The many detractors of international football can rejoice – there will be no mention of seedings, FIFA rankings, the Nations League or the club versus country debate until March.
It’s four solid months of club action now as the Premier League makes a very welcome return this weekend.
When we left off a fortnight ago, the season was shaping up to be something of a thriller. Leicester City were leading the way with Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Southampton tucked in behind them.
Leicester City are leading the way in the Premier League as the season resumes after the two-week pause for international games this weekend
It appears no one team will be running away with the title this time and we may well see a major surprise with the Covid-19 situation continuing to cause chaos and randomness.
Then there’s Manchester United in a lowly 14th position and Manchester City and Arsenal stuttering, meaning there’s no shortage of narrative as club football returns.
Here’s 10 reasons why we’re excited for the return of the Premier League this weekend.
Threadbare Liverpool set to be pushed to the limit
A penny for Jurgen Klopp’s true thoughts at the moment with the state-of-the-art treatment tables at Liverpool’s new training complex already full.
The international fortnight was not a happy one for Klopp, watching from afar with quiet irritation as his already diminished defence was further decimated.
Virgil van Dijk is already out for the season and then Joe Gomez, the man who was expected to step up and replace him at the heart of their defence, suffered a serious knee injury during an England training session that required surgery.
Liverpool have a new training ground and Jurgen Klopp will have spent his first few days there agonising over his threadbare defence after a spate of injuries
Trent Alexander-Arnold is one of a number of injury absentees as Liverpool play Leicester
Gomez will be out for several months and Liverpool are also without right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who pulled up with a hamstring injury against Manchester City last time out.
Fabinho, who might have slotted into a makeshift back line, is also sidelined. Likewise Rhys Williams, who took a heavy kick to the foot while playing for Wales.
Captain Jordan Henderson is also a doubt as the problems continue to mount up.
It isn’t the best time to be playing league leaders Leicester City, then, who thrive on direct balls to challenge the opposition back line and will be licking their lips at the prospect of rattling the inexperienced Neco Williams and Nat Phillips.
Can Leicester repeat their title-winning miracle of 2016?
Leicester have a fantastic opportunity to make a real statement of title-winning intent at Anfield on Sunday night.
They are in excellent form, having won six consecutive games in the Premier League and the Europa League before the internationals and certainly aren’t top by accident.
Brendan Rodgers and his team are repeating the strong start they made last season but the challenge this time is to maintain it after Christmas.
Brendan Rodgers (left) has positioned his Leicester City side for a repeat of their 2016 title win
With Liverpool light in defence, they have the chance to steal and early advantage.
While Rodgers will insist it is far too early for title chatter, there’s no reason in this unique season why they couldn’t repeat their 2016 miracle.
Jamie Vardy already has nine goals for the season and seems to go from strength to strength. The creativity in their midfield with James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans is brilliant and 19-year-old Wesley Fofana at the back look like he’s played in blue for years.
The Premier League needs a Leicester to play the disruptor role, to break the grip of Liverpool and Manchester City.
Which Manchester United will we see next?
Manchester United will start the weekend down in 14th but a home fixture against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday night is surely three easy points in the bank.
But with United at the moment, nothing is assured. You just don’t know which version of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team will turn up.
Will it be the exciting, incisive attacking force that beat Paris Saint-Germain and thrashed RB Leipzig in the Champions League, the effective machine that won at Everton last time out?
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United won at Everton last time out but we await which United will turn up as they host West Bromwich Albion on Saturday night
Premier League fixtures this weekend
Newcastle United vs Chelsea (12.30pm)
Aston Villa vs Brighton (3pm)
Tottenham Hotspur vs Manchester City (5.30pm)
Manchester United vs West Brom (8pm)
Fulham vs Everton (12pm)
Sheffield United vs West Ham (2pm)
Leeds United vs Arsenal (4.30pm)
Liverpool vs Leicester City (7.15pm)
Burnley vs Crystal Palace (5.30pm)
Wolves vs Southampton (8pm)
Or will it be the incoherent mess devoid of motivation that lost miserably to Arsenal and Istanbul Basaksehir?
We know Solskjaer’s sides have had difficulty in the past at breaking down teams that come to Old Trafford to defend and West Brom, themselves 18th, may well do that.
United won’t move up the table, and Solskjaer will remain under intense pressure, unless they find that elusive consistency of performance and result. They simply cannot keep fluctuating between the brilliant and the abysmal as they have been doing.
It’s Solskjaer’s urgent task to find that consistency between now and the end of the year or the whole season could be a write-off.
Mourinho vs Guardiola (cont.)
Sharing the top billing with Liverpool vs Leicester this weekend is undoubtedly the Saturday teatime meeting of Tottenham and Manchester City.
Jose Mourinho’s Spurs have certainly found a winning habit of late, taking maximum returns from their last three league games and all by a single-goal margin.
Their manager won’t mind that at all and it’s a good sign for Spurs and their chances of finally winning something that they have the ability to get over the line even when far short of their best.
Their bright form – and City’s stuttering form – gives Mourinho a very good chance of getting one over his old nemesis Pep Guardiola on Saturday.
There is likely to be fireworks in what will amount to an intriguing tactical tussle, especially since both managers have had two weeks to dwell on their game plans.
