swings of form have plagued them for many years, and Jurgen Klopp has not been able to find the proper solution yet. What does appear to be clearer is that Liverpool’s struggles in certain matches stem from opposing teams’ tactical setups. Liverpool deserved to beat Tottenham in their last match, and the Reds could have really scored half a dozen goals if they had been more clinical.
Liverpool’s performances against teams that are more expansive and play more of a free-flowing brand of football have generally been very good under Klopp. That trend has continued this season with an exciting 4-3 win at Arsenal and the aforementioned match they should have won at Spurs. Clubs that sit back, soak the pressure and hit them on the break have proved to be the stumbling block for Liverpool. A failure to break down opposing teams’ defensive setups has frequently led to frustration for Liverpool, and it won’t get any easier for the Reds as they will be coming up against the Champions on Saturday.
Leicester City’s hard working players were superbly organized and they pulverized their opponents on the counter attack last season with brutal speed and efficiency en route to claiming the league title. They have had a mixed start to the new campaign, tasting victory, defeat, and a draw in their 3 matches, but there are signs that they are finding their footing once again. The lethal Jamie Vardy was back amongst the goal scorers last week, while goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is set to start at Anfield despite fears that he was facing an injury layoff. The Foxes are looking to spoil the party in Liverpool’s home opener, and they are exactly the sort of team who can cause Liverpool all sorts of problems.
Swansea City v Chelsea (Sportsnet World, 11 A.M. EST Sunday)
There are major alarm bells ringing at the Liberty Stadium, with Swansea City really struggling. They look badly out of sorts, and the players don’t seem to understand what it is that manager Francesco Guidolin is asking of them. There is also a severe lack of leadership throughout the side, which makes the £12 million sale of captain Ashley Williams to Everton look even more foolish.
The Swans are a well run club, but some of their transfer business this summer has looked quite amateurish and chaotic. Defensively in particular, Swansea looks far too weak at the moment. It is an area where Chelsea boss Antonio Conte will surely seek to exploit on Sunday.
With all eyes on the 2 Manchester clubs and their 100% records to date, Chelsea have flown under the radar, but it must not be forgotten that the Blues have a perfect record too. Trips to South Wales were generally difficult in the past, but this Swansea side are obliging opponents, and if the Manchester derby concludes without a winner, Chelsea could very well find themselves alone – atop the Premier League table.
Sunderland v Everton (TSN4/TSN5, 3 P.M. Monday)
Sunderland were unlucky in their last match, as Jordan Pickford’s error cost them 2 precious away points. It was the sort of slip-up that the Black Cats can ill-afford given their precarious situation. The majority of their transfer business was uninspiring this summer, and they will have to work very hard if they want to avoid a drop this season. As the club’s only fit and available senior striker, Jermaine Defoe’s health will be crucial to Sunderland’s chances this season. They need him to avoid getting hurt.
David Moyes’ former side, Everton, have enjoyed a really good start to the campaign. Picking up 7 points from a possible 9 has been a welcome boost for manager Ronald Koeman, and the Dutchman will hope that the Toffees can extend their good form by coming away from the Stadium of Light with 3 points. It won’t be a straightforward task though, as Sunderland will surely get men behind the ball and defend desperately, but come the final whistle, Everton’s superiority should tell.