Gunners to fire; Tigers can bite
We look ahead to the opening day of the Barclays Premier League season, with Arsenal and Hull among the sides we think will impress.
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The Premier League returns after the summer break this Saturday with seven games, starting with Louis van Gaal's first competitive game in charge of Manchester United as they host Swansea in the lunchtime fixture at Old Trafford.
Among the five 1500 BST kick-offs, newly-promoted duo Leicester and QPR will be hoping to get off to winning starts as they host Everton and Hull respectively while West Ham and Tottenham clash at Upton Park.
In the evening kick-off, Arsenal welcome last season's surprise packages Crystal Palace to the Emirates Stadium where the Gunners will be looking to maintain the momentum from their 3-0 victory over Manchester City in last weekend's Community Shield.
There's a really good opener then to get the new campaign under way in the Premier League although the betting suggests it should be all one way traffic with the hosts 1/3 to get off to a winning start. Louis van Gaal now has control at Old Trafford but I reckon there is every chance his side will not be at full tilt as he tries to implement a new strategy that will hopefully have them back challenging for top spot. This pair met on the opening day of last season at the Liberty Stadium which ended in a 4-1 win for United but Swansea did manage to pull off an FA Cup surprise at Old Trafford during the dark days of the David Moyes reign so they should have some feeling at least of optimism. Garry Monk has been desperately trying to get some new faces in to bolster numbers but there has been nothing additional this week. He still has striker Wilfrid Bony while Bafetimbi Gomis is an exciting new recruit up front who looks well suited to Swansea's counter-attacking style. The Swans can be backed at 8/1 to collect three points but they will certainly need a sharp week of training after looking well off the pace in their final friendly against Villarreal. I am sure van Gaal will take a victory of any sort to get everyone onside and that should just about be the case for a work in progress.
Verdict: Manchester United 2 Swansea 1 (DJ)
Swansea's three previous matches on the opening weekend of Premier League season have produced 14 goals.
Manchester United have won six of their last nine on the opening weekend of the Barclays Premier League season (D2 L1).
Swansea have won exactly 11 games in each of their last two Premier League campaigns.
Manchester United have never lost on the opening weekend at Old Trafford in the Premier League (W8 D3).
There is plenty of potential for this to be a very good game with Sky Bet Championship winners Leicester looking well capable of holding their own at this level and likely to hit the ground running. They have played seven games in pre-season and went unbeaten - one of their wins as well was over these rivals in Bangkok - although boss Nigel Pearson is enough of a realist to know it may not count for a great deal now the serious business starts. The visitors struggled on the other hand over the summer but the important business took place off the field with a host of their young stars all signing new contracts while Mo Besic's arrival to control the centre of the park could look very shrewd at £4m. Roberto Martinez must have been delighted to as well tie up a deal for £28m Romelu Lukaku, who has his best years ahead of him. The Toffees go into the game as favourites but I would not dismiss the hosts if they can channel all their undoubted energy in the right direction. New boy Leonardo Ulla is a bit of an unknown quantity but David Nugent continues to rattle in the goals (four in pre-season) while midfielder Danny Drinkwater has the ability to really shine this year. The crowd should get their money's worth with a point a piece a fair outcome.
Verdict: Leicester 2 Everton 2 (DJ)
The Foxes have won none of their last five fixtures on the opening weekend of the Barclays Premier League (D3 L2).
Not since the opening game of the 2009/10 Premier League season has Roberto Martinez enjoyed a victory on the first weekend, drawing two and losing two since then with Everton & Wigan.
Everton are unbeaten in their last nine Premier League clashes with the Foxes, although they have won just two of those games (D7).
11 of the 16 Premier League Games between Everton and Leicester have been drawn (69%) making it the highest percentage of draws in Premier League history of any fixture that has been played more than 10 times.
