Two weeks without the partisan excitement of the Premier League, especially when it’s being replaced with underwhelming Home Nations performances, is almost too much to handle. But thankfully, the Premier League returned, and with it, a whole new set of stories to digest and analyse, including:
• Manchester United looking sharp and finely balanced for the first time in a long time.
• Manchester City’s away blues continue, but they still can’t be beaten.
• Chelsea being locked out by QPR’s previously sieve like defence.
But first, we begin at the bottom for once.
Where on Earth Did That Come From Aston Villa?
I admittedly, have not had the pleasure of seeing much of anything from Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa side this season, save highlights from Match of the Day and Goals on Sunday. From what I saw, Villa looked like early relegation candidates, a team bereft of quality and depth, with an £18million striker in Darren Bent being consigned to an almost ceremonial role as striker, as Villa did not seem able to pass him the football.
Therefore I was taken rather aback by what happened on Saturday. Villa were due to welcome the Premier League’s inform team in Swansea, a team that has already topped the rather meaningless early season table, with a team that looks near unstoppable at times in attack. Yet not only did Villa beat Swansea, they did so with relative ease 2-0. Debutant Belgian striker Christian Benteke flashed early signs of possible things to come with the second goal to seal the game, and hopefully easing those Villa fans fearing a Bosko Balaban copycat.
Paul Lambert showed, in not only keeping Norwich up last season, but guiding them to a secure mid table position without ever flirting with relegation, that he is one of the better young managers currently operating in the Premier League. Villa should still struggle this season, their squad just isn’t good, but if the players continue to buy into the Lambert philosophy, they may just be able to keep their heads above water.
Reading and Southampton, Come on Now
Last season, fans of the Premier League were spoiled by the three promoted sides Swansea, Norwich and QPR. All three came into the League and refused to play goose, staying true to the football that had brought them this far and not letting the occasion overawe them, and boy was it glorious. Fast forward a season and it seems already that two of the new boys, Reading and Southampton, may have bitten off more than they can chew.
Reading may have only played three, thanks to the scandalous postponement of a Premier League game in August due to a waterlogged pitch (shame on you Sunderland), but in those three games they have looked overmatched and lacking the necessary quality in vital areas that might contribute to a team’s survival. Just like Billy Davies’ Derby County of 2007/08, it’s already looking like a case of rising too fast too soon.
This weekend’s home defeat against Spurs won’t be raising too many eyebrows, but the performance must be ringing alarm bells amongst the support. Reading looked like a Championship side, and, though they may improve as the season goes on, and they become better acclimatised to the faster paced Premier League, for me they are dead certs for the drop.
As for Southampton, this weekend’s 6-1 shelling at Arsenal is yet another example of just how bad this Saints defence is. Their whole back four just could not cope with the movement and passing of Arsenal, being dragged every which way. They had already conceded 8 goals in their first three games, and this latest defeat leaves them winless and pointless.
The Saints have had a very difficult start to the season, facing last season’s top three in their first four games, and performances against the Manchester giants maybe were very encouraging, and were it not for some bizarre substitutions (who subs their best three players when leading Man United 2-1?!) they should have had at least a point against United. The schedule should start getting softer for Southampton, and perhaps now we will truly get to see who they really are, but a word of warning for Nigel Adkins; sort that defence out.
Man United Play Well
For the first time this season, Manchester United finally turned in a noteworthy performance, and managed to keep a clean sheet to boot. It may only have been Wigan Athletic at home, but after the start United had made, both defensively and in midfield, this performance was long overdue.
Alex Buttner made an encouraging debut, assisting a goal and scoring one himself, jiggling past the entire Wigan team it seemed en route to beating Al-Habsi at his near post. United desperately need Buttner to perform, as Patrice Evra has become a liability and is most definitely coming towards the end of his career at the highest level.
In midfield, the ageless wonder Paul Scholes continued to run the show, on the special occasion of his 700th Man United appearance, even chipping in with a goal, as Wigan were ignominiously shoved aside.
I’m still not sold on United, they have struggled mightily against teams who have real quality in the forward positions, and next up is an away trip to Anfield, to meet a Liverpool side who would love to win their first game in the Brendan Rodgers era against their most hated rivals. Beat them and I may start to take them more seriously as title challengers.
Champions Still Unbeaten, But Not In Top Form
Manchester City are still unbeaten so far this season, with 2 wins and 2 draws, but their inability to keep the ball out of their own net must start becoming a worrying trend for Roberto Mancini. For the last two seasons, City goalkeeper Joe Hart has had a hegemonic grip on the Golden Gloves award for most clean sheets, but this season, he is already facing an uphill struggle to retain his trophy. City just keep conceding sloppy goals, and this trend continued at the Britannia Saturday, as Peter Crouch juggled his way through some lackadaisical defending from a set piece to put Stoke 1-0 up.
