After the excitement, apprehension and myriad unknowns of the opening weekend, the Premier League returns for round two with some heavyweight clashes on the card, bouts that should really kick things up a notch.
With Manchester City facing Liverpool on Monday and Everton hosting Arsenal the day before, fans of both clubs (along with millions of neutral observers) will get an early insight into just how some of the top clubs compare at this early stage of the season.
For Arsenal, the game against Everton serves as something of a dry run for bigger challenges to come; with memories of last season’s away-day failures against title rivals the most significant scar tissue they will have to overcome if they want to succeed this season.
Last term, Arsenal were famously eviscerated at Anfield, the Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park—where they lost 3-0 in April—in an embarrassing run of performances that effectively scuppered any title aspirations they may have had.
Saturday evening’s game, then, gives the Gunners the chance to get revenge for that defeat, while also setting the tone for the other away nightmares they will eventually have to confront. While the midweek Champions League qualifier against Besiktas has doubtless complicated Arsenal’s preparations for the game with Roberto Martinez’s well-drilled side, they can not use that as an excuse if things do go awry once again.
Everton, of course, will be no pushovers—keen as they will be to establish their own credentials. As Martinez said (per the Daily Mail):
I’m delighted we are facing Arsenal and Chelsea before the end of the transfer window. I am pleased with the squad and the focus. That is what you need in football—to face this opposition.
Until you play against sides like Arsenal and Chelsea, you don’t have the answers on the pitch. Pre-season has been a real success but we won’t know where we are until after these games.
I have heard people saying it is between Manchester City and Chelsea but the league is going to be closer than people think. This season will be very small margins proving crucial from week to week.
Martinez is eager to see his side make an early statement. It will be interesting to see how Arsenal respond.
Elsewhere, it is Manchester City’s game against Liverpool that is really likely to capture the attention this weekend, in what could be the Reds’ last game before they sign Mario Balotelli—a transfer their opponents on Monday might have a thing or two to say about.
City have surely never really regretted selling Balotelli, but for Liverpool it could well prove a gamble worth taking. After losing Luis Suarez, an individual of undoubted star quality, in the summer, facing City and their wealth of international stars may prove a timely reminder that having a mercurial talent of Balotelli’s ilk within their ranks could be the extra wild card they really need to be able to compete for the title again this season.
The Italian brings with him a certain amount of baggage, intrigue and excitement, as anyone knows, but it should not be forgotten that when he is on form the 24-year-old has proven himself able to best any defender in the world. The long-term challenge for Liverpool is to get him to produce that on a more consistent basis than Manchester City ever managed; the short-term challenge is to find a way to beat that very team with the players currently at their disposal.
It does not have to be a clash against two title contenders to be an important meeting, however, even at this early stage of the season. After the opening home defeat to Swansea City, much scrutiny will be on Louis van Gaal and Manchester United as they face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
Last season, if anyone needs reminding, Sunderland briefly threatened to compound the misery David Moyes was experiencing, before Adnan Januzaj announced himself with two fine strikes. Sunderland would continue to be a thorn in Moyes’ side, however, sending his side out of the Capital One Cup in the semi-finals after a dramatic game at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal will be aware of Sunderland’s threat, and even more aware that his squad—even with the addition of Marcos Rojo—remains somewhat threadbare at this early stage of the season. After the unimpressive way the likes of Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata linked up in the opener, it is surely imperative that there is tangible progress made in this game.
Week 2 Fixtures (all games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated)
Aston Villa vs. Newcastle (12:45 p.m.)
Chelsea vs. Leicester City
Crystal Palace vs. West Ham
Southampton vs. West Brom
Swansea City vs. Burnley
Everton vs. Arsenal (5:30 p.m.)
Hull City vs. Stoke City (1:30 p.m.)
Tottenham vs. QPR (1:30 p.m.)
Sunderland vs. Manchester United (4 p.m.)
Manchester City vs. Liverpool (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Let's talk about Cesc, baby... After perhaps the most eye-catching individual performance of the opening weekend, all eyes will be on Cesc Fabregas as Chelsea host Leicester City on Saturday. Last season Chelsea, and by extension Jose Mourinho, were occasionally criticised for lacking the guile and fluidity in midfield to break down obdurate sides—despite possessing the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar. Fabregas, however, showed he could change all that in the game against Burnley, particularly with his one-touch assist for Andre Schurrle's strike.
In his first competitive game at Stamford Bridge, Blues fans will be eager to get a closer look at how the Spaniard's orchestration from deep can change their team's attacking parameters. With Diego Costa also starting life at his new club brightly, the Blues already look a formidable prospect.
European hangover effect... With Hull, Spurs and Arsenal all having been involved in European action in midweek, their respective weekend fixtures may give an early insight into how much that travel might have an impact on them this season. Spurs, in particular, will want to ensure there are no slip-ups as they face QPR and their former manager Harry Redknapp.
First impressions can be misleading... After the baptism of fire that was their opening game against Chelsea, Burnley will perhaps be relieved to face Swansea and discover that the Premier League is not always quite so exhausting. Of course, that is not to say the Swans will be a pushover by comparison—after starting the season with an away win at Manchester United, Garry Monk will be determined to see his side build on that in the most emphatic way possible.
Drama at the Palace... Who will succeed Tony Pulis as Crystal Palace manager? Could it actually end up being ... Tony Pulis? After the drama of the past week, it is not impossible that a contrite Palace chairman Steve Parish could offer his old employee what he previously was demanded in order to get him to return to the fold and end the fiasco of the last week.
Either way, the saga may serve as food for thought to Palace's opponents on Saturday, West Ham. Manager Sam Allardyce remains under severe pressure to bring attacking football to the Hammers, but events elsewhere might serve as a reminder that pursuing anything that puts a club's stability at risk can often be a recipe for disaster.
2. Video of the week
The transfer window is still over a week from closing, but it is never too soon to judge the completed transfer business of some teams. Will a few more poor purchases be made as time runs out and panic begins to set in?
3. Player to watch
Daniel Sturridge. With the news emerging that Liverpool are to sign Mario Balotelli for £16 million from AC Milan, it appears Sturridge's period as the main striker for the Reds will be far shorter than he, and most others envisaged. After the departure of Luis Suarez, Sturridge looked set to be given the chance to assume the mantel of being the club's alpha-striker—but that will all change again if Balotelli arrives.
The Italian is unlikely to be registered in time to face Manchester City on Monday (it could end up being a Friday evening race against time), likely giving Sturridge a big game (and a big stage) to prove his worth from the central role he clearly craves.
A strong performance will give Brendan Rodgers something to think about as he considers how to arrange his new attacking options moving forward.
4. Game of the weekend
Everton vs. Arsenal. It is worth remembering that, until the last handful of games last season, Everton were actually in a head-to-head battle with the Gunners for the fourth and final Champions League qualification spot. At no point did Everton appear closer to winning that race than when they beat Arsenal 3-0 at Goodison Park in April, although the Gunners ultimately rallied to finish fourth relatively comfortably.
Less than five months on from that game, the two sides appear to have different ambitions—Arsenal have an eye on a genuine title challenge, while most neutrals seem to doubt Everton can match the performances of last term. Both assessments might be right, but this contest could remind us that these two sides are closer matched than we have come to believe.