English Premier League Fixtures, Previews, Predictions: Manchester City Provides Chelsea's First Major Test

WIGAN, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 19: Carlos Tevez of Manchester City celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Barclays Premiership match between Wigan Athletic and Manchester City at the DW Stadium on September 19, 2010 in Wigan, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Chelsea goes to Eastlands for their first test of the Premier League season, while London and the Midlands see another see of derbies.

As was the case last week when Liverpool went to Old Trafford for this year's first North West Derby, there is one match that overshadows the rest on this weekend's English Premier League fixture list.

Throughout the season's first five match days, Chelsea has distinguished themselves as the class of the league, though one caveat has bared repeating: They haven't played anybody, yet. Matches against West Brom, Wigan, Stoke City, West Ham United and Blackpool have served as an extended preseason for the defending champions. In Saturday's first match, that all changes, as the Blues go to Eastlands.

Manchester City took six points from Chelsea last year on their way to a fifth place league finish. Now sitting fourth, the Citizens are hinting they're ready to push-on with potentially a stronger squad than the one that troubled last year's champions.

Still, injury problems at the back have City scrambling to assemble a back line before Saturday's kick-off. Coupled with Chelsea's form, momentum, confidence - whatever you want to call it - the Blues may be poised for redemption.

Before fully discussing that match, let's countdown the nine other matches on this weekend's English Premier League slate. Predictions at the bottom.

#10. Blackpool versus Blackburn Rovers
Location: Bloomfield Road (Blackpool)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Blackpool, 2-1-2, -3, 9th
Blackburn Rovers, 1-2-2, -1, 13th

If you're a neutral, it's a bit difficult to get excited about this match, but with the Seasiders returning home to face a team closer to their level (than the Arsenals and Chelseas that have adorned their first month's fixtures), this could prove a decent test of Blackpool's viability. Their results have been wildly inconsistent - getting blown-out in London (twice) but also getting three points at St. James' Park. While a Blackburn team that tends to sit back, not exposing itself to counter attacks, may be a difficult tactical match-up for Ian Holloway, this is still a match from which a team seeking survival should expect at least a point.

#9. Birmingham City versus Wigan Athletic
Location: St. Andrew's Stadium (Birmingham)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Birmingham City, 1-3-1, -1, 12th
Wigan Athletic, 1-1-3, -11, 18th

Birmingham City, coming off their first loss of the season, gets Wigan, a match that looks like a great salve for the wounds inflicted by West Brom. The Blues got two, one-goal victories from Wigan last year, including a 1-0 win at St. Andrew's. With Birmingham's defense appearing worse than last year's Joe Hart-backed unit, this match could be even closer.

#8. Newcastle United versus Stoke City
Location: St. James' Park (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
Date: Sunday, September 26
Time: 11:10 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Newcastle, 2-1-2, +2, 6th
Stoke City, 1-1-3, -3, 17th

Newcastle is coming off wins at Goodison Park and Stamford Bridge and, sitting sixth in the league, has sparked talk of European contention. You look at their players, their results, the competition around then - why not? Getting Stoke at home is a great way to maintain that momentum.

Still, you wonder how Andy Carroll will fair against a huge and physical Stoke defense. How will Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson deal with the Delap throw-ins and Kenwyne Jones? I think there's more in this match than meets the eye, and although Stoke stumbled at home last week to West Ham, this week they could play the Hammers to Newcastle's Stoke.

#7. West Ham United versus Tottenham Hotspur
Location: Upton Park (London)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
West Ham United, 0-1-4, -10, 20th
Tottenham Hotspur, 2-2-1, +2, 5th

Not much in this match aside from it being a minor, London derby. Tottenham's on another level (and, for that matter, so is West Ham). I don't put it beyond `Arry to make this closer than it need be. I also don't doubt Spurs at Upton Park, where they're unfeated in five.

