Monday, August 17, 2009

Return of the EPL

English football has returned and there's no shortage of storylines with only one match in the books. Looking over the scoresheet, there's only one place to begin: Goodison Park, where Arsenal thrashed Everton 6-1. Wenger did his best not to overreact after the match and rightfully so. Only three points is the end result, no matter how many goals are scored or how much champagne football flows. And to be honest, Everton displayed some truly awful defending. The second and third goals were scored on totally free headers from free kicks. Certainly a memorable debut for import Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen and a necessary start to the year for William Gallas, following last year's controversies. Cesc Fabregas found the defending similarly generous when he received an outlet throw from Almunia in his own half and simply dribbled down the pitch unimpeded before calmly depositing the ball in the corner from twenty yards. Louis Saha did score in the 90th minute for Everton to salvage some dignity. But not much.

For Arsenal, this is a statement of intent that they will be a legitimate threat to win the league. Wenger has been proclaiming that his young side is up to the task. This astonishingly good result aside, I have my doubts. Last year Arsenal were nowhere close to winning the Premier League, and with the departure of Toure and Adebayor to Man City, the talent level is surely lower this year than last. Arsenal will get a boost from having the dynamic Arshavin for the full season, but it's hard to imagine that will be enough, unless the youth develops faster than could be imagined. At least Fabregas is staying, for now. Now Arsenal have to worry about qualifying for the group stages of Champions League, as the new qualifying format has "rewarded" them with a two-legged fixture against Celtic, beginning tomorrow in Glasgow.

Everton, last year's fifth place finisher, have to be mortified by their season opener. They harbor outside thoughts of finishing in a Champions League spot, but looked nowhere near a capable side on Saturday. Perhaps they were distracted by the international week or by the continued distraction of the possible transfer of Joleon Lescott to (who else) Manchester City. David Moyes' continues to nearly hyperventilate while insisting that Everton are not selling. Perhaps too much of the week was focused on Lescott and not nearly enough on the rest of the squad. Now that the season has begun, it's best for that situation to be resolved, one way or another.

Elsewhere, Manchester United and Chelsea both opened the season with wins, but neither exactly impressed. Man U won 1-0 at home against newly promoted Birmingham, scoring when Wayne Rooney finished off his own rebound off the woodwork. United had several other good chances, including a breakaway for Michael Owen that he failed to finish. But Birmingham were not without chances, and Ben Foster's quick instincts prevented a potentially embarassing draw to begin the season. Chelsea were even more fortunate against Hull City, who barely escaped relegation last year while proving that Phil Brown shouldn't sing. Chelsea fell behind in the first half, then saw Drogba equalize on a superbly taken free kick. But despite several opportunites, Chelsea were still level in extra time until Drogba's chip shot (er, cross?) from no angle. Regardless of intent, a great goal, and Chelsea will gladly take the three points.

While the other three "Big Four" (assuming that's still what they are) found victory this weekend, Liverpool suffered defeat at Tottenham. Last year Liverpool were the better side but managed to lose 2-1 anyway. No one would argue that Liverpool were the better side this time. The first half was particularly listless for the Reds, while Spurs had a few good chances before finally scoring on a wicked strike from Benoit Assou-Ekotto on a rebound off a free kick shot directly into the wall. Liverpool managed to equalize on a second half penalty on a dangerous run by the newly acquired Glen Johnson. After dribbling past two defenders, Johnson parried the ball to the side of goalkeeper Gomes, who recklessly (and needlessly) brought him down. But Spurs were in front to stay three minutes later when new arrival Sebastien Bassong beat Carragher on a free kick and headed the ball past Reina. Liverpool did manage to find their gear somewhat in the second half, particularly after the introduction of Yossi Benayoun, but could not find the back of the net. There were calls for one more penalty after Assou-Ekotto shoulder-barged substitute Andriy Voronin in the box. The ball was likely rolling through to the goalkeeper anyway, so it was understandable why it wasn't given. But Assou-Ekotto certainly made matters interesting by making no attempt to play the ball whatsoever and hip-checking Voronin to the ground. Opinions on the matter varied: the match commentators thought it was a penalty, as did Liverpool assistant manager Sammy Lee, who was ejected for arguing. The FSC post-match commentators, as well as the Guardian post-match commentary, agreed it was not a penalty. In the end, Tottenham got the decision from the only man that mattered. That hasn't stopped Benitez from complaining the day after.

Almost nothing positive to take away from this effort for Liverpool. Carragher and Skrtel banged heads in the first half (after some awful miscommunication); as a result, Carragher had his head bandaged the rest of the match and Skrtel eventually had to leave for young Daniel Sanchez Ayala. The backline for Liverpool is plagued with injuries right now: Daniel Agger and Fabio Aurelio were out for the match, and both Carragher and Skrtel were question marks entering the week. With Arbeloa gone, there isn't much to choose from if there are further injuries to the defense. Gerrard was also nicked but managed to play. On the pitch there was little to inspire. Gerrard was mostly ineffective, though he was more effective than his fellow star Torres, who consistently gave away possession and created almost nothing. It goes without saying that without stellar play from Gerrard and Torres, Liverpool aren't a team to be feared. Ryan Babel got the start instead of Benayoun, and that was a dreadful decision. Benitez attempted to hype Babel for a big year over the summer, but there was no indication he was capable of that yesterday. As long as Aquilani is out, there is simply no way Benayoun can be left out of the starting eleven; he and Reina were clearly the two best players for the Reds. And yes, Xabi Alonso was missed. The squad missed his probing balls from midfield to liven the attack. Now Liverpool must win at home against Stoke on Wednesday, and every player will need to improve their performance. In case the results on the pitch aren't enough to be concerned about, Liverpool now apparently have to fend off Barcelona for Riera.

Elsewhere, Manchester City opened with a 2-0 road victory at Blackburn. Their stylish first goal, scored on the counterattack and finished by Adebayor, demonstrated the kind of attacking flair they will be capable of. Blackburn created their share of chances though, and Man City still have defensive worries. Still, they fared much better than another team with European aspirations: Aston Villa were resoundingly beaten at home by Wigan, 2-0. Since last midseason, when they seemed a good bet to finish ahead of Arsenal for a Champions League spot, Villa have fallen apart. Combined with Everton's horrid showing, the "Big Four" and Man City certainly have the look of the top five finishers come season's end. Though perhaps that's making too much of one result.

There are six mid-week matches this week, though none really jump off the page for neutrals. Wigan do have a great chance to get to six points in two matches hosting Wolves. Liverpool try to right the ship against Stoke, Man U travel to Burnley, and Spurs try to sustain the momentum traveling to Hull.

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