Premier League Weekend Preview: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and More

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Is there parity in the (English) Premier League in 2011-12?

Should it matter? Do we care? Do we even want it?

Here's some evidence for parity, using the old "Big Four" prism, with Manchester City replacing Liverpool. (Sorry.)

First place Manchester City has lost to Sunderland and drawn West Brom Fulham. (It's other loss was to Chelsea and draw to Liverpool.) Manchester United, in second, lost at Old Trafford to then-last place Blackburn Rovers. Chelsea's five losses are eye-popping enough alone, but they include set backs to QPR and Aston Villa, coupled with draws to Wigan and Fulham. Arsenal has accrued a whopping seven defeats including ones to Blackburn, Fulham and now Swansea.

What does it all mean? Are we close to the axiom of, "on any given Saturday ... or Sunday ... or Monday ... or Tuesday ... or Wednesday" coming to fruition in the English top flight? (As well as a bunch of rousing speeches from Tony D'Amato about fighting for inches, well, centimeters?)

Let's, instead, look at it this way. In soccer, perhaps more than any other sport, there seems to be a sense among the powerful teams that they can simply throw their cleats on the field and win a game. In a lot of cases -- look to Spain with Real Madrid vs. everyone except Barcelona -- there's a haughty arrogance that we should win the game without ever expecting to break a sweat.

In the Premier League it's not that drastic, usually.

Does Wigan expect to get a result against Chelsea every time? No. We know it would probably take a flood of locusts swarming from on high for somebody like Bolton to go to Old Trafford and beat United, routinely.

There's always the thought, too, why bunker down and try to hold out hope for that one point compared to playing an open game and maybe grabbing all three? Using the whole risk/reward dynamic isn't the incentive of three points greater than one? Oh right, that whole pragmatism thing spread out over 38 matches.

It's fair to say that nobody in the EPL can claim to have a traditionally "strong" defense, what with the changes in the way the rules are interrupted with physical play. Even the lousy teams like Blackburn have shown they can score goals if they try to "go for it" a little bit.

This goes to my bigger picture and how the Premier League loves to hype itself as the BEST LEAGUE IN THE GALAXY OF KNOWN STAR SYSTEMS.

In American sports, even if I rag on the NBA constintely, among the 30 professional teams you'd have to say that it employs at worst 97 percent of the best basketball players in the world -- not counting the indentured servants still toiling away for free in the NCAA. While every team in the NBA can't have a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant, the difference between players 6-13 on a roster isn't all that different, is it? On a nightly basis, outside of the bottom 2-3 teams, everybody in the league should be competitive and maybe that's why it seems like 80 percent of NBA games are decided in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

With soccer there are so many leagues, there tends to be a bigger gap in terms of talent across the board, especially with the resources at differing club's disposals. You've got the great, elite players sprinkled across the globe in different leagues, although apparently in a place like Portugal there is 0.0 talent anywhere beside FC Porto and Benfica as the two giants are both undefeated this late into the year.

What perhaps this year the Premier League has shown us, aside from the truly elite blue chip, five-star, super-duper star talents like Robin van Persie, David Silva, Wayne Rooney, etc. the different between the great majority of the rank and file players isn't as great as we might want to think. The EPL elitists in England would turn their noses up at a guy like Grant Holt or Danny Grahamn, but both have come from promoted sides -- Norwich City and Swansea City -- and acclimated themselves to the world's supposedly best league.

Not every team can write off a multi-million dollar sunk cost like Manchester City can with Carlos Tevez, but there are enough professionals playing soccer the "other" 14 Premier League teams -- the Big Four plus Spurs and Liverpool -- should be able to field a comparative, competitive roster, barring gross incompetence.

It seems, if only by anecdotal evidence, games are more competitive in the Premier League. Last weekend Chelsea scored early through Frank Lampard against Sunderland. Normally that's game over, go find something else to do, but it only finished 1-0. Arsenal, a day later, went up 1-0 at Swansea inside of 10 minutes, but lost 3-2.

One thing about soccer teams, as mentioned before, sometimes the top teams don't want to have to break a sweat. They want it to come easy. A smart, disciplined team that can defend and have a little bit of danger on the counter attack can do some damage.

If anything, it's a mentality that fans, players and coaches need to have and change.

Don't be sacred, afraid little babies waiting, like Charley Steiner, to get your whooping.

To borrow a oft-repeated phrase, strive to, "Be champions."


