United lose to Swansea
In his first Premier League match in charge of Manchester United, Louis van Gaal was able to return normal service to the club – at least “normal” in the post-Ferguson era – as they were beaten 2-1 at home by Swansea. The Welsh team have been widely predicted to struggle this year under the stewardship of Garry Monk, but they were full value for their first ever league win at Old Trafford. In the 28th minute, the Swans exploited gaps in the United back line to take the lead, as Ki Sung-yeung was unmarked as he converted Nathan Dyer’s pass; but an acrobatic volley from new Red Devils’ captain, Wayne Rooney, leveled the score early in the second half. However, Gylfi Sigurdsson – who had a successful loan spell at Swansea prior to his tenure at Tottenham – celebrated his return to the club with the winning goal 18 minutes from the end, as the visitors hung on to the lead despite much United pressure at the end of the match.
Louis van Gaal’s favored formation of 3-4-1-2 would take any squad time to get used to if they had not played it before, but one of the biggest issues for Manchester United is that they do not have the personnel for that system. The central defensive trio of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and youngster Tyler Blackett are all reasonably talented, but there is no dominant player like Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand (in his prime) to hold them together and keep everyone disciplined in their positioning. On the flanks, neither Ashley Young nor Nani is the type of winger that enjoys tracking back to defend, but at least the addition of Marcos Rojo will help there. The center of midfield was an obvious weakness last season and new signing Ander Herrera will take time to embed himself in the team, while Michael Carrick – someone who helps protect and use possession so well – is out injured with ankle ligament damage. For all the problems that face United, they expect Robin Van Persie to return this Sunday against Sunderland and van Gaal will be hoping that his fellow Dutchman can help instill some much-needed confidence back into a club that were crowned champions just 15 months ago.
Spurs win at West Ham
In my ridiculously optimistic season preview, I had Tottenham winning the league and, if I had written a script for the opening match of the campaign to back up that viewpoint, it would not have deviated too much from what actually happened at Upton Park last Saturday. Firstly, Spurs were reduced to 10 men after just half an hour, as Kyle Naughton was harshly red carded for a handball in the box. Without doubt, it was a penalty as Naughton’s hands were up above his head and blocked the shot, but the right-back was less than a yard away from Kevin Nolan, so there was nothing deliberate about the handball. However, Mark Noble dragged the penalty badly wide and despite dominating the game for the next 30 minutes, West Ham were unable to find a breakthrough and the numbers were then evened up when James Collins was dismissed for a second bookable offense.
Up until the 90th minute, the best efforts for both sides had been a Stewart Downing chance in the box, which Hugo Lloris did brilliantly to block; and a free-kick for Spurs, which was first taken by a pitch-invading West Ham supporter, who got the attempt on target, something that Christian Eriksen failed to do when the intruder was caught and removed. However, during injury time, Eric Dier – the young central defender who joined from Sporting Lisbon in the summer – popped up in a striking position and scored on his Tottenham debut to give Mauricio Pochettino a win in his first Premier League match in charge of the club. Not only did that goal secure all three points for Spurs, it also helped banish the memories of the 2013/14 season, a campaign that saw us lose three times to West Ham.
The Rest of the Action from Week 1
All four of the clubs that ended last season in the top four won their opening encounters for this campaign, with Chelsea the most convincing as they beat newly-promoted Burnley 3-1 at Turf Moor. The Clarets did open the scoring through Scott Arfield, but Diego Costa – who arrived at Stamford Bridge in a big money transfer over the summer – leveled the score three minutes later with his first competitive goal for Chelsea; then the Blues took the lead as a 25 pass move was rounded off by a fantastic assist by Cesc Fabregas to setup World Cup winner, Andre Schürrle at the far post. Fabregas was the provider once again for Chelsea’s third goal, as his corner was converted by Branislav Ivanovic and Jose Mourinho’s men coasted to victory after that.
Arsenal had a much harder time overcoming manager-less Crystal Palace, falling behind to a Brede Hangerland goal, before Laurent Koscielny equalized on the stroke of half-time. It was not until injury time that the Gunners scored a winner, with Aaron Ramsey striking from inside the penalty area to ensure that Arsene Wenger enjoyed an opening day victory for the first time in six seasons. Liverpool and Manchester City also secured victories last weekend: the Reds overcame Southampton thanks to goals from Daniel Sturridge and Rahim Sterling, plus a world-class save by Simon Mignolet in the final minutes to deny Morgan Schneiderlin; while the reigning champions beat Newcastle 2-0 at St. James’ Park.
