Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Tottenham's mixed messages
It has been a peculiar first quarter of the season for Tottenham Hotspur head coach Andre Villas-Boas. His side are fourth in the table, level on points with Liverpool and Chelsea. Their defensive record is outstanding, with just five conceded in 10 top-flight matches. Most recently in the league they earned a point at Everton -- not to be sniffed at. Yet the Spurs boss has been forced to defend their performances, amid criticism regarding their attacking exploits, or lack thereof.
Villas-Boas has responded to the naysayers by nodding his stubbled jaw in the direction of 32 goals scored in 18 matches in all competitions, but the Europa League skews the statistics. That an awful lot of money was reinvested in the squad, particularly on forward-minded personnel, in light of Gareth Bale's sale to Real Madrid means scrutiny of their limpness up front is intensified.
It has been quickly forgotten, though, that a batch of new signings brought in during the summer need a fair amount of time to gel, to settle. Furthermore, any team sans a Player of the Season will surely take time to adjust. Bale's influence last campaign was such that he was often the club's match-winner, with the side performing much like the current side, keeping it tight at the back then relying on a moment of magic, which the Welshman was regularly able to provide.
The counterpoint is that the likes of Erik Lamela, who has yet to start a Premier League match, and Roberto Soldado were brought in for eye-watering fees, and therefore an almost instant return is expected, like that provided by Mesut Ozil at Arsenal, for example. Without the ammunition, though, goal-poacher Soldado cannot do much more other than meet the English criteria for applause: running around a lot. Anyway, their chance to add to their goals-scored column, which stands at a paltry nine, comes versus an unpredictable Newcastle side at White Hart Lane, where the natives have been encouraged to be more, erm, encouraging.
Champions host the leaders
Since the last edition of this column, Arsenal have silenced their emerging critics while turning up the volume of their advocates. The wins over Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund -- the former achieved with swagger, the latter with grit -- have stoked belief they are indeed the real deal. And so long as they avoid long-term injuries to the spine of their starting XI, it is plausible they can maintain this title-winning form. After an arduous run of games, Sunday's trip to Old Trafford concludes the sequence -- with all due respect to an impressive Southampton side, who await after the international break.
Inflicting defeat on Manchester United has the added incentive for the Gunners of stretching the gap between them and the champions to 11 points, although conversely the opportunity to cut it to five would ensure manager David Moyes feels a whole lot better about their start to the 2013-14 season.
This is a huge match for Moyes, after meetings with Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City yielded one point. A first-half stroll at Fulham in their last league outing, aided by their opponents' ropey defending, supported the opinion that the Scot is closer to finding the right formula. This will be stringently tested by the table-toppers, who look nothing like the team that waved the white flag when the two sides met in November last year.
Chelsea's chance to respond
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was the Unhappy One (get it?!) last weekend after his in-form team lost against out-of-form Newcastle, pretty much all down to counterpart Alan Pardew's assist for the opening goal -- the way he swung in that free kick with his lips was brilliant. The Portuguese publicly chastised his team after the result by stating that he made "11 mistakes." He subsequently shuffled his pack for the Champions League game against Schalke, excluding Eden Hazard from the squad after he "forgot the time" of Monday's training session, and order was restored with a 3-0 win.
But the scoreline was a little misleading. Schalke had their chances -- underlining the fact that this Chelsea side are not as solid as their boss might wish -- before Timo Hildebrand went all Joe Hart to turn the tide. That being said, though goalkeeper Hildebrand was guilty of egg on face, the goal was manufactured by Samuel Eto'o's sniffing out the chance, while his first touch and finish for the second were those of a cold-eyed finisher. It bodes well for the Blues that the Cameroonian is resembling his former world-class self, for at the beginning of the season a reduced contribution from their strikeforce was of concern.
Mourinho must decide between Eto'o and Demba Ba, who also scored on Wednesday, for their league game Saturday against West Bromwich Albion, as Fernando Torres is absent with a leg injury. Not that it matters too much who plays, as at Stamford Bridge the club are dominant: They have won 12 of their last 13 Premier League home games. Regardless, they should still be on their guard, as West Brom have upset two of the big boys already this season, by impressively winning at Old Trafford and holding Arsenal to a 1-1 draw.
Pressure increasing on Hughton
Chris Hughton's future at Norwich City looks iffy. Fans of the club are growing restless, with four of their last six league matches ending in defeat, though in fairness three of those fixtures were against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City. Yet conceding seven goals against City, no matter the money spent by the opponents, is unacceptable. Money was also spent in the summer at Norwich, as the likes of Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Gary Hooper arrived for a combined fee of around 15 million pounds, but the pair have one league goal between them. It is goal-shy West Ham at home next. Over to you, Hughton.
Villa's search for a goal
Another team struggling on the goal front is Aston Villa. According to the excellent chaps at Opta, Villa have gone 6 hours and 15 minutes without scoring a goal in the Premier League. Indeed, their last outing at Upton Park yielded just two shots on target over the 90 minutes. However, their manager, Paul Lambert, is showing no signs of being concerned about the barren spell that they will hope to end at home Saturday to a disciplined Cardiff City side. "We've always got goals in us," the Scot insists.