Every year between the end of May and the start of August, I am a broken man. There is a hole in my life; a void in my existence. Regardless of my efforts to attempt to fill it with beach holidays or music festivals, it is there. Gaping. This feeling of sheer emptiness usually persists until the weekend that has just past – it proceeds to subside entirely due to an event which (coupled with the ‘Deadline Day’ of both of the transfer windows) has come to be more enjoyable for me than my birthday, Christmas and New Year’s all wrapped into one. I am, of course, talking about the beginning of a new season of the Premier League. However, my appetite for football had been somewhat quelled, with my beloved West Ham now mucking it in amongst the Championship’s elite. Last Sunday I was bubbling (see what I did there…) with excitement as my side took on Cardiff. Over the next 90 minutes my hopes for the season ahead dwindled away as I was forced to endure much of the utter tosh I’d spent watching last season, as the Irons put in a feeble display against the Bluebirds and ultimately lost in the dying embers of the game. But my rantings about West Ham will be saved for another post.
The hours before the 3 o’clock games (Thanks rioters, for ruining my midday kick off) seemed to drag on for days. I had my laptop set up to stream the game of choice, snakc and drinks prepared and I was raring to go. This was at 9am. By the time that 3 had arrived I was brimming with anticipation, as I prepared myself for what is to come over the next 9 months – namely, sitting around, doing nothing and watching lots and lots of football. I decided to watch the Liverpool’s encounter with Sunderland as my first installment of the good stuff for the season ahead. With both sides having made major moves in the market over the course of the off-season, I was looking forward to two sets of players looking to set down a marker for a place in their respective starting XI’s. For the first 45 minutes, from a Liverpool perspective, I wasn’t disappointed. Both Henderson and Enrique looked tidy and competent, if not unremarkable. Adam, who perhaps had the greatest question mark over his head following his move from Blackpool, looked assured in possession and sprayed some wonderful passes around the centre of the park (although he doesn’t seem to managed to eradicate his tendency to over-play the ball outside his own area, a trait which cost Blackpool several goals and games last season). Downing also looked lively and would’ve surely had a contender for goal of the month if his thunderous shot had gone in instead of rattling the crossbar following his mazy run. However, it was a January signing who truly impressed the most – Uruguay’s Copa America hero, Luis Suarez, was causing all sorts of problems for the Black Cats backline and got the goal he thoroughly deserved with a deft header from a delightful delivery from an Adam set piece (we’ll let Suarez off that awful, awful penalty.
Meanwhile, Sunderland struggled to get a foothold in the game in the first half, but as the game progressed they looked the fitter of the two sides and began to impress themselves onto their opponents. They gained their rewards when a superb ball to the back post caught Flanagan out of position and was met with a technically-perfect strike from Larsson. The Swede could prove to be an astute signing from Bruce, should he manage to get the most of his man. Conditioning, or lack thereof was detrimental to the game as a spectacle, with both sides flagging as the game fizzled out due to lack of match fitness. Sunderland seemed weakened by the problem that plagued them towards the latter end of last season – without Gyan (withdrawn through injury) they really lacked an outlet ball or an attacking presence. I was disappointed not to get a glimpse of Wickham, a player whose career I’ve followed closely, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Bruce go out and invest in another centre forward. Meanwhile, for Liverpool, Downing drifted out of the game almost entirely and looked ineffectual, whilst the side as a whole didn’t seem to know what to do with Andy Carroll. Admittedly the big man’s lack of fitness meant that his ability to pick up a position to offer was somewhat hindered, there was tendency for the defence to lump the ball forward to him. This led to the breakdown of the attack the majority of the time as he couldn’t make it stick. If Kenny can figure out how to best utilise his centre-forward, keep Suarez and to replicate the first half display, then Liverpool will be a force to be reckoned with this season.
After this match, I sat down to catch a glimpse of post-Cesc era Arsenal and boy is the future dull. It was much the same from Arsenal, pretty build up with absolutely no cutting edge. Arshavin was once again inept, failing to make an impact in any way shape or form. More pleasing was Gervinho, although despite the number of good position he found himself in, he failed to deliver any worthwhile end product. Van Persie looked starved of chances and began to sink deeper and deeper in search of possession, leaving his side without a real focal point. Newcastle on the other hand, had a perfectly good focal point in Shola Ameobi. Despite working the channels well, hustling the Arsenal defence and some good hold-up play – the big striker was symptomatic of Newcastle’s attacking play in general; despite good endeavour, they never really posed a goal threat. They looked slightly more dynamic when the pacey Obertan replaced Demba Ba at halftime, but still never really offered a true threat. The Gervinho sending off was, in a sense, karmic justice as Song should’ve been down the tunnel for the unnecessary stamp on the perennial pantomime villain, Mr Barton. Barton’s theatrical ability was showcased for all as he took a histrionic tumble after the raised hand from Gervinho and then had the audacity to claim on two separate occasions that he had been punched. The Ivorian was right to be dismissed for his raised arm by the letter of the law, much to my dismay as he incurred my fantasy football team a penalty for ill-discipline. Prick. However, his antagonist should’ve been following him as his actions of picking the Arsenal player up off the floor were far more aggressive than any made towards him. The Magpies failed to make the numerical advantage count and the two sides played out a dull draw.
