So the new Barclays Premier League season is upon us and it doesn’t feel like five minutes since the last one ended, but you won’t hear me complaining about that. If the opening round of fixtures to the 2012/2013 season that took place from Saturday August 18th to Monday August 20th are anything to go by, then we’re in for a highly entertaining and enthralling campaign, perhaps more so than the last one, although that will admittedly take some doing.
The excitement kicked off at 3pm on Saturday afternoon with seven fixtures taking place. Instead of going with the norm, I thought I’d go against the grain and start with a pair of so-called “smaller clubs” who aren’t traditionally mentioned in the same breath as “the big four” and who won’t necessarily be settling a lot of their business towards the top of the table as the season progresses. But I believe the match at Loftus Road between Queens Park Rangers and Swansea City deserves special early mention, simply because it surely goes down as the shock result of the opening weekend.
Mark Hughes’ Rangers have invested heavily in the transfer marker this summer, bringing in the likes of Ji-Sung Park and Fabio Da Silva from Manchester United, along with forwards Andy Johnson and Junior Hoilett from Fulham and Blackburn respectively, not to mention former West Ham number 1 and England goalkeeper Rob Green. But, despite a new-look team with plenty of optimism for the future, they couldn’t have gotten it more wrong on Saturday.
New boss Michael Laudrup witnessed his Swansea side do a demolition job on QPR on their own turf as they ran out emphatic 5-0 winners, Nathan Dyer and their own new boy Michu each bagging a brace before Scott Sinclair completed the rout in the 81st minute. Whether Rangers’ capitulation was down to their new signings not gelling well together as of yet or simply a bad first day at the office, who knows? But I don’t think they’ll be in that much trouble this season and I could see them turning it around given their strength in depth and owner Tony Fernandes’ willingness to pump money into the team. As for Swansea, a great start for them and their new manager which they’ll look to build and improve on.
It was a case of “same old Arsenal” at the Emirates as they drew a blank against a determined Sunderland outfit who will be more than happy with their opening day’s work after securing a point via a 0-0 draw. Obviously the main focus around this match was how Arsenal would start life after Robin van Persie following the Dutchman’s departure and subsequent signing for Manchester United in midweek. This was also a chance for the loyal Gunners supporters to get a first look at their new signings Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Despite the loss of their talismanic captain, along with influential midfielder Alex Song to Barcelona, there is perhaps cause for optimism for Arsenal this year. Although they drew a blank here, their three new boys looked good and created chances, although Giroud missed a golden opportunity at the end to take all 3 points which he should have converted. But, like I said, it may not all be doom and gloom as it appears from the outside for Arsenal. Cazorla in particular was extremely impressive and he could go on to make a big impact this season at the Emirates.
Elsewhere we were treated to another 5-0 drubbing, this time it coming from the home side as Fulham took apart Chris Hughton’s Norwich at Craven Cottage in his first game in charge. Once again it looks as if Martin Jol’s Cottagers are going to be a tough nut to crack at home and this was a great start for them, despite their off-field problems concerning want-away hitman Clint Dempsey. As for Hughton and Norwich, they certainly have work to do after this humbling. From his time at Newcastle, I know how great a manager Hughton is, so if anyone can turn it around for the Canaries, then surely it must be him.
Speaking of Newcastle, it was nice to see them get off to a winning start against Tottenham on Saturday following their 2-1 win at St. James’ Park. Spurs will feel aggrieved, however, not to take something from the game given the amount of chances they created, not to mention Jermain Defoe and Gareth Bale both striking the woodwork before the deadlock was broken. But it was the man who was so electric for Newcastle in the first half of last season, Demba Ba, who found the net with a spectacularly struck shot on the swivel to open the scoring. Although Spurs were level soon after through Defoe, it was the Magpies that took home all three points courtesy of a penalty won and finely converted by Hatem Ben Arfa. Both of these teams will be looking to challenge for European places as the season continues, although it is certainly Newcastle who are out of the blocks the fastest after this result.
It was a good day for two of the three newly promoted teams on Saturday as West Ham ran out 1-0 victors over Aston Villa, whilst Reading secured a point with a last-gasp Adam Le Fondre penalty to draw 1-1 with Stoke. It will surely be a case of trying to stay in the division for these two, whilst Villa and Stoke will look to secure decent mid-table finishes as the season rolls on.
Brendan Rodgers’ reign in the Anfield hotseat got off to a sticky start as his Liverpool side were comfortably beaten 3-0 by West Brom at the Hawthorns, who themselves started life under a new manager in Steve Clarke. With two penalties conceded and Daniel Agger sent off, it wasn’t the best of starts for Rodgers, but the thing I’ve been praying the Liverpool board will give one of their managers is time, and hopefully Rodgers will get it this season to improve his team’s fortunes as he implements his passing and free-flowing philosophy.
So to Sunday, where we find Chelsea securing a satisfying 2-0 over Wigan at the DW Stadium, a game that was all but over by the 7th minute as Blues new boy and star of the show Eden Hazard set up Branislav Ivanovic for the opener, before tricking his way into the box to win a penalty which Frank Lampard coolly converted. Wigan played well after their disastrous start but never really looked like getting back into it. I’d tip them for relegation this season, but they always manage to find a way to wriggle out of it and stay up somehow or other, so I’m not going to say that this time.
Sunday’s real highlight came in form of the events that took place at the Etihad Stadium, as Manchester City began the defence of their Premier League Crown by taking on another newly promoted team in Southampton. Now, on paper, this looked a stroll in the park for the Champions as they entertained a team who was playing in League One just two seasons ago. However, as a disgraced former Sky Sports pundit would say, paper doesn’t win you football matches. The Saints put up one hell of a fight and even led at one point, two super-subs Rickie Lambert and Steven Davis bouncing off the bench to score, cancelling out Carlos Tevez’s opener to the sheer delight and unbounded joy of the travelling fans from the south coast.
Although City did go on to win 3-2 through goals from Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri, Southampton can take so much pride from their heroics in what was a thrilling encounter. They’ll be absolutely fine this season if they carry on playing like that. As for City, they say that true Champions can still win football matches when they don’t play well, and they certainly didn’t play well here. Room for improvement, yes, but three points taken nonetheless.
Finally to Monday night, where Manchester United travelled to Goodison Park to face Everton. In what proved to be a frustrating night for the former champions, the home side produced a brilliant all-round display to win 1-0 through Man United tormentor Marouane Fellaini’s towering header in the second half. The big Belgian was a constant thorn in the side of a makeshift Man United defence that saw Michael Carrick line-up next to Nemanja Vidic out of his comfort zone in the heart of it. And it was Carrick who was at fault for the goal, as he allowed Fellaini to rise high above him to power home his header from a corner. Much like in the amazing 4-4 draw at Old Trafford last season, Fellaini was unrelenting in his torture of the Man United backline; winning everything in the air and proving himself to be a genuine nuisance and a threat. But, as I keep hearing, never write off Manchester United. This was a rough start for them, but they’ll be back, provided new boy van Persie can get more than two touches of the ball during the coming games like he only managed in this one.
Well, what a start to the new season. Talking points and drama to be found all over the place. Here’s hoping the excitement continues for the next 9 months.