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Premier League W2W4: Can Liverpool win at Spurs? Will Watford stun Man United?

Premier League W2W4: Can Liverpool win at Spurs? Will Watford stun Man United?

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Neil Warnock has never knowingly passed up an opportunity to speak his mind, and his comments accusing Chelsea of a lack of class in their handling of Tammy Abraham over the summer have injected some unlikely spice into Cardiff City's visit to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

In an interview with the Evening Standard, Warnock revealed he wanted to bring Abraham to Cardiff on loan "from day one" this summer and made his interest clear to Chelsea, claiming he missed out on other striker targets while he waited in vain to see if the Blues would send the 20-year-old to him.

He is entitled to his grievances, but the reality is that of the many factors Chelsea's loan team consider when making decisions about their young players, two in particular worked against Warnock and Cardiff: the unhelpful timings of a chaotic summer, and concerns about situation and style of play.

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- Breaking down ESPN's scoring system

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Maurizio Sarri took his first training session at Cobham on July 16, less than 24 hours removed from the World Cup final. Two days later he was forced to take his skeleton squad, including Abraham, on a round trip of almost 18,000 miles to play a friendly in Western Australia.

Conscious of the less-than-ideal circumstances they had presented their new head coach with, Chelsea were reluctant to do anything that would further limit Sarri's time to work with the players not involved at the World Cup -- or deprive him of any he might conclude were part of his plans.

Decisions over many potential loanees were delayed as a result, and, for his part, Abraham was keen to see if he could impress Sarri in training and games. He replaced Alvaro Morata in the second half of each of Chelsea's three preseason friendlies and in the Community Shield, exhibiting some promising flashes without scoring.

By the time Chelsea returned to London from Dublin on Aug. 2, just a week remained until the Premier League's revised transfer deadline.

Marina Granovskaia and the club's transfer department had more pressing priorities than resolving the futures of Abraham, fellow academy graduate Ruben Loftus-Cheek and others. Thibaut Courtois soon made it clear he would need to be replaced, while Sarri wanted a midfielder of Mateo Kovacic's profile.

The revised Premier League deadline of Aug. 9 should be considered the primary reason why just two Chelsea players -- Kenedy at Newcastle and Kurt Zouma at Everton -- are currently on loan at other English top-flight clubs, compared to five at the beginning of last season.

In that sense Warnock and Cardiff might consider themselves unlucky, the victims of unfavourable circumstance and Chelsea's summer of dysfunction. But even if it had been decided for Abraham to leave on loan earlier, they would not have been the preferred suitors.

Abraham's time at Swansea City last season was not what Chelsea hoped it might be. After a bright start that yielded five goals in his first 10 appearances, he was gradually engulfed by the disarray that ultimately doomed the club to relegation.

Paul Clement, the former assistant coach that Chelsea regarded as a safe pair of hands to guide the next step in Abraham's development, was replaced by Carlos Carvalhal in December and first-team chances became less frequent. In February he admitted he had experienced "the ugly side of football" in South Wales.

Even when he was trusted to play, Abraham was saddled with the thankless task of feeding on scraps at the head of the worst attacking unit in the Premier League; in addition to scoring the joint-fewest goals (28) in the division, no team averaged fewer shots (8.9) or key passes (5.8) per game than Swansea.

Sources told ESPN FC that Chelsea were keen to avoid plunging Abraham into a similar situation again -- a concern that did no favours to Cardiff, who were widely expected to be the worst team in the Premier League this season and have done little to undermine those predictions in the opening weeks of the campaign.

Then there is the issue of style of play. Such sentiments might prompt sneers from those on the outside, but Chelsea pride themselves on trying to find loan clubs that will help equip their players with the skills required to one day compete for a first-team spot at Stamford Bridge, rather than simply viewing minutes on the pitch as an end in itself.

In their first four Premier League matches, Cardiff have averaged far less possession than Chelsea (42.9 percent compared to 64.7) and some 450 fewer passes per game (281 versus 748.8). They also hit an average of 64.3 long passes per match (Chelsea average 48.3), of which only 23.5 find their target.

By almost every available metric, Warnock is the stylistic opposite of Sarri, and the player he sees in Abraham is not the one the 20-year-old must develop into if he is to make it at Chelsea.

Of course, Steve Bruce is far from a perfect developmental fit either. But once Sarri made it clear in late August that Abraham's first-team opportunities at Chelsea would be heavily limited, his reluctance to consider a return to the Championship softened, and the recommendation of John Terry helped seal the deal for Aston Villa.

Chelsea hope one more season in the second tier, at a club with serious aspirations for promotion, will kick-start Abraham's development curve after a frustrating 12 months. But even if things don't go quite to plan, there will be no regrets at Cobham about denying Warnock his top summer striker target.

