It's too soon to draw any major conclusions as to how the league will end up, however, there are things to learn from the opening week of the EPL
The Canaries: Smelling Gas Already?
The waiting is finally over! The Barclays Premier League is back and it’s back with a bang. The new season is now eleven games old and, from what we’ve seen so far, it’s shaping up to be every bit as enthralling as last year’s campaign. The opening weekend was awash with goals, controversy, drama and shock results, as per usual so, without further ado, let’s have a brief rundown of the action and a look at what conclusions, if any, we can draw from the opening fixtures.
Fulham 5-0 Norwich Martin Jol’s Fulham got off to a fantastic start smashing five past a woeful Norwich on the opening day. Duff and Petric put the Cottagers two up in the first half, with Petric’s heavily deflected second making it 3-0 ten minutes after the break. Kacaniklic made it four with a neat finish on 66 minutes before Steve Sidwell smashed home a penalty four minutes from time, after substitute, Hugo Rodallega was brought down in the box.
Looking at the game, it is clear that Norwich will find it hard going this year. A pre-season tip of mine to go down, the Canaries were awful on the opening day and Chris Hughton has a massive job on to pick them up after such a crushing defeat. Fulham looked good but it was made all too easy for them so it would be foolish to get carried away by their prospects this season. Traditionally very strong at home, Martin Jol has the Cottagers playing some attractive attacking football, as we saw on Saturday. Whilst Fulham’s home form will be enough to assure safety, they are unlikely to face such poor defensive play too often this season and it will be their away form which will decide whether they finish just inside the top ten, or just outside.
Q.P.R. 0-5 Swansea The Welsh side came to London under their new Danish manager, Michael Laudrup, and battered Mark Hughes’s side into submission with some silky passing, fluent attacking play and clinical finishing. A goal from Michu after eight minutes of each half set the Swans on their way to recording their highest ever top flight away victory. Nathan Dyer added two goals in eight second half minutes to make it 4-0, before Scott Sinclair smashed home the fifth, nine miniutes from time. And it could have been a lot more.
Sweet Start at Swansea for Laudrup!
Rangers were poor all over the pitch. They failed to gain any kind of momentum in the game and looked beaten from as early as the eighth minute, when Rob Green’s mistake, yet again, showed that the former England No. 1 is no longer a top flight goalkeeper. Rangers’ boss Mark Hughes has signed a plethora of new players and is continuing to do so, however, it’s very clear that the ones he has brought in so far have failed to become a cohesive unit as yet and, from Saturday’s performance, it could take a long time for them to do so. Swansea looked good. Picking up three away points on the opening day is a step up from last year, as the Swans struggled on the road under Brendan Rodgers. Michu looked sharp and, provided they manage to keep the likes of Nathan Dyer and Scott Sinclair, the side from South Wales should do well enough to finish in mid-table this year.
West Brom 3-0 Liverpool West Bromwich Albion ran out surprise 3-0 winners over Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool side on Saturday. After a first half in which the Reds dominated possession and created several clear cut chances, Zoltan Gera put the Baggies in front with a wonder-goal just before half-time. Early in the second half, referee Phil Dowd awarded Albion a penalty and sent Daniel Agger off; the Dane adjudged to have pushed Shane Long to the ground. Replays were inconclusive over whether contact was made and certainly suggested that, if there had been contact, it occurred outside the box. Reina saved Long’s penalty but, just minutes later, Dowd gave Albion another spot kick, again for a supposed foul on Long, this time by Martin Skrtel. The award seemed harsher even than the first, however, this time Odemwengie stepped up and made no mistake. Substitute Romelu Lukaku made it three ten minutes from time.
