Quote of the week

“To be a great champion you must believe you are the best. If you're not, pretend you are.” – Muhammad Ali

Sunday, August 19, 2012

English Premiership opening weekend

After months of waiting the English Premiership season finally kicked this weekend. Here are just some of the weekend’s talking points…

Frank Lampard was outstanding against Wigan today.

I was too impressed.

Ok, it’s only one match; but Lampard looks like he’s altering his game and adapting to this deep midfield role. It’s a criticism and a question mark that was placed over Lampard’s head.

Could he adapt his forward-raiding game – and more seriously – could Lampard still be useful at the highest level? On today’s evidence he can go on for a long while yet.

Frank Lampard ran the show against Wigan
It was a supremely cultured performance from Lampard. One touch passes, creating space, moving, offering himself, and laying the ball on for Mata and Hazard to create havoc. It really looked like a harmonious display. Chelsea’s midfield was on the same wavelength and it was Lampard who held it all together.

His partner Mikel was superb too.

Yes, I am still of the belief that Mikel has been the major reason for Roberto Di Matteo’s success as Chelsea boss. As soon as Di Matteo came in as manager he re-introduced Mikel into the team and Chelsea’s whole setup appears so much more assured. Mikel adds security and, mostly importantly, he keeps things simple.

John Terry was also unbelievable for Chelsea. He is an incredible player for Chelsea, an inspiration. He won everything in the air and, as usual, was precise in possession of the ball.

I still believe Chelsea’s best centreback partnership is Terry with Cahill because Cahill is a more orthodox defender than Luiz, but that is not to knock Luiz. Apart from the yellow card and a foul early on in the second half, where he tried to knick in ahead of the striker, Luiz was solid. Nonetheless, that over-exuberance is something he’s a bit too guilty of. He often tries to intercept the ball in front of the attacker and more often than not gets caught out, or penalised.

Chelsea’s forward players Mata, Hazard and Bertrand were excellent as well, although they could have been more clinical with their final pass.

Another thing I would like to see is more energy in terms of tracking back. This is what Barcelona and Madrid do – winning the ball back as quickly as possible. Hazard did this well in the early stages, but sort of relaxed as the game wore on. Perhaps he got tired. Nevertheless, too often in the second half Hazard and Mata let Wigan’s wide runners free reign, which is why wingbacks Figueroa and Boyce were able to cause more problems as the game wore on.

It was my first time to watch Oscar (he was absent in the Olympic final). He has shades of the Kakas about him; well, judging from that one bursting run where he skinned Ramis. It was very exciting to see. Though from there he conserved himself a bit… which wasn’t nice for the couch spectator – we expect to be entertained! But this is the first game of a very long season, so players are right to save themselves a bit.

Ashley Cole. Superb as usual at leftback; very assured, very committed. Petr Cech is certainly back to his best for Chelsea, and that ‘best’ makes him the best keeper in the league.

Any Chelsea fan will have been highly encouraged by their team’s performance.

And the guy people are always watching and scrutinising? Fernando Torres… He had a good game. He showed glimpses, and the difference is today’s glimpses, just like in the Community Shield, looked planned, whereas in the past at Chelsea it looked like he was hoping for the best. There was one classic Torres moment in the first half where he got turned, skinned his defenders and should have been awarded a penalty. He looks like he’s got that Torres pace back as well and that should excite any Chelsea fan.

Of course there is a lot of work to do for Chelsea if they are to challenge for the league. Despite the memorable Champions League win that has relieved pressure on the club and secured Di Matteo his job, there is now much more expectation on the manager to lift this side to greater heights and challenge the Manchester clubs in the league.

Integrating this new attacking talent into the team will be a challenge. Ramires wasn’t there today and Marin, Oscar and Sturridge will soon be itching for starting places. Even so, so far so good for the European champions.

Some credit goes to Wigan as well. They made a game of it, despite the very early setbacks. It might have been easier to give up. But they showed a bit of why they survived relegation last season. Their problem is at the back. They lack pace at the back. And the three central defenders doesn’t necessarily make them stronger because, as the first goal showed, one of their slow centrebacks is usually isolated covering the wide areas on the break. I always feel four at the back is the safest way.

But no second-guessing Roberto Martinez. He’s a super manager and I’m a huge fan.

Another of my favourites is Victor Moses, and he showed why he is so highly regarded. He’s certainly one of the very best attackers in the Premiership; he gets things done – to quote a friend of mine. Unfortunately his good work didn’t come to anything for his team.

And that’s the thing about Wigan. They play beautifully and technically are a match for anyone. But they need more consistent substance. They are a team that plays to the gallery or against the odds, for example, away from home. Perhaps the fact the DW is rarely full is a reason they don’t do as well as they could. Wigan always seem to do well when eyes are on them – the big game on TV.

