The Premier League is back, my thoughts on the opening day
With the annual resumption of Barclays Premier League action yesterday we are all once again facing a long nine month period of drama, excitement and depending on which club you follow agony. Yesterday’s big kick off saw the household names of Liverpool and Arsenal begin their respective campaigns in somewhat of a new era with Brendan Rodgers taking charge of his first ever Premier League fixture with the Merseysiders against West Brom and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal side beginning life after Robin Van Persie by welcoming Sunderland to the Emirates Stadium. Two out of the three newly promoted clubs were in action yesterday with Brian McDermott’s Reading side starting their season with a home game against a Stoke City side who are looking to improve on their slightly disappointing fourteenth place finish last term and West Ham marking their return to England’s top flight with a home game against an Aston Villa side who are looking to finally get back on track with Paul Lambert after two disastrous seasons. The season was to start under rather a dark cloud at Craven Cottage with Fulham left reeling on Friday evening following the news that Clint Dempsey has expressed his desire to leave the club and will not turn out in the white of the Cottagers again however they had a chance to put that to the back of their minds with a home game against Norwich City on the opening day. Another side who as well as beginning a new season were also beginning a new era was Swansea City with the Swans opening their campaign with a potentially tricky away trip to Loftus Road to face QPR under the guidance of their new manager Michael Laudrup, who brings a wealth of experience at the top level to the Liberty Stadium hot seat. The opening day of the Barclays Premier League was to be concluded when Andre Villas-Boas’ Spurs side travelled to St James’ Park to face last year’s surprise package, Newcastle United whose fans were still buoyed by both last season’s fifth place finish and the recently announced signing of the versatile Vurnon Anita from Dutch Giants Ajax.
Following a summer that had looked so positive with the signings of Podolski, Giroud and finally Santi Cazorla it was to be the same old story for Arsenal yesterday with the Gunners struggling to break down an efficient if slightly insipid Sunderland side in yesterdays 0-0 draw. As expected Cazorla was the main man for Arsenal with the Spaniard being the driving creative force for Wenger’s side and also seemingly forming a partnership with Mikel Arteta in the middle of the midfield which could well prove to be fantastic as the season goes on from an Arsenal perspective. Arsenal were left without one of the lynchpins of their midfield last season yesterday as Alex Song was left out of the match day squad completely amid rumours the Cameroon International was on his way to Spain to finalise a transfer to Barcelona, however this left the door open for Abou Diaby to make his return to the Arsenal set up following a long injury layoff and he showed a number of encouraging nice touches yesterday and managed to come through the match without suffering an injury which could only come as a bit of positive news for Arsenal fans. Despite an early mistake from Per Mertesacker which nearly gifted Sunderland an early goal, the general consensus amongst the Arsenal faithful was that the team looked sharper defensively yesterday with new assistant manager Steve Bould undoubtedly having worked on this in preseason. After pushing for the opening goal for the majority of the game with efforts from Santi Cazorla forcing smart saves out of Simon Mignolet it was to be Olivier Giroud who was presented with the best chance of the game when a clever reverse pass from Cazorla found the Frenchman in the box only for the former Montpellier man to fire wide when he really should have scored. It seems that Arsene Wenger cannot catch a break and when one of the first questions he received in his post match interview was “Would Robin Van Persie have scored the chance that fell to Giroud?” however there is much cause for positivity for Arsenal fans with the Gunners creating chances yesterday and having seemingly improved defensively there is no reason why they can’t kick-start their season at the Britannia stadium next weekend.
Newcastle United despite a slow start to the match picked up exactly where they left off at the end of last season with a 2-1 victory over potential title challengers Tottenham Hotspur. New signing Vurnon Anita was left on the bench following his arrival earlier in the week. The Senegalese front pairing of Cisse and Demba Ba was once again utilised by Alan Pardew who feels his side can go one step further and break into the Champions League places following a summer where they have managed to not only strengthen their squad but also keep their best players. It was to be Demba Ba who opened the scoring midway through the second half with an absolutely stunning effort that flew past Brad Friedel into the top corner following a badly cleared cross from Spurs. Despite his side being in the lead Alan Pardew following a missed throw in decision proceeded to push the fourth official, earning himself a red card in the process however one can see this punishment being extended due to the nature of the incident. Spurs despite glimpses of the infamous Andre Villas-Boas attacking football being present throughout the first half in particular when Jermain Defoe broke free and hit the upright, there was still an element of flatness in the Londoner’s performance however they equalised through Defoe with just fourteen minutes remaining following a goalmouth scramble. The last laugh was to be had by Newcastle though when with just ten minutes to go Hatem Ben Arfa broke through the Spurs defence into the penalty area only to be brought down in rather a clumsy fashion by Rafael van der Vaart and the Frenchman duly despatched the resulting penalty to give Newcastle a promising start to their campaign. Spurs however despite small signs of positive football will still be worried about the situation regarding Luka Modric with the Croatian yet to be sold until Spurs find an appropriate replacement and this looks no closer to happening at this time.