Mourinho’s Instagram post the other day, dripping with sarcasm about the ‘amazing week’ of internationals with ‘great emotions, superb friendlies and total safety’ suggests he is truly back to his cage-rattling best.
Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola resume their long-standing rivalry this weekend
Jose Mourinho launched a sarcastic rant on Instagram about the international break. He wrote: ‘Amazing week of football. Great emotions in the national team matches, superb friendlies and total safety. Covid test results after matches been played, randomers running on the pitch while team sessions are taking place and much more. After another training session with only 6 players, it is now time to take care of myself.’
There must be more to come from City
On the other side of the coin, we’re still waiting for Manchester City’s season to get going. Well, in the Premier League at least. All of their best performances have been in Europe so far.
They’re an unfamiliar 10th going into this weekend and were swamped for half-an-hour in their meeting with Liverpool last time out before remembering their class.
But there’s no doubt City haven’t looked themselves yet this season, even allowing for the circumstances of regular injuries and positive Covid tests.
Manchester City drew 1-1 with Liverpool last time out but they haven’t really got going yet
In contrast to Mourinho, Guardiola will have been pleased to see one of his players performing so well in the international arena this week.
Phil Foden stole the show with two goals and plenty of silky touches in England’s win over Iceland and that bodes well for a congested series of City fixtures ahead.
With the boost of Guardiola’s new contract, you just know they will start firing sooner or later and their manager certainly wouldn’t mind it being against Mourinho’s Spurs.
Are Chelsea growing as a force again?
Four consecutive wins, 14 goals scored and just one conceded. It’s fair to say Frank Lampard and Chelsea could have done without the interruption of the internationals.
Nonetheless, they head north to Newcastle on Saturday brimming with confidence and a feeling that things are coming together very nicely.
There were some early season hiccups and that old problem of a fragile defence, but gradually the kinks have been ironed out and Lampard must be satisfied with the progress.
Chelsea have started to find some form in recent weeks with their new signings impressing
His new signings are starting to shine – notably Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz and Thiago Silva – and five clean sheets in their last six games suggests a solidity and stability to the team.
They should beat Newcastle and won’t want to relinquish their lofty position from there.
Few players anywhere in the world embraced the internationals like Jack Grealish, who suddenly looks like not only a member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for Euro 2020 next year but a starter.
Fans of Aston Villa will be bemused at the attention. It isn’t as though Grealish has become good overnight.
Villa’s season has been a positive one so far and they’re sixth as they prepare to host Brighton in the Saturday 3pm slot.
Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins celebrate during Aston Villa’s 3-0 win over Arsenal
They showed admirable powers of recovery to beat Arsenal 3-0 last time out having lost their two previous games to Leeds United and Southampton. A run of winnable matches lies ahead and Villa could easily end the year in the top four.
Even if this unexpected European push isn’t sustained, the relegation struggles of last season are a distant memory and this great name of English football is being restored to glory.
After his England displays, it won’t just be Villa fans getting excited about Grealish’s performances in the weeks to come.
Everton fighting against gravity
Long-suffering Everton fans knew full well their sensational start to the league season – four straight wins, topping the early table – was probably too good to be true.
So it has proved, with three consecutive losses, to Southampton, Newcastle and Manchester United, sending them sliding from their lofty perch to seventh ahead of Sunday’s trip to Fulham.
James Rodriguez (right) and Everton will be hoping to recapture their early season form
Carlo Ancelotti hasn’t been helped by key men James Rodriguez and Richarlison being absent from some of the recent games but it has exposed a lack of depth and a Plan B.
Mind you, playing struggling Fulham is the perfect opportunity to get back to winning ways and such is the congested nature of the top half of the table, just a couple of wins can transform the outlook.
Super Saints could be the feel-good story of the season
Southampton were another side annoyed to see their momentum halted by another dose of international football.
Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side have proved another welcome surprise package in the early weeks of the season and have won their last three games while remaining unbeaten in six to sit fourth.
Che Adams celebrates opening the scoring in Southampton’s win over Newcastle United
It’s a turnaround few predicted when they were thrashed 5-2 by Spurs back in late September and, taking the longer view, the club were wise to stick with their manager after that nine-goal humiliation by Leicester 12 months ago.
They travel to a Wolves team that has blown hot and cold so far on Monday night and like Leicester, like Villa and like Everton, it’s been refreshing to see another of the unlikely suspects settle in towards the top end of the table.
Pay-per-view pain is over
Seeing as England is locked down again, you might as well plan your otherwise empty weekend around all the Premier league action.
And thankfully, now that horrendous but mercifully brief, flirtation with £14.95 pay-per-view coverage is over, all of it is back on more familiar channels.
It is to the great credit of fans of all Premier League clubs that they saw off this expensive farce and even ensured that charities and food banks profited in the process.
The £14.95 pay-per-view games in the Premier League have thankfully been scrapped
We continue with the staggered kick-off times, with Newcastle vs Chelsea, Villa vs Brighton and Man United vs West Brom all on BT Sport on Saturday, with Spurs vs Man City the teatime game on Sky Sports.
On Sunday, the noon kick-off between Fulham and Everton is on BBC One before a Sky triple-header of Sheffield United vs West Ham, Leeds vs Arsenal and Liverpool vs Leicester.
And on Monday night, Burnley vs Crystal Palace and Wolves vs Southampton are back-to-back on Sky.