What must be encouraging for City fans though is the manner in which City replied. Last season at the Britannia, City needed a wickedly deflected Yaya Toure strike to rescue a less than deserved point, but this time they were much the better team at a ground they don’t traditionally play well at. Debutant Javi Garcia headed City level from a corner, and was it not for some inspirational last second defending from Ryan Shawcross, City would have left with all three points.
City haven’t hit anywhere near their best in the early stages of the season, and injuries to influential players such as Gareth Barry and Sergio Aguero have undoubtedly hurt the team. But they just will not lose and refuse to be beaten. As soon as this team hits their stride you worry for the rest of the title chasers.
QPR Frustrate Chelsea Amidst Handshake Gate
It must have been so encouraging for QPR to keep their first clean sheet of the season, and against their hated London rivals and Title contenders Chelsea no less. Julio Cesar was impressive in-goal for QPR on his debut, making a string of vital saves to frustrate and deny Chelsea. Ryan Nelson, an underrated veteran defender, did a superb job on the finally in form Fernando Torres, who reverted to the Fernando of the previous 18 months as all he could muster was one weak shot, before throwing a strop after being subbed.
As for handshake gate, what a load of nonsense this story is, perpetuated and spun out of control by a bored media. Should Anton Ferdinand have shaken the hand of John Terry? Yes of course he should. Why? Because Ferdinand should have been the bigger man.
Hero of the Week
Ryan Shawcross – Stoke City
This was one of the easier decisions to make this week. As the Stoke-Man City game entered the final minute of added on time, City striker Edin Dzeko broke clear on a counter attack. Goalkeeper Begovic came out to narrow the angle and close Dzeko down, but the Bosnian striker lobbed him. It was Shawcross, charging back, who somehow got back in time to acrobatically clear the ball off the line and rescue a point for Stoke. Just a superb piece of defending that gave Stoke a share of the spoils.
Goat of the Week
Mike Jones and his officiating crew – Everton vs Newcastle
A disaster no matter which way you look at it. Mike Jones and his linesmen got every big call wrong, and in the process denied Everton all three points.
First, Steven Pienaar thought he’d scored a perfectly legitimate goal, before the referee blew his whistle for an offside that wasn’t. The first of a string of terrible second half calls by the officiating crew. The second blown call was just simply awful. Victor Anichebe powerfully headed the ball at least a foot over the line, but the linesman on that side, in a fairly good position to see it, did not give the goal. Then as Newcastle broke, Hatem ben Arfa found himself one on one with an Everton defender, when the referee decided to blow for a foul on ben Arfa on the halfway line, denying Newcastle clear advantage.
An amazing blend of idiocy and ineptitude shown by the men in charge, which will led to greater clamour for technology to be implemented in the Premier League.
Ten Things I Think I Think
1) Arsenal through four games last season had conceded TEN times and only scored thrice, as the Gunners picked up only four points. The fifth game of last season saw them lose 4-3 at Blackburn Rovers. So fast forward a year, and minus top goalscorer Robin van Persie and top assist maker Alex Song what do you get? Eight points, 1 goal conceded and eight scored. Crisis? What crisis. In Arsene Arsenal must surely trust.
2) Liverpool have a gem in Raheem Sterling. If they can keep him laser focused on improving they may just have a world-class talent on their hands.
3) AVB has bought himself some more time with that straightforward win over Reading. He is a good manager who needs time to implement his ideology. Spurs fans need to get behind him and the team.
4) West Ham need Andy Carroll back right away. Carlton Cole is frankly terrible and would struggle to lead the line in the Championship.
5) Fulham spent all of £4million on Dimitar Berbatov, bargain buy of the season, on his day he is near unplayable.
6) Disappointing defeat for Swansea. The easiest opening schedule of any team, and now they have only one point from their last two games, against Sunderland and Villa no less. Honeymoon period just ended for Laudrup.
7) Good News for Norwich, Robert Snodgrass is a very good player. Bad news, a failure to beat a West Ham side at home that offered nothing in the way of attacking threat. These are the games Norwich has to be winning if they harbour realistic ambitions of survival. Grant Holt is looking more and more like a one season wonder.
8) It’s madness that there is no video technology in the Premier League. You have a multi billion pound product, that is screened to every country on Earth, why don’t you have basic technology to protect the product from these awful officiating errors?
9) What a dull weekend that was in the Premier League. The closest victory margin was Aston Villa 2-0 Swansea. The drawn games over the weekend were dull, and only Everton vs Newcastle was an entertaining game, and then only because the officiating crew decided they would go all Sunday League on us.
10) Liverpool vs Man United and Man City vs Arsenal are the games on SkySports this Sunday. Things just got better.
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