English Premier League Preview, Week #4: Counting Down The Weekend's Fixtures

WIGAN ENGLAND - AUGUST 21: Salomon Kalou of Chelsea (L) celebrates with Didier Drogba as he scores their fourth goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Wigan Athletic and Chelsea at DW Stadium on August 21 2010 in Wigan England. (Photo by Getty Images for Chelsea FC/Getty Images for Chelsea FC)

Eight Saturday matches highlight a the return of Premier League soccer.

English Premier League soccer is finally back. After an international break which was officially measured at 92 days in length, the league has a full slate of weekend matches, including eight on Saturday. Still, while there is an unlikely top-five match-up, a battle of undefeateds, and a marqueé match featuring two of the league's more storied clubs, the fourth week of Premier League action lacks a huge derby or a clash within the Big Three.

 

If there was a week where the Premier League could have an uninspiring fixture list, this is it, as two weeks without league action makes even the likes of Wigan-Sunderland compelling.

And that's where we start our countdown.

#10. Wigan Athletic versus Sunderland
Location: The DW Stadium (Wigan)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Wigan, 1-0-2, -9, 17th
Sunderland, 1-1-1, +0, 10th

When last we met ... Wigan Athletic had resumed their 2009-10 characterization: potential giant slayers; possible pygmy pasties. The latter played out in the season’s first week (which now seems so long ago), a 4-0 loss to Blackpool. The former: beating Spurs on the third match day. By that patten, Wigan should lose Saturday, something like 2-0.

Sunderland looks to debut record signing Asamoah Gyan, whose delayed unveiling has built anticipation of his partnership with striker Darren Bent. Bent outscored his teammates 24-19 last season and is the only Black Cat to score thus far this season. Gyan, however, is semi-notorious for under-performing at club level, seeing his goal rate fall by nearly 50 percent when switching from country to club. Though Gyan’s athleticism and hold-up play could make him a good complement for the England international, that’s not the type of description you want tagged to your record signing.

#9. Stoke City versus Aston Villa
Location: Britannia Stadium (Stoke-on-Trent)
Date: Monday, September 13
Time: 3:00 p.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Stoke City, 0-0-3, -4, 19th
Aston Villa, 2-0-1, -2, 4th

Three tough matches see Stoke in nineteenth place with no points, and while losses at Wolves, to Spurs, and at Chelsea are all justifiable, Monday’s match at Aston Villa takes on a heightened importance in the face of a 0-0-4 start. Manager Tony Pulis has said it’s too early for any changes to his approach, meaning Villa can expect a direct, blunt, and physical opponent at the Brittania, especially considering striker Kenwyne Jones is expected to start, his ankle injury having recovered.

The trip to Stoke-on-Trent marks the Aston Villa debut for Gerard Houllier, confirmed mid-week as Kevin MacDonald’s replacement, Martin O’Neill’s successor. While Villa has failed to impress through three rounds, the former Liverpool manager comes into a good situation, his new employers sitting third, still having enough talent to make a run at Champions League. Aston Villa’s roster is not a perfect one, but amidst all the talk of what they’ve let go (James Milner) people have forgotten about what they’ve kept: a solid squad with some potential brilliance from Ashley Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Brad Friedel.

#8. West Ham United versus Chelsea
Location: Boleyn Ground (London)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
West Ham United, 0-0-3, -9, 20th
Chelsea, 3-0-0. +14, 1st

First against worst, the questions are whether Chelsea will be scored upon and how many they’ll rack-up against a West Ham side that’s already let-in nine.

#7. Manchester City vs. Blackburn Rovers
Location: City of Manchester Stadium (Manchester)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Manchester City, 1-1-1, +2, 9th
Blackburn Rovers, 1-0-2, -1, 15th

In a fixture that was slightly more interesting at this time last year, when former Blackburn boss Mark Hughes was on the sidelines at Eastlands, both teams come in off third week losses. Blackburn’s was expected, hosting Arsenal, though the defeat pushes their losing run to two.  Manchester City suffered late disappointment through a Darren Bent stoppage time penalty kick, sending them to their season's first loss.

City starlet Mario Balotelli will miss the match, out six weeks with a knee injury. Likewise, neither Jerome Boateng nor Aleksandr Kolarov will be available, each defender still recovering from injury. Regardless, City will be expected to bounce back against Blackburn.

#6. Newcastle United versus Blackpool
Location: St. James’ Park (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Newcastle United, 1-1-1, +3, 8th
Blackpool, 1-1-1, -2, 12th

These two promoted teams, off to strong starts to their Premier League campaigns, split their matches in last year’s Championship, though this fixture was won by Newcastle 4-1 thanks to goals by Jonas Gutierrez, Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, and Wayne Routledge. Each could feature on Saturday, though Routledge could lose his spot to Marseille loanee Hatem Ben Arfa, expected to be available for Chris Houghton. Likewise, defender Sol Campbell could make his Newcastle debut, the former Spurs and Arsenal man having worked his way back to fitness.

#5. West Bromwich Albion vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Location: The Hawthorns (West Bromwich)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
West Bromwich Albion, 1-0-2, -6, 16th
Tottenham Hotspur, 1-1-1, +0, 11th

Spurs will be without Jermain Defoe, whose ankle injury will keep him out three months. So much for those questions about whether Rafael van der Vaart can get a place, though Defoe’s absence coupled with Michael Dawson’s knee injury (six weeks) made the international break an especially painful one for Tottenham. Recent signing William Gallas could see action.

