Here’s a look at the major story lines to keep an eye on in the Premiership this weekend.
Saturday programming alert: Watch Liverpool v Aston Villa (Sportsnet at 9:30am ET), Stoke City v Everton (Sportsnet ONE at 9:30 am ET), and Manchester United v Sunderland (Sportnset World at 9:30 am ET).Sunday programming alert: Watch Tottenham v Swansea City (Sportsnet World at 7:30 am ET) and West Bromwich Albion v West Ham United (Sportsnet World at 11am ET).
NEWCASTLE VS. MANCHESTER CITY – SATURDAY @ 7:45AM ET
1) “It will be an edgy game on both sides”
That’s a quote from Newcastle manager Alan Pardew. In the early parts of this season, you’d have a tough time finding two managers in more secure jobs than Pardew and City’s Roberto Mancini. Both with long-term contracts, and both coming off solid seasons (relatively speaking for Newcastle), but this season has tested that security.
Even a full three points on Saturday won’t move Newcastle out of 14th in the table, and over the last month, the Magpies have lost five of six.
Meanwhile, City is coming off its first loss of the season, and though the Citizens are undefeated on the road so far, they’ve managed just nine goals away from Etihad Stadium (eight clubs have managed more away goals).
NORWICH VS. WIGAN – SATURDAY @ 10AM ET
2) Elite company
Here’s a list of the longest current unbeaten streaks in Europe’s top five leagues: Barcelona (15), Norwich (9), Bayern Munich (7) and Nice (7).
It’s been a pretty unbelievable turnaround for Chris Hughton’s side. How are they doing it? Let’s break this down in a couple ways:
They’re not an aggressive club (13 bookings is fewest in the PL)
They don’t control the tempo of the game (42 per cent possession ranks 18th)
But they are opportunistic (eight set piece goals is 3rd most in the PL)
And they don’t concede many high value opportunities (only three per cent of the shots against the Canaries have come inside the six-yard box — lowest ratio in the PL).
LIVERPOOL VS. ASTON VILLA – SATURDAY @ 10AM ET
3) Speaking of turnarounds
The top four clubs in the Premier League dating back to Oct. 1 are: Manchester United (27 pts), Manchester City (21 pts), Norwich (19 pts) and Liverpool (17 pts).
Brendan Rodgers’ side has just one loss in 11 games since starting the season 0-2-3, and what makes Liverpool’s most recent result impressive is that they did it without Luis Suarez.
The Reds staged a late game comeback against West Ham, scoring twice in the final 20 minutes to win 3-2.
MANCHESTER UNITED VS. SUNDERLAND – SATURDAY @ 10AM ET
4) A formula for (relative) success?
Two weeks ago, Reading gave United fits by kicking it out wide time and time again, and launching balls into the box. Anders Lindegaard struggled throughout the day in traffic, and United’s centre backs had a match to forget.
Reading was simply following a gameplan they’ve used all season. No team attacks from the wide areas of the pitch more often (77 per cent of all attacks) than Reading.
Sunderland, however, comes close. Martin O’Neill’s side attacks wide 74 per cent of the time, the second-highest ratio in the league.
5) Think again?
But there’s one reason why that formula might not be as successful this time around: United captain and centre back Nemanja Vidic is expected to return from injury this weekend.
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STOKE CITY VS. EVERTON – SATURDAY @ 10AM ET
6) Begging the question
Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is becoming quite the story this season. He has a league-leading eight clean sheets, as the Potters continue to produce results despite scoring just 14 goals this season.
The Potters have three 1-0 wins this season, two 1-0 losses, and four 0-0 draws!
Defenders Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth have been superb as well, but it’s Begovic that is drawing the most accolades, and attention from rival clubs.
There are reports Manchester United and Liverpool are both interested in the ‘keeper, but Tony Pulis says Begovic is staying put.
7) Tall order
The matchup I’ll be looking forward to the most this weekend pits Everton’s Marouane Fellaini against Shawcross. Both coming in at over 6-3, they are physical players (a combined nine cautions between them this season), and Fellaini doesn’t back down from anyone (team-leading 43 fouls this season).
TOTTENHAM VS. SWANSEA – SUNDAY @ 8:30AM ET
8) A dynamic attack
Despite a disappointing loss to Norwich last week, Swansea remains one of the league’s most dangerous attacking sides. The Swans have scored 22 times from open play this season, and only Manchester United has more (25).
9) Lloris’ time?
Hugo Lloris has grabbed the reins as Spurs’ starting keeper, but he has yet to really “steal” a game. He has yet to make more than three saves in a game, and his record since becoming the full-time starter (3-0-2) isn’t without blemishes.
Given the strength of the offence he’ll be facing on Sunday, perhaps this is the time for Lloris to show his worth.
READING VS ARSENAL – MONDAY @ 3PM ET
10) More fireworks?
The last time these two teams met, 12 goals were scored in a rollicking 7-5 extra time win for Arsenal in the Capitol One Cup.
Theo Walcott had a hat trick and three assists, including a goal in the 121st minute to give the Gunners a 6-5 lead.
11) A little perspective
The sky is not falling, Arsenal fans. Despite sitting in seventh place, this team has the fourth-best goal differential in the league, and is just two points out of fourth place.
Furthermore, their upcoming schedule through to New Year’s Day should allow them to be in prime position for the tougher games that follow. The Gunners next five fixtures are all against teams in the bottom half of the table: Reading (19th), Wigan (18th), West Ham (11th), Newcastle (14th), and Southampton (16th).
My prediction: As the calendar turns to 2013, Arsene Wenger’s side will be sitting in fourth place, and the talk of him leaving Arsenal will have long subsided.