After a two-week international break, the Premier League returns this weekend.
Here are seven reasons we're looking forward to the return of the Premier League this weekend...
Arsenal vs Manchester City
As if the return of the Premier League wasn’t exciting enough, the fixture list throws out this absolute doozy.
For long-suffering Arsenal, this game surely falls into the category of ‘must-win’. Six points behind fourth-place Liverpool, anything less than three points could well spell the end of the team’s Champions League hopes. They will likely be able to call upon wantaway stars Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez – both of whom recovered from injury to turn out for Germany and Chile respectively this week – although whether their presence constitutes an advantage remains to be seen.
City’s good run of form meanwhile suggests that Pep Guardiola’s methods are finally being taken on board at the Etihad – their dismal Champions League exit aside. For all the talk of the club’s poor defensive record they have actually only conceded two goals in their last six Premier League matches, with John Stones particularly impressive of late.
The last game between these two teams threw up three goals and no fewer than 20 shots on goal. With so much more on the line this time around, don’t be surprised if this match proves to be far tighter.
30 matches in nine days
You spend a long, painful fortnight waiting for the Premier League to return – and then thirty matches come along at once.
The action begins this weekend with a Merseyside derby as well as Arsenal vs Manchester City to look forward to, before every team returns to action in the middle of the week. A London derby between Arsenal and West Ham and a top of the table clash between Chelsea and Manchester City are the games to look out for.
There is then a full programme the following weekend, to officially mark the start of the business end of the season.
A crucial Merseyside derby
It is rather remarkable that, despite only losing one match since Christmas Day and having the Premier League’s top scorer leading their line, Everton continue to fly very much under the radar.
That could end this weekend. Currently level on points with Arsenal, a win for Everton this weekend would see them move just three points behind their Merseyside rivals, who currently sit fourth. Ronald Koeman insisted a top-four finish was still possible for Everton after their impressive 4-0 win against Hull; three points at Anfield would go a long way to validating that claim.
But Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool tend to deliver in the big matches – and they don’t come much bigger than this. Keep an eye out for Adam Lallana: the 28-year-old is in the form of his life having impressed for England against Germany and Lithuania, and will be crucial for his club during the run-in.
Finding out whether Spurs are actually the real deal
So far, so good for Mauricio Pochettino’s men. Their October blip aside, Tottenham have been in devastating form this season, losing just three games and remaining unbeaten at White Hart Lane.
However it is well documented how Pochettino’s teams tend to fade away at the end of a long season of thrilling attacking play and relentless pressing, and it will be fascinating to see whether his Spurs team have matured sufficiently to extend their good form into the business end of the season.
Everybody remembers the infamous draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as the day that Spurs conceded the Premier League title to Leicester City, but their decisive loss of form actually began at this exact point in the calendar last season, with a loss to West Ham and a draw with Arsenal. Spurs can ill afford a similar slip up at Turf Moor this weekend.
Watching Jermain Defoe do his thing
The fact that Jermain Defoe scored England’s opening goal against Lithuania and won the Man of the Match award despite only touching the ball 15 times tells you everything you need to know about the changes the striker has made to his game.
Ruthlessly efficient both on and off the pitch – after England’s win he revealed he had ditched meat and dairy from his diet – Defoe is in the form of his life, buoyed by a return to the international stage in the twilight of his career.
Sunderland will be desperately hoping his Indian summer can continue into the final weeks of the Premier League season. On paper, their situation looks dire. Rooted to the bottom of the table, they currently sit seven points from safety.
However the club have been here before and in Defoe they have one of the most influential players in the business: no player has had a hand in a higher share of his team’s league goals this term than any player in Europe’s top five leagues.
Watford at Vicarage Road is one of the kinder fixtures Sunderland have left. All eyes will be on Defoe to see whether he can drag his team out the mire yet again.
The race to avoid relegation hotting up
It might not be the most glamorous of Premier League fixtures, but Swansea vs Middlesbrough at the Liberty Stadium will have huge ramifications at the bottom of the table. Defeat for Steve Agnew’s side would surely consign them to the Championship next season. Defeat for Swansea will suck them back into a relegation scrap they had briefly pulled themselves away from.
Sunderland’s situation appears desperate but history tells us the club will carry on fighting until the bitter end. Jermain Defoe’s goals could yet save them.
And will any of the teams clustered around 15th be dragged into the scrap? The likes of Watford, Leicester and Crystal Palace all appear safe, but a run of poor results at the wrong time could yet see them forced to fight for their lives.
The end of the international break
Of course, the real reason we are so excited to welcome back the Premier League is because it means the international break is over. Unsurprisingly, fixtures including England vs Lithuania, Northern Ireland vs Norway, Scotland vs Canada have failed to deliver in intrigue and entertainment.
Beyond the major tournaments, are we reaching a point where international football beyond saving? Unless remedial action is taken quickly, that is increasingly looking to be the case.
The introduction of a pre-qualification system, reducing the number of meaningless friendlies or just abandoning internationals apart from the big tournaments have all been suggested as ways of salvaging the reputation of international football – but it’s hard to envisage Fifa actually adopting any of these ideas.
International football returns in June. It won’t be missed until then.