Posted by: mdegeorge | August 16, 2010

Starting XI Points: Premier League opening weekend

It’s the weekend soccer fans the world over have dreamed of for months in their post-World Cup hangover; the weekend in which angst-ridden fans in the epicenter of the soccer world can bury their international consternations beneath a flood of expensive foreign imports.

It’s opening weekend in the Barclay’s English Premier League. The 2010 edition was dotted with some highlights—and its fair share of duds. Here are my starting XI points for the opening round of EPL fixtures.

The early Big Four challenge

It’s not often than you can call a goalless draw engaging, but the Manchester City-Tottenham season opener fit the bill. It wasn’t just the on-field product, which provided plenty of wide open play and attacking football, especially from the host Spurs, which should have yielded at least one goal. It was also the milieu surrounding the squads: the fight to make the Big Four an archaic notion, a burgeoning rivalry that decided the final Champions League spot on the final weekend of last season. Neither of these teams were quite in midseason form, but it’s pretty obvious that when their each tuned to the perfect note, they’ll be collecting goals in bunches. Everyone—and I do mean every single one of ESPN Soccernet’s experts—believe Man City will crack into the top four this season, but you’d be a fool to sleep on Tottenham. For all of the Citizens’ depth (read: bloated, wantaway squad), they’re not far and away more balanced than Spurs. They have four legitimate strikers and if they could ever get some value out of David Bentley and Jermaine Jenas—either in the transfer market or on the field—they can survive the rigors of Champions’ League football and find themselves back in the top four this season.

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Top-flight Tangerines

It may not have had the same drama as Burnley’s celebration of a 33-year top-flight hiatus with a win over Manchester United in the second round last August. But Blackpool’s return to the Premier League after 40 seasons was certainly one for the ages. The flying Tangerines left manager Ian Holloway smiling as they absolutely dominated Wigan in their own stadium for a first half in which the Latics were extremely fortunate to be down by just three goals. This team will be hard pressed to find the consistent form to stave off relegation, but they’re taking a refreshing tact to this season. Rather than purchasing washed up veterans (Marlon Harewood not withstanding), they’re letting their young players earn their sea legs. Only eight senior squad players have Premier League experience, five of whom have less than 20 matches career and some of whose experience dates back as long as a decade (like Rob Edwards appearances at Aston Villa and Jason Euell’s Wimbledon days). Regardless of what transpires this season though, they’ll always have those few hours atop the Premier League.

In their defenseSo, how do you top a 103-goal season? By coming out and putting yourself on pace to score 228 goals this season (or more if Wigan’s defense doesn’t improve soon). Chelsea is the poster child for addition by subtraction: they lowered the team’s wage bill by cleaning out some of the ageing star stars of yesteryear (Ricardo Carvalho, Deco, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole) and brought in enough cover for the midfield in Yossi Benayoun and Ramires to mount another serious challenge at the Premier League title. Perhaps most important is the return to health of their African midfield crux of Michael Essien and Jon Obi Mikel. If they attacking acumen of Didier Drogba (who has that swagger back) and Florent Malouda persists and they can somehow get 70 combined league games out of Mikel and Essien, another Prem title may be the least of the Blues’ accomplishments.

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The Reds fighting Blues

It’s going to take a sizeable amount of convincing from the other 18 teams in the EPL that the title race shouldn’t come down to Manchester United and Chelsea as it did a season ago. The Red Devils have the most exquisite blend of seasoned veterans and young talent in the world. They come with more ifs than Chelsea: if Ryan Giggs, the footballing personification of the sublime as his goal against the Magpies attests, and Paul Scholes continue to visit the fountain of youth they have so regularly been patrons of; if the young players like Javier Hernandez and Fernando Macheda make good on their gargantuan upside; if Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov can shake their respective funks. Rooney can’t be expected to have the same kind of season as last year, but with the full pantry of young talent and a possible resurgence of Berbatov, another championship could be theirs.

