LONDON -- After England's soporific draw with Poland in the group stage of European qualifying for the 2014 World Cup earlier this week (will caffeine tablets be available on the concourses inside Wembley Stadium to help supporters through upcoming international fixtures?), the Premier League returns touting a double dose of adrenaline: Chelsea travels across London to Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, while Sunderland hosts Newcastle United for the Tyne-Wear derby a day later.
This being the Premier League, it will not be a clean hit of the good stuff. The poor handling of recent racism cases, particularly that involving Chelsea captain John Terry, has resulted in several players refusing to wear T-shirts supplied by the Kick It Out campaign for this weekend. "I won't wear one," said Reading's Jason Roberts, who was followed by Rio and Anton Ferdinand. "I'm totally committed to kicking racism out of football, but [only] when there's a movement I feel represents the issue in the way that speaks for me and my colleagues. Then I will happily support it." The importance of dealing properly with racism has been made clear this week with the abuse suffered by England's black Under-21 players while playing in Serbia.
We are spared the farcical sight of Terry in one of these T-shirts because he will miss the trip to White Hart Lane after accepting a four-match ban for using racist language during an argument with Anton Ferdinand last season. His punishment from Chelsea has not been disclosed, but may include being stripped of the captaincy. Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said Terry's absence will be otherwise unnoticeable. "I've worked with those players in the past and the reality is, in that precise sector, we never had any problems," he said. "Other center backs are tremendously good, too."
Villas-Boas' first meeting with his former employer provides another subplot for this match, but it is one that he is keen to kill off before kickoff.
"I prefer to involve it much more on the club," he said, reminding reporters that Chelsea put Spurs out of the FA Cup last season, as well as gazumping the final Champions League place by winning the trophy in Munich, while he personally felt he had benefited from his spell at Stamford Bridge. "It is not a quest of an individual, it is a quest of a team, where we want to finish at the end of the season." We are not quite at the stage of the season where the league table tells us a good deal about the months to come, but it does allow us to apply a few dashes of hindsight to any preseason clairvoyance.
Before the start of the season the signings of Eden Hazard, Marko Marin and Oscar gave Roberto di Matteo's midfield squad (which already included Juan Mata) the look of a Tudor banquet: mouthwatering but unmanageable. How could he stuff it all in without making a mess? Without laboring the analogy by referring to flavor combinations (oops), it seemed inevitable that the manager would have to suck it and see, picking and choosing between players according to the opposition, form, chemistry -- and that suspicion nagged at attempts to predict this year's title challengers.
Now, Chelsea arrives in north London having been top of the league table since the second week and with a 2-1 win over Arsenal, just down the road, fresh in the memory. Had the Gunners been wearing their shooting boots, or managed to defend set pieces, the scoreline probably would have been different, but looking broadly at the way that di Matteo has combined Hazard, Oscar, Mata and the forward Fernando Torres in Chelsea's last three matches, there is much to admire.
The meeting with Tottenham is timely and should provide a measure of both teams. For Chelsea it will be the domestic season's most considerable test so far; Spurs will not be short of confidence themselves, having also found a tasty blend (last one, I promise!) of their attacking talents and put together a four-match winning streak that includes that 3-2 win against Manchester United. Chelsea hasn't won at White Hart Lane since the 2005-06 season, when Jose Mourinho's side was unbeaten at the top of the table, and the last two matches there have been fiercely contested draws. In both it took a last-gasp effort to keep things that way: Terry blocking a shot from Emmanuel Adebayor on the line in 2011, and Heurelho Gomes saving Didier Drogba's penalty a year earlier.
For Tottenham, Saturday's match is a test of its ability to find and sustain the performance levels hit at Old Trafford. There are tests all over the pitch, from the defensive diligence required of Moussa Dembele and his center backs to the duel between Gareth Bale and Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic. Villas-Boas has said that Hugo Lloris played against Aston Villa last time out in order to give him a run of games that included two for France during the international period, but it also shook off all of those half-asked questions about the imminent end of Brad Friedel's magnificent run of 310 Premier League starts like crumbs from a picnic rug. The competition between the two keepers is now unleveraged.
If Saturday's is an intriguing match given added spice by the bristling proximity of its contestants, Sunday's is the proper derby: Sunderland and Newcastle have been playing tug-o'-war with northeast bragging rights for more than 100 years, producing high-scoring, high-action matches in which form is an often unreliable indicator. "It's not like a London derby," said Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, who played for and has managed several London clubs. "This is two working-class cities coming together and coming in to battle. The derby games are electric games, I can't really explain it to people. I was talking to [the Stoke City manager] Tony Pulis yesterday and he was asking me what my next game was. I said, 'Trust me, you haven't got a clue.'"
Both Pardew and his Sunderland counterpart, Martin O'Neill, compared the game to the Glasgow derby between Rangers and Celtic. "For intensity, this is up there with the best of them," said O'Neill, who managed Celtic for five years before returning to English soccer with Aston Villa in 2006. "Our first aim is to be the best team around here. You just don't want to let people down."
In March at St James' Park those ambitions cost each club tens of thousands of pounds in FA fines as two players were sent off, eight more booked and staff clashed in the tunnel. O'Neill and Pardew went almost nose to nose in one argument during the 1-1 draw.
At that stage of last season, Newcastle was playing with a sliver of a chance of making the Champions League. This time around, both sides are looking to shrug off a mixed start to the season and strike out for the spots above mid-table indifference. Quite a burden for the strikers in this one -- Demba Ba has scored six of Newcastle's eight goals in the league so far, while Steven Fletcher is the only player to have scored a league goal for Sunderland. You wouldn't bet against Shola Ameobi coming off the bench to score for Newcastle, though. He has seven in 12 appearances against Sunderland.