Opening-week jitters in the EPL
There is nothing quite like the opening day of the EPL season at your local pub. Hope (Arsenal fans) and delusion (Spurs supporters) sit side by side as the soccer, beer and where-were-you-when-Klinsmann-was-named tales flow until about the 14th minute when things go horribly wrong, and all the bonhomie spirals into resignation and despair.
So it was this past weekend at the Kinsale Tavern in New York City, where a raucous amalgam of EPL freaks from up and down the table greeted the new campaign with the kind of optimism that is easy to muster when you know there are still 37 games remaining -- unless, of course, you were a QPR follower, in which case I trust that you saved your guide to all the NPower Championship Stadia.
Over the course of my 12 hours at the pub, I was subjected to the following maniacal views: Bolton for the title! Seb Larsson for league MVP! Joey Barton for Prison Ward Foreman! Chelsea robbed by the refs! United to run away with it all! Same old Liverpool. Same old Arsenal!
OK, that last one has some merit, I suppose.
Bad boy Barton strikes again -- and gets struck
Given the less than fond memories I have of the last time Arsenal played Newcastle, I was hugely relieved that the Gunners managed not to concede four goals in the second half at St. James' Park this time around. Of course, it would have been nice if they had scored one, but maybe that was expecting too much of a great passing team which just passed on its greatest passer (Cesc Fabregas) and is about to pass on another (Samir Nasri) to the competition. Instead, the Gunners found themselves playing the Magpies on their scrappy, brawling terms, and in the process learned the first important lesson of the new season: If you're going to manhandle someone on a soccer field, make sure you initiate the fracas so you won't be sent off. You know the incident: Badboy Barton (as the announcers kept calling the Newcastle midfielder, making him sound like a quaint 1950s wrestling villain) decided to help Arsenal's Gervinho to his feet after the Ivorian took a shameless dive in the box. Barton did it by grabbing a fistful of Gervinho's jersey and grappling with him until the new Arsenal forward retaliated with a delicate slap to his cheek. I'm well aware of the rule that you can't raise your hand to an opponent, but I also know that you can't instigate a fight and then flop to the floor as if you've been poleaxed after a player gently caresses your face. For a legendary hard man like Barton to indulge in such wimpy theatrics demanded the same punishment as Gervinho. (At the risk of sounding like Arsene Wenger, both should have been either ejected or given yellows.)
Even dumber than the red cards themselves is the fact Arsenal will be without Gervinho and Alex Song (the referee may have missed his sly stomp on Barton's ankle, but the cameras didn't) for two massive games against Liverpool and Manchester United, which renders Wenger's cupboard of options even barer than usual.
As for Gervinho, he displayed the attributes that make him a perfect fit for the Arsenal ethos -- speed, trickery and no end product. Time and again, he got behind the Newcastle defense only for a poor final decision to kill the move.
That said, Gervinho and Barton deserve credit for providing the only entertainment in an otherwise tedious match. You can criticize Arsenal for a lot of things under Wenger -- obsession with walking the ball into the goal, half-hearted defense and shaky goalkeeping -- but it's never been boring. Yet if Wenger doesn't spend a big chunk of the $56 million at his disposal now that Fabregas has mercifully left the building -- a figure that could push toward $100 million if Nasri departs for Man City -- for a creative midfielder and another proven goal scorer over the age of 17, Arsenal fans are in for a very long, tortured season.
Same old new-look Liverpool
The same could be said of Liverpool, given that its 1-1 home draw to Sunderland demonstrated that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The Reds' highly publicized, high-priced summer midfielder spree looks like it will not have the instant impact that King Kenny had hoped. Of the three new mids, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing showed their value, the former from his set-piece deliveries and incisive passing and the latter from a series of virtuoso runs that underlined the creativity the Reds have lacked from the flanks since the days of Steve McManaman.
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But the grand experiment needs some retooling, as Dalglish's side electrified the Kop End for about a half an hour and then flailed for the remainder of the match like the hapless, Steven Gerrard-reliant squads of the past.
The best they could manage was a single goal; not the three or four they might have had if Luis Suarez, otherwise a lively, menacing presence, hadn't Baggioed his fifth-minute penalty and if Downing's shot after a 40-yard run didn't crash off the crossbar. Then, as if scripted to prove Liverpool fans' lingering concerns over their undermanned defense, previously lauded rookie right back John Flanagan thudded back to the Merseyside earth by playing poorly and allowing Sebastian Larsson to score the earliest Goal of the Season contender with an acrobatic cross-body volley. It once again raises the eternal Anfield question: Why do the Reds, so dynamic and seemingly comfortable in the attacking third, have all the grit and self-belief of Arsenal at the back?
