Spurs will be dangerous at Old Trafford

Match of the weekend: Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur

Tottenham’s recent record at Old Trafford is absolutely woeful, but perhaps this time they might have a chance of getting something from the game.

Rafael van der Vaart must be the top candidate for signing of the season, especially considering the price Spurs got him for.

He looks like a man at the top of his game at the moment whereas his opposite number, Paul Scholes, is all too often going missing when teams don’t allow him the time and space to pick out the passes, which he can still do brilliantly.

Whether United line up with Gary Neville, John O’Shea or Rafael da Silva at right-back, they are going to have a job on their hands dealing with Gareth Bale‘s pace and strength.

Spurs have generally held up well despite the added pressures of their first Champions League campaign. They may have had to come from behind several times this season but, for the most part, they have succeeded, and the fact they lie fifth now is promising for Harry Redknapp and his team.

However, it is worth remembering that the last time Spurs won at Old Trafford in the league, Gary Lineker scored the winner, and the total score in this fixture over the last three years is United 11-4 Spurs.

United may be without Wayne Rooney for a few weeks longer than expected, but Nani has scored a couple of beauties against Spurs and if Javier Hernandez can maintain his excellent run of form then we could be in for a cracker.

Upset of the weekend: Aston Villa v Birmingham City

Given the relative size and history of these two clubs, you have to put Villa as favourites, especially at home. However, there is only Everton separating them in the table at the moment, and last season the Blues only finished two places below their local rivals.

Villa did the double over Birmingham last term, but generally Alex McLeish has got his side on the up and up, while Villa had stagnated somewhat in the latter part of Martin O’Neil’s reign.

It’s got to the point now where, if Birmingham were to win at Villa Park, then they would feel as though they were a big step closer to eliminating the gap between them.
Villa have been struggling for goals, and knocking it in long or from the wings in search of Emile Heskey or John Carew is not going to cut it against one of the most well-organised and aerially strong defences around. If they are to beat Brimingham, they need to get it down and pass it through them.

This being Gerard Houllier’s first second city derby, it would be a real early blow to his tenure if his side lost on Sunday. He will not have been best pleased that his team had to play for an extra half an hour in the Carling Cup on Wednesday. Birmingham’s tie went all the way to penalties, but they have had an extra 24 hours to recover.

So a Birmingham win, whilst not necessarily a shock in itself in isolation, would be an upset to the balance of power in the Midlands.

Under pressure: Chris Hughton (Newcastle United v Sunderland)

It’s sad but not surprising to hear the reports this week that Newcastle are looking to replace Chris Hughton. They have come out and released a statement backing the manager, but the story must have emanated from somewhere within the club.
Because Hughton is not a big name manager who has experience managing in the Premier League – save for the odd caretaker shift – there are some who evidently believe they can do better.

It wasn’t that long ago that they were in the Champions League or challenging for the title, and they obviously think that is where they belong. The farcical way in which the club has been run, leading to their relegation, says otherwise.

In that time, Hughton has been an assuring, calming presence at the club, and has not only led them back up at the first attempt, with largely the same squad that Joe Kinnear and Alan Shearer took down, but has also got their season off to a credible and promising start.

Now, hosting Sunderland on Sunday, he has the chance to compound the public display of faith shown in him by winning a derby and proving his credentials. If Newcastle lose, however, then those doubters will have some fuel added to the fire.

Player to watch: Theo Walcott (Arsenal v West Ham United)

Now that Theo is back from injury, and having scored two goals in midweek, it’s time to see if he can push on and finally win round his critics.

He may have scored a hat-trick early on this season, but that was against a newly-promoted Blackpool side caught in the Emirates floodlights. Take a look at those goals again, and you can put each of them down to poor defending.

He is now getting on for 150 appearances for Arsenal, so we can no longer be excusing his flaws and inconsistencies as those of an inexperienced player.

My worry for Walcott is that, if things start going badly for Arsenal, he is one of the first players the fans would turn on, because they really only get a top performance from him once in every four or five games.

But if he can hit his stride now, able to consistently deliver a quality final ball or finish clinically – as he did at Newcastle on Wednesday – while moving at that searing pace, then he still has a chance of becoming the player we all hope he will.

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