Liverpool suffered again from an inability to finish chances, with Luis Suarez the main culprit. Moving forward, it’s quite clear that the Reds need to add to their squad if they are going to mount a challenge for fourth spot. A good quality attacking fullback is a necessity for cover and rotation purposes and, at least, two more attacking players are required. These must be players who can guarantee goals and take the pressure off Suarez, who should be switched to the right of the front three where he is most effective. West Brom. were excellent on the day, Steve Clarke, who knows Liverpool inside out, had his troops really well-drilled and they exploited Liverpool’s weaknesses extremely efficiently. Lukaku looks quick and strong and will be a threat to any defence. However, I still feel that the Albion will struggle over the course of the season and could well be involved in the relegation dogfight come next summer.
Reading 1-1 Stoke Premier League newcomers Reading took on Stoke at the Madejski and, after falling behind to a bizarre Michael Kightly goal made possible by a horrendous error from Federici, they rallied and rescued a point with a last gasp penalty, converted by Adam LeFondre. In a match short on chances and quality, Stoke had the better of the play for large periods and Federici’s howler looked to have gifted them the points. In the final minutes, however, Garath McCleary’s mazy run tempted Dean Whitehead into a rash challenge on the former Forest man. Whitehead was sent-off for a second bookable offence and Le Fondre kept his head, kept the spot kick low and ensured the Royals took an opening day point.
Stoke were Stoke, we all know how they play and it seems as if that will probably be enough to keep them in the Premier League for at least another season (although I really, really wish that it weren’t). Reading were feisty, committed but lacking somewhat in quality. The Royals were one of my tips to go down before a ball was kicked and this performance hasn’t changed my mind. They need more goals in the team, plain and simple.
Wigan 0-2 Chelsea Two goals in the first seven minutes at the DW Stadium gave Chelsea all three points as they saw off a spirited, energetic Wigan side on Sunday. Eden Hazard, making his debut for the Blues, was involved in both goals, setting up Ivanovic for the first before being felled in the box by Ramis, which allowed Lampard to score the second from the penalty spot.
Despite a poor start, during which they failed to get to grips with Chelsea’s movement, especially that of Hazard, the Latics produced a decent performance against the top four hopefuls. Many people’s pre-season tip to go down, I saw nothing to suggest anything other than a similar season to the last few at the DW. That is to say, Wigan will have enough to stay up, they may finish 16th or 17th, but they will stay up. Kone looks sharp and should add the goals which deserted, the now departed, Hugo Rodallega last term and it is beginning to look as though Roberto Martinez may be able to hold on to Victor Moses, who was very impressive by the way.
Fortune Favours RDM but For How Long!
Chelsea obviously started well and, after the two early goals, did enough to keep the hosts at bay for the remaining 83 minutes or so. The Blues were far from dazzling but then we have come to expect that Roberto di Matteo’s side thus far. Hazard looks like the real deal, with Oscar also seemingly possessing real quality, however, it will be interesting to see how RDM utilises them in trying to get the best out of them. One worry is up front, with Torres still not fancied and not looking confident or comfortable in a Blue shirt and Sturridge reportedly on his way out. This is an area that di Matteo must strengthen if Chelsea are to reach the top four this season.
Chelsea 4-2 Reading The only two teams to have played twice so far are Chelsea and Reading. Reading looked to capitalise on the late point they rescued on Saturday by taking the game to their richer, more illustrious opponents and it almost worked. Lampard put the Blues in front from the spot(18), after Hazard had been clumsily tripped. However, just ten minutes later Reading found themselves in front having scored two in four minutes; the first, a brilliant header from Pogrebnyak, the second, the result of a terrible fumble by Cech from Danny Guthrie’s free-kick. It stayed like that until Federici dropped his second clanger in four days, allowing Gary Cahill’s shot to squeeze past him. Then came the decisive moment as Torres put Chelsea in front but was clearly a yard offside when doing so, a decision which the referee’s assistant was too weak to give. Ivanovic wrapped up the points from a breakaway in stoppage time, after Federici had been caught up the pitch from a Reading corner.
