FOLLOWING a week of high drama in Europe, England’s leading clubs return to domestic competition this weekend in fixtures that promise similarly high-octane performances.
Leaders Liverpool against third-placed Leicester City at Anfield and Manchester City’s game against in-form Wolverhampton Wanderers at the Etihad Stadium really catch the eye.
Southampton welcoming Chelsea to St Mary’s Stadium and ailing Manchester United’s visit to St James’ Park Stadium for a clash with Newcastle should also have quite a bit of needle in them.
Perhaps the trickiest of the quartet is the Citizens’ home tie with Wolves.
Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions were surprisingly upset by lowly Norwich three weeks ago but they bounced back in typical City style — winning all five on the trot across all competitions.
In the process, they thumped luckless Watford 8-0 and scored three times in three of the other fixtures. Indeed, the 2-0 midweek Champions League victory over Dinamo Zagreb was the only game they did not get three or more goals since that Norwich defeat.
There is little doubt Guardiola will be hoping to continue with that sequence of wins. But against Wolves they face a tricky customer and things will not have been helped in the least by a string of injuries that ravaged his squad.
The loss of key personnel through injury has considerably weakened the champions. They will be without long-term casualty and flying winger Leroy Sane as well as mainstay central defenders Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, who are both on the treatment table.
Midfield maestro Kevin De Bruyne, who missed the Champions League win over Dinamo Zagreb with a groin issue, is also expected to be sidelined for the Wolves’ visit as well.
The Belgian’s absence impacts the team most. Not only does he score some fantastic goals, he is also the most creative player in the squad, or the whole of the Premiership for that matter.
David Silva, though, is there and is as good as ever, even if the 33-year-old is in his last season at the Etihad.
The Spaniard’s partnership with Sergio Aguero has reaped the richest rewards in the Premier League and the Argentine central striker, with eight goals to his name thus far this season, will be keen to add to that tomorrow.
The club’s leading scorer came off the bench in last week’s win over Everton, in which his stand-in, Gabriel Jesus, netted their first goal. Should Aguero start, as is expected, he will be tipped to find the net again and put Wolves to the sword with ample support from Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and IIkay Gundogan.
But Wolves have shown some real dogged character in recent weeks. After a slow start to the new campaign, which had them in the Europa League qualifiers well before the Premiership got underway, Nuno Espírito Santos side are at last exhibiting the sort of form that got them into Europe in the first place.
Their victory over Watford last weekend lifted them to 13th on the table and a more realistic position for a team that has the knack of upsetting those from the top six — Manchester United will certainly bear testimony to his.
Attacking midfielder Adama Traore is Wolves go-to guy and certainly one whom City will want to keep an eye on. His movements are sleek and quick, and on his day, he can outplay anyone with his vision, precision and decisiveness.
Up front, Raul Jimenez will want to add to his two league goals so far. The Mexican striker is much better than that, and as Wolves continue to improve, so too will Jimenez be expected to add to his tally.
Despite being on the road, Chelsea will be expected to win when they travel to Southampton tomorrow. They are beginning to find their feet under new boss Frank Lampard and showed signs of good progress in their almost routine-like triumph over Lille in the Champions League in midweek.
The likes of 22-year-old striker Tammy Abraham, midfielder Mason Mount, 20, and 21-year-old Fikayo Tomori have shown great promise for the future and given the Blues an unlikely lift.
They too started rather slowly but have found some momentum recently and should get past a Saints side that can be stubborn at home, when it suits them.
Only a win for Man United will be greeted with cheer, and even then, it might be grudgingly so.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Red Devils have made their worst start to the season since 1985 and needless to say, the manager is under some serious pressure.
Indeed, there are some of their fans who believe he won’t see out Christmas as Man United manager — that’s bad as things are at Old Trafford.
A victory for the side languishing in 10th place would only be their third of the season. These are terrible times for Man United and even those who despise the red half of Manchester wish that they can find some sort of form, if only to keep Solskjaer in his job.
Of course, city rivals boss Guardiola has no such worries, but he could be undone on the day when Wolves play them tomorrow, in what should be one of several highly entertaining fixtures in the Premiership.