Premier League Reflections 1: Starting With A Bang

After the hype and the build-up, the action got underway at last and the dust is settling on what was a memorable first weekend in the 2008-09 Premier League campaign. Inevitably there were winners and losers - nine of each, to be precise, with only defending champions Manchester United and perennial aspirants Newcastle sharing the points. Of the winners, the biggest - in several senses - were Chelsea. Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Premier League bow could hardly have gone better as the Blues swept aside FA Cup winners Portsmouth with emphatic if not contemptuous ease. The 4-0 winning storyline sent a message of intent to the rest of the league, and the manner in which it was achieved - with some distinctive flourishes of Latin flair - will have pleased the demanding Roman Abramovich as evidence of the longed-for ‘expansive’ game he wants his team to play. A key orchestrator of the new dawn at Stamford Bridge was Scolari’s key summer signing - fellow Brazilian (turned Portuguese) Deco. As debuts go, his was near-perfect, as Chelsea wasted no time in underlining their title credentials. Even Nicolas Anelka looked like he was enjoying it. The fact that the Blues are already two points ahead of Manchester United - the other runner in what many pundits rashly predict will be a two-horse race - may not be significant at this stage; there are eight other teams with a similar, if probably temporary advantage over the Red Devils, who habitually get off to a sluggish start. Indeed, the 1-1 result at Old Trafford was probably more significant for Newcastle than Sir Alex Ferguson’s men: the point and the performance on a ground where they were blitzed 6-0 last season will have done wonders for the Magpies’ confidence. As for Man Utd, the game underlined their need for Dimitar Berbatov, whose transfer to the Theatre of Dreams seems to be edging ever closer. The jury is still out on the two other members of the Big Four. Arsenal started as bright as a button against newcomers West Brom, with Samir Nasri in dreamland less than four minutes into his baptism in English football. The trademark passing and movement were there but the penetration faded the longer the contest progressed. Still, the Gunners followed their 2-0 Champions League triumph in Holland with another win and clean-sheet, and without Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Eduardo and both Kolo Toure and Robin van Persie from the start, they know they have big players to come in and raise the standard. Liverpool will be delighted to emerge from a testing examination at the Stadium of Light with three points, especially given the sublime creation and execution of the winning goal, despatched by Fernando Torres. The Reds were again unconvincingly after their fright in Liege against Standard; and Robbie Keane is yet to slot smoothly into his role. But an away win on day one, 1-0 or not, is not to be sniffed at. Beyond Stamford Bridge, though, the most reasons to be cheerful were to be found at Aston Villa and Bolton, while Paul Ince and Gareth Southgate also had much to enjoy. The feeling pre-season was that Martin O’Neill had bought well at Villa Park, while hanging on to Gareth Barry, and despite some hairy defending at times they impressed against a Manchester City side obviously needing a lot more care and attention. Gabriel Agbonlahor could not have got his season off to a better start than by netting a hat-trick in an entertaining 4-2 victory. Villa were out-scored last season only by Man Utd and Arsenal, and their attacking credentials again bristled with promise against disjointed City. Mark Hughes has had a rotten week and may well be wondering why on earth he chose to leave Blackburn. His former team pulled off a dramatic 3-2 victory over Everton at Goodison Park and new manager Paul Ince admitted he could hardly have asked for more. The Toffees’ lack, so far, of any new faces looks like it will cost them if not quickly remedied, but the defending from what last season was a solid unit was uncharacteristically shaky. As for the alleged disharmony at Ewood under the Guvnor, there was little evidence of that evidence of that on Saturday. Nor was there much evidence that Tottenham’s much-trumpeted assault on the Big Four is a threat with substance. As anti-climaxes go it was a big one, though that should not detract from a tactically astute and enterprising Middlesbrough display at The Riverside. Tottenham’s lat consolation via an own goal was deceptive: Boro were at least two goals better on the day. Mido‘s goal will have given him particular satisfaction against his old club, and at The Reebok, all three of Bolton’s will have buoyed Bolton manager Gary Megson, whose side laboured to find the back of the net throughout last season, and especially after Anelka left. It was a case of direct approach meets route one approach when new boys Stoke came to Town, but Bolton were streets ahead on the day, and Johan Elmander’s scoring debut a major plus-point. The league’s other newly-promoted side, Hull City, were the only ones to win., and they did so in style on a carnival day at the KC Stadium, coming from behind to defeat Fulham 2-1 and claim the distinction of being the only club never to have lost a Premier League fixture. The winner, by Caleb Folan, was the result of a howler by Paul Konchesky, but their equaliser was a piece of Brazilian magic by Geovanni. The League’s other first-day fixture, at the Boleyn Ground, was the proverbial game of two halves, with West Ham threatening to blow Wigan away in the first half, Dean Ashton netting a double before injury once again laid him low, then the Latics roaring back to boss the second period but only managing a stunner by Zaki and leaving on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline. So there were plenty of goals, and some highly encouraging debuts as the curtain went up. And it’s great to have the Premier League back up and running again…


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