SYDNEY (AP) – We have a huge week of Barclays Premier League games coming up, but arguably none bigger than the North London derby:
Arsenal vs. Tottenham (live, Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET)
Saturday's meeting is simply a huge match for both these teams. They already had a great rivalry, but it's gotten hotter in recent years as both teams are fighting for a European spot. Arsenal are in a bit of a funk - this is their worst start to a league season since 1982-83 - and they must get a result at home.
Spurs have had a few hiccups, too. Manager Andre Villa-Boas keeps wanting to make changes to the team -- which benefited them against Maribor midweek -- but they both are out of rhythm. Both teams will be looking to find their form, so their results over five weeks have more consecutive W's than L's.
This game will be won or lost in midfield. Spurs will have to shut down Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla to prosper. When teams keep them in check - as has happened to Arsenal in their last few games - they are nowhere near as effective. Spurs also have Gareth Bale, who is a huge threat, but the big missing piece is Scott Parker. He's the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League right now, and with him out, Tottenham missed his bite. And you know Jermain Defoe will be fired up. He scored a hat trick midweek then is sat during the Manchester City clash. He'll want to show Villas-Boas that he needs to be on the field.
One other key for Tottenham: choose the right hotel to stay at! Back when I was playing for Fulham, Spurs infamously got food poisoning before a massive game against West Ham (which they ended up losing, and missed out finishing above Arsenal). As it happens, for many teams (Fulham being one of them), the food was always of high quality. The fact that the hotel employed many Arsenal fans caused some conspiracy theories to go around.
West Brom vs. Chelsea (live, Saturday, FOX Soccer, 7 a.m. ET)
This is a high quality game to watch. West Brom is flying right now. They have built on the strength of the defensive shape and understanding they gained under Roy Hodgson, and now under Steve Clark are threatening up top. Scoring goals and not conceding them is how you win in this league. West Brom are the only Premier League team yet to concede a goal in the opening 30 minutes of a match this season. Clark also used to be an assistant at Chelsea and will really know the quality Chelsea represents. Chelsea of course are a great team and they pulled out that massive win in Champions League ahead of the draw against Liverpool .
A player we don't talk about very much, and one I think is indispensable to Chelsea, is Branislav Ivanovic. He's a guy who always lets you know he's on the field. I can tell you as a forward, you'd never come off a game against him and wonder where he was. Defensively he is stout, while also being adept at running with the ball in attach. Ivanovic can play right wing and is extremely dangerous on set pieces with his strong runs and great leaping ability in the box. Plus, he's among the top six scoring defenders in the Premier League since August 2009, with 11 goals. With John Terry out for three weeks, he's going to be a key man for them back there.
Norwich City vs. Manchester United (live, Saturday, FOX Soccer, 9:30 a.m. ET)
This is another game you want to see for various reasons. Norwich have found their form and as of late they are very tough to beat at home. The Canaries have won three and lost just one of their last six home games, while also keeping four clean sheets in that stretch. They're going to have to be very resilient against a United side that have shown they can beat you when the whistle blows to start the game - or beat you right before it blows again to end it. And don't forget, the Red Devils have won seven and lost only one of their last eight visits to Carrow Road in all competitions.
United has the ability to break you down directly, with width or by going right through you. Their problem can be overconfidence in defense. Sometimes their wingbacks push up too far and those gaps can be exploited. But United will have most of the ball and it's going to be an uphill battle for the Canaries for sure.
Fulham vs. Sunderland (live, Sunday, FOX Soccer, 11 a.m. ET)
Obviously, I'm taking my old team in this one! That's speaking from my heart and my head. I really think Fulham have transformed their attack after losing Clint Dempsey, Moussa Dembele, and Danny Murphy - three huge components last year. They are still playing very attractive soccer right now. Just ask Arsenal.
In the past, it was defend first with Aaron Hughsey and Brede Hangeland, and Mark Schwarzer, who is a world-class keeper. He has the ability to make the big saves, but he's also very good at distributing the ball. Fulham has youth and pace on the wings, but the biggest addition has been Dimitar Berbatov.
Berbatov has exceeded expectations, which were very high to begin with. He has been directly involved in eight goals (five goals, three assists) in just seven appearances for Fulham. Martin Jol has not asked him to track back on defense, which allows him to drift into more dangerous positions. Though others have added to impressive form, his presence allows others more space and freedom (especially on the wings)- that in turn allows Berbatov to be up top to get the ball at his feet and make the magic happen.
Sunderland are a struggling side, but don't count them out. They tend to get results when you don't expect them to. They are not really in full flow, but they've got a very good coach in Martin O'Neill, who understands the league and has shown he can bring teams together. For O'Neill, it's not a matter of if, but when.