QPR v Hull (1500BST)
A quick glance at some of the Opta Facts below paints a fairly negative picture for these two on opening weekend. Harry Redknapp still thinks he is around four players short in terms of a squad capable of survival and spoke in the week of happily snapping the hand off anyone who offered him fourth bottom right now. He has drafted in Glenn Hoddle as first-team coach at the 11th hour and they smack of a team at the moment which has little in the way of direction. Hull on the other hand have seen some competitive action already and are still alive in their quest to reach the Europa League - that could give them a handy edge here at 19/10. Steve Bruce has managed to assemble perhaps their strongest squad in many years although the sale of Shane Long to Southampton is in the process of going through after a pretty hefty bid was accepted. Bruce has managed to bring in some attractive names over the summer like Tom Ince and Robert Snodgrass while he also has a fully fit compliment of players to pick from. Neither side this weekend look like being the bet of the season but I certainly think Hull with that added sharpness from some meaningful games could be worth a small interest while Redknapp and co try and find their feet.
Verdict: QPR 0 Hull 1 (DJ)
Queens Park Rangers have taken just one point from six opening weekend matches in the Premier League (D1 L5).
In 10 matches, Steve Bruce has enjoyed just two victories on the opening weekend of a Premier League season (D4 L4).
QPR's last Premier League campaign (2012-13) saw them lose 5-0 at home on the opening day.
Hull have conceded at least two goals in their last five Premier League games.
QPR have won just four of their last 39 Premier League games.
Hull have not won a Premier League game since securing their spot in the FA Cup final in April.
I expect a solid season for Stoke this year. Seven of the top-10 spots look sewn up, but the Potters look well placed to once again take one of the three remaining positions in the right half of the table. It's hard to be so optimistic about Aston Villa, a big club in the doldrums and set for another season of struggle. Villa scored only 39 league goals last season and it again looks tough to see where the goals will come from. Stoke don't give many away at the Britannia. Only Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal conceded fewer home goals than Stoke; only the relegated trio plus Palace and West Ham scored fewer on the road than Villa. Stoke have solid credentials here, but beefing up odds-on win quotes to 21/10 in the win to nil market is well worth a look.
Verdict: Stoke 1 Aston Villa 0 (DT)
Peter Crouch scored a goal and assisted a goal in both of Stoke's victories over Aston Villa last season.
Only against Blackburn (8) and Arsenal (7) has Crouch scored more Premier League goals than he has against his former team (5).
Only Aston Villa (491) committed more fouls than Stoke City (486) in the 2013-14 Premier League.
Stoke have never recorded a positive goal difference in the Premier League. Overall the Potters have scored 233 goals in 228 Premier League matches.
Since August 2011, Villa have recorded fewer points (117 in 114 games) than any other ever-present side in that period.
Villa conceded four goals in four of their last nine Premier League games in 2013-14.
Two sides who flirted with the drop for much of last season meet here looking to make a positive start in the quest for 40 points (even though 36 proved plenty for the Baggies last time out). Both sides had rollercoaster campaigns last season. At West Brom, three managers came and went amidst a nervous fight against relegation, Shane Long was sold and fellow frontman Nicolas Anelka had to be sacked for making a "quenelle" gesture. Sunderland's season was perhaps even more eventful. Paolo Di Canio was removed after taking one point from the first seven games, and the Black Cats looked doomed after starting April well adrift of safety and then losing to Spurs and Everton with daunting trips to Man City, Chelsea and Man United among their last six games of the season. Somehow, they took seven points from those games, thrashed Cardiff and beat West Brom at home, and stayed up with something to spare. Both clubs will be hoping for less stressful and eventful campaigns. I'd advise sitting back and waiting to see whether that happens before trusting either side with your hard-earned.
Verdict: West Brom 2 Sunderland 2 (DT)
West Bromwich Albion's last four opening day fixtures have produced 13 goals.
Gus Poyet will be the fourth different manager Sunderland have had on the opening weekend in the last four seasons and fifth in the last seven.
The home team has won each of the last three clashes between West Brom and Sunderland.
Stephane Sessegnon has scored in two of the last three league meetings between these two teams, once for each side.
