The footballing calendar can be a very harsh mistress. No sooner have clubs finished stocking their ranks with new additions during the transfer feeding frenzy of late August, and somewhat inexplicably, the early hours of September too than we have a break in the fixtures for a double round of International football.
The international matches are watched closely, perhaps more for the purpose of checking for any injuries to current stars or on the performance of potential new heroes than anything else. We all love our nation to perform well on the international stage, but when compared to the love of YOUR club, in most cases it is pretty incomparable. Like a parent trying to pass off a newly purchased pet as a direct replacement to the family dog that you grew up with but who has just had a dignity-saving meeting with the vet’s needle. It’s just not the same.
The return to league action is always eagerly awaited but with new signings serving only to self-baste supporters up and down the country whose juices have been set flowing in anticipation, any kind of break after the window closes drags on like Christmas Eve does to a kid.
The only place to start is with a group of supporters who had been given every indication that everything that they scribbled on their Christmas wish-list was going to come true, only to later find out that that wasn’t really the case. The first couple of stocking-filler presents opened didn’t set the pulse racing and despite all the earlier hope, it seemed they had been let down. Massively. But then, held back as a tease in a way some parents do, the big reveal came in the shape of Mesut Özil. The wait to see him play must’ve seemed like months to Gooners everywhere, let alone a fortnight, and then the tease continued with Arsenal saying that he may not be fit enough to make the match. Well, he played and he did what he does best, plucking the ball out of the air with an outstretched boot before rolling the ball across the box for the on-rushing and ever-improving Olivier Giroud. Giroud, I would imagine, is as excited as anyone to see the German superstar arrive in the red half of North London as he can do nothing but improve and excel playing ahead of Arsenal’s new wide-eyed wonder.
It wasn’t all routine stuff for Arsenal, though it really should’ve been, with a multitude of chances being squandered prior to Craig Gardner levelling from the spot just after half time following a clumsy Laurent Koscielny challenge on Adam Johnson. That only served to awaken the Welsh wizard that everyone is talking about (no, not that one, though he did score on his Real Madrid debut). Finally it seems that Aaron Ramsey is realising the true level of his talent and stepping up to the plate to replace Cesc Fabregas. Something has changed within him; the goals are flowing and the confidence is soaring. He at last looks the player Arsene Wenger always knew he would become. With 5 goals in his first 6 matches this campaign, he has doubled the goals return of his last two seasons combined.
There was one very hairy moment for Arsenal, and Bacary Sagna in particular. With the scoreline at 2-1, he got into a running grapple with Jozy Altidore, coming off second best in the physical battle with the American forward who slipped the ball past Wojciech Szczesny, only to see his shot cleared before all of it had crossed the line. The fact that referee Martin Atkinson had for some reason already blown his whistle, allowing no advantage to the attacker, was as baffling as his decision to not send Sagna off for denying a goal-scoring opportunity. It ended 3-1 to Arsenal with loud-mouthed Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio sent to the stands (a decision he invited during a heated conversation with the ref) and Özil up and running in the red of Arsenal. Job done.
The days early kick off saw Crystal Palace travel to ‘The Theatre of Dreams’, also known as Old Trafford. In fact, anybody outside of the media who used that moniker would draw my immediate suspicion. Only players dream at Old Trafford. On at least 90% of occasions, the home fans are simply hoping that they don’t slip up against inferior opposition, whilst the majority of away fans have already written off their chances and travel merely in hope rather than any real degree of expectation. Away fans travelling home clutching a Man United ‘Megastore’ bag need locking away for good.