Reading gave a massively good account of themselves on Wednesday night but in the end were robbed by terribly weak officiating. That’s two games for the Royals and only one point gained. Yes they can take positives from the game, but that won’t keep them up. The negatives are there for all to see too: the lack of a real goal scoring threat, with the exception of Pogrebnyak, and the poor performances of the, once reliable, goalkeeper must be of massive concern for Brian McDermott. As I wrote in my pre-season piece, the Royals relied on 1-0 victories an awful lot last season, they will not be able to replicate that in the Premier League, especially if Federici keeps treating the ball like a hot potato.
Chelsea were lucky! They took their foot off the gas after going 1-0 up and should and would have paid the price, by dropping two points at home, had the official spotted what was a blatant offside. Torres had a nightmare but again found himself to be leading a charmed life when the linesman’s flag stayed down for the crucial goal. Chelsea have a lot of new faces and Roberto di Matteo is unproven as a manager, these two factors suggest a work in progress. One thing that RDM proved last year though, is that he has fortune on his side and that seems to have continued into this campaign, with the London club picking up two wins from their opening two games. Blues fans will be hoping that his and their luck holds for a little bit longer.
Everton 1-0 Manchester United David Moyes’s Everton got off to an uncharacteristically good start by beating last year’s Premier League runners up, Manchester United, on Monday night. Marouane Fellaini thumped in a header from Darren Gibson’s corner to give the Toffees the lead just before the hour mark, however, in truth, but for David de Gea Moyes’s side could’ve had the points wrapped up long before then. De Gea produced a string of fine saves, denying Pienaar twice and making fantastic saves from Osman and Baines before Osman rattled the crossbar, after being set up by Fellaini.
Fellaini Does It For Real as Everton Beat United!
United were poor, Tim Howard having just the odd save to make from Rooney and Welbeck. Despite the introduction of Robin van Persie, the closest United came to scoring was when Jagielka cleared Cleverley’s effort off the line. My tip to be this year’s top six dark horses, Everton were excellent. They have a habit of raising their game against the big boys but, this season, it would appear that they have the squad and belief to offer more than that and can really mount a challenge for a European place. United need to bolster their defensive options and to sign a central midfielder, a top quality one at that. Kagawa looked handy and we all know about Rooney and van Persie but United lost the league last year because they conceded too many goals. Ironically it was Everton who took the title away from United last season, coming back from 4-2 down to draw 4-4 at Old Trafford in the final few weeks. It would seem from the latest meeting between the two sides that Ferguson has failed to address the weaknesses that that game exposed.
Manchester City 3-2 Southampton Another season, another rip-roaring 3-2 at the Etihad. City started this campaign as the ended the last by taking the lead against a newly promoted side, surrendering it, falling behind and then, turning the tables to produce a dramatic victory. Plenty of first half action as Aguero left the field after sustaining a knee injury, something which will keep him out for at least a month. Following that incident Carlos Tevez was felled in the box but David Silva failed to convert from the spot, Kelvin Davis with the save for Saints. City did eventually take the lead five minutes before half time through Tevez, however, after missing several early second half chances, they were pegged back by Ricky Lambert’s clinical finish just before the hour. Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis put Southampton 2-1 up with a sublime finish (68), however, four minutes later, Dzeko levelled from close range before Fox’s awful defensive header fell at Nasri’s feet in the box, allowing the Frenchman to claim all three points for the Manchester club.
Saints were my pre-season tip to be the surprise package of this year’s Premier League season and they showed why with a magnificent performance on Sunday. Ricky Lambert took just four minutes to suggest that he can make the step-up to becoming a regular Premier League goal-scorer without a problem, Adam Lallana was very impressive going forward as well and , at the back, Nathaniel Clyne looks a really good buy. The most encouraging thing from Saints’ point of view was their ability to worry City at the back and the clinical nature in which they secured their goals. A great start, which bodes well for the season to come.
As for City? Well, what can you say? They are the team to beat, they have the strongest squad, the most money and they are defending champions but, what Southampton showed, is that they are vulnerable and the can be got at. I would still expect to see City strengthen before the window closes, particularly with the Champions’ League in mind but, with the squad they have at their disposal, I can’t see any other team winning the Premier League this season. The re-introduction of Tevez into the fold is like having a new £30m striker, it adds goals and flair to an already prolific attack. They will inevitably lose some games but City will win the league this year and it won’t be such a close run thing as it was last time out.