Ben Arfa – Le Roi

Hatem Ben Arfa celebrates his winner against Tottenham
I am of the firm belief that Hatem Ben Arfa is one of the very best players in the world. Along with Giovani dos Santos, I believe he is right up there. Like they say in Spain: Ben Arfa and Giovani are cracks.

There is Lionel Messi. Then there’s a small group behind Messi – Iniesta, Cristiano, Robben – and then there is Ben Arfa and Giovani in the batch just behind. Whenever Ben Arfa gets the ball there is danger, something happens.

Alan Pardew has done a great job to accommodate him and his two Senegal bombers. This was a problem at the start. In my opinion, it would still be best with Ben Arfa behind one striker, and four midfielders behind him. But when you have Ba and Cisse, they both have to play! And Pardew has found a way to play all three, and still be effective.

That said, Newcastle are still not compact enough. And I worry about them in this sense. The opposition has a chance to control the middle of the park and oftentimes Tottenham did just that. Indeed, Spurs hit the woodwork twice and could have easily won the game. But Newcastle have passion and fighting spirit, especially at home with their marvellous fans.

They chase and harry, and in some way this makes up for their loose setup. However, without that real shape, it’s hard to see them breaking into the top four, which Newcastle should be aiming for with the talent and support they have.

Tottenham were a bit unlucky. And Jermaine Defoe must be the unluckiest player in the world. This guy is the best English striker, hands down. He has been for a while. He works hard. Has technique, the directness of a Messi or Cristiano – which is difficult – and is a superb finisher. Still, he never gets an extended run and doesn’t seem to be trusted by his managers. Adebayor or not, Defoe would be my number one.

And sometimes this is a problem mangers have. They overlook what they have. I think Villas-Boas might be a bit guilty of this. He has Giovani. Yes, he is out injured. But when he’s fit give him a chance. Give him the team. Gio, Bale, and Lennon behind Defoe – that is seriously scary. I doubt this is in AVB’s thinking though, judging by the signing of Sigurdsson.

Van der Vaart should play whenever possible as well. It should be between him and Giovani for the role in the hole.

At home Van der Vaart could even play the Modric role, something Spurs will miss on the evidence of the Newcastle defeat. Sandro and Livermore are good players, solid defensive midfielders, but they aren’t the best at pushing the team forward and building play. In this sense wouldn’t a player like Josh McEachran be perfect? He won’t get much opportunity at Chelsea; get him on loan with the option to buy. And you are done.

At the back there are few problems for Tottenham. It’s men back there, with one of the league’s most reliable keepers behind them. Spurs can challenge. But give Van der Vaart and Gio a chance to shine. These are premier players. In my opinion, Spurs’ two best footballers.

The Mighty Gunners of North London

One team you can never criticise when it comes to compactness is Arsenal. And in this sense I don’t think Arsene Wenger gets a lot of credit. The problem is these guys don’t like defending! So they allow soft goals.

Another problem Arsenal have is they just don’t have any urgency whatsoever. Arsenal always seem to believe they can score in the second half, or whenever they want! That’s why they always look more dangerous in the second half of games or after going behind.

Lukas Podolski has to step up for Arsenal
0-0 at home against Sunderland was a disappointing result, considering how much Arsenal had of the ball and the great chance for Giroud. First game or not, Arsenal were a bit too laid-back in the first half.

But the positive is the clean sheet and the point. Let’s not discredit that. The back four did ok, though when Koscielny comes back I would probably try him at rightback with Sagna out for the foreseeable future. Mertesacker is needed at the back there. He is a calm head and a natural defender. Jenkinson is a good prospect, very hungry and willing to die for the jersey, but he’s a bit raw. Gibbs also did extremely well so that’s another major positive. A potential back four of Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs is all of sudden starting to look very good to me.

In midfield there is no problem. Diaby, Arteta and Carzola looked really great.

The only problem was the urgency in the final third. Podolski was too deep at times. And although Giroud missed that chance at least he was there in the box. Podolski wasn’t enough of a striker in my opinion during his hour on the pitch.

Yes, Arsenal has lost players, but they still have quality. They should be winning, they should challenging for the league, and they be looking to kill teams.

Not sure what the situation with Nicklas Bendtner is, but he’s a good player and should be an option, if not a starter. He’s a bit lax at times, but he scores.

Opening weekend results
Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland; QPR 0-5 Swansea; Fulham 5-0 Norwich; West Ham 1-0 Aston Villa; West Brom 3-0 Liverpool; Reading 1-1 Stoke; Wigan 0-2 Chelsea; Manchester City 3-2 Southampton

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