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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Can anyone stop Man City? Will Chelsea cope without Morata? Five big questions awaiting the Premier League's return

As the international break makes way for domestic football, Richard Jolly takes a look at some of the big questions awaiting the return of the Premier League.

Kevin de Bruyne, centre, scored against Chelsea earlier this season. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo
Kevin de Bruyne, centre, scored against Chelsea earlier this season. Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP Photo

Can anyone stop Manchester City?

City have scored the most goals and conceded the fewest, had the most possession and with the best pass completion rate. They have won their past seven games in all competitions by an aggregate score of 25-1. They made light of the absences of Sergio Aguero, Benjamin Mendy and Vincent Kompany to outplay Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. And after defeating the champions and Liverpool, a side that defeated too few of the top clubs last season has set about remedying that record. Until they meet Arsenal in November, City do not have the toughest fixture list. They have the strength in depth to cope with injuries in attack and midfield. And while there are questions about their defence, they have gone 437 minutes without conceding in the league.

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Can Manchester United pass the most severe tests?

Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United side face their first run of tough fixtures after a comparatively easy start to the season. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters
Jose Mourinho and his Manchester United side face their first run of tough fixtures after a comparatively easy start to the season. Jason Cairnduff / Reuters

United’s start has been superb. Yet while Jose Mourinho may deny it, it has also been easy. They have only faced one of last season’s top 10, a slumping Everton. That will all change. Their next four league opponents include Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. It is the stiffest test if this side are as formidable as they seem and comes when they are without Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini. Mourinho’s tactical skills, Romelu Lukaku’s undistinguished scoring record against the best, the solidity of the defence: all are under the microscope.

Can Chelsea cope without Morata?

Alvaro Morata has made an impressive start to life at Chelsea but a hamstring injury is set to rule him out for the next few games. John Sibley / Reuters
Alvaro Morata has made an impressive start to life at Chelsea but a hamstring injury is set to rule him out for the next few games. John Sibley / Reuters

It was all going so well. Alvaro Morata had scored six goals in his first six league games. He had struck in a Uefa Champions League win at Atletico Madrid. He was settling superbly. Then he went off against Manchester City, hamstrung, leaving Chelsea with one fit senior striker and Antonio Conte with more regrets that they did not sign Fernando Llorente. Conte’s lack of faith in Michy Batshuayi has been demonstrated time and again – he brought on midfielder Willian instead of the attacker against Arsenal – even though the Belgian averages a goal every 69 minutes in the Premier League and one every 49 in the Champions League.

There is a theory Morata’s injury is not as bad as initially feared. Conte may select Batshuayi against Crystal Palace on Saturday but it would be no surprise if he used Eden Hazard as a false nine against Roma. Depending on the severity of N’Golo Kante’s hamstring problem, Conte may also have to cope without another key man.

Can Liverpool tighten up defensively?

Liverpool have struggled defensively for much of the season. Carl Recine / Reuters
Liverpool have struggled defensively for much of the season. Carl Recine / Reuters

Liverpool have had the most shots in the Premier League. Only West Ham United and Crystal Palace have conceded more goals. Those facts illustrate why they are only seventh. They have not been good enough in either box. The failure to sign Southampton centre-back Virgil van Dijk looked costly, even before Dejan Lovren required injections to play. Liverpool’s problems have been partly of personnel, partly of organisation, particularly at set-pieces. But if they carry on conceding at such a rate, they will not finish in the top four.

Is it already too late for Crystal Palace?

Roy Hodgson is yet to oversee a point or even a Premier League goal since taking over from Frank de Boer. Andrew Yates / Reuters
Roy Hodgson is yet to oversee a point or even a Premier League goal since taking over from Frank de Boer. Andrew Yates / Reuters

Crystal Palace have already made history. No other team in the 129-year history of the English top flight have lost their first seven league games without scoring. As they face Chelsea next, it could get worse before it gets better. Or it could just get worse. They might not have Christian Benteke for another month. Without getting results soon and a momentum shift, they risk being cut adrift. Because who are they going to catch? Three of the bottom six places are filled by Everton, West Ham and Leicester City, but underachievers who ought to improve. Of those tipped for relegation in pre-season, Palace are already nine points behind Huddersfield Town, 10 behind Newcastle United and 12 behind Watford and Burnley.

PREMIER LEAGUE FIXTURES

All kick-off times UAE (+4 GMT)

Saturday
Liverpool v Manchester United - 3.30pm
Burnley v West Ham United - 6pm
Crystal Palace v Chelsea - 6pm
Manchester City v Stoke City - 6pm
Swansea City v Huddersfield Town - 6pm
Tottenham Hotspur v Bournemouth - 6pm
Watford v Arsenal - 8.30pm

Sunday
Brighton and Hove Albion v Everton - 4.30pm
Southampton v Newcastle United - 7pm

Monday
Leicester City v West Bromwich Albion - 11pm

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