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Friday, September 14, 2012
Wind those necks in

James Dall

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Chelsea: A dose of reality

What's this now? Chelsea, the only side across all four English football divisions to boast a 100% league record, came a cropper when facing their first real test of the season. After, in truth, far from convincing victories over Wigan and Reading, and then a better showing against Newcastle, the knee-jerkers dared already wail their belief they will win the title this campaign, as they sit atop the division after a whopping three matches played. Yet, on August 31, they had their pants pulled down by Atletico Madrid, losing 4-1 in the UEFA Super Cup, their bare bottoms well and truly brought back to earth with a bump. Of course, Chelsea, considering their financial outlay this summer, might just be the best outside bet to challenge the two Manchester clubs for the title. But, in these oh-so-early days of the 2012-13 campaign, let us wind our necks in. (What happened to only looking at the table after ten rounds of matches have been played?) While the Blues boast an enviable armoury of attacking firepower, there are concerns over their defensive capabilities, meaning they ain't no juggernaut. Mikel, for example, is not considered a safe enough penultimate line of defence. Versus Queens Park Rangers at the weekend, this infamous fixture of last term, they face the Premier League's most porous backline thus far, so a return to winning ways looks probable. Roberto Di Matteo was frank enough in his assessment of the Atletico loss, saying: "We've got a lot to learn. We've got to get a lot better." And, while a return to winning ways against QPR is likely, remember that thereafter come Juventus. Certainly, the Blues' blessing of a kinder beginning to their domestic fixture list has helped to mask some of the stains. These things have a habit of coming out in the wash, however.

Manchester: All at sea

As is the theme in the premature weeks of this column's return for the new season, let us not set off the klaxons just yet. It is acceptable practice, however, to wrinkle the forehead, pause, and at the very least mull things over. Take the two Manchester clubs, for example. Undoubtedly, these two are the favourites for the big prize, having only been divided by goal difference last season, and their nearest rivals 19 points adrift. In that 2011-12 term, City and United boasted the two best defensive records, the former conceding 29 times and the latter 33. Yet, this time around, they've already conceded five goals apiece. Under Roberto Mancini, City were initially built upon a mind-numbing reassurance at the back, before the Italian released some of the shackles, as demonstrated by some of the hidings they inflicted. There appears now, though, to be a lack of balance in the set up, and, furthermore, a confusion from Mancini as to what the set-up should indeed be. The Italian has tinkered with a literal winning formula of late, opting for a 3-5-2 on occasion. A dangerous game that, the cynics would proffer, was ultimately a means of pressuring Brian Marwood into getting out his wallet. It worked. United, meanwhile, have looked far from secure in their opening three matches. The return of Nemanja Vidic was mooted as a solution to their leakiness of last term, but consider the Serbian has only played three competitive fixtures since the middle of December 2011. In addition, the long-pined-after holding midfielder never arrived, meaning the Red Devils' back four continues to appear exposed. And what of Ferguson's decision to drop David de Gea for Anders Lindegaard? Finally, the arrival of Alexander Buttner has not yet provided the ever-slipshod Patrice Evra with a kick up the backside. Food for thought for Sir Alex.

'Keepers: Battle of the gloves

These two mini soap operas are worth keeping tabs on. At QPR, the powers that be damn near choked on their drinks in the directors' box after seeing summer recruit Rob Green drop an inevitable clanger, and then another. The solution was to buy again, apparently. And they signed a Brazil international, no less, as Julio Cesar arrived from Inter Milan. Quite how Green feels about this is anyone's guess, but a solid guess is probably not spiffing. He's conceded nine in his three league fixtures so far, and you'd imagine only short odds are being offered on him being benched and Cesar making his debut against Chelsea. Meanwhile, also in the capital, another high-profile goalkeeper was signed. The circumstances at Tottenham, compared to those mentioned at QPR, are different as, on paper, and despite what some will have you believe, the signing of Hugo Lloris makes sense. Spurs' current first-choice shot-stopper, while excellent and in decent form, is 41 years old. Brad Friedel's days at White Hart Lane are numbered, so to bring in France's 25-year-old captain for a reasonable fee from Lyon is logical. What remains to be seen is how Andre Villas-Boas manages Lloris' immediate desire to be No. 1.

Southampton: Middle ground needed

Poor Southampton. The fixture computer was a bit of a sod to them. Having already faced both Manchester clubs, they next take on Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. With no points accrued thus far - their home match versus Wigan was an opportunity missed - and such is the football world we live in now, there have been frankly scandalous whispers about the future of Nigel Adkins. Indeed, one newspaper even suggested recently that Harry Redknapp - who presided over the Saints' relegation in 2005 - was being lined up as his successor should he get the axe. Their points total of zero is unlikely to be improved come Saturday evening, but a home game against Aston Villa the week after presents a more realistic opportunity to kick-start their season. Adkins might, though, consider whether against the Gunners it is better to go for the throat versus these 'big sides' in search of a win or attempt to batten down the hatches and grind out a draw and the point that comes with the latter.
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