Elsewhere, the title looks like it will be decided next Sunday as early front-runners Bolton and Manchester City go head to head. The Trotters put an assured performance in against newly promoted QPR, and scored some lovely goals – none better than Gary Cahill’s blast, which Zat Knight has said is a regular occurrence on the training pitch. We look forward to seeing more of that kind of thing from the Arsenal target. It was a worrying result for Warnock’s men, as it may well set the tone for a season ahead. Their defensive frailties were highlighted by the fact that the starting back four consisted of Dyer and Gabbidon; two players who couldn’t even get a game for a team shipping goals every week last season. Meanwhile, they don’t seem to offer enough of a threat going forward either. Whilst I believe DJ Campbell and Jay Bothroyd to be shrewd acqusitions, the supply-line to them is simply not good enough. Last season, too much of the Hoops play was dictated and came through the Moroccan sensation, Adel Taarabt, but as Fabrice Muamba showed, it is all to easy to keep the tricky playmaker manacled and I feel due to the fact that he will be a targeted man this season, he may well struggle to make a real impact. That being said, a confident display from Coyle’s men, who have endured some terrible luck on the injury front before the season has started and will undoubtedly be looking to strengthen their squad, with a winger seeming to be a priority after today’s failed bid for Ranger’s Gregg Wylde.
Across the rest of the fixtures, an inspired Shay Given kept the Cottagers at bay as Fulham drew 0-0 with Villa at home. The game between Blackburn and Wolves was closely contested and featured some nice finishes from Formica and Ward as the Midlands side walked away with a valuable away win on the opening day. A soft penalty agiven against Ritchie De Laet gave newcomers Norwich City a mountain to climb on their return to the top flight. However, a gift from Wigan’s most consistent performer last season, Ali AL-Habsi, gifted Hoolahan an opportunity to level the score, a chance which he took with aplomb.
The Super Sunday football saw Stoke grind out a 0-0 draw with Stoke. Fernando Torres no longer looked the shadow of a man he looked at the end of last season, although I was less impressed by his performance than the rest of the media seems to indicate. Both sides had a few penalty claims each, any of which could’ve been given on another day. It became painfully obvious why Chelsea have been in the market for playmakers, such as Javier Pastore and Neymar as they really looked like they lack the incision and creativity a player of this calibre would provide, as Stoke’s regimented side proved difficult to break down. Stoke’s squad is paper-thin (evidenced my the fact that defender Ryan Shotton is ucrrently being used as a makeshift centre forward on the bench) but if they can acquire at least another striker, another central midfielders and can keep their recent free transfer centre halves fit, it looks like Pulis’ men are in for another solid season and may even be able to impress on the European stage.
United put in a typically United performance on Sunday afternoon – that is doing the bare minimum to win and scoring the winner inside the last 10 mins. Full credit to Hodgson’s men, they did not roll over for United and may feel somewhat aggrieved to not come away from their season’s opener with a point. Robust performances from Scharner, Mulumbu and Brunt matched the central midfield partnership of Cleverley and Anderson and largely kept the wily United midfielders at bay. Ashley Young and Nani looked threatening and United always look as though they can switch it up a gear and play some of that cutting, incisive football we saw for their second goal in the Communtity Shield last Sunday. Bastards. A lot was made of De Gea’s culpability in the goals last Sunday and he should’ve have conceded against WBA, not by a Long shot (whey). Although question marks are already being drawn against the keeper, my opinion (for what it is worth) will be that he will grow into his role. As for the Baggies, a good performance with plenty to be encouraged about for Hodgson, especially impressive due to the fact that played without last season’s top goalscorer, Peter Odemwingie. It’ll be interesting to see how the Russian-born Nigerian partners Long.
Michel Vorm was in inspired form to keep the scoreline down at the newly-named Ettihad stadium on Monday night; he made a string of saves to keep the scores level at half time. The Swans looked industrious but never really threatened Hart’s goal. However, City’s superior fitness and quality eventually shone through, proving too much for the Premier League new boys. Aguero will grab the headlines, having come on and scored two whilst setting up one, but Adam Johnson really shone for me. It was a big decision by Mancini to play the England winger, with big names with big price tags sitting on the bench. However, Johnson took his opportunity and put in a polished display, providing an exquisite ball for the overlapping Richards, who then put it on a plate for the Argentine supremo. Aguero awareness and work-rate were what really made him stand out for me – if he can carry on in the same vain for the rest of the season, he will only endear himself further to his fans and have them completely forgetting about the other Argentine centre forward who is still technically contracted to them… However, it looks worrying for the Swans. Whilst this is obviously not the game to judge the rest of their season on, there do appear to be problems. My first concern is the size of the starting XI. Due to the nature of the football they played last season, the diminutive nature of their attacking players, such as Britton and Dyer, wasn’t really a factor. However, I feel that the lack of physicality in midfield (except for perhaps Agustien) means they will struggle to both impose themselves on their opposition and struggle to find space for themselves to be able to play the expansive brand of football that Rodgers and before him Martinez, had brought to the Welsh club. On a related note, I think set pieces could be a real issue for the Welsh side. Offensively, they lack any real potency and defensively it could be an Achilles heel that they can little afford. Only time will tell how the rest of the season goes for them though.
The first round of games are finished and my whistle has well and truly been whet. We have the qualifying games for Europe throughout the course of this week – the most high profile of these being Arsenal’s tie against Udinese, which I may or may not do a feature on. Whilst this glamour tie is on, I’ll be glancing an eye at West Ham’s tricky away fixture at Vicarage Road, which will surely be a tough encounter for Big Sam’s men. Exciting stuff.