It is fair to say Reading were guilty of a slow start to life in the Premier League following yesterday’s 1-1 draw at home to Stoke with Tony Pulis’ side making much of the early running and creating chances throughout the first half. The Royals fell behind in the thirty fourth minute of play when Stoke City debutant Michael Kightly fired a mishit shot into the back of the net in a situation where Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici really should have done better with the Australian stopper covering himself in very little glory as the ball seemingly went under his body and into the net. In a game that provided little else in terms of entertainment it felt almost as if the Reading bandwagon following their promotion last year had slowed down despite their much improved performance in the second half however the Madjeski Stadium was to be given a huge boost when deep into injury time Reading were awarded a penalty which Adam Le Fondre who just three years ago was playing for Rochdale in League Two, put away to give Reading a share of the points on opening day. There was much to be encouraged about from Brian McDermott’s point of view with the Reading boss happy with his side’s performance although he seemed somewhat eager for more when he stated “We could have won it at the end with Ian Harte’s free kick.” Reading face both Chelsea and Sunderland in their next two games which will give them a true indication of what life in the Premier League will be about for the next nine months or so.
Fulham seemed to be totally unaffected by the news surrounding their star man Clint Dempsey as they ran out commanding winners in a 5-0 romp against Chris Hughton’s Norwich City side. It was always going to be a difficult year for Norwich following the departure of their inspirational manager Paul Lambert, however if there is man who can dig deep and get a club out of a crisis then it is no other than Chris Hughton following his hard work getting Newcastle United back into the Premier League two years ago. With Dempsey being a creative player it was expected that Fulham may well have found it difficult to break down a physically strong Norwich City side however this was not to be the case with Fulham creating lots of chances as well as playing nice technical football at the same time. Damien Duff opened the scoring inside the half hour, this lead was then doubled by new boy Mladen Petric following his summer move from Hamburg with a header going past John Ruddy in the Norwich goal. Things only got worse in the second half for Norwich when Petric struck again with a shot from distance albeit slightly deflected off Michael Turner, the score line was extended to 4-0 when Alex Kacaniklic slotted the ball home from close range. The rout was completed with just three minutes of normal time left when substitute Steve Sidwell fired home from the penalty spot. The presence of Bryan Ruiz and Moussa Dembele in the Fulham side showed a high level of creativity which can only provide a significant amount of relief for both Martin Jol and Fulham supporters with Clint Dempsey absent from the side for the foreseeable future. I have maintained throughout the summer that it would be a difficult campaign for Norwich with the loss of their manager and although yesterday was just one bad result I saw little to dissuade me from my prediction that the Canaries will be back playing Championship football in the 2013-2014 season.
Sam Allardyce’s West Ham side market their return to the top flight of English football with a 1-0 win at home to Aston Villa with Paul Lambert possibly realising he may well have a tougher job on his hands that he previously thought. West Ham cheered on as ever by a passionate Upton Park crowd put the disappointment of the last two years behind them as they carved out several opportunities for goals in the first half with captain Kevin Nolan firing narrowly wide from a free kick, Nolan would however be the man to open the deadlock under somewhat controversial circumstances when he coolly slotted home from inside the penalty area despite the linesman flagging for an offside, the referee Mike Dean judged the ball to have come off Ron Vlaar and not a West Ham player and subsequently overruled his linesman giving the goal. The match was near enough a dead rubber until the end with West Ham wasting a glorious opportunity to wrap the game up near the end through new signing Modibo Maiga when the Malian fired straight at Shay Given. Aston Villa fans may well have cause for concern with the lack of creative spark present yet again as a recurring theme from the last two years, yes the side was without its talismanic goalscorer Darren Bent but the lack of impetus going forward was a real concern for me and I cannot see Villa improving on their performance last season unless they sign a proven goalscorer before the window closes. West Ham boss Sam Allardyce in the run up to yesterday’s match that West Ham are still looking to strengthen their squad and on the evidence of yesterday they may well be outside contenders for a top half finish.
