Will Howard Webb be the talk of the Manchester United-Liverpool game again? Will Chris Hughton exact revenge on Newcastle? And will Harry Redknapp enjoy his Spurs reunion?
The last time Webb refereed a match between the two most decorated clubs in the history of English football was two years ago this Wednesday, when he gave United a first-minute penalty, sent off Steven Gerrard, and later found himself the victim of much Twitter-based allegations of bias from Liverpool quarters. So much focus will be on him when he holds the whistle as the two titans meet again on Sunday.
There have been many complaints this season about the standard of Premier League officiating, with fans furious that, however much they focus on the footballers in the buildup to a match, the referee too often ends up the centre of attention during and after it. Webb, as ever, bucks that trend, by being the focus of attention during the buildup to the match as well, so well done him.
How much is a seat at a football match worth? Even if they don't have many recently acquired trophies, Arsenal do have good players, an admired footballing ethic and a well-equipped stadium in a fine location in a big city where lots of rich people live, and so are perfectly placed to find the answer to this question in the most rational way possible: by constantly raising prices until people stop paying them. Some consider this an act of aggressive supporter exploitation, but in fact it is science; perhaps the club have been so starved of silverware they are now having a tilt at an Ig Nobel. It is also a topical issue, because only 2,088 Manchester City fans have decided that they want to be part of the Emirates experiment when their opportunity comes this Sunday – having been asked to pay £62 a head for the privilege – leading to the champions sending 912 unsold seats back whence they came. They have since been bought by stupid Londoners.
The good news is that this indicates that Arsenal are probably coming close to a definitive answer to their theoretical question, and once they have calmed their natural curiosity they can return to charging less baffling amounts of money, like all (some) of the other top-flight clubs. There seems no rational reason why the price of a single top-of-the-range season ticket at the Emirates should be in excess of £700 higher than one at Stamford Bridge, or for that matter more than four times the price of the equivalent seat at West Bromwich Albion. Or why a basic seat in the away end should cost £62 when, for example, the best in the whole stadium at Borussia Dortmund, with a perfect view of the half-way line, shoulder massages on request and half-time tea served in china cups by the chairman, costs £40.
In the meantime, fans who have opted out can watch Sunday's game live on Sky instead, or better still avoid handing over their hard-earned money to mean corporate evil-doers altogether and follow it for free using the Guardian's award-winning minute-by-minute commentary. It's up to you.
At the start of November Newcastle drew 1-1 at Liverpool to move into 10th place in the Premier League. At the time they had lost only one of five away games – at then rampant Chelsea in August – and drawn all the rest. Since then they have lost every one, a sequence of five consecutive defeats in the league, with 2-0 reverses at Bordeaux in the Europa League and Brighton in the FA Cup adding to their sense of travel sickness. When they beat Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in May it was their third successive away win; they have since made 17 trips in all competitions, not one of them bringing a victory. On Saturday Mathieu Débuchy will make his debut as they face a Norwich team managed by Chris Hughton, whom Newcastle rather viciously sacked in December 2010. Revenge both for that and for September's 1-0 defeat at St James' Park will be uppermost in his mind.
Demba Ba's purchase by Chelsea created a key vacancy in English football for a high-profile contractual release clause. Into the breach stepped Everton's Marouane Fellaini, whose rumoured £22m get-out has apparently got Chelsea all excited. Given that Ba's release clause had precisely the same effect, it seems that players who aspire to move to Stamford Bridge need only undertake some creative contract negotiations and their wish will swiftly be fulfilled. But first for Fellaini comes a home game against Swansea. The Swans' success has been one of the great football stories of the last couple of seasons, but it may well have passed some Everton supporters by entirely – the Blues haven't so much as conceded a goal in their three Premier League meetings thus far, which have finished 1-0, 2-0 and 3-0 in their favour. Fellaini scored in the last of them, a most emphatic stroll in September which saw Nathan Dyer come on at half-time and get sent off 13 minutes later. This is surely the most one-sided head-to-head record in the Premier League: Swansea may have beaten Manchester United on six occasions and Liverpool on nine, but in 16 meetings against Everton they have lost 12 (75%), and not won any.
Saturday's early kick-off will see another reunion between a big club and the manager they spurned, when Tottenham bump into Harry Redknapp upon arrival at Queens Park Rangers. Much of the talk concerning the two clubs this week has been about precisely which of his former players Redknapp will take to Loftus Road before the end of January – Jake Livermore, William Gallas and Emmanuel Adebayor being the most frequently mentioned – but come the weekend Redknapp's overproductive travelling transfer rumour bus will be parked up and the action will switch to the pitch. "What's happened has happened," said Redknapp when asked about the prospect of facing Tottenham. "I had four great years at Spurs and loved it there. You move on. Life goes on. What's done is done." Nice try, Harry, but we're still going to talk about it.