Horror show between the sticks

It wasn’t a weekend for the faint of goaltending heart. Robert Green convinced a nation that he belongs on the England bench with a poor showing against Aston Villa. Chris Kirkland laid the foundation for a season behind a porous Wigan defense that may prevent him from ever getting a ticket to sit in the stands at an England game again. Tim Howard was left with egg on his face after gifting Blackburn the deciding goal. And I’m still not quite sure what Pepe Reina was doing on his 90th minute own goal which cost his team two points. On the bright side, Joe Hart validated Roberto Macini’s faith in him by single-handedly thwarting Vincent Kompany’s best efforts to give Tottenham the full points. (That bright side is for anyone looking to enlist the services of Shay Given, who may be deemed expendable or able to escape his contract with Man City).

Money can’t buy me wins

So far, the three teams that have enjoyed large infusions of cash in the offseason, Birmingham, Manchester City, and West Ham—have a combined two points. Birmingham’s were fortunate to salvage a point with a heady comeback at the Stadium of Light. West Ham looked listless, particularly at the back. And Man City, though they played with more gusto in the second half, were still decidedly the second-best side at White Hart Lane. As legions of Real Madrid fans can attests, a gaggle of new signees does not a contender make.

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Nightmare start for Stoke

An opening day loss away from home is something you can live with. Losing your top striker and club record acquisition is a tad harder to stomach. That’s why Potters’ fans are sitting on pins and needles today awaiting for results of a scan on Kenwyne Jones’ ankle after the Trinidadian striker went down awkwardly under the brunt of a Jody Craddock tackle. Jones, a rangy playmaker who can perform with the ball in his feet or his back to goal, is the linchpin in a temperamental striking contingent that includes the oft-misfiring likes of Tuncay, Dave Kitson, Ricardo Fuller, and Mamady Sidibe. Any extended absence can put Stoke City out of the race for a European spot before it’s even started.

In the eye of a transfer storm

Big plaudits go out to James Milner, who delivered a typically energetic performance as the straw that stirs the Aston Villa drink in what may be his last appearance in the claret and blue. Milner’s goal capped the scoring in a comprehensive dismantling of West Ham amid the ongoing transfer saga that reportedly dismayed former manager Martin O’Neill to the point of resigning his post. The drama swirling around Man City’s pursuit of the England midfielder could have pushed a lesser player off his game, but his performance was merely further justification of the price tag the Villans have attached to him.

Déjà boo-boo all over again

Last year’s ill-fated Liverpool campaign may have been encapsulated by a single bounce of the ball, off a stray beach ball, against Sunderland in October. May this year’s season be epitomized by the blunder by Reina that cost the Reds an early foothold in the race to re-enter the ranks of the Top 4? In my best middle school grasp of the literary concept of foreshadowing, I’m circling that play.

An early season European contender

Birmingham surprised many by contending for a European position deep into the new year in 2009-10. My surprise pick for this season: Sunderland. They may be just five years removed from what was then the worst season in Premier League history. But they have an intriguing blend of young talents and veteran players that should pilot them to the top half. Craig Gordon is a solid goalkeeper and the defense, led by the dependable John Mensah, is reliable if not spectacular. The striking triumvirate of Darren Bent (all he does is score goals), Danny Welbeck, and Frazier Campbell will score goals, the only question is whether the defense can provide the commensurate stinginess to move them up the table. A finish in the top half is not out of the question for the Black Cats.

The early battle to survive

There’s an old adage that titles can’t be won in September, but they can be lost. The same applies for relegation: teams might not be relegated at the end of the season’s first month, but they can all but ensure themselves of safety. As much as it pains me to admit, it seems serial escape artists Wigan will need another death-defying act to ensure an improbable sixth consecutive season in the top flight. Wolves and West Brom may be relegation fodder as well, while Newcastle’s not exactly flying out of the gates either (though an opener at Old Trafford and a squad of Premier League veterans may beg to differ). If Hull and Burnley are any indication, a high-flying start doesn’t necessarily correlate with Premier League survival.

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