1) Can Benitez win them over? A hostile reception to say the least for Rafa’s first game in charge of Chelsea in a battlefield of footballing political upheaval. Stamford Bridge was illuminated with the sight of banners and placards of “RAFA OUT” before a ball had even been kicked under his management. That is understandable considering his affiliation with Liverpool from yesteryear but a tepid and uninspired performance against the champions, Manchester City, didn’t do much to tone down the vehement rage being directed at him from certain sections of the crowd. To heap misery onto Rafa, who insisted that he was unaware of the hostile atmosphere, John Terry was seen wearing a training top in the warm-up that had the number 16 across the chest, the number Roberto DiMatteo wore during his time at the club suggesting that it may not just be the fans that are less than contempt with the recent changes in personnel. Anarchy imminent? Wednesday night could be a significant night even as early as this in Benitez’s time at Chelsea, a poor result or controversial decision regarding tactics or selection would send the disgruntled fans into overdrive and things could get very ugly indeed for Abramovich and the Chelsea Brain Trust.
2) Last chance saloon for Martin O’Neill? The excitement that surrounded O’Neill’s appointment as manager of Sunderland in December last year has quickly become a distant memory. On the back of a dismal run that has seen them win only 2 of their last 20 games in the league, discussions of relegation and resignation precludes Wearside. The Black Cats will have to go out and do a job for their manager amidst rumours that he is on the verge of resignation, the kind of display that saw them beat Manchester City 1-0 in his first game in charge would be both timely and welcome. If they lose to QPR on Tuesday then resignation may not be necessary as Sunderland hierarchy may look to their team hovering ominously above the relegation zone and decide that a change is the best way to ensure survival in the Premier League.
3) Harry to the rescue? With the controversial cloud that continues to hang over Chelsea, there can be no doubt that Mark Hughes had outstayed his welcome at QPR. His sacking was justified and long overdue. Significant squad additions in the summer had done nothing to galvanise a team who escaped relegation last season by the skin of their teeth and losing to fellow strugglers Southampton at Loftus Road marked one loss to many for ‘Sparky.’ Harry Redknapp has come in to save the club. Out of work since leaving Tottenham in June, Harry was the overwhelming fans favourite to succeed Hughes and their wish was granted. He comes in with a vision of recreating his managerial highs with Portsmouth and Tottenham, two teams who were lying in the relegation zone at the time of his arrival before managing to rejuvenate them. Redknapp has called for his newly inherited team to “be at it” at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday and adding that players he feels are not pulling their weight will be dropped without much consideration, thus portraying already the great authoritarian bravado that is required to recuperate a desperately under-achieving team that was perhaps lacking under his predecessor.
4) Can Everton recapture their early form? It all started wonderfully for David Moyes’ Toffees in August when they outplayed Manchester United to win 1-0 in an impressive opening fixture since them. Nobody looked a more dangerous outfit than Everton when they attacked with pace and precision down the left flank through Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar. Their briskly eye-catching wing-play dazzled many in the opening weeks but has fizzled out into something of a rut, struggling for form and inspiration. Baines, for one, was visibly displeased with the efforts of Nikica Jelavic during their 1-1 draw with Norwich on Saturday which suggests that all is not well within the camp and the visit of Arsenal is more than likely to ruffle a few feathers. Pienaar is now struggling for form and Jelavic has made minimal impact of recent weeks, something which Moyes is sure to address before Wednesday’s clash with Arséne Wenger’s men. A bright start has faded for the blue half of Merseyside, who could find themselves in 8th if the lose to the Gunners and Tottenham and West Ham beat Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.
5) A must-win for both teams at Villa Park. Aston Villa must beat Reading. Reading must beat Aston Villa. It couldn’t be simpler for both teams, Aston Villa are lying 18th and Reading are just one behind them in 19th having only managed three wins between them so far this season. This bottom-of-the-table clash will have serious reverberations for whoever loses and a point won’t do much to ease the anxieties either. Expect innumerable sips from the water bottle, world-class ear-bending of the fourth official and Darren Bent to tweet about his favourite episode of Homeland from the bench considering Paul Lambert’s recent evaluation of him as a “squad player.” Between them, Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor possess a range of decent attacking attributes but none of them have the cutting-edge predatory instinct of Bent which convinced Villa to fork out £24 million for him in January 2011. Recent history dictates that leaving out a club record signing up front will have huge ramifications of a negative nature. Take note Lambert.
6) Will Manchester City prove their worth as champions? Roberto Mancini bemoaned a “soft” performance from his team against Chelsea on Sunday. That’s one way of putting it. Remaining unbeaten through the first 13 matches is quite an achievement but anyone who has watched Manchester City on a regular basis this season will draw the conclusion that they are not as fearless and clinical as they were last season. Disastrous European endeavours aside, City go to the DW Stadium on Wednesday looking to spark into life and get the defence of their first title in 44 years truly under way. They relinquished top spot to their Manchester counterparts at the weekend and coming up to a packed Christmas programme of fixtures, Mancini and his men will be eager to seize the initiative leading up to the next Manchester derby on December 9. Balotelli remains an issue, with increasing speculation linking him with a move away from the Etihad in January, the temperamental striker needs to seriously prove to Mancini that he is worth the trouble, provided that he wants to stay.
By Matthew Gault