Tuesday, August 17, 2010

EPL Week 1 Wrap-Up

First weekend is in the books and to be quite honest, it was as exciting as any opening weekend in recent memory. Opening match days are always an entertaining affair - newly promoted teams, reigning champs setting out to defend their trophies, the one month of the year when the UK enjoys sunlight and warm weather... This weekend had a different feel to it though. A sense that there was so much more at stake for every team involved. Whereas in years past the EPL has mirrored Spain and Scotland's two horse race, but with four teams, there are new kids on the block disrupting the established order. It is no longer a formality that Chelsea, United, Arsenal, and Liverpool will claim Champions League spots. Clubs are in economic shambles, so the money earned by qualifying for a European tournament is a vital lifeline. Throw in the fact that an extremely quiet transfer window has resulted in minor changes (except on the blue side of Manchester of course), and you can see why this past weekend made first impressions ever so important.

The results were a mix of the expected and the extremely unexpected. For the latter, we go straight to the DW Stadium in Wigan.

Making their first trip to England's top flight in 39 years, Blackpool were on everyone's relegation list to start the season. Mind you this was supposed to be a home game, except for the small inconvenience that their stadium expansion remains unfinished. So an opening day at Bloomfield Road in front of 13,000 home fans in neon orange turned into a less-than-lavish road trip up to Greater Manchester. Didn't matter one bit. Marlon Harewood scored twice as The Seasiders tore apart Wigan by a final score of 4-0, prompting seven year old Kian Kelly to strike the above pose landing him on every back page in Britain. A truly unbelievable result which nobody saw coming. Wigan on the other hand are in trouble. My pick to be relegated couldn't have made me prouder, although I do feel bad for manager Roberto Martinez - a genuinely nice guy who exudes nothing but class on and off the pitch. Maybe a bit too nice though, because he'll be out of a job by Thanksgiving.

Elsewhere, in arguably the second most anticipated match of the weekend, Liverpool faced off against Arsenal at Anfield. This had the feeling of a Champions League night, as the Liverpool fans were enraptured in song and involved in every movement of the game. They had plenty of reason to be excited with a clean slate, a new manager, and a more positive outlook than last season. After a straight red for Joe Cole late in the first half, Liverpool still managed to take the lead through David Ngog only to lose it on a rare Pepe Reina blunder gifting Arsenal the equalizer. Call it karma for Reina, who Arsenal fans were none-too-pleased with after his shenanigans with Cesc Fabregas. A 1-1 draw isn't terrible for either club after such a difficult opening day match, although Liverpool will rue the missed opportunity at the full three points. Liverpool looked decent, and actually played much better with ten men. Carragher looked rather useful, although I expect his form to dip dramatically. Overall, Liverpool's defense held firm led by an inspiring performance from Javier Mascherano in the midfield.

As for Joe Cole's debut, aside from the red card, he was pretty bad. He rarely worked his way into the game on offense, and numerous times got in Gerrard's way, literally. As for Arsenal, tons of possession and pretty passing got them nowhere near the goal, and I suppose Fabregas' presence would have made a difference. They got a lucky point, but Arsene Wenger must have seen his team falter in the areas where they've needed to sign players for a while now - and he's been reluctant to do so.

They need a goalie and they need one badly. Almunia is terrible. On the bright side, it looks like either Mark Schwartzer or Shay Given are on their way to North London which will guarantee the Arsenal at least 3-4 more wins than last season. New center-back Laurent Koscielny showed some bright spots, but will need to get much better and more disciplined. Nasri had a great game and young Jack Wilshire did his best to impress for 60 minutes. A healthy starting 11, a new goalie, and some depth on the back line isn't too much for Arsenal to hope for with two weeks left in the transfer window. Acquire all three and the Gooners should challenge the top two easily.
The most anticipated match of the weekend ended up rather boring, save Joe Hart's performance. England found their new #1 as Hart racked up 8 heroic saves to keep his team in the game. Tottenham could easily have been up 5-0 in the first half were it not for City's young keeper. Tottenham needed to finish their chances, but all in all this team looks legit. Manchester City on the other hand looked like a collection of players - not a team. Mancini also looked like a man with no balls. ZERO testosterone. If you want to challenge in the Premiere League you need to attack and do everything to win. Mancini came to London not to lose, rather than seek a victory. It was evident with Tevez deployed as a lone striker up front and a midfield of De Jong, Barry, and Yaya Toure. SWP is a useless midget, while the future of England's right wing in Adam Johnson sat on the bench for 68 minutes. If earning a draw was his game plan, then he succeeded. Let's hope he starts going after teams, because a fourth place finish won't be handed out to City on a silver platter.

I said Chelsea would win 8-0. So I was off by two goals and they only scored six. Coming back in style, the defending champs let the league know they will be a force this season. Or will they? It was telling to see ZERO new faces in the starting line-up for the Blues. Their biggest issue will be depth this season, even with the upcoming signing of Ramires. A comfortable opening win, but I've got my doubts if they get hit with some injuries.

Newcastle returned to the top flight only to get thumped by Manchester United 3-0. Best sign for United? Three different players scored and none of them was Rooney. United will need contributions from everyone in addition to Rooney if they want to unseat Chelsea.

Elsewhere, Aston Villa beat a hapless West Ham 3-0 less than a week after their manager upped and left. Everton got off to another pathetic start losing 1-0 away to Blackburn on a howler from Tim Howard. Bolton and Fulham drew 0-0, as did Birmingham and Sunderland 2-2. And Wolverhampton, accompanied by a top goal nominee for the season, defeated Stoke 2-1.

Remember it's still the first week. In a month's time this table could be turned on it's head. But it sure is good to have club football back on the weekend docket.

Congratulations again to Blackpool...you're still finishing dead last.

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