RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – With several juicy Barclays Premier League matchups this weekend, what should you be focusing on? There is the obvious headliner when Chelsea hosts Liverpool , but there are a few other games you should be keeping your eye on:
Chelsea vs. Liverpool (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 11:00 AM EST)
Bench Fernando Torres.
If you are a hypochondriac stat geek and/or a Chelsea supporter, you have no other option. Since his transfer from Liverpool, Torres has lost all games versus his old side, AND failed to score. But those alarming numbers aside, expect Torres in the starting eleven on Sunday at Stamford Bridge.
Juan Mata has been carrying much of the offensive load for the Blues as of late, but they need Eden Hazard to reappear. Victor Moses and Oscar provided some offense in midweek Champions League play, a massive welcomed sight. The defense has been out of sorts lately as well.
Petr Cech is clearly earning his wages, but the guys in front have let him down. Do they miss John Terry that much? Probably. The Blues have gone five games without a clean sheet in league play, and have conceded the opening goal in each of their last two matches at home.
Say what you will about Luis Suarez, but where would Liverpool be without the Uruguayan? Try last place; subtract his goals and assists, and that's exactly where Liverpool would be now (did you enjoy the chill that just rifled through your bodies Liverpool fans?). Suarez has been directly involved in 82% of Liverpool's goals this season, and if not for Robin van Persie, he would be the best striker in the Premier League.
Give Liverpool credit. A disastrous start and significant time spent in the relegation zone was handled with relative calm by players, manager and fans alike. Do they need some offensive help in the January transfer window? That's an understatement. Do they have enough resolve to remain in top 10 contention until then? Absolutely. A few shrewd and impactful signings, and who knows how high they can climb.
Manchester City vs. Tottenham (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 8:30 AM EST)
The Spurs have dipped down into sixth, and the reality of a further fall is strong this week. If that happens, there is the sense that Andre Villas Boas' disgruntled nation will rise again. By the way, did you Villas-Boas' post-game presser last week? He looked and sounded like a beaten man. Keep the tie knot up, brush that hair, and be strong. Fake it if you have to, AVB.
Tottenham knows the challenge in front of them, as Manchester City are unbeaten in their last 34 Barclays Premier League home matches. But Roberto Mancini isn't exactly frolicking through the wild flower meadow either these days. Recent Champions League failures, struggles with properly managing players - most notably Mario Balotelli - and his recent admission that he was in talks to leave City after last season, have done nothing but make his managerial leash shorter. Two managers with their toes in hot water should make it for good entertainment value.
Aston Villa vs. Manchester United (live, Saturday, FOX Soccer, 12:30 AM EST)
"Villa Park? Great. Great to see you!"
One can only imagine that is Manchester United's reaction when they arrive at Villa Park where they are unbeaten in 16 straight league games: the longest run of any team away from home against one single opponent.
With their Champions League group already secured, United now have the luxury of focusing solely on extending their lead atop the standings for the next few months. It will be interesting to see how Sir Alex Ferguson utilizes his roster. United's next five League games are at Aston Villa , at Norwich City , home against QPR , home versus West Ham and away at Reading . Not exactly murderers row now, is it? Expect a big run of points for United.
Arsenal vs. Fulham (live, Saturday, 10:00 AM EST)
I always enjoy those meetings between teams that sit right next to each other in the standings. Arsenal is in seventh, while Fulham sits in eighth. The Cottagers have never won at Arsenal in ANY competition, losing 22 and drawing four. There is a great chance win number one happens on Saturday.
This is the worst Premier League start under Arsene Wenger for Arsenal, and their recent Champions League struggles are compounding things. The depth just isn't there for the Gunners, and it's starting to show. Arsenal desperately needs a little time to regroup and Fulham is anything but a bye week this season. Had they been able to close out a majority of their games, the Gunners are easily a top five club.
Luck of the draw?
It's official. The CONCACAF Hexagonal draw for the final phase of World Cup Qualifying came out Wednesday. Three of the first four United States men's national team qualifiers are on the road. Seems pretty equitable right? Cough, cough.
I predict six, maybe seven, points MAX out of those opening four. These contests are all about taking care of your home turf, and trying to steal a few road points. The only real "cold" home game opportunity is March 22 against Costa Rica. I say, hello Kansas City for that one.
And United States Soccer, step up and get a real surface. Host Mexico at Seattle in September.