Though it's clearly too early to divine such truths, next weekend's showdown at the Emirates between Liverpool and Arsenal will go some way to determining if either of these teams has what it takes to wipe that purple smirk off Sir Alex's face.
AVB is just OK
Then there's the top two from last season. Chelsea fans were giddy with anticipation about the debut of their new savior, manager Andres Villas-Boas, away to Stoke City. They couldn't wait to see the 33-year-old Portuguese rainmaker stamp his imprimatur on the Blues. So imagine their bemusement when AVB did a passable imitation of Carlo Ancelotti with both his choice of players and tactics.
He did, however, coax the best performance to date out of Fernando Torres since his $80 million move from Liverpool.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
It's never easy to win a bout in the 110-by-70 ring that should rightly be named Fort Pulis in honor of Stoke's combative, track suit-wearing manager, but it's still got to concern AVB that his Blues couldn't muster a goal. Even taking into account that a less sight-challenged referee could easily have awarded a penalty for Ryan Shawcross' challenge on Frank Lampard in the box, and that the Stoke keeper Asmir Begovic made a couple of sick saves, Chelsea still lacked a cutting edge up front. Which boggles the mind when you think that Villas-Boas has a strike force boasting Torres, Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Daniel Sturridge.
As quick and strong on the ball as El Nino looked for the most part, he still whiffed on the best chance of the afternoon, failing to pull the trigger when given the Britannia kiss by Shawcross in front of the goal.
Despite the ineffectual play of Chelsea's attack, you sense that the problem lies a little farther up the field. For all his lively moments on Sunday, it's increasingly clear that Frank Lampard is no longer the dynamic linchpin he was only two years ago. The Blues know they need a younger creative playmaker to dictate the tempo, but so far Bill Simmons and his fellow Spurs sufferers have been spared the rank indignity of seeing Luka Modric in a Chelsea jersey. In fact, I did a double take when I saw a Spurs supporter at Kinsale sporting a "Hands Off Modric" T-shirt. But it turned out not to be ESPN's other mustachioed columnist.
Those lucky Devils
While the Blues, Gunners and Reds stuttered in their season openers, the only team of our preseason "Big 5" that managed more than a point (City plays newly promoted Swansea City on Monday afternoon; you can watch it on ESPN3 here) was Manchester United. The Red Devils did so in typical title-winning fashion -- snatching a late, fortuitous winner away from home, this time at West Brom.
For the second week running, keeper David De Gea auditioned for a role as a future Arsenal goalkeeper (somewhere Manuel Almunia is smiling) with a blunder that could have cost United two points had Ashley Young not rallied to save both the day and the Spaniard's skinny trasero. Will someone please give that boy a proper meal? He desperately needs to improve his upper body strength and could probably use a little nip of sangria to calm his nerves.
In the span of two minutes in the first half, de Gea made a brilliant reflex save to deny a point-blank blast from the Baggies' Paul Scharner followed by an embarrassingly late dive for a routine shot from Shane Long, an effort that went under his flailing body and into the far corner. Over the years, Sir Alex has taken criticism for some goalkeeper signings (where have you gone, Massimo Taibi?) but even after de Gea made a similar mistake in last Sunday's Community Shield, the United manager continued to insist that the 20-year-old from Atletico Madrid will come good. (Even the fabled Peter Schmeichel endured a difficult debut season, something that should give de Whoa hope.) Not that the delighted Albion fans held back from chanting "dodgy keeper" as de Gea looked like a man who had left his confidence in customs.
Fortunately, he was spared the Spanish inquisition after Young's intervention in the 81st minute. The former Villa star, acquired over the summer, provided a thoughtful and threatening attacking option down the left flank but still needed a double deflection off a pair of Albion defenders to score the winner, which went down as an own goal by Steven Reid. In the wake of that fluky ricochet, United picked up where it left off last season, doing whatever it took to scrape by in games where it hadn't played to its potential. That said, none of the other putative rivals for the title won, while United displayed the champion's resolve and fortitude that sets Ferguson's team apart from the rest. And their good fortune, as United remain the luckiest -- and best -- team in the land.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."