Chelsea pose City's toughest test yet; Palace need Man United miracle
John Brewin previews the weekend's Premier League action and highlights five key storylines in W2W4.
Chelsea offer injury-hit City sternest test
Saturday evening brings a blockbuster when leaders Manchester City visit defending champions Chelsea. Their last three league matches may have seen City score 16 unanswered goals, but Chelsea present a far tougher proposition than Crystal Palace (thrashed 5-0 last week) and Watford (6-0 the week before that).
Prior to those, Sadio Mane's red card stopped Liverpool's visit to the Etihad being a contest as City won 5-0. And this week has seen City suffer a double helping of bad luck as Benjamin Mendy was ruled out for the season with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament before news that Sergio Aguero had damaged his ribs in an Amsterdam road accident on Thursday night.
Pep Guardiola comes up against the manager who had his number last season; only Chelsea beat City twice in the Premier League last term. Last December, a 3-1 home defeat set the decline of City's title bid in motion while Chelsea's 2-1 win in April put Antonio Conte's team into the final straight. On the touchline at Stamford Bridge the pair clashed and had to be separated.
After losing their opening match 3-2 to Burnley, Chelsea's recovery places them just three points behind City and Manchester United. The core of that champion team endures while newcomers Alvaro Morata and Tiemoue Bakayoko are performing at levels to make fans forget about Diego Costa and Nemanja Matic. Meanwhile, Cesc Fabregas is reinvigorated now he has Morata's intelligent running to feed off his playmaking gifts.
Last week's 4-0 win at Stoke did not quite show off the pyrotechnics that City have displayed in recent matches, but Chelsea are a team to be feared and respected. No longer distracted by transfers, Conte's eyes are back on the prize and Chelsea will not allow Guardiola's team too much in the way of indulgence.
Can they convert Kevin De Bruyne into a weakness in central midfield rather than the orchestra conductor he has so far been? Might the loss of left-back Mendy imbalance City? Guardiola does not have a natural replacement to call on.
With Aguero out for an estimated two months, Guardiola is lacking a player who has scored 10 goals in 15 matches against Chelsea. Gabriel Jesus is a more than able stand-in, but how might he deal with Chelsea's aggressive defending?
Should Conte's team repeat last season's derailing of City then talk of a two-horse race between Manchester clubs can be set aside. Recent weeks have announced that Chelsea will not be conceding their crown in the facile fashion of their disastrous 2015-16 campaign.
Palace need a Manchester miracle
By the time City and Chelsea kick off on Saturday, they are more than likely to find themselves looking up at Manchester United and Jose Mourinho.
As his rivals prepare to take chunks out of each other in West London, Mourinho's team take on Crystal Palace. That's goalless, points-bereft Palace, for whom Roy Hodgson has been unable to turn the tide since succeeding the short-lived, ill-fated Frank de Boer. That's Palace, who have not won a league match at United since 1989.
With Chelsea as Palace's next fixture following the international break, it's highly possible their record run of hopelessness might continue fully two months into the season. That United have yet to concede a goal at Old Trafford only adds to the difficulties facing Hodgson, who has lost striker Christian Benteke to a knee injury as Wilfried Zaha also remains on the sidelines.
United's 4-1 win at CSKA Moscow on Wednesday brought back memories of both the Sir Alex Ferguson era and Mourinho's dominant, powerful Chelsea team of a decade ago. Neither of those regimes slipped up against opponents so weak as Palace, and bookmakers odds of 13/1 for an away win look positively miserly in the circumstances. Even a draw would register as a huge surprise.
Rafa lies in wait for Klopp
English teams' results in this week's Champions League reminded of that Ferguson/Mourinho heyday when Premier League clubs would skate easily through the group stages. While United, City, Chelsea and Spurs all celebrated victory and six points from two matches, only Liverpool let the side down, being held 1-1 at Spartak Moscow -- a second draw in succession.
As has become habitual for Liverpool this season, missed chances to win the game followed a defensive mistake giving the opponent a foothold. In Russia, goalkeeper Loris Karius was the guilty party. "We are not the most lucky team in world football," said Jurgen Klopp, a manager exasperated by having to explain his team's multitudes of mistakes.
Last week at Leicester, he hugged a journalist who had asked a positive question after a nerve-shredding 3-2 win, and though Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez holds Liverpool dear to his heart, he will have prepared his team to pick at those recurring weaknesses in Sunday's late kickoff at St James' Park.
Alli struggling for form
At Huddersfield on Saturday, Harry Kane hopes to follow on from the nine goals in his last five matches that have him on target for the kind of scoring rate that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi can boast of. However, there are worries about Dele Alli, Kane's closest partner-in-crime at Tottenham.
Alli supplied his first assist of the season for Kane's first of two in last week's 3-2 win at West Ham, and his own return of two goals appears paltry considering he is often playing further forward than Kane. In an attacking trio with Kane and Christian Eriksen, Alli is no longer as involved in play as would be expected of someone who began his career as an all-action central midfielder.
The formation has been working well enough for Mauricio Pochettino's team, unbeaten since August, but one of England's richest talents can look a little boy lost within it, unhappy with his lack of engagement.
Battles in the basement
After six rounds of matches, it is premature to talk of relegation six-pointers, but two Saturday fixtures have the look of pressurised matches for clubs whose seasons have begun disappointingly.
Bournemouth on three points play Leicester on four while West Ham (four) welcome Swansea (five). After that Tottenham defeat, Hammers boss Slaven Bilic could be under serious pressure if Swansea escape the London Stadium with a win, while at Leicester, manager Craig Shakespeare is suffering the curse of the caretaker, where landing the permanent job coincides with a drop in form.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.