The international break is finally over and that can only mean one thing: The Premier League is back this weekend.
And with its return comes the usual array of compelling sub-plots, unanswered questions and the resumption of the tightest of title races.
Will Chelsea and Tottenham produce a classic this weekend? Can Claudio Ranieri make a winning start at Fulham and can anyone stop Manchester City?
Sportsmail’s JACK GAUGHAN gives 10 reasons why we can’t wait for the Premier League to return…
Sergio Aguero helped City win the Manchester derby in last game before international break
Chelsea need Hazard firing at Wembley
Described by Alex Iwobi as the LeBron James of football, Eden Hazard needs to get back to playing ball at full speed this weekend. He has not looked fully fit for a few weeks after a back injury, and recently admitted to feeling fatigued, so Maurizio Sarri will surely be cock-a-hoop at Roberto Martinez’s treatment of his star man over the last week.
Hazard was spared for just 15 minutes of Belgium’s two games during the international break – not even afforded a breather once Switzerland had scored a fifth the other night. Maybe Chelsea can manage his fitness in readiness for the big European Championship qualifiers in March.
Sarri needs him firing at Wembley. Hazard has not found the net since October 7 – a run of eight games for club and country – as he battles against fitness issues. Chelsea, incidentally, announced that he’s retired the trademark kneeslide celebration, which is probably a smart idea given the state of Tottenham’s surface.
Eden Hazard has looked tired recently and had just 15 minutes rest over the international break
Maurizio Sarri will need Hazard firing on all cylinders if they are to get a result at Wembley
Return of Ranieri
Slavisa Jokanovic’s demise will not have come as a surprise to anyone who watched Fulham’s insipid first half at Huddersfield the other week, but it might have done to those at Liverpool a few days later.
Nobody knows whether Jokanovic would have turned their fortunes around but there were signs that progress could have been around the corner at Anfield. Regardless, Claudio Ranieri is back in the Premier League after 18 months away.
And he arrives at Craven Cottage with a pretty sombre message: ‘There will be a lot of battles and it’s important to be ready together – the club, players, fans.
‘Together they have to support us in a bad moment. And this is a bad moment, because Fulham is at the bottom. It is important we don’t think about the miracle.’
Dream big, Claudio. Fulham didn’t seem to buy many hard workers with that £100million over the summer.
Claudio Ranieri is back in England after 18 months away but isn’t thinking about the miracle
Old Trafford: bastion or bunker?
A nice gentle loosener for Manchester United this weekend: Crystal Palace at home. Or perhaps not. Their run of form at Old Trafford has been distinctly average, with only three wins from eight in all competitions – including being dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Frank Lampard’s Derby on penalties.
That is worse than under Louis van Gaal and David Moyes and largely a product of another failed transfer window. The 11 wins on the spin at the start of last year feels like a distant memory now. Jose Mourinho, however, wears the look and owns the renewed mischief of a man ready to stick a couple of fingers up at his critics. Or three if you’re a Juventus fan.
Mourinho warns of the hectic festive schedule each year and the cold will not be something Alexis Sanchez is relishing. According to respected fanzine United We Stand, the largely unpopular Sanchez has been moaning about the chill on his legs inside the dressing room.
His seat is next to the fridge and the Chilean – clearly no Jean-Claude Van Damme – does not like it drafty. So staff members decided to position the fridge right in front of him. Feel likes a touch of frost in the air and we’re only in November.
Jose Mourinho looks like a man ready to silence his critics despite United’s poor home record
Alexis Sanchez was on song for Chile over the break but hasn’t enjoyed chilly English winter
THE FIXTURES AND LEAGUE TABLE
SATURDAY 24 NOVEMBER
Brighton vs Leicester (3pm)
Everton vs Cardiff (3pm)
Fulham vs Southampton (3pm)
Man United vs Crystal Palace (3pm)
Watford vs Liverpool (3pm)
West Ham vs Man City (3pm)
Tottenham vs Chelsea (5.30pm)
SUNDAY 25 NOVEMBER
Bournemouth vs Arsenal (1.30pm)
Wolves vs Huddersfield (4pm)
MONDAY 26 NOVEMBER
Burnley vs Newcastle (8pm)
Watching Manchester City recently, it just does not feel like fair play. They just look too good. The loophole enthusiasts have the others tied in knots while attempting to catch up – even if the gap at the top is still only two points.
There is a school of thought that City have improved again this season under Pep Guardiola and, in the polar opposite to United, that has come via strong and clear-minded recruitment.