It was expected that following the departure of Brendan Rodgers Swansea would be in a crisis as it was rumoured that many of their best players would leave the club, however the appointment of Michael Laudrup was undoubtedly a shock but a positive one with the Dane having experience managing in the Spanish La Liga where he came up against the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid on an annual basis. There was little evidence of such a crisis yesterday however with the Swans flying to victory at Loftus Road resoundingly beating Mark Hughes’ QPR team 5-0. New signing Michu from Rayo Vallecano following his impressive tally of fifteen goals last season found himself to be an instant hit with the Swans supporters when he fired Swansea ahead in just the eighth minute of play. The match was in all fairness quite even from that point until just into the second half with QPR creating chances of their own through Junior Hoilett who narrowly missed the target with a curling effort from a tight angle and Jamie Mackie going close with a header following a pinpoint cross from the on loan left back Fabio Da Silva. QPR quickly collapsed however following Michu’s second goal of the game in the fifty fourth minute with the Spaniard putting the ball past Robert Green with expert ease and grace, Nathan Dyer made it 3-0 with a cool finish from inside the box just ten minutes later and ten minutes after that it was 4-0 following some poor defending which allowed Dyer to double his tally. The match was already more than over when with nine minutes to go the much talked about Scott Sinclair fired past Rob Green from outside the box to make it 5-0 and following rumoured interest from Manchester City and the announcement that Sinclair does not want to sign a new contract with Swansea, then that may well be the last goal we ever see him score for the Welsh outfit. Mark Hughes was blunt in his post match interview stating “The performance wasn’t up to the standard required” and that he hoped this poor result would just be a one off and that it was better to get it out of their system early on, Rangers have the perfect opportunity to bounce back from this next weekend when they travel to Carrow Road to take on fellow relegation strugglers Norwich City.
Finally we come to Liverpool, following a summer of change with new manager Brendan Rodgers pitching his ideals about fast, free flowing attacking football to the players all summer and the signings of Fabio Borini, Joe Allen and most recently Oussama Assaidi it was to be expected that yesterday’s opening game against West Brom at the Hawthorns was to be the start of something big however it has proven to be a slow start with Liverpool being on the wrong side of a 3-0 score line yesterday. Despite starting well and keeping the ball in the most part reasonably well despite a few early jitters it would have been easy to believe that once they had eased themselves into the game it would Liverpool who would go on to win however that was not to be the case. Liverpool missed a few chances in the first half in particular Luis Suarez missed the best chance with a shot just yards from goal going over the crossbar. Liverpool were dealt a blow right before half time when Zoltan Gera scored a volley of the highest order from twenty five yards out just two minutes before half time, there has been suggestions that Liverpool could have positioned themselves better for this corner and pushed out quicker however there is no defending against strikes like that it was simply unstoppable. Brendan Rodgers would have told his players during the half time break to be patient, keep doing what they were doing and the goal would come because they had not been particularly bad and if anything had created the better chances however what Liverpool didn’t want was to make a mistake in the second half and that is exactly what happened. Just before the hour a James Morrison pass found the run of Shane Long who was brought down in the box by Daniel Agger who as a result was shown the red card leaving Rodgers’ men an ever bigger challenge in the remaining half hour. Shane Long in fact missed the resulting penalty which must have given Liverpool hope of saving the game however this hope was short lived when just four minutes after the Albion were awarded another penalty when Martin Skrtel was caught napping on the ball with the Slovakian international then bringing down Long when the Irishman nipped in and stole the ball from him. Nigerian Peter Odemwingie made absolutely no mistake with this penalty calmly slotting it past Pepe Reina. The game was already over when on loan striker Romelu Lukaku headed past Reina with just over ten minutes remaining. Despite the result I believe there are positive signs coming out of yesterday for Liverpool with the long awaited return of midfield general Lucas Leiva being one of the more prominent ones, following this there was clear evidence that Liverpool had been working on their style of play and the football that was so often seen at Swansea during Rodgers’ spell there was on occasion evident yesterday. Finally Liverpool were creating chances, despite Luis Suarez not taking them, they were creating chances which is the most important thing at this stage, as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson once stated “We are creating the chances, I would be more worried if we weren’t creating the chances than not taking them.” It will only be a matter of time before Suarez and Borini link together and start hitting the target and providing they are getting the service that they received yesterday I can see no major reasons to panic for Liverpool at this stage. Liverpool face the Champions Manchester City next week in a game that will test them, In all honesty I can’t see them winning that game due to the strength of Manchester City’s defensive line however should they keep managing to pass the ball around and creating the chances there is no reason why they can’t get a positive result next weekend especially with the raucous Anfield crowd behind them. West Brom under new manager Steve Clarke were expected to struggle this year with Clarke’s credentials as a manager coming under question, however I think yesterday proved that Clarke has exactly what it takes to be a success at this level, he has been one of the best coaches in England over the past few years and impressed Jose Mourinho significantly during his time at Chelsea and providing he has the man management skills to keep characters like Odemwingie in line then I fully believe this could be a brilliant season for the Albion with another top ten finish not being beyond them.
If yesterday’s action did enough to whet your appetite for more Premier League football then we have two more games to look forward to today with Wigan taking on Chelsea at the DW Stadium and newly promoted Southampton having the unenviable task of travelling to the Etihad Stadium to face reigning Champions Manchester City.
Written by Chris Winterburn