The opening weekend is a special time for football fans. Sensible aspirations spill over into optimistic dreams. Rational analysis gives way to excitable hyperbole. And everyone thinks they should win on the return of their matchday routine, which for most involves lashings of Madras sauce with our beer.
Let us begin with Chelsea, tipped alongside Liverpool as serious contenders for United’s title.
They made heavy work of their two-one victory over Hull, whose battling spirit and good organisation was well rewarded with a lead half way into the first half. And that lead would have lasted to half time if top-flight football was still a man’s game. Instead Obi-Mikel “won” a poorly awarded free kick from which Chelsea deservedly equalised.
And while hook and crook were well deployed, there is no doubting who the better team were. Hull so doggedly camped in their own half that several fans pitched tents in the stands as a fall-back position. The late late winner was a bit of a hopeful punt, but like Didier Drogba on the day, it did the job the team deserved.
Following on in no particular order come Arsenal. They faced an Everton side who are, if nothing else, very hard to score against. So it was that this six-one rout displayed just what “nothing else” looks like. Wenger’s sides are masters of counter-attacking football and at 2-0 down Everton abandoned all hope, fell apart, and embarrassed themselves.
But take nothing away from the Gunner’s performance. A weak squad may limit their title hopes, but their first team is no less stunning for its lack of cover. At times it was like watching the sides of Best and Charlton, or Robertson and Francis revel in the sheer delight of playing football. I’d say it is a shame so few teams will let Arsenal play this way and mesmerise the world with fast paced pin-point passing. But I’m too big a fan of the crunching tackle for that to be true. And so are all of you if you are honest.
Amazingly Arsenal’s stunning score line was not far from repeated at White Hart Lane as Spurs beat Liverpool two-one. This was more a victorious dogfight than a Red Arrows display. But only a breathtaking Reina performance kept Spurs from a 3-0 half time lead.
As it was the whiter side of North London waited until 44 minutes for their well deserved advantage. Then they lost it to a second half Gerrard penalty. Bassong though scored the winner all debutant defenders dream of, rising at the back post to head home.
Liverpool won’t worry about the score so much as the circumstance of it. Spurs fans loudly laughed at them in the last ten minutes for demanding additional penalties. But they had to keep appealing. The spot kick was the only good shot on target the Reds managed in nearly 100 minutes of football.
West Ham and Fulham next.
Both these sides finished in the top ten last season. Both these sides have put together solid and well organised but unspectacular teams. And both these sides won the same match this weekend.
Granted West Ham were away to Wolves while Fulham won at Pompey. But these were each the same recipe for away day success.
Start out by curbing the enthusiasm of the home team with some solid organised defence. Next up, forage forward sporadically in the hope of catching them out. Then celebrate your opening goal by repeating your solid organised defence.
Next add a degree of sensible and cautious possession. As the game goes on keep them from having any serious shots on goal, and use your now more frequent measured possession to frustrate. As an optional extra (that West Ham deployed and Fulham didn’t) extend your lead to two. Finally slow the game right down and stroll home comfortably as the losers run out of ideas.
So if you are a Londoner, well done.
Now for the rest.
Aston Villa showed that the way to turn around a slump in form, caused primarily by losing your best player, is not to sell your next best player. Martin Laursen has not been replaced since he retired and Gareth Barry has left too. So a tough season awaits Martin O’Neil’s men, and the fact that Wigan were surprisingly impressive with some fluid movement as they won 2-0 seems almost insignificant compared to the mismanagement of Villa dreams.
Stoke used the sort of strong arm tactics expected of newly promoted sides to beat newly promoted Burnley two-nil at home. Burnley should try to learn that lesson. Their clever movement and passing will pay dividends for them only if they can match it with guile of a sterner sort.
Bolton lost to 1-0 thanks to Sunderland’s now longstanding policy of buying players from Spurs. Former Spurs left midfielder Steed Malbranque crossed for former Spurs striker Darren Bent to head home after just five minutes. The single goal was enough thanks to a stunning save from former Spurs keeper Marton Fulop who kept out Bolton’s very own former Spurs midfielder Sean Davis in injury time.
Meanwhile Manchester City’s high spending summer earned them three points, if not much acclaim. Blackburn were for long spells the better team, pressing hard and exposing their opponents’ defensive weaknesses without capitalising. At the other end of the pitch though there is no doubting what vast sums of inherited foreign cash can do. The very expensive Adebayor scored early, while the rather less costly Stephen Ireland added a second.
And finally, Manchester United were somewhat the better team as they beat new boys Birmingham City 1-0. This was a rather dull match in which very little happened besides a good save from a Christian Benitez shot, and a Rooney tap in as a prior shot came back off the post. Who needs Ronaldo huh?