SINGAPORE — What are the key matches and storylines to look out for in the next round of English Premier League (EPL) action? Yahoo News Singapore lists the top three:
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Manchester United vs Chelsea (Sunday, 12.30am Singapore time)
A decade ago, this tie would have sent pulses racing even among neutral fans, for it would be a marquee match-up between two of the most star-studded sides in the EPL, each attempting to outwit the other in the quest for another league title.
While there will still be many famous footballers when Manchester United host Chelsea on Sunday (25 October, Singapore time), the reality is that both sides are some ways short of challenging for the EPL title, given the recent brilliance of both Manchester City and Liverpool.
Both have serious shortcomings. Chelsea have potentially one of the league’s best attacking forces, once the likes of Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic get accustomed to play with one another.
Yet their defence has been their Achilles heel ever since manager Frank Lampard took over the reins last season. As evident by last weekend’s 3-3 draw against Southampton – in which they led 2-0 and 3-2 before conceding a stoppage-time equaliser – the Blues’ porous defence will cost them precious points in their EPL title quest.
A 0-0 away draw with Spanish side Sevilla in their midweek Champions League opener would have given Lampard some encouragement that his defenders can keep a clean sheet. And as the games come thick and fast, they will need to be at their most resilient to fend off Man United’s speedy frontline of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood (or new signing Edinson Cavani) this weekend.
Yet the forwards are the least of all the problems facing Red Devils manager Ole Gunner Solskjaer, who endured the sight of the his team being pummelled 1-6 at home to Tottenham just before the last international break.
Defence is a major headache, as captain Harry Maguire is struggling to regain top form as Solskjaer tries to pair him up with poor teammates such as Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly in central defence.
Meanwhile, Man United’s midfield is loaded, yet curiously short on creativity and dynamism. Paul Pogba is exasperatingly a shadow of his former rampaging best, as is lumbering defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic. Only Bruno Fernandes is showing any signs of good form.
Yet a richly-deserved 2-1 away win over Paris Saint-Germain in midweek – coupled with an equally encouraging 4-1 win over Newcastle last weekend – showed that the Red Devils could still bank on the brilliance of a few to get by.
Can either of Man United or Chelsea’s defence hold firm this weekend? That would be the key to success in this high-profile clash, but no one – not even Lampard nor Solskjaer – knows what to expect when their players step onto the Old Trafford pitch.
SCORE PREDICTION: Man United 1 Chelsea 2.
Liverpool vs Sheffield United (Sunday, 3am)
Champions Liverpool passed their first test of life without Virgil van Dijk – their defensive colossus who is out for a prolonged spell with a serious knee injury – with a lucky 1-0 Champions League win over Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday.
While the clean sheet was welcomed, manager Jurgen Klopp said, “We are not dumb enough to think we didn’t need a little bit of luck for it.”
A spectacular goal-line clearance by makeshift central defender Fabinho, as well as Ajax midfielder Davy Klaasen hitting the post, showed that there is still a long way to go for the Reds before their defence can become as imperious as before.
Nonetheless, at the very least, the gloom and doom that engulfed Liverpool after van Dijk’s injury diagnosis has been lifted. Their fans could at least approach their next EPL match against Sheffield United with some confidence that their defence will not be as calamitous as feared.
Furthermore, Sheffield United are struggling mightily to score, with only two goals in their opening five matches of the season. Even last season, when they managed a very respectable ninth-place finish after being promoted from the Championship, they were the lowest-scoring team in the top 10 with just 39 goals in 38 games.
Which gives Liverpool a little breathing space to get their defence re-familiarised, with Fabinho likely to play in central defence instead of his usual defensive midfield position.
What might give the Blades some hope is the short turnaround Liverpool have to deal with after their midweek Champions League exertions in Amsterdam. Could the Reds’ overworked defenders be able to be at peak condition come Sunday? The Blades could try and exploit any tired legs among the Reds.
Klopp probably had this in mind when he took off all three of his forwards – Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino – after 60 minutes against Ajax. Was it to allow the lethal trio more recovery time to go again at the weekend? Klopp will hope the trio benefit from it.
SCORE PREDICTION: Liverpool 2 Sheffield United 0
Aston Villa vs Leeds United (Saturday, 3am)
Before the season began, pundits are predicting that Leeds United are too well-coached by Marcelo Bielsa to be relegated back to the Championship. The same pundits also thought Aston Villa were among the favourites for the drop, given their mighty struggles the previous season.
Five matchday weekends in, and it is safe to say that Villa – the only team in England still with a 100 per cent record with four straight wins – are unlikely to repeat their struggles last season, when they barely avoided relegation.
And while Leeds are not exactly struggling at 10th place in the league, they have just suffered a huge blow when key defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips is ruled out for up to six weeks with a shoulder injury.
Such contrast in fortunes makes their early Saturday clash highly intriguing. Villa are buoyed by a superb transfer window in which they made improvements on almost every area: goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, striker Ollie Watkins, and midfielders Bertrand Traore and especially Ross Barkley.
Barkley scored a stunning last-gasp winner against Leicester last weekend, and his effective partnership with international colleague Jack Grealish already has fans hoping that Villa can fight for Europa League qualification. Such is the optimism coursing through the club now.
Leeds fans are also optimistic for their club to at least solidify their EPL status for another season. With Bielsa at the helm, they are also enjoying the high-intensity football on show each week.
Phillips’ injury will test the team’s defensive resolve, however, and whether Bielsa will curb his sides attacking instincts remains to be seen. The Argentinian is already urging his side to show make their possession count by scoring more goals. This match could see a few.
SCORE PREDICTION: Aston Villa 2 Leeds United 2.