#6. Arsenal versus West Bromwich Albion
Location: Emirates Stadium (London)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Arsenal, 3-2-0, +10, 2nd
West Bromwich Albion, 2-1-2, -4, 10th

Like the Hammers-Spurs match, this might be too high on this list given the disparity between the teams, but although it's a bit of a cliché, there is something about watching Arsenal. When was the last time you were bored by a Gunners' match? Granted, they will be without Cesc Fabregas, and they're coming off a match at Sunderland where they were not their usual, fluid selves, but Arsenal is almost always worth your time.

#5. Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Aston Villa
Location: Molineaux Stadium (Wolverhampton)
Date: Sunday, September 26
Time: 9:05 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Wolverhampton, 1-2-2, -2, 15th
Aston Villa, 2-1-2, -3, 8th

Another week, another Midlands derby, but still not one of the big ones. Wolves hate West Brom. Villa hates Birmingham City, though both sets of supporters will feign antipathy for this one. It's a good-natured rivalry. "Oh, your lot are bums. Wait, I'll get you a pint. You know I don't really mean it."

For Aston Villa, Gerard Houllier takes the reigns for the first time, with the Lions in need of some kind of boost. While they won mid-week, they have not looked very good in league, and a trip to the Molineaux has draw written all-over-it.

Houllier may be the difference. He may also need time to make an impact.

#4. Liverpool versus Sunderland
Location: Anfield Road (Liverpool)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Liverpool, 1-2-2, -3, 16th
Sunderland, 1-3-1, +0, 11th

Liverpool's had a difficult opening schedule, but that excuse fades starting Saturday. Through the end of October, they get Sunderland (home), Blackpool (home), Everton, Blackburn (home) and Bolton. If the Reds aren't back in contention for Europe after that stretch, you can probably write-off the season.

If Steve Bruce sets-up his team the same way he did last week against Arsenal - Darren Bent alone up-top, three strong in the middle with two wide - this match could grind. Regardless, Liverpool needs to find a way. No excuses.

#3. Bolton Wanderers versus Manchester United
Location: Reebok Stadium (Bolton)
Date: Sunday, September 26
Time: 7:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Bolton, 1-3-1, -1, 13th
Manchester United, 3-2-0, +7, 3rd

Last week we talked about the options at Owen Coyle's disposal, options that allowed the Trotters to go into Villa Park, push-around the Lions' defense, and get a well-earned point. Manchester United is far better equipped to deal with those options.

The midfield has to be a concern for Coyle. Stuart Holden against Manchester United? It doesn't sound promising, though Holden continues to surprise with the speed by which he's adapting to the league. Still, Fabrice Muamba could have his hands full, and Martin Petrov is unlikely to provide much help against Nani, who could devour Paul Robinson.

There's a reason United won this fixture 0-4 six months ago.

#2. Fulham versus Everton
Location: Craven Cottage (London)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 10:00 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Fulham, 1-4-0, +1, 7th
Everton, 0-2-3, -3, 19th

For the second week in a row, I put Everton's match in the second spot. Their slow start has gone from curiosity to compelling, and playing at a team that's yet to lose, you wonder if it's only going to get worse for the Toffees. Lucky, Fulham will be without Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembélé. If Hughes goes with two forwards, we could see Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey. Given how resourceful the Cottagers have proven, that could be enough. However, you get the feeling both teams would be happy with a draw.

#1. Manchester City versus Chelsea
Location: City of Manchester (Manchester)
Date: Saturday, September 25
Time: 7:45 a.m., Eastern
Records (W-D-L, +/-, Place):
Manchester City, 2-2-1, +4, 4th
Chelsea, 5-0-0, +20, 1st

The exposition for this match was taken care of at the beginning of this post. If that was so long ago that you've forgotten, I don't blame you, though now it's time to break-down the match-up.