Villa host Southampton on Saturday having lost three and failed to win any of their last four league games, which have had an aggregate scoreline of 17-2, and then they went one better – that is to say, worse – by losing 3-1 at League Two Bradford City in midweek. Southampton had a bad run of their own at the start of the season, when they lost their first four games with a 14-5 aggregate, but turned it around (of sorts) with a 4-1 win when Villa visited in September (it was more of a blip than a turnaround, to be fair – they didn't win any of their next six league games either). Perhaps this season's second meeting of these teams will inspire Villa to a similarly positive anomaly? Listen, it's a straw. You might as well clutch it.
Since their promotion to the Premier League in 2008 Stoke have caused pretty much every team to cross their path a great deal of hassle, with their energetic, in-yer-face, up-and-at-'em displays of muscular magic. Chelsea, however, are immune to their charms – in 10 meetings since in both league and cup the Blues have won eight, drawn two, conceded three and scored 20. The Potters have been moving towards a breakthrough, though, and the last four games have been spectacularly low-scoring affairs, ending 1-1, 0-0, 0-1 and 0-1, with the first meeting this season decided by Ashley Cole's 85th-minute goal. Stoke will be hoping to end Chelsea's rampant run on Saturday, if only to extend England's best unbeaten home record, which if they avoid defeat in this home game and the next will be a year old.
Perhaps the only person at West Bromwich Albion who had a reason to be displeased when Romelu Lukaku's loan from Chelsea was extended for the remainder of the season was Shane Long. The Belgian was used only as a substitute as the season began, but in recent weeks he and Long have been squabbling over a single starting berth, with Lukaku named in the first XI for five of the last 10 games. Long started four of those on the bench but both played from the off (for just the second time this season) in the most recent, last weekend's FA Cup draw at QPR.
The six years Long spent at Reading must give games between the clubs extra meaning, but the Baggies' 1-0 home win in September was the first game of the season which he did not start. He came on with 25 minutes to play, and proved that he can play in combination with Lukaku by setting up the 19-year-old's winner. He will surely be, erm, longing to start this weekend on his first return to Berkshire since his move to the Midlands in the summer of 2011.
The Reading manager, Brian McDermott, discovered Long on a scouting trip to Ireland, put him up in his spare room when the youngster first moved to England, and continues to hold him in great affection. "Shane is a first-class guy and a first-class player," he said before the match at the Hawthorns. Long speaks similarly warmly of his former manager, and the club. "If I scored a hat-trick I wouldn't celebrate any of the goals," Long told the Reading Post this week, "but first things first, I want to get West Brom as high up the table as possible and hopefully Reading will win every game after that." Whatever the scoreline, expect a serious Long-related love-in.
After he grabbed two assists on his second debut for West Ham against Manchester United in the FA Cup, we must accept the possibility that Joe Cole is not a washed-up useless old has-been after all. He certainly showed little evidence of this at Liverpool, and though by all accounts his loan at Lille last season went well, in the 1,769 Ligue 1 minutes he spent on the pitch he contributed precisely as many assists as he did for the Hammers last week, making him the 84th most effective creative force in French football, while with four goals he was Lille's joint-seventh best league scorer, level with Benoît Pedretti and new Newcastle full-back Mathieu Débuchy. Rebirth or red herring, we should have a better idea after the Hammers visit Sunderland on Saturday.
The Ballon d'Or voting represented a global vote of no confidence in the Premier League, which provided just one of the world's top 10 players and no one good enough to make the team of the year. From the captain of Albania to the coach of Zambia, La Liga packed voters' top three votes, leaving little room for England's finest. But why, then, does our domestic football make so much more money around the world than its rivals? I guess the Premier League is the sporting equivalent of Ben & Jerry's ice cream – it's popular, it sells well, it's certainly enjoyable to consume, but when push comes to shove we know there's something better out there. We know that our frozen desserts, like our football teams, should not come with a whipped marshmallow centre, nor should they contain brownie dough chunks or chocolate-embossed, caramel-blessed macadamia shavings. In the end, it's all about quality of ingredients and a harmonious, balanced mouthful. We know this, but it still doesn't stop us gorging ourselves silly; it just makes us feel a little bit guilty afterwards.