Newcastle United 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur All three goals came in the second half at St James’s Park as Alan Pardew’s Newcastle showed that they will be strong at home again this year. Demba Ba opened the scoring for the Magpies with a fabulous, measured, curling volley, ten minutes after half-time. Jermain Defoe equalised from close range, after a combination of Tim Krul and the post had kept out his initial header, before Hatem Ben Arfa tricked his way into the box, was tripped and then rose to thump the ball home from the penalty spot ten minutes from time.
Tottenham, under new boss Villas Boas, created a lot of chances and had the better of the play before Newcastle took the lead. However, the former Chelsea manager is bereft of the luck that is shining on the current Chelsea boss as Spurs contrived to miss all their openings. Both Defoe and Bale hit the woodwork before the Magpies went in front. Newcastle rode their luck at times but Ba was ruthless when the opportunity arose and Ben Arfa showed his class in winning and dispatching the penalty. Tottenham are most certainly at the beginning of something under Villas Boas and it will be interesting to see how long it takes to get going. I expect Spurs to be knocking on the door of the top four without being allowed in, I don’t see them performing as well as last year. Newcastle have held on to all their major assets and opened up with a strong performance. The real test for the Magpies will come when they encounter European competition. The Thursday/Sunday commitment of the Europa league will stretch their squad and it is debatable whether they will be able to maintain a strong Premier League challenge with that in mind.
West Ham 1-0 Aston Villa West Ham got off to the best possible start on their return to the Premier League, Kevin Nolan scoring the only goal of the game in the first half at Upton Park. The football wasn’t pretty from the Hammers, it rarely is when Sam Allardyce is involved, however, it was effective enough to get the three points. West Ham will be alright this year. Allardyce has made some shrewd signings and is likely to be well backed by the owners as he looks to make more. The football won’t be too pleasing on the eye but the Hammers will be in the Premier League next season.
Villa made little headway after a bright start. Paul Lambert’s promise of a more attacking style will take a little longer to come to fruition as the Villains recorded just one shot on target. Lambert must strengthen, particularly in the forward areas if Villa are going to make a significant improvement on last year. Lambert will do okay at Villa Park I think, he is no miracle worker but he is a very astute manager, used to working on a shoe-string budget and, as such, Villa will make progress under him. It may be slow, but it will happen.
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland No goals here and no real surprises. Martin O’Neill’s vastly improved Sunderland were very difficult to beat last season and, in fact, knocked the Gunners out of the F.A. Cup. Arsenal were good; neat passing, attacking intent and stylish football combining to make them a pleasure to watch, as always. The new boys played well, Cazorla especially was involved in most good things that Arsenal produced and looks like he’s going to be a tremendous addition to Wenger’s side. Giroud had a great chance, which he fluffed, but had some decent touches and showed good movement. Having lost van Persie, the question will be whether anybody can fill his boots in terms of scoring goals but, with Giroud, Cazorla and Podolski, perhaps the goals will be shared out more evenly this year. A big worry for the season ahead, though, is the lack of defensive strength, particularly now that Song has moved to Barcelona. Wenger must address the problem immediately or risk the Gunners’ soft centre being exposed.
Sunderland should improve under Martin O’Neill this year. The Northern Irishman effected immediate positive change after replacing Steve Bruce and will be expecting that trend to continue. Stephen Fletcher may be on his way in from Wolves to bolster the forward line and the back five is well drilled and very hard to break down, as they showed at the Emirates on Saturday. I would not be surprised at all if Sunderland breach the top eight this year, they may even finish ahead of Newcastle.
Carrow Road image by Pittaya. RDM image by The_Old_Grey_Wolf.
Laudrup image by Eustaquio Santimano. Fellaini image by EA Sports Fifa