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Liverpool's return to Selhurst Park and things to look out for in the Premier League

Hooray, it’s back!

NOW THAT THE latest set of international fixtures have come and passed, all attention reverts back to the Premier League and, as per usual, there are no shortage of subplots set to unfold over the course of the weekend.

With no more interruptions between now and February, the league is entering the crucial festive period stage when fixtures come thick and fast. Here are five talking points ahead of this weekend’s action…

(N.B We have not included any talk of Saturday’s game at the Emirates here because we’ll have a separate preview piece to follow later)

International hangover

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Stoke City v West Ham United - Britannia Stadium Stewart Downing is a doubt for West Ham's trip to Everton Source: Martin Rickett

He may not have endeared himself to international managers by doing it but Sir Alex Ferguson was a master in the art of subterfuge. He would regularly persuade other managers that a player wasn’t in the right physical condition to join-up with their national team and consequently eradicated any danger of them picking up an injury whilst playing in meaningless friendlies.

Louis van Gaal may be adopting that policy of evasion in the future after Manchester United’s injury woes escalated to a full-blown crises over the course of the last fortnight. But, it wasn’t just United players who picked up niggles and knocks whilst representing their country.

West Ham have made a flying start to the season but Sam Allardyce may be left to count the cost of the loss of Stewart Downing and Diafra Sakho should the pair fail to recover from the injuries they picked up playing for England and Senegal respectively.

It’s not just the injuries managers have to deal with. Their players would have only returned to the clubs on Wednesday which presents less time than usual to prepare for the weekend’s fixture. For some clubs, the international break can come at an ideal time as they look to regroup and recuperate but for many, it halts any sort of momentum they managed to build up before the players dispersed to all corners of the world.

Can Chelsea pick-up where they left off?

Britain Soccer Premier League Chelsea welcome West Brom to Stamford Bridge on Saturday Source: AP/Press Association Images

Such has been Chelsea’s imperious form over the course of the first three months of the season, it’s difficult to see anyone standing in their way of a fourth Premier League crown. It’s still early days yet but many believe Jose Mourinho’s side are the champions elect. It’s hard to argue against such a supposition.

However, if there was ever a weekend to catch the Blues off guard and ensure the title race isn’t the procession everyone is envisaging, then this one may very well be it.

Granted, West Brom may not stand out as the side that can inflict a first defeat of the campaign on Chelsea but Alan Irvine’s side have, themselves, enjoyed a rich vein of form.

Many of the Baggies players will have enjoyed a week off while Chelsea’s were clocking up the air miles on international duty. It would take a meteoric effort for the visitors to even come away with a point from Stamford Bridge but Chelsea aren’t invulnerable as their lofty position might suggest.

They were far from convincing in their last home outing against QPR and that will give the Baggies enough belief they can do what 11 other sides have tried and failed to do this campaign and beat Chelsea.

Under fire Pochettino desperately needs win

Soccer - Capital One Cup - Fourth Round - Tottenham Hotspur v Brighton & Hove Albion - White Hart Lane Why did I leave Southampton? Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

During the week, Mauricio Pochettino insisted he and Tottenham’s new head of recruitment, Paul Mitchell, can bring the best young players to White Hart Lane.

Such is Spurs’ current form and their manager’s vulnerable position, however, Pochettino may not be around when the transfer window opens in January. Victory at Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago was bookended by successive home defeats to Newcastle and Stoke.

Spurs lie 12th in the standings and face a trip to Hull City on Sunday. It’s the first time the club find themselves in the bottom half after the first eleven games since 2008. There have been three managers in the White Hart Lane dugout in the space of two years and it’s getting to a stage when Daniel Levy can ill-afford to dispose of another manager.

The club needs some semblance of stability and while Pochettino has endured a difficult start to life in North London, he needs the backing of the board and, just as importantly, the fans.

However, another defeat at the KC Stadium on Sunday and the pressure will crank up on the former Southampton boss. He desperately needs three points to relieve the pressure on his shoulders. It’s high-time his players showed their worth because it is too easy to heap all the blame on the manager.

Liverpool return to scene of last season’s nightmare

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Crystal Palace v Liverpool - Selhurst Park Who can forget Luis Suarez's reaction to Liverpool throwing away a three goal lead at Selhurst Park? Source: EMPICS Sport

Steven Gerrard’s costly slip against Chelsea was ultimately the defining moment of last season’s absorbing title race. It was the turning point in the Reds’ season as Man City grasped their opportunity and pipped Brendan Rodgers’ side to the post: two points was the eventual margin.

On Sunday, Liverpool return to the scene of where the Premier League trophy moved out of their reach – their three goal capitulation had Luis Suarez in tears at the final whistle.

A lot has changed since that evening and recent performances would suggest Liverpool are yet to extract the demons of that game. The defensive frailties that were exposed by Crystal Palace that night have been all to evident this term - Rodgers’ side have conceded 18 goals in their previous nine league away game.

At the other end, they’ve looked a shadow of the side that came so close to winning their first Premier League crown last year. With Daniel Sturridge out for a while yet, it’s high time Mario Balotelli paid back his manager’s faith with a performance that suggests he was worth the considerable baggage he brings.

Palace, meanwhile, are winless in five and are searching for just their second Premier League win over the Reds – their sole triumph coming in 2005 thanks to an Andy Johnson header. With both sides struggling for form and a sense of direction, it should make for an interesting and entertaining match. Neither can really afford another defeat.

Season’s surprise packages hope to continue on merry run

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Swansea City v Arsenal - Liberty Stadium The Swans are flying high Source: EMPICS Sport

At this juncture of the season, few could have imagined Southampton, West Ham and Swansea occupying berths inside the top five. While many will put it down to the woes of Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and even Tottenham, the three clubs’ form and exploits this term merits their lofty position.

The question, however, on everybody’s lips is when will they slip-up and start to fall down the table? Southampton, in particular, have rarely looked like losing the considerable head of steam they’ve built up and while the fixture list may have been kind to them, they have set themselves a great platform.

Ronald Koeman’s side are in action on the Monday Night Football against Aston Villa and will be confident of extending their winning streak to five games. West Ham face a tricky trip to Goodison Park but it will be a thorough appraisal of their credentials under a new system employed by Sam Allardyce this term. Should they come through that test unscathed, Hammers fans can really begin to look up rather than be glancing nervously over their shoulder like previous years.

Swansea will relish the underdogs tag as they head North to the Ethiad and Gary Monk’s side, fresh from toppling Arsenal, will have a second giant killing on their agenda. Easier said than done, mind.

However, not many would have given the Saints, West Ham and the Welsh club much chance of being in the position they are in now so anything is possible.

Fixtures (3pm unless stated)

  • Manchester City v Swansea City
  • Stoke City v Burnley
  • Everton v West Ham United
  • Leicester City v Sunderland
  • Chelsea v West Brom
  • Newcastle v QPR
  • Arsenal v Manchester United (5.30pm)

Sunday

  • Crystal Palace v Liverpool (1.30pm)
  • Hull City v Tottenham Hotspur (4pm)

Monday

  • Aston Villa v Southampton (8pm)

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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