West Brom is expected to be without midfielder Graham Dorrans, the Scot still out after having to withdraw from international duty due to personal reasons.

#4. Birmingham City vs. Liverpool
Location: St. Andrew’s Stadium (Birmingham)
Date: Sunday, September 12
Time: 11:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Birmingham City, 1-2-0, +1, 6th
Liverpool, 1-1-1, -2, 13th

These teams have drawn their last four mettings, all Premier League contests, dating back to September 2007. This season, neither club has shown itself beyond another draw. Birmingham has the better record, five points through three matches, but it’s been accumulated versus inferior opposition. Liverpool has only four points but have already hosted Arsenal and ventured to Eastlands.

Liverpool will be without Dirk Kuyt, out four weeks with a shoulder injury picked-up on international duty, though the absence comes at a position of depth for Roy Hodgson, who can call upon Ryan Babel or Maxi Rodriguez until Joe Cole returns from suspension.

Birmingham boss Alex McLeish should be concerned with the number of goals the Blues have allowed. Counting their League Cup match with Rochdale, City has already allowed seven goals through four games. While it should have been anticipated that, through regression and losing Joe Hart, City would allow more goals this year than last, the rate through four games is alarmingly high. New signings Alexander Hleb, Jean Beausejour and Martin Jiranek may help.

#3. Fulham vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Location: Craven Cottage (London)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Fulham, 0-3-0, +0, 14th
Wolverhampton Wanderers, 1-2-0, +1, 7th

Admittedly, I may be holding this match in excessive regard, with neither Fulham nor Wolves having the kind of cache to get many to call-off brunch. In my defense, these teams have combined for - let me check - zero losses this year. While you could note that record includes five draws through six matches, I could note you’re being far too stingy with praise for two clubs we need not go out of our way to tear down. Is it really that big a deal that I put them number three?

OK, sorry. I took this hypothetical conversation a bit personally. I’m fine now.

Fulham will still be without Mark Schwarzer, though the Cottagers had probably planned on being without the Aussie permanently before the transfer window closed and the goalkeeper was still with Fulham. David Stockdale has filled in admirably through three matches and is unlikely to cost Fulham anything on Saturday.

Saturday could also see the first time Kevin Doyle and Steven Fletcher start together for Wolves - not that another week of suspense wouldn’t be fun.

#2. Arsenal versus Bolton Wanderers
Location: Emirates Stadium (London)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 10:00 a.m.,  Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Arsenal, 2-1-0, +7, 2nd
Bolton, 1-2-0, +2, 5th

A match-up between two teams in the Premier League’s top five, this match should not be that close. While Arsenal will be missing all of Theo Walcott, Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey (still) and (probably) Robin van Persie, they won this fixture last season, 4-2, scoring all their goals after the 43rd minute, reversing a shock, 2-0 Bolton lead. That match took place in January, shouldn’t after Owen Coyle had moved to Bolton, and though the Trotters may be better setted after nine months under their boss, Coyle’s approach could prove high-risk, high-reward against a team whose talent will make him rue those risks.

#1. Everton versus Manchester United
Location: Goodison Park (Liverpool)
Date: Saturday, September 11
Time: 7:45 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, Diff, Place):
Wigan, 1-0-2, -9, 17th
Sunderland, 1-1-1, +0, 10th

Saturday’s early match is the second most-lopsided of the week, per the table, after Chelsea’s visit to West Ham. Yet given the clubs involved, this match is the weekend’s most intriguing, with the intrigue only augmented by the potential for Everton’s slow start to be prolonged by Manchester United. With Chelsea and Arsenal likely winners, Manchester United will be looking to keep-up with their Big Three compatriots, while Everton has to stop this slide at some point.

Given the areas in which Wayne Rooney (if he plays) operates and how Manchester United’s play develops with their wide midfielders (particularly Antonio Valencia), the area in front of the collapsing back line will be a focal point for Everton. With Phil Neville an injury doubt, Jack Rodwell (or John Heitenga) will be responsible for marking the likes of Rooney, Darren Fletcher, and potential Nani (coming in from the opposite flank) as they look for space between the spot and the edge of the box.

For Everton, there are always set pieces, particularly against a United team comfortable playing without the ball for long periods of time. The Toffess have players like Steven Pienaar who can create both opportunities and fouls, with Mikel Arteta’s service targeting Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellani, giving David Moyes an avenue to goals.

Beyond that, Everton’s options will depend on how Manchester United set-up. To this point, Alex Ferguson has played two forwards, four midfielders. If that happens again and Ferguson starts the same, Park Ji-Sung playing a narrow left wing, as he did against Fulham, Moyes can start Pienaar on the left and pull Cahill deepd to create a left-leaning attack that will have a numerical advantage through midfield.

Manchester United, particularly when they start Park, becomes very right leaning, vacating the left flank while relying on Patrice Evra to both hold-it-down defensively and provide the width when attacking. Often this works because teams don’t set-up to exploit it, having to account for the possibility that Nani starts at left wing. However, Everton has the ability to switch Pienaar and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, and while the Russian winger is markedly less effective on the right, he is responsible enough to not cost Moyes defensively should Everton elect to lean left.

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