Bigger than football
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Anfield: Unified dignity
Football can sometimes be an undignified place to be. Even amid the esteem of the majority, the minority can sour the intention. Regrettably, at Old Trafford last week, the latter did just that. Twenty-three years after the Hillsborough disaster, and a week in which emotions of those affiliated with the tragedy had been pulled every which way, it was shameful that the actions of some detracted from an overdue ray of light for those who had suffered.
This weekend, after chants of "Always the victim, it's never your fault", Liverpool host bitter rivals Manchester United at Anfield. The captains of both sides are to release 96 red balloons as part of a pre-match tribute to the victims, as a symbol of their unity in remembering the deceased and those fighting for justice amid the hurt. The intentions are good, but there are fears. These clubs have a past, and last season's Suarez-Evra affair has done little to decrease the acridity. Let us hope, though, that even the minority see sense. This is bigger than football. Indeed, this is a time for unified dignity, when, come the final whistle, hopefully the 90 minutes of escapism - for this is what this sport offers - is the talking point.
Stoke: Two sides to every story
Stoke City have not won any of their last 11 matches in all competitions. Inhale that statistic, people. Suck it in deep. Then release, for the outcome in their last match was a 1-1 draw against Premier League champions Manchester City. Certainly not to be sniffed at. So, such is football, you can view matters another way: they maintained their unbeaten record.
Regardless of what went before, they now have the Michael Owen. Yet there is a concern this legendary striker has been out of the game - not even out of the house - for so long that he may have forgotten how to even tie his shoes, let alone kick a ball into the net. Owen, signed on a free transfer after the close of the transfer window, was brought on for his debut versus City but didn't get a touch of the ball.
Their next game is the small matter of a trip to Chelsea, whom Tony Pulis will likely have watched take on Juventus in the Champions League in midweek sporting his lucky baseball cap and hoping for the Blues to be suffering from a banging European hangover cometh the weekend. But the Potters cannot be expected to return to the sweet scent of victory at Stamford Bridge, and should they not dispose of Swansea City, the chalk to their cheese, the following week, it is worth flagging that journeys to Liverpool and Manchester United beckon.
Fulham: Sex appeal
Phew. The swagger lives on in West London. This column's club crush had had its sex appeal shorn, those luscious Dembele-shaped locks snipped away. But big Martin Jol doesn't disappoint. No, in came Dimitar Berbatov - God's gift to football. On his home debut for Fulham against West Brom, the Bulgarian swanned about in the sunshine alongside the Thames, occasionally striking a match to light a cigarette, occasionally scoring a goal.
"When I enjoy myself, things happen," Berbatov sighed following his two goals, the first of which was cool but not try-hard cool, as he took up space in the box, controlled, then caressed the ball home. "Wigan, beware" is what we're saying. Last season, the Cottagers' campaign began on June 30, such were their Europa League commitments. This time around, however, with the club already out of the League Cup, the sole focus is on the Premier League, until the FA Cup begins. They are dark horses for a higher finish than ninth, this team. Oh yes, siree.
Man City v Arsenal: An unfamiliar feeling
In their six matches in all competitions this season, champions Manchester City have conceded 11 goals. In Arsenal's five matches in all competitions this season, they have conceded just two. Something doesn't quite feel right. An offering of an explanation if you will: City's defensive record has not been helped by their manager's bizarre insistence on trying a 3-5-2 system, while games versus Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid were unlikely to yield clean sheets.
For Arsenal, City's opponents this weekend, neither Sunderland nor Stoke offered much in an attacking sense, while the shellacking of Southampton has somewhat skewed the reaction. The Gunners should be proud of their beginning, but be reserved in their optimism, for these are very early days. Come October, we will know far more about both City and Arsenal, when, if the order has not been restored, intrigue will rightly be piqued. Their meeting on Sunday may well offer further indication of where we are headed.
AVB: Credit where credit's due
A first win under manager Andre Villas-Boas was roundly applauded by the travelling fans at the Madejski Stadium as their meeting with Reading ended 3-1 in the favour of Tottenham Hotspur. This was a professional performance from Spurs. Their unlikely solo spearhead, Jermain Defoe, helped himself to a brace to ensure an average Royals side were made to look below average.
In spite of this display, the written words from some sections were not as positive as was merited. Indeed, it as if there is a want for the Portuguese coach to fail once more in England, this 'taker' of Harry Redknapp's job. So, in the absence of a deserved backing for AVB, join me in putting your hands together to make amends ahead of their game against QPR, for the cynics know a return to a stutter will see the knives out with no invitation. Enjoy it while it lasts, AVB.