Vito Mannone (77.4%) had the best save % of any goalkeeper in the 2013-14 Barclays Premier League.
Last season Sunderland became only the second team to be bottom on Christmas Day and avoid relegation (after WBA in 2004-05).
Sunderland claimed as many points in their final six games as Liverpool and Chelsea in 2013-14 (13).
A spicy London derby to kick off the season at Upton Park and Sam Allardyce's Hammers should go into the game with some confidence after beating Spurs three times last season. West Ham prevailed in both league clashes and also knocked Spurs out of the League Cup at White Hart Lane. But their league win over Spurs at Upton Park, on the penultimate weekend of the season, was the only time they avoided defeat in their last six games and now injury to Andy Carroll has piled the pressure on new signing Enner Valencia to hit the ground running after a fine World Cup. One player who conspicuously failed to do that last season was Erik Lamela, who flopped horribly at Spurs after a club-record £30m move from Roma. But, while pre-season form should be treated with caution, the Argentinian has looked a different player in the build-up to this season under fellow countryman Mauricio Pochettino. Lamela has been one of Spurs' standout performers in the summer, netting three times in five games ahead of the season. It's speculative, but if Lamela does start performing as he can then he could well be shorter than 12/5 in the anytime goalscorer market.
Verdict: West Ham 1 Tottenham 2 (DT)
West Ham United won both clashes with Tottenham Hotspur last season in the Barclays Premier League.
Spurs have won just four of their last 16 opening weekend fixtures in the Premier League (D4 L8).
These two sides faced each other on the opening day of the 1999/2000 season. Harry Redknapp's West Ham won 1-0 at Upton Park.
West Ham posted the worst shooting accuracy in the 2013-14 Premier League, hitting the target with just 37% of their attempts on goal.
Tottenham won 10 Premier League away games in 2013-14; only one team (Arsenal, 11) won more (four other teams won 10).
Arsenal v Crystal Palace (1730 BST)
Didn't Arsenal look impressive at Wembley? Back at the scene of their FA Cup triumph over Hull which finally ended their long nine-year trophy drought, the Gunners emphatically put Premier League champions Manchester City to the sword with a 3-0 victory, raising hopes of a genuine title challenge this season. Sure, many will argue that winning a glorified pre-season friendly ultimately means nothing - just ask David Moyes who was all smiles after Manchester United's victory over Wigan last season - but nevertheless I think it was quite a statement of intent, especially given their opponents. While Manuel Pellegrini and his side will hardly lose much sleep over the result, Arsenal can head into the campaign with optimism that they can potentially keep up with their title rivals until at least the end of April - perhaps even May. A home game against Crystal Palace clearly looks a nice easy fixture to get off to a flyer on paper but Arsene Wenger will be keen to make sure his side don't show the kind of complacency which contributed to their shock defeat to Aston Villa at the Emirates on the opening day of last season. It's unsurprising to see a best price of just 3/10 being offered in what is widely regarded as a home banker so instead I'm going to be a bit bolder and take Sky Bet's 2/1 about the Gunners winning by three goals or more. As high as I had to take my hat off to Tony Pulis (who has since left the club) for leading his side, who I admittedly wrote off at numerous times last season, to mid-table last season, it's harder to show that same fighting spirit when there's no sense of urgency to climb out of a relegation battle which doesn't exist yet. By contrast, Arsenal, who will have Alexis Sanchez bolstering an attack with plenty of ammunition, know they have to come out all guns blazing so that's why I'm going with this rather comfortable scoreline.
Verdict: Arsenal 3 Crystal Palace 0 (CH)
Mikel Arteta has scored two goals in three Premier League games against Crystal Palace.
Olivier Giroud has scored six goals in his last six Premier League appearances at the Emirates Stadium.
Arsene Wenger's side have won their last five Premier League games in a row; they have not been on a longer run of consecutive victories since March 2012 (7).
Preview posted at 1154 BST on 14/08/2014.