This weekend’s five key Premier League battles

Arsene Wenger

Including Manchester City, Newcastle, QPR, Fulham, Spurs, Swansea, West Brom, West Ham, Arsenal and Reading.

Newcastle v Manchester City

Newcastle will need to beware of the wounded Manchester City beast or they could end up on the end of a thumping. Losing the Manchester derby last weekend will have hurt the Citizens and the manager Roberto Mancini will be looking for a response from his players.

I’d expect Carlos Tevez to start this game – Balotelli will likely be benched after his antics at the Etihad on Sunday. Tevez brought energy and dynamism to the City attack and I think he’ll be preferred to the Italian.

Newcastle will be boosted by Hatem Ben Arfa’s return from injury and will be looking to atone for their defeat at Fulham on Monday evening.

With the home fans behind them, Newcastle will be looking to capitalize on the weakened belief and confidence of the City players. They’ll try to break up the play and make it as scrappy as possible for the visitors who will need to be on their game to keep out Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse who can cause a lot of damage between them.

Expect both sides to come out fighting from the kick-off – Newcastle boss Alan Pardew may opt to sit back slightly and soak up some of the early City pressure, aiming to catch them on the break.

QPR v Fulham

Be prepared for another classic London derby – Harry Redknapp is still looking to bag the Premier League’s basement team their first win of the season. They’ve now broken the Premier League record after going 16 games without a win.

They’ll have a tough test lining up against Fulham who will have been pleased by their home victory over Newcastle. They have one of the most classy and cultured strikers in the country in Dimitar Berbatov and if QPR want to take anything from the game they’ll have to shackle him.

He’s the nucleus of all creativity for the West Londoners and they can’t afford to give him any time and space on the ball.

Expect a game of attack versus to defence – QPR have been criticized for their lack of organization all over the pitch. If they continue to play with such discord, they’ll get punished by the visitors who have the quality and confidence to do a real number on them.

Tottenham Hotspur v Swansea City

This will be the English Premier League’s closest equivalent of El Classico – both teams set themselves up playing attacking possession football with flair, dynamism, and ambition.

Whilst Spurs will feel they’ve got the edge on quality, they might be in for a surprise – Michael Loudrup has got the Swans playing the kind of football Brendan Rodgers can only dream of at Liverpool. However, both sides got beaten last weekend and both managers will be looking for a response from the players.

Andre Villas Boas will need to curb his enthusiasm for leaving holes at the back going forward as Michu can be a real handful as Spurs’ North London rivals Arsenal found out the hard way two weeks back.

Expect an open game in which the home side will likely dominate in possession but also expect Swansea to try and catch them off-guard. I wouldn’t be surprised by a high scoreline.

West Brom v West Ham

Neither manager will have been enamoured with the results from last weekend and with just 4 points separating the two sides, there’s all to play for.

West Brom have been one of this season’s overachievers, currently sitting comfortably in 6th place whilst Sam Allardyce’s West Ham have taken their foot off the pedal in recent weeks after making a good start.

If the Hammers lose, they’ll slip further down into the bottom half of the table so I’d expect Big Sam to make the side very difficult to break down – two solid banks of four that will be happy to soak up the pressure away from home – they’ll come out of their shell in the second half and look to nick some points off the home side.

If West Brom lose they could be leap-frogged by Arsenal, Swansea or Stoke – I’d expect they’ll have majority of the possession and they’ll do their all to open the Hammers up as early as possible to avoid a scrappy second half that could go either way. If West Ham get the first goal, it’ll likely turn into a real scrap.

Reading v Arsenal

After their midweek humiliation in the League Cup this game next Monday is one of the most important in Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career. His team are desperately low on confidence and morale and the manager is under intense pressure fired from all directions.

He’ll be looking for his team to respond on Monday night but Reading will also be looking to capitalize on their lack of confidence.

Second from bottom every fixture is a chance for vital points to keep them up. When the sides met in the League Cup it ended farcically 5-7 after extra time.

I wouldn’t envisage a scoreline of that proportion – I think both sides will play more conservatively as neither can afford to lose the game. Arsenal have the edge on quality but I can see Reading making it difficult for them.

If Arsenal don’t get a goal in the first half, they could be headed for trouble. I wouldn’t be surprised by a draw.

image: © Matt and Kim Rudge

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