Palace battled and tried, huffed and puffed but in reality, the 2-0 home win was almost as predictable as the amount of diving carried out by Manchester United’s pea-headed winger, Ashley Young. A silhouette of Young’s diving action would be instantly recognisable to regular viewers of the Premier League and I remain convinced that he puts as much training ground work into that action as he does his actual football. South African midfielder Kagisha Dikagcoi received his marching orders following the challenge which led to Robin Van Persie’s opening goal from the spot. No prizes are on offer for guessing which player in red was sat on the ground arms outstretched in appeal prior to the dubious award. Wayne Rooney, resplendent in his protective headgear, curled home a Stretford End free kick for the game-sealing second. Record-signing Marouane Fellaini also came off the bench for United and played a deeper role than the one he mainly operated in under David Moyes at Goodison Park. His physicality and aerial ability will bring a whole new dimension to the United engine-room as the season progresses.
The days other televised offering saw Roberto Martinez pick up his first win to accompany his opening 3 draws as Everton manager at home to Chelsea. With Aguero-less Manchester City also stuttering to a 0-0 draw away at Stoke City, the leagues top clubs are clearly not having things all their own way during the early stages of the season.
With newly-signed Samuel Eto’o spearheading the visitors attack, supported by the creative triumvirate of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Andre Schurrle, it is fair to have expected more than was served up. Very good chances were missed by both Eto’o and Schurrle with Everton loanee Gareth Barry also producing one block of epic proportions at the Gwladys Street End to deny the world-renowned Cameroonian. The winning goal from Everton came on the stroke of half time as Nikica Jelavic kept the ball alive beyond the far post, nodding back across goal, leaving Steven Naismith with the easy task of converting with his head from a yard. This is a fantastic result for Everton and one that will lead to questions being asked in West London as Jose Mourinho still tries to find his best attacking lineup, with many feeling that the man best suited to playing as his number 9 was sat watching from the sidelines in an Everton tracksuit.
The points were shared in 1-1 draws at both Craven Cottage between Fulham and West Bromwich Albion as a late Gareth McAuley header in injury-time cancelled out Steve Sidwell’s first half strike, as well as The KC Stadium as Hull City (I will leave the ‘Tigers’ part of their name as an inference) saw a second half goal from Cardiff City’s Peter Whittingham cancel out Curtis Davies’ earlier goal.
In the second city, Aston Villa welcomed Newcastle United with the hope that they could get back on track following back to back defeats since their opening day heroics at The Emirates Stadium. It wasn’t to be however, as Newcastle, still reeling after a less-than-stellar display from Director of Football Joe Kinnear during the summer frenzy, turned on the style at Villa Park.
Hatem Ben Arfa produced the kind of display that if he reproduced 7 or 8 times out of 10, as opposed to the 2 or 3 times out of 10 that he appears to currently, would make him a world star. He scored the first which was laid on by new-signing, loanee Loic Remy, before his parried shot allowed Yoan Gouffran to knock in the winning goal. In between those two from the visitors came the almost obligatory Christian Benteke goal, converted with his head from an Ashley Westwood corner. With renewed and unwelcomed transfer interest in him surely to come again in January, Villa really need somebody else to step up and lessen the goals burden on their Belgian star, as they produced nothing except the goal by way of attempts on target. They also need to become a little less predictable in their approach, as long balls to their plethora of six-foot-plus forwards will soon be worked out and countered.
Finally to White Hart Lane where Tottenham welcomed long-term Spurs assistant manager Chris Hughton and his Norwich City side. Another eagerly-awaited debut came in the shape of Ajax-product, midfielder Christian Eriksen. Even though Spurs have seemingly done nothing but invest this summer, they still looked to be lacking that creative spark plug which could ignite their play. Eriksen appears to be that missing piece in the jigsaw as he showed complete awareness of his surroundings, the runs made and the positions of others during his impressive Premier League bow. Neat on the ball and with two fantastic feet, the ball to lay on the first of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s brace in a 2-0 win was delightful. The midfield is going to be a major strength for Spurs this season and he will be central to a lot of their attacking play.
All in all, the wait proved to be worthwhile as the players that have most set the saliva glands in action, came, played and produced. The only slight problem is that they may have set the bar a little high on their first outings, but considering the degree of quality, I somehow doubt that we will be disappointed.
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