Through my eyes, there are five issues that define this match (you can have you say in the poll, below, as well as the comments):

1. Picking a City back line - As of Friday morning, Manchester City had three healthy defenders. Vincent Kompany and Kolo Touré will be the central defense pairing. Pablo Zabaleta will be one of the full backs. He'll be on the left if right back Micah Richards proves healthy enough to play. Else, he'll likely be at his more natural right back position, though Mancini has options.

Those options: midfielders Gareth Barry and James Milner. Both have played in defense before, with Barry at left back, Milner at right (thanks, Martin O'Neill). Barry seems a slightly more natural defender, but a more important reason he should start at left back is Ashley Cole. The width Cole provides on Chelsea's left can be a game-breaking aspect of Chelsea's attack. To deal with that, City should not only want Zabaleta at right back, they should want James Milner at right wing to help track-back and support.

The best approach for Mancini would have Barry at left back and Patrick Vieira put in central midfield with Nigel de Jong and Yaya Touré. David Silva and Carlos Tévez would be City's main attacking presences.

2. Stopping Didier Drogba - Regardless of which of Barrry or Milner starts in defense, they're going to be a huge target for Didier Drogba, who is adept drifting to the left or right. Barry at left back would tempt Drogba to drift right and force the natural midfielder to deal with the league's most dominant attacker. This could force City to compensate by pulling a midfielder over (or back) to help. That help open-up a normally very compact City defense. If it doesn't - if City doesn't adjust - that means Drogba will be on the attack's right taking on Barry. I think Chelsea would live with that.

3. Manchester City's midfield - Chelsea's speed, strength and power through midfield has been one of the keys to their fast start, but Manchester City has the personnel to match-up. Chelsea likely starts Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, and Ramires, a trio that will be tasked with breaking-down Touré, de Jong, and probably Vieira. If we were talking aboutthe  City's trio's ability to move through Chelsea's midfield, the match-up that would strongly favor the Blues. However, that's not how Mancini sets-up. Often, De Jong and Vieira will be little more than advanced defenders, and with help from Touré, they may provide the best counter the Premier League has to Chelsea's midfield strength.

4. Stopping the City counter attack - Speaking of counters, let's talk about how City can score goals. Last year, City's success against Chelsea came in transition, and with Carlos Tévez and David Silva (or Adam Johnson), the Citizens will again be set-up to isolate Alex and John Terry. To protect them, John Obi Mikel's performance will be vital. We've seen constant improvement by the Nigerian, whose third year in as Chelsea's DM sees fewer bad fouls, better positioning, and more success in distributing into attack. Mikel may need one of this better games in the destroyer role to keep Tévez and Silva at bay.

5. Chelsea's momentum, confidence, form - whatever you want to call it - Through all the changes City's made during the summer, the biggest difference between last year and this is the momentum Chelsea carries into this match.

When Roberto Mancini saw Chelsea for the first time, they were amidst their winter crisis. City ended-up scoring four goals in a match that saw Chelsea went with nine men. This year, Chelsea come in with a +20 goal difference through five league matches, and while I've bemoaned the fact that they haven't played anybody, they certainly have momentum.

Saturday may be a huge wake-up call for the Blues, but their form may have instilled a confidence that will allow them to transcend any tactical or (recent) historical disadvantages. In other words, they just may be too good, right now.

Predictions
Day Time (EST) Home Road Pick
Saturday 7:45 a.m. Manchester City Chelsea 1-1
10:00 a.m. Arsenal West Bromwich Albion 4-0, Arsenal
Birmingham City Wigan Athletic 2-2
Blackpool Blackburn Rovers 2-0, Blackburn
Fulham Everton 0-0
Liverpool Sunderland 1-0, Liverpool
West Ham United Tottenham Hotspur 2-0, Spurs
Sunday 7:00 a.m. Bolton Wanderers Manchester United 3-1, United
9:05 a.m. Wolverhampton Wanderers Aston Villa 1-1
11:10 a.m. Newcastle United Stoke City 1-1
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