English Premier League: 5 Key Opening Weekend Games
We are now just one day away from the beginning of the 2011-12 Premier League season.
Since the last season ended on May 22nd, where Birmingham and Blackpool were relegated to the Championship, a summer of transfer rumours and preseason optimism has ensued, but now we can finally look forward to the beginning of another year of the biggest league in the world.
Following the unfortunate postponement of the Tottenham-Everton game, nine matches will be taking place between tomorrow and Monday night to mark the beginning of the season, and here are five of them that fans should be looking forward to.
Newcastle United vs. Arsenal
Arsenal return to St. James' Park tomorrow for the first time since the amazing 4-4 draw in February, where Newcastle amazingly overturned a four-goal deficit at half-time to salvage a draw.
The result was a painful one for Arsenal, who would've moved to within two points of leaders Manchester United with the win. But the defeat was the start of a poor run of form which saw them drop out of the title race in April.
So, in a season where Arsenal's top-four credentials are going to be questioned more so than ever before, Arsene Wenger's side will inevitably want revenge against a Newcastle side to prove that they can compete with the likes of Chelsea and the Manchester sides once again.
And they will have to do so without captain Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, who have both been linked with moves away from the Emirates, and haven't travelled with the squad to the North-East.
This game will also be key for Newcastle, who will begin this season without the likes of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton, and will have to prove that they can cope without some of their top players.
Wigan Athletic vs. Norwich City
Norwich City return to the Premier League after an absence of six seasons tomorrow when they go to the DW Stadium.
After spending the 2009-10 season in the third tier of English football, Paul Lambert's men have amazingly achieved successive promotions to earn their place in the Premier League.
They've spent the summer improving their side, bringing in seven players as they aim to avoid relegation back to the Championship.
While Wigan were close to switching places with the Canaries, but Roberto Martinez's men survived on the final day on last season with victory at Stoke.
An interesting summer at Wigan saw star player Charles N'Zogbia move to Aston Villa but manager Roberto Martinez declined the opportunity of going to the midland side.
Wigan are expected to struggle without N'Zogbia and Tom Cleverly after he returned to Manchester United from his loan, but Martinez will be hopeful of a positive start to the season which sees the Latics play all three promoted teams in their first three games.
Liverpool vs. Sunderland
Don't be surprised to see a few players making their debuts in this game, as the summer has seen Liverpool make five new signings, while Sunderland have made no fewer than ten.
Because of their signings, both teams are optimistic about an improvement from last season.
Liverpool of course struggled for the first half of the campaign, but a strong finish to last season under 'King' Kenny Dalglish was promising and after signings such as Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique, as well as a first full season for Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, Red's fans will be hoping for a Champions League place this season.
One player to keep a close eye on is Sunderland-born youngster Jordan Henderson (pictured right during the fixture last season, playing for Sunderland), who switched from his hometown club to Liverpool for £16 million, could make his debut against the team he left in the summer.
While for Sunderland, whose campaign ended in disappointment last season after a poor run of form following Darren Bent's departure, will hope for better after the signing of players such as Craig Gardner, John O'Shea, Wes Brown, Connor Wickham and Sebastian Larsson, and will be aiming for a Europa League place this season.
Fulham vs. Aston Villa
The only game of the weekend where two new managers are facing each other takes place at Craven Cottage, where Martin Jol's Fulham takes on Alex McLeish's Aston Villa.
Both managers have points to prove, as Jol will have to prove that he can take over from Mark Hughes, who actually had a successful spell at Fulham, taking them to eighth in the table last table.
Jol will also have to prove that, despite being sacked from Tottenham in 2007, he has what it takes to be a top manager in the biggest league in the world. Jol hasn't made many signings, with John Arne-Riise being the most recognisable new-boy at Craven Cottage, but should be able to keep Fulham around mid table with the squad he has.
While Alex McLeish already has his doubters before the season has even began.
Not only has the Scotsman spent the last four years at Villa's bitter rivals Birmingham City, but the fans have made it clear when the new manager arrived that he wasn't welcome at Villa Park. Also, the likes of Brad Friedel, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young have left Villa Park, and the signings of Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given are likely to be the only signings McLeish will be allowed to make this summer.
Both sides have relatively easy starts to their seasons, and both managers have the opportunity to take the pressure off their shoulders with an opening day victory here.
Stoke City vs. Chelsea
The Andre Villas-Boas era begins on Sunday at the Britannia Stadium, as he takes his Chelsea side to Stoke.
The man who won an amazing treble at Porto last season goes back to the club where he worked as a scout under Jose Mourinho, and becomes the youngest manager in the Premier League.
Although Chelsea have yet to buy any players who'll play a significant role in this season, they have had a strong pre-season, and Chelsea fans should be optimistic about the new season.
Stoke should do well again this season and stay away from relegation trouble, having had a very successful season last year which saw them get to the FA Cup final and qualify for the Europa League.
They have maintained the successful team from last season, as well as strengthened through the signing of Jonathan Woodgate and manager Tony Pulis announced recently that as many as five new signings could be made before the end of the transfer window.
The game should be a tricky one, but Chelsea are one of the only teams in the division to have a good record at the Britannia Stadium, as they have never lost in the Premier League there.