City, Spurs face first big tests
Manchester City and Tottenham's credentials as potential new members of English football's elite go under the microscope this weekend.
Both clubs have made perfect starts to their campaign but, with Manchester United due at White Hart Lane and City entertaining Arsenal, life is suddenly about to get a whole lot tougher for both clubs. After spending around £120 million on players in the close season, City have made a promising start to the new campaign with wins over Blackburn, Wolves and Portsmouth in their opening matches.
But with Carlos Tevez and potentially Robinho missing through injury, City will have to step up a level to take the points against an Arsenal side that will have a point to prove after being identified as the club most likely to make way if City are to be accommodated within the top four.
For City, the visit of Arsenal is followed by a meeting with Manchester United in one of the most keenly awaited derbies of recent years and Stephen Ireland, the Irishman who has forged a promising midfield partnership with Gareth Barry, says he and his new team-mates will relish the challenge. "Against Arsenal and United, they will both be games of football and that will suit our style," Ireland said.
"In the league games so far other teams have either flooded midfield or fired the ball over our heads and it has been a case of battling for the scraps but these next two matches should be full of passing, moving and combinations that will suit us. You want to test yourself against the best teams and the next two we face are in that category."
Ireland readily admits that City have not set the world alight yet but argues that the hard-fought wins augur well for the future of Mark Hughes's newly-built squad, who are to be captained by former Arsenal defender Kolo Toure following the move of Richard Dunne to Aston Villa. "We have gelled well and that is down to the calibre of the player that the manager has brought in," Ireland said.
"All of the signings have been very good ones not just in terms of ability but also personality wise. They are all determined characters each of whom has a winning mentality."
Arsenal will be without Russia's Andrey Arsharvin but Cesc Fabregas, who made a scoring return to action for Spain in midweek, is back for the Gunners.
Manchester United will be bolstered by the return of Rio Ferdinand, who has yet to play in the league this season as a result of a thigh injury, while Croatia midfielder Niko Kranjcar could make his debut for Spurs at White Hart Lane.
A visit to league leaders Chelsea gives Stoke the chance to improve on last season's performance at Stamford Bridge, which saw Tony Pulis's side leading with two minutes to go only to end up on the receiving end of a 2-1 defeat.
Chelsea have had 20 players away on international duty this week but Pulis does not expect any easing off from a squad he regards as the title favourites. "Our aim will be to stay in the game for an hour and, if we can do that, I think we will have a great chance of getting something," Pulis said.
"We've looked at videos of the games they've played this year and they have been fantastic. They have hit the ground running and, with Manchester United losing Cristiano Ronaldo and Tevez and Arsenal losing a couple of players, I think they are the best."
Having lost twice already this season, Liverpool have no room for error at home to Premier League newcomers Burnley, for whom on-loan striker David Nugent is expected to make his debut against the club where he started his career.