Alejandro Moreno and Shaka Hislop believe Liverpool's trip to Wembley will provide some early evidence as to whether they're the real deal.
The FC crew disagree with former Man United defender Gary Neville, who believes Liverpool should direct their focus on the Prem this season.
Shaka Hislop and Alexis Nunes predict the juicy fixtures from week 5 of the Premier League coming off the international break.

Ahead of each round of fixtures in the Premier League, W2W4 looks at the main storylines to keep an eye on.

1. Liverpool can prove just how much they've improved

It's always difficult to get a handle on the truth when teams win games while not playing especially well. Do we assume that those results were semi-flukes and that a crash is coming? Or is it a sign that if they can collect maximum points without reaching their own maximum, then the rest of the league had better watch out? It's not that Liverpool have been bad in their four fixtures so far, simply that there's been a strong sense there is plenty more to come from them.

The trip to Tottenham at the weekend obviously represents their toughest test of the season so far, but it's also a useful barometer for how much the Reds have improved on last term's biggest weakness: away games at their immediate rivals. It's just over a year since they were battered 5-0 at Manchester City, and around 11 months from the day Spurs took them apart at Wembley. Last season Liverpool lost five league games, and four of them were against rivals (add the 2-1 loss at Manchester United and the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to the list).

In theory, everything is there. Liverpool now have arguably the best defence in the Premier League (assuming Alisson's aberration against Leicester last time out was merely that) and a midfield improved by Naby Keita and eventually Fabinho, while that whirling, twirling, goalscoring forward line is still in place. Saturday is the time to turn theory into reality, and prove that those first four games have merely been them warming up.

2. What's eating Harry Kane? Is anything eating Harry Kane?

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Your team will be made up of eight players, at four different positions: two forwards, three midfielders, two defenders, and a goalkeeper. Find out more here.


- Newcomers to pick and avoid
- Champions League names to know
- La Liga names to know
- Breaking down ESPN's scoring system

Pick your eight-man team and compete in the Champions League, Premier League, La Liga or Liga MX, then go head-to-head in leagues against your friends or people around the world. Sign up for free!

Your team will be made up of eight players, at four different positions: two forwards, three midfielders, two defenders, and a goalkeeper. Find out more here.

It's been a weird six months or so for Harry Kane. Over most of that spell, Kane has looked sluggish, often off the pace, seemingly a man either playing through an injury or an extended period of bad form. But in that time, he's won the Golden Boot at the World Cup, bagged two in Tottenham's first four matches, dismissed the admittedly slightly silly notion of an "August curse" with a goal against Fulham and scored at Old Trafford.

But he undoubtedly doesn't look himself. The problem isn't fatigue, according to Mauricio Pochettino anyway. "We know Harry Kane well and have worked with him the last more than four years, and we know this is not a situation that worries us," he said on Thursday. So who knows what the problem really is. Who knows if there is actually a problem. What we do know is that if he excels against that brilliant Liverpool back five on Saturday, the problem can't be that big.

3. Would Watford beating United even be an upset?

It's easy to forget that Watford were heading for relegation when Javi Gracia arrived in January. Now, having avoided the drop comfortably, they go into Saturday's game against Manchester United with a perfect record from four games, and among the finest compliments that could be paid to Watford and Gracia is that it probably wouldn't register as an upset if they won.

Last weekend's win at Burnley will convince precisely nobody that things are fine and dandy at United, Jose Mourinho's side still looking barely anything like a side that could challenge for the league title. Throw their defeat at Vicarage Road last season in alongside Watford's fine form, and you've got the strong potential for this to be an implausible fifth win from five for Gracia's men.

4. Will Burnley's slow start become a crisis?

This week Joe Hart insisted there is more to come from Burnley. There had better be, really -- otherwise this is going to be a very long season ahead for Sean Dyche's men, who have gained just a single point from their four games so far. Last season, a game against a newly promoted side might have looked appetising for the more established Clarets, but only one of them and this weekend's opponents Wolves have looked like they belong in the top flight so far this season.

The distraction of the Europa League was the reason that many thought Burnley might struggle, but with that out of the picture and a week or so to breathe during the international break, Dyche's side now have no excuses. Should they lose to Wolves, everyone will wake up to the potential season of struggle at Turf Moor.

5. The latest step towards VAR is taken

The most interesting part of this weekend might not happen on the pitch, but rather in a windowless room somewhere in west London. For the first time in the Premier League, video assistant referees will be trialled in five games on Saturday to fully test whether the system can be made to work in concurrent games, as opposed the single cup matches for which it has been used in England so far.

This is most certainly a dry run, because there will be no contact between the men watching the Premier League's bank of VAR monitors and anyone at any of the grounds. Indeed, one wonders just how much use the trial will be, given that one of VAR's key components is how it meshes with the officials at the games. But this feels like a box-ticking exercise, necessary admin on the path towards VAR being implemented in all 380 Premier League games over a season. VAR is coming, whether we like it or not.

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