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Oct 19, 2012

Three is the magic number

Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Chelsea: Trouble ahead?

Chelsea are sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table, four points above the two Manchester clubs. They have conceded just four times, and their only dropped points were in a goalless draw against QPR.

Roberto Di Matteo's side have also played some fancy football - as is Roman Abramovich's desire - engineered by the gifted threesome of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata (see, money can buy you happiness).

Despite this, the modern-day hyperbole that comes when someone makes an impression has been muffled, and a diversion of attention is the reason for this.

There has been the fall-out from the racial abuse of defender Anton Ferdinand by John Terry, which occurred 12 months ago. A court ruling, followed by an FA independent regulatory commission ruling, was this week followed by the acceptance of a four-game ban and even an apology from Terry - "It will not happen again," he said in a statement. The centre-back will be absent from the matches against Tottenham, Manchester United (in league and cup) and Swansea.

Say what you like about Terry the person, he's been a very good defender and his presence will be missed at a time when Chelsea's games are increasing in intensity. Certainly, there is an argument that Chelsea's fixture list thus far has been kind. Now they must travel to White Hart Lane on Saturday lunchtime without their "captain, leader, legend" (might the latter word now be scrubbed out?), while it is possible that Ashley Cole, another oh-so-reliable in that defence, could be facing a suspension if the club deem his Twitter outburst worthy of such a punishment. The forthcoming period threatens to be a test of Di Matteo's mettle.

Liverpool - Being: Injured

Oh, Liverpool. If there's one thing that can be said of you, it is that your stories both behind the scenes and on the pitch have been generous in their narrative in recent times.

In recent weeks, viewers have tuned in on a Friday night to be transfixed by the manner of manager Brendan Rodgers - he of the infamous three envelopes. But matters during the international break have been unhelpful, with this club of only two senior strikers shorn of Fabio Borini, leaving them with just one.

Borini aggravated a foot injury while training with Italy Under-21s, meaning he faces surgery on a fractured bone and, with that, three months on the sidelines. In terms of where goals might come from, the cupboard is looking barer than ever.

The blank fired against Stoke City at Anfield last time out, when Suarez's reverting to type (by diving) provided an indication of their desperation for a breakthrough, is evidence of this. They next host Reading, who have conceded more than two goals a game so far this season. Over to you, Rodgers and Co.

The bottom three: Winless

Reading, Norwich City, Queens Park Rangers: no wins between them. That's damning. Despite Liverpool's failings, newly-promoted Reading will not be expected to gain even a point at Anfield - despite their FA Cup win there in 2010. Their failure to claim all three points from a winning position in their previous match, against Swansea, was a concern, and one worries whether there is the quality within Brian McDermott's ranks to put up a stiff enough fight to stave off relegation.

As for Norwich, back-to-back games against Liverpool and Chelsea have seen nine goals shipped, and those results have brought worry lines to plenty of Canaries fans' foreheads. To complete a tricky trio of matches, they welcome Arsenal to Carrow Road on Saturday evening. As with Reading, anything gained from this weekend will be seen as a bonus, yet their next fixture, a trip to Villa Park, is an outing against fellow contenders for the drop. That said, only a 2-1 win was secured by the Gunners in Norfolk last time around, with the now-departed Robin van Persie scoring both goals that day. A glimmer of hope, perhaps.

At QPR, votes of confidence continue to be voiced, and if this bottom of the table club were to dismiss their manager Mark Hughes after less than 10 games in 2012-13 it would demonstrate the itchiest of trigger fingers. Yet this is a coach who has won just eight of his 29 matches at the Loftus Road helm. The issue for Hughes has been a lack of cohesion among his many new recruits so far, and the international break will not have helped his cause. Sunday's home clash against in-form Everton is followed by a trip to Arsenal.

West Brom: He who laughs last

An apology is deserved. This non-informed football writer condemned West Bromwich Albion to the drop when tasked with the dreaded pre-season predictions in the summer. Of course, it is still early days - but the displays by the Baggies under rookie manager Steve Clarke in their opening eight fixtures mean the proverbial egg slathers the face. Currently boasting more points than Arsenal, West Brom head into their meeting with Manchester City with the genuine feeling that an upset is possible.

"We close our eyes on what we did at the start," Clarke said in the Birmingham Mail. "We play Manchester United on December 29, and these 13 games will shape the way this season will go."

The Scot's attempts to keep the hype levels low are understandable but, with the likes of James Morrison, summer signing Claudio Yacob and loanee Romelu Lukaku all in excellent form, it is hard not to get whipped up by their momentum. The wheels could yet come off, but in the meantime it must be just lovely to be a West Brom supporter.


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