John Brewin previews the weekend's Premier League action and highlights five key storylines in W2W4.
A test of credentials, but don't expect entertainment
Saturday, Oct. 14 always looked the crucial date on Manchester United's early-season calendar. A match with Liverpool will usually have that status, but the ease of United's schedule in their first seven league matches suggested Jose Mourinho's team might arrive at Anfield in a strong position.
And so it has proved; United have started the season using the dominant, pace-setting template that brought Mourinho success in winning three titles with Chelsea. They have scored 21 goals and conceded just two. Only a 2-2 draw at Stoke on Sept. 9 prevented a 100 percent record. Mourinho's problem is that Manchester City, playing out a tougher schedule that includes defeats of Chelsea and Liverpool, are level on points, ahead by a single goal scored.
If United are testing their credentials, then Liverpool have serious ground to make up. They are seventh in the table, level on points with Burnley. Already, with Manchester's billionaire behemoths streaking clear, a first Liverpool title since 1990 appears a remote prospect.
Is this time for Liverpool to throw caution to the wind, and go for United? Their circumstances, with Jurgen Klopp under the most pressure of his two-year tenure, suggest so, but like last season's 0-0 draw in this fixture, a night of chance-less tedium, Mourinho will probably offer as few openings as possible. Though United have been cruising, it would be uncharacteristic for the counterattack not to be their main weapon.
The last five meetings between the clubs have a binary appearance; only once, a 2-0 Europa League win for Liverpool in March 2016, has either team scored more than one goal.
Liverpool vs. Manchester United may be the fixture that both sets of fans look to when the season's schedule is released in June, but excitement is seldom delivered. It is a blockbuster that misses the mark, delivering nothing like the entertainment of comparable fixtures like Real Madrid-Barcelona, Bayern Munich- Borussia Dortmund or a Milan derby.
Perhaps it matters too much to these rivals to risk all, and neither club has been at its apex in recent years, but it would be a surprise if Saturday delivers a classic.
Can Pep keep City purring?
Pep Guardiola will be keeping abreast of events at Anfield as he prepares his Manchester City for their Saturday kickoff with Stoke. He will hope for better than March's 0-0 draw against Mark Hughes' team, a result that began a slump that ended hopes of challenging Chelsea for the title.
He must also hope that the international break will not affect his team's momentum. Victory at Chelsea last time out was truly comprehensive, despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline. Where last season, Antonio Conte, a manager Guardiola admires, was his master over two meetings, this time Chelsea were easily neutralised.
Guardiola has not compromised his values in having City play a level of football that is the envy of all but perhaps his old club Barcelona and Serie A leaders Napoli, who visit the Etihad in the Champions League on Tuesday.
Hughes, a Barcelona player back when Guardiola was a teenage prospect at the Camp Nou, will have designs on getting another good result against the club that sacked him in December 2009, but even without injured Sergio Aguero and Benjamin Mendy, City are a truly awesome proposition.
Poor Palace must fear Chelsea bounce
Crystal Palace face the prospect of a wounded Chelsea as the search for a first goal of the season, let alone a victory, continues for Roy Hodgson's historically hopeless team. The talk this week has been of Palace looking to add experienced Premier League players in the January transfer window, though by then it might be too late.
Conte, meanwhile, needs to make sure that City and United, currently six points ahead, do not escape over Chelsea's horizons, and a kind run of fixtures may give him that opportunity. A home match with Watford, and a visit to struggling Bournemouth follow on from Saturday's trip to Selhurst.
Palace, despite their struggles, are unlikely to be taken lightly. That probably spells even more bad news for Hodgson and his men.
Koeman under the cosh
Though the break for World Cup qualifying brought bad news for Ronald Koeman in the Dutch national team missing out on the finals, it perhaps came at a good time for him. Losing 1-0 to Burnley, as Everton did in their last Premier League outing, was a new low in a troubled season. On that damning evidence, Koeman needed time to rethink the direction he takes his team in.
Perhaps the worst thing about that sorry Burnley performance was that it had been all too predictable. Koeman has a squad visibly sagging in confidence, and Ashley Williams' unfortunate culpability in the Ireland goal that cost Wales a place in the qualifying playoffs was a reminder of the defensive problems at the heart of Everton's slump.
Brighton boss Chris Hughton is cautious by nature, but he might fancy that Everton are there for the taking at the Amex Stadium on Sunday.
Harry's on his game
It has been a life-changing week for Harry Winks. Probably the only thing worth mentioning from England's 1-0 win in Lithuania was Tottenham's 21-year-old midfielder's assured debut. He is also set for a new club contract.
In Vilnius, Winks targeted a place in England's 23-man squad for the finals, and Mauricio Pochettino has promised him opportunities at Tottenham. Saturday's match with Bournemouth is the next step on his road to Russia.