Key games of the first two months of the EPL season
Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta, centre, celebrates scoring against Queens Park Rangers with teammates Gareth Barry, right, and Sergio Aguero. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
It’s back, thank heavens. With the start of the new English Premier League season comes that uplifting feeling of renewal and hope – that anything is possible in the world’s most entertaining football competition.
Of course, it’s not. Already, the clean slate every side started with on opening day has been muddied ever so slightly.
Manchester United lost, Manchester City had a nervy win, Liverpool got belted and Arsenal don’t know what to do with themselves in this post-RVP world.
They’re just the storylines after one week of action – nobody knows how the rest of the season will unfold. Considering the way City won the title just a few months ago, pretty much anything is possible.
But what we do know is that over the next month and a half of football, there are some keystone games ahead that will shape everything to come in the race for the premiership. There are some big ones not far ahead.
Let’s have a look what’s in store until the end of September.
Manchester United v Fulham – Old Trafford, 26 August 2012, midnight AEST
United’s first home game will also be their first opportunity to atone for their shock 1-0 opening loss to Everton. After City, their most obvious rivals for the title, got off to a winning start, it’s imperative that Sir Alex’s men take all three points here and send a message to the rest of the competition that they are far from the spent force some are speculating them to be.
One would expect that it will also mark Robin van Persie’s first start for United as well, and if he’s in the mood then Mark Schwarzer will be in for one hell of an afternoon.
Chelsea v Newcastle – Stamford Bridge, 26 August 2012, 2.30am AEST
This will be the first big test for the reigning European champions, against a side that – somehow – finished above them on the EPL table last year. The Toon army has its sights set on continental qualification, but the sides who manage that generally get results out of games they’re not fancied to.
Nobody is expecting last season’s relegation candidates to teach Chelsea how to Dougie on their own patch of turf, but Newcastle might just have it in them to come away with a point here against a side with a few new faces in the final third that haven’t settled in yet. Oh wait – bugger, Eden Hazard. Maybe not then.
Liverpool v Manchester City – Anfield, 27 August 2012, 1.00am AEST
Not a great start for Brendan Rogers, was it? 3-0 away to West Brom was not how Liverpool fans were hoping to start this term – although, after years and years of repeated false dawns, it was an eventuality they were all secretly prepared for.
And it certainly isn’t about to get easier for them, because next up is a visit from last year’s champions, Manchester City, who reek of new football and petrodollars. No Aguero? No worries – just look to Tevez, Balotelli, Nasri and Silva to cut swathes through a defence that will be minus Manchester City target Daniel Agger, who is suspended.
Could get ugly.
Liverpool v Arsenal – Anfield, 2 September 2012, 10.30pm AEST
After that game, though, the Reds get to tackle someone arguably on their level. Despite the van Persie saga, Arsenal have bought well – Santi Carzola, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud have it in them to form a truly world-class combination in attack.
But getting those players to click is far easier said than done. Liverpool, who are busy studying the ins and outs of Rogers’ new approach, know this all too well. Put two sides who are still trying to figure themselves out on the same pitch together, though, and sparks could fly.
We’re not suggesting that either side here is actually capable of winning the title, but a loss in this particular match will put at least one side’s wishful thinking to bed for at least another 12 months.
Everton v Newcastle – Goodison Park, 18 September 2012, 5.00am AEST
These two sides have their sights set on European qualification, and probably have every right to after each started the season with surprise wins over teams that, on paper, appeared their superior.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and mid-September, but it’s hugely important for both Everton and Newcastle to kick on and set the tone for the rest of their respective campaigns.
Both are teams built on grit, determination and teamwork, but that’s not to say they can’t play football. This’ll be a nice, genuine battle – and one that will certainly have an impact on what these sides do thereafter.
Liverpool v Manchester United – Anfield, 23 September 2012, 10.30pm AEST
One thing that has been quite clear after the opening weekend of the EPL is the amount of schadenfreude that supporters of these two sides enjoy whenever the other falls over. Of course, that’s nothing we didn’t know before – and one set has obviously had a few more high points of late than the other.
But both have significant challenges ahead of them this season. In their last five games against each other – three in the EPL, two in the FA Cup – the ledger is dead even at two wins apiece and one draw.
Arsenal v Chelsea – Emirates Stadium, 29 September 2012, 9.45pm AEST
It’s perhaps not the most fiery derby in the Premier League, but this meeting between the Gunners and the Blues will be shaped by who isn’t there, rather than who is. Both sides have lost arguably their most iconic players – van Persie for Arsenal and Didier Drogba for Chelsea.
How their teammates attempt pick up the slack is going to be intriguing, and there’s a real opportunity for a player to make a statement here and challenge for one of the two vacant thrones.
Under Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea have excelled playing on the counter but how their system operates with Eden Hazard is not yet clear – while Santi Carzola should step up to become Arsenal’s chief playmaker.
Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard that is the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. He is a Port Adelaide fan by birth, as painful as that has been recently. He's now sports editor of The Area News in Griffith, NSW.