* Norwich City v. Chelsea -- (Live, ESPN2, 7:30 a.m.) If part of Norwich City's success down to a decidedly old-school, two forward approach. Since fielding a 4-4-2 in a win over QPR on Nov. 26, the Canaries have dropped only one match in which they've fielded two forwards (Steve Morrison, Grant Holt, Simeon Jackson) to start the game. It seems counterintuative, but teams might be less used to coping with two men up top. Still not sold that Fernando Torres is, "back." Ninety minutes without completely being terrible isn't exactly a compliment. Let's see if the underdog not fearing anyone applies at Carrow Road. ... Norwich 1, Chelsea 1

* Stoke City v. West Brom -- The fact Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross have as many goals combined as Kenwyne Jones (possibly on his way to Everton) and Cameron Jerome sums up Stoke, in a nutshell. West Brom is better on the road with four of its six wins away from the Hawthornes, so bear that in mind. ... Stoke City 1, West Brom 1

* Sunderland v. Swansea City -- Interesting Premier League, if not all sports, theory in play for this one. Is Swansea ripe to underwhelm after taking bow-after-bow for its performance vs. Arsenal last weekend? Then again, Sunderland is pretty horrid at the Stadium of Light which could offset that theory. One odd quirk about Sunderland is that the club is among eight teams in the Prem with a positive goal difference. ... Sunderland 2, Swansea City 1

* Wolves v. Aston Villa -- Just a thought, Emmanuel Frimpong has more of an impact on this match than Robbie Keane. ... Wolves 2, Aston Villa 0

* QPR v. Wigan -- RELEGATION SIX-POINTER!!! ... QPR 2, Wigan 0

* Fulham v. Newcastle United -- (Live, FSC+, 10 a.m.) Crazy question, had Demba Ba not been such a sensation at Newcastle, would the club have shelled out for the wonderfully named Papiss Demba Cisse from SC Freiburg? The other question, considering Newcastle has rolled seven after seven on recent transfers, aren't the Magpies due a dud? That said, it's likely a smart move since the Magpies get a genuine scorer to pair with Ba and keep their Francophone chemistry (with a dash of Argie). Fulham aren't getting any younger by re-signing sure-handed Mark Schwarzer, though the club did snare some random 17-year-old Scottish player, so there's that. ... Fulham 1, Newcastle United 1

* Everton v. Blackburn Rovers -- (Live, FSC, 10 a.m.) Cheer up Tofs, Yakubu is suspended for this one, preventing salt from being rubbed in the wounds. There's also a rumor, unconfirmed, that Fox Soccer will offer an ESPN-inspired "Lando" cam via LeBron James, where a camera will stay trained on Landon Donovan throughout the entire match, since that's all people want to watch anyway. ... Everton 1, Blackburn 0

* Bolton v. Liverpool -- (Live, FSC, 12:30 p.m.) -- Let's make a deal, in the style of former MLB eccentric Bill Veeck. How about the Premier League trade Bolton to MLS and the stateside league can send back the Red Bulls. Why not? RBNY have, in theory, "bigger" ambitions than playing in MLS, while Bolton could probably compete fairly well in MLS what with Seb Le Toux and Tim Ream in the mix. Hell, David Ngog could win the prestigious MLS scoring title in his sleep. As for Liverpool, no excuses here, go to the Reebok and get three points. It shouldn't be that difficult. Paging Captain Fantastic. ... Bolton 1, Liverpool 2


* Manchester City v. Tottenham -- (Live, FSC, 8:30 a.m.) If Tottenham is for real, it goes out and gets a result here. With City missing Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure they'll never be as susceptible. Spurs might want to keep their fingers crossed Roberto Mancini starts Alex Korolov outside, since he can be exploited by the team's pacey wingers. We'll see if Jermain Defoe's pace can trouble City, too, since Emmanuel Adebayor can't play against his parent club. Tottenham does get "The Gentleman" Scott Parker back from injury, so pop your collars accordingly. Everything is there for Spurs, but we know how that goes. ... City 1, Spurs 1

* Arsenal v. Manchester United -- (Live, FOX, 11 a.m.) Too bad this wasn't on ABC, as opposed to FOX. Would love to get Brent Musburger into the booth to proclaim it for, "all the Tositos." FOX, which we should applaud for airing a live Prem match to the unwashed American masses, wants to hype this as the biggest game of the season, which we know it isn't. Not crazy, either, that FOX will use Piers Morgan on the telecast and I'll leave it at that, he's not worth any more breath. (The American public deserves a chance to meet Warren Barton.) Not wild about the hiring of Rob Stone. To me, he tried to be the "wacky soccer guy" at ESPN, but always left me ... underwhelmed. Part of me thinks Stone is stuck in 1997 and wants to get into a hacky sack circle at Lollopolooza.

Oddly enough, FSC aired an FA Cup "classic" from 2005 featuring Arsenal beating United in penalties. Both Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney converted that day.

Not sure why I shared that, but I did.

Oh right, Paul Scholes played there and he's back for United. (He was the lone miss/save in the kicks, not the insanely long run up.) Thierry Henry, too. Pretty sure, as well, Ryan Giggs has played in every FA Cup since the televised games switched from black and white to color.

Let that sum up, who knows what to expect from either club these days. Can United "turn it on" in a big match on the road? (maybe) Is Arsenal any better than the 8-2 result from late August? (yes)

If there's one thing worth talking about, unlike the first meeting this season, the shaky defense might lay with United with injuries, uncertainly and the De Gea-factor. Still, you wonder if Arsenal has the confidence to stick it to United, even with the inspirational presence of Henry and his neck beard. ... Arsenal 1, United 2

Last week: 4-6
Season: 100-113