Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ding-ding - end of Round One

Pic: BTRSELLER/Shutterstock
If you can accept the inclusion of a Monday night into the concept, the opening weekend of Premier League season 2014-15 has come and gone and already every pundit is installing Chelsea as champions. So, shall we just go straight to 2015-16 instead?  Well, no.

Because as, literally, all managers and players are saying in disjointed, clichéd unison, "it's a long season" - and they're right: at this stage of the campaign the horizon is as distant as the wisdom is unfounded.

This time last season, don't forget, few pundits were giving Liverpool a chance, and where did they end up at season's end? Some of these same "experts" also predicted a long and fruitful World Cup for Spain...

While it is true that there is already an ominous look of purpose about José Mourinho's side, there is also a look of earnest industry about Wenger's Arsenal, a look of renewed determination about Rodgers' Liverpool, and the same look of calm composure about Pellegrini's Manchester City. You might also note how van Gaal's Manchester United look as ruffled as Moyes' Manchester United did all season long.

But let's not get carried away. As much as it is richly enjoyable for us Chelsea fans to look at the Barclays Premier League table this afternoon and feel flushed by the obscurities of goal difference putting the Blues on top and van Gaal's behemoth not even in the top 13, "Played 1, Won 1, Pts 3" is hardly ranking of any note. There are 37 more games to come.

That said, while it is true that the opening weekend's fixtures are usually never more than an extension of the pre-season friendlies - fitness is still lacking, new positions and teammates still unsure of themselves, the transfer window is still unsettlingly open... - to see everyone in competitive action for real, provides some indication of what lies in store.

Let's start with the defending champions. Manchester City's 2-0 away win against Newcastle was enough to demonstrate, even in their opening game, that their eventual claim of the Premier League title in May wasn't totally by default.

The closing stages of last season were cagey, and one could argue that City only became champions because Liverpool - and Steven Gerrard in particular - handed them the title. But while it is harder to defend a title than take one, City will gain further strength from both a second summer under Pellegrini's calm preparation, the arrival of a few new faces (including Frank Lampard on loan), and the hope that Edin Dzeko will sign a new deal and commit himself to playing in one of the Premier League's most prolific strike forces.

What, then, of last season's unlikely runners-up? Losing Luis Suarez is both a blessing and a curse, but it's something Liverpool simply have to deal with. Splashing Barcelona's cash on what seems like most of the population of Southampton is not necessarily the solution, either, but Brendan Rodgers' primary task now is blending recruits like Southampton's Rickie Lambert and...er...Southampton's Adam Lallana in with Markovic, fresh from Benfica, often referred to as Portugal's answer to Southampton. Possibly.

Despite their appearance in England's brief cameo at the World Cup, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling will relish the opportunity to ask "Luis who?". They certainly and did so on Sunday against the surprisingly spirited South Coast club, who just happened to be Liverpool's opening weekend opponents. Despite the way last season ended, Liverpool have every right to have their tails up for this campaign. To be achingly close - and with immense credit, too. was tough but shows what this same team is capable of.

And then Arsenal. There is an air of familiarity around Wenger's understated confidence, and I wouldn't necessarily say that was a good thing, as this same emotion hasn't got them very far in recent years. Ending last season with the FA Cup and starting this one with the Community Shield (albeit winning over a markedly depleted Manchester City) will have done their spirit no end of good - when was the last time Arsenal, or anyone for that matter, won back-to-back trophies in consecutive competitive matches?

However, the Gunners should hold a torch up to their performance on Saturday against a managerless Crystal Palace, who still managed to frustrate until very late in the game. The scoreline flattered to deceive. True, Arsenal were missing Theo Walcott and their World Cup-winning Germans, but the big question this season - as with previous terms - is where is their prolific, goal-scoring centre forward? Wenger may exude an almost nonchalant air at times, but history has taught us that his club's supporters are anything but when that nonchalance comes across as miserly complacency.

Which then brings me to Manchester United. I feel certain to speak for many football fans - and obviously those who don't live in Surrey or actually support United - that last season's uncharacteristic bout of sustained disaster was quite amusing.

Yes, I know, a shame to see the dear old beast struggling, but then after two decades of relentless triumphalism with the commensurate hubris thrown in, it was refreshing to see United rendered human, after all.

I didn't, however, wish the public slaying that David Moyes went through, and I wouldn't wish the same on Louis van Gaal, either. The Dutchman can be a monstrous egomaniac, but then for me - as a supporter of a club managed by Mourinho - I can hardly focus the spotlight on that particular foible as complaint.

But to open your Premier League account with a home defeat to Swansea, with more or less every commentator reaching the same conclusion that this was more of the same, could not have been any worse if you'd imagined it. Losing by a single-goal margin is not the worst thing that can befall a team, but for Manchester United, doing so at home on Day 1 to Swansea (with the greatest of respect) will have had even the Brazilians - scorched, still, from their World Cup blitzkreig - smiling sweetly at someone else's disproportionate discomfort.

It would be insane to reach out for a panic button just yet, or even ensure it could be found in the dark, but there are players lacking in Manchester United's squad at the start of this season. And that's not something you could ever say about life under its previous regime...

So, then, what about my own club, Chelsea? Last night's performance at Turf Moor may have hinted at a team boasting the perfect balance of a Romanian gymnast, with a striker (Costa) actually capable of scoring goals rather than merely attempting to, and a playmaker in Fabregas easing the pain of the departed (though not far) Lampard. But at risk of being branded a cynic (oh, go on then), Chelsea have, previously, leaped out of the traps and won the Premier League title, and leaped out of the traps only to flounder after Halloween.

Facebook/Chelsea FC

There was much talk that Chelsea failed to win any senior silverware last season because they lacked strike power. Well that is partly true. But my bigger concern last season was their mentality. Defeats at Villa Park and Selhurst Park lent more to attitude that physical failings. Mourinho also has his work cut out keeping a huge squad happy, in particular Petr Cech as Thibaut Courtois continues to be groomed to be the number one No.1. He also needs to prevent Andre Schurrle from slipping away, as well as the increasingly sulky Oscar - whose club form dipped leading into the World Cup, only to be a part of that humiliated Brazilian team. Last night he looked even sulkier when he was substituted late in the game, even though with the game won it was only sensible to bring on Mikel and short up the defensive base of midfield..

So those are the supposed contenders for Top Four places: what about the rest? Will the relegation zone be exclusively claret-and-blue as Aston Villa, West Ham, Burnley and Crystal Palace all vie with each other for the trapdoor?

You can pundit all you want about who might go down and who might stay up, who might remain in mid-table mediocrity or, to look at that another way, take a workmanlike approach to being a Premier League team. One round of fixtures is not going to determine anything.

You could say that there are 20 teams who could end up anywhere, but you could reasonably expect the likes of Burnley, QPR and Leicester - newly arrived in the top flight - to labour, while the dysfunctions of incumbents like Palace, West Brom, West Ham and even Newcastle may prove telling.

However, let's at least get Round 2 under our belts before coming to any more strident conclusions, shall we?

No comments:

Post a Comment