Riyad Mahrez has been given the chance to settle in, whereas Fred – who did not cost too much less – has been thrown in and is scrambling for his armbands. Guardiola has had the vast majority of his favoured XI for a while now and they are powering through the gears.
West Ham manager and former City club mathematician Manuel Pellegrini, the pre-season smart money on first to face the axe, will likely fight the irresistible force with bold attacking football and to hell with the consequences.
He’ll have to do it without the ever-reliable Samir Nasri, who stalled over a move that hardly had West Ham fans dripping with excitement.
Pep Guardiola’s City side have looked head and shoulders above the rest so far this season
The race for the title reignites
Guardiola wore a thin grin when, a few weeks into the season, it was put to him that Liverpool were already becoming giddy at the prospect of a first league title since 1990. His answer was restrained and he refused to rise to the wiggling bait being dangled in the front row of City’s auditorium. Guardiola smirked, but whether he is in May very much depends on the one with a crooked smile over the coming weeks.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have only beaten Tottenham in their four meetings with the traditional Big Six and will be looking at matches against United, City and Arsenal – plus the Merseyside derby – as occasions that will define their season before the Christmas lights come down. Watford, the scene of last season’s 3-3 draw, is no easy task on Saturday either.
Liverpool’s title credentials will be put to the test at high-flying Watford this weekend
A Sean Dyche team
Well, at least they’re getting their money’s worth out of Joe Hart. Burnley – rugged, resolute Burnley – have conceded more shots on target (7.9) per game than any other team in 30 of Europe’s top divisions this season. That cannot go on when Newcastle turn up for the colossal Monday Night Football.
To Hart’s credit, Fulham have managed to concede six more goals than Burnley’s 25, but it is a startling statistic nonetheless and completely at odds with how you might expect a Sean Dyche team to look.
Have their defenders stopped blocking efforts? Was the pre-season insistence on attempting a more attractive style a bridge too far? Is Dyche’s obsession with hunting for an alleged mole within the squad a distraction? All of the above?
Burnley don’t look like a Sean Dyche team but are getting their money’s worth out of Joe Hart
Resurgent Arsenal? Lets find out…
‘This is a club that hasn’t won the Premier League for a long time and hasn’t won the Champions League,’ said managing director Vinai Venkatesham, dishing out some home truths this week.
‘And I do know the only way we’re going to be able to answer the questions is by having the Premier League or Champions League trophy here.’
Was Unai Emery aware that this is the sort of rhetoric Arsenal are dealing in, even though they lie eight points behind the league leaders? Perhaps that 11-match winning streak spanning two months might end up doing him more harm than good.
Three draws on the spin before this international break must have realigned expectations to a degree and a trio of tough Premier League games – against Bournemouth, Tottenham and then United – will offer a decent gauge of where Arsenal actually are.
We will find out where Unai Emery’s Arsenal side actually are over the coming weeks
These really are heady days for David Wagner. Huddersfield go to Wolves having scored in consecutive games for the first time since April.
And get this: they could net in three on the bounce for the first time since last December. Goal machines – and none of their strikers have even registered yet this season.
Wagner has also urged his players to ‘grab a shirt’ before this weekend’s trip to Molineux amid some injury worries. Hopefully he also told them it’s only one each and definitely not to try it in their own box.
Alex Pritchard’s goal against West Ham saw Huddersfield net in two games on the bounce
Bournemouth should be one of the feelgood stories of this season. It’s been a stirring start, scoring more goals than Tottenham and conceding fewer than United. There is now an international scorer, Callum Wilson, in their midst and the burgeoning talent of Ryan Fraser continues to dazzle.
Fraser’s been directly involved in 14 goals in his 17 games for club and country already this term, taking on the creative responsibility after being given a more central role.
Eddie Howe, presumably not far off landing a ‘big job’, will be slightly concerned by the leaky defence.
Bournemouth have made a stirring start to the season but need to sort out their leaky defence
VAR chat = ZZZ
Charlie Austin is the real winner of this season’s Premier League. Southampton certainly think so. His viral post-match interview the other week, during which the interviewer played the role of traffic warden ‘just doing his job’ perfectly, came days before it was announced VAR would be implemented from next year.
‘Charlie Austin is changing the world one interview at a time,’ Southampton tweeted, somewhat amusingly. And it is a good move for football. Yet Sportsmail cannot help but think the mania of pundits discussing what VAR may or may not have ruled in incidents over the coming weeks and months is going to reach unbearable levels. Thanks, Charlie.
The Premier League confirmed VAR will be used next season days after Charlie Austin’s rant