Elsewhere, Leicester’s first Premiership match for a decade ended with an impressive 2-2 draw with Everton, who were pegged back twice by the Foxes; there was a
trademark reckless late challenge superb 25 yard goal from Lee Cattermole as Sunderland scored first and last to earn a point away at West Brom; Aston Villa earned just their second league away win of 2014 with a 1-0 victory over Stoke; and Hull matched that scoreline as they beat QPR at Loftus Road on their return to the top flight.
Five Other Things To Note
- There was European action this midweek: in the Champions League playoff round, Arsenal drew 0-0 with Besiktas in Turkey; while in the Europa League qualifiers, Spurs came from behind to earn a 2-1 victory of AEL Limassol in Cyprus, with Erik Lamela getting two assists after coming off the bench; and Hull lost on their European debut, 1-0 away to KSC Lokeren, which Wikipedia assures me is a club from Belgium.
Vanishing spray made its Premier League debut last weekend; it received cheers first time it was used in every match I saw, while Jonathan Moss will have spent the last seven days working out how to use a can of foam as he covered himself and Santi Cazorla in the stuff during Arsenal’s encounter with Crystal Palace.
- All of those – myself included – who heavily criticized Cardiff’s owner Vincent Tan for his dismissal of Malky Mackay last season were left with egg – or vanishing spray – on their faces this week as a series of text messages and emails between the manager and Ian Moody, who acted as head of recruitment, showed the pair to be misogynists, racists, anti-semites and homophobic. I’m not saying I would want Tan as owner of Tottenham, but in this particular case I no longer have any sympathy for Mackay. Those revelations left Crystal Palace without a manager, as Mackay had been their first choice for the job and their second pick, Tim Sherwood, did not want to accept the position after initially being overlooked.
- Having sold a trouble-making but brilliant striker this summer in the former of Luis Suarez; Liverpool look set to add the similarly enigmatic Mario Balotelli to their squad, as the player has signed a code of conduct contract and is taking a medical ahead of a £16m move from A.C. Milan. Sometimes bewilderingly brilliant, sometimes just bewildering, my favorite moment from Balotelli thus far was when he posted a picture of his Panini Sticker Album during the World Cup with all of the Italian page filled up with his own image and the caption “Why always me?”. For entertainment purposes alone, I’m glad that he is back in English football.
- Roy Keane returned to the Premier League as Assistant Manager at Aston Villa – some feel he has been installed as a ready-made replacement to Paul Lambert, but for now he has not only the Irishman’s tactical input, but also he can unleash the wrath of Keane on fourth officials and assistant referees who make decisions in favor of Villa’s opponents.
Week 2 Preview and Predictions
The highlight of this weekend’s fixtures are Arsenal’s trip to Goodison Park, a ground where they lost 3-0 last season; and a battle between the sides that finished as the top two in May, as Liverpool are away at Manchester City, which could see Balotelli line up against his old club. There are two London derbies: Crystal Palace host West Ham; while Harry Redknapp returns to Tottenham as he hopes to get his QPR team off the mark for the year. Manchester United have a potentially tricky match at the Stadium of Light against Sunderland; Burnley head to South Wales to face Swansea; while Leicester players will be telling journalists in pre-match interviews that “trips to Chelsea are why we want to be in this league”, before they get thrashed 6-0. Elsewhere, Southampton host West Brom; Newcastle are away at Aston Villa; and Hull return from their first European adventure to see if they can do it on Sunday afternoon against Stoke.
Last week, 3-7 (oops); Season, 3-7
Home teams listed first
Aston Villa vs Newcastle – Draw
Chelsea vs Leicester City – Home win
Crystal Palace vs West Ham – Draw
Southampton vs West Brom – Home win
Swansea vs Burnley – Home win
Everton vs Arsenal – Away win
Hull vs Stoke – Draw
Tottenham vs QPR – Home win
Sunderland vs Manchester United – Away win
Manchester City vs Liverpool – Home win