Quick Six: Top Premier League storylines from weekend no. 1

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source: Reuters

1. ARSENAL’S CONJURING MEMORIES OF 2011

After Arsenal lost 8-2 at Manchester United on Aug. 28, 2011, Arsène Wegner’s hand was forced. To that point, the Gunners’ boss had been cautions about throwing his recently received Cesc Fábregas/Samir Nasri money at new players, but with his team on one point through three rounds (having been held scoreless in their first two matches), Wenger had to do something. The subsequent ‘panic buys’ of Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker have worked out well for the club.

Perhaps that’s the silver lining Arsenal fans can take out of Saturday’s match, a bitter opener that saw the Gunners lose 3-1 at The Emirates to Aston Villa. Though there’s a small number of Premier League clubs to whom Arsenal can justify losing at home, Villa is not one of them, let alone in the manner they did. Villa scored the match’s last three goals, led for the final half hour, and put more shots on net over the 90 minutes.

If they’re so inclined, Arsenal can hide behind excuses. Laurent Koscielny was sent off, leaving the team short-handed for 23 minutes, while two of Villa’s goals can be attributed to penalty kicks. Those circumstances are unlikely to be replicated next week at Fulham. Still, Wenger would be better served to summon the urgency of Aug. 2011 and throw some money at the problem.

source: Reuters2. MANCHESTER UNITED SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OVERLOOKED

Barring a Monday night explosion from Manchester City (and with the Sky Blues hosting Newcastle, that could happen), the red side of Manchester will hold the top spot after the Premier League’s opening round. Perhaps that’s only appropriate, given the defending champions had been deprived of the spotlight in the build-up to the season. Though the Red Devils bring back a near-identical squad to the one that ran away with last year’s Premier League, none of your PST writers have them finishing in the top two.

New manager David Moyes has said his club intends on buying, hinting the squad still has weaknesses. Most people point to the midfield as its main point of need, though United’s had the same problems in midfield since Roy Keane left. They’ve still managed to claim silverware since – both at home and abroad.

Saturday was a bucket of cold water for those of us who had dwelt on that weakness. Swansea City — a team that opened last season with two lopsided wins; who drew United on their last visit to the Liberty Stadium — were torn apart by braces from Robin van Persie and Danny Welbeck. Although Swansea’s poor play contributed to that results, United’s firepower means they’ll be capable of this kind of result.

source: Reuters3. MOURINHO’S RETURN MORE ‘DECENT’ THAN ‘SPECIAL’

If we learned anything about Chelsea from match one, it’s that they had an easy start. Hull City, roundly picked to resume a place in the Championship, failed to provide a challenge. The Blues dominated for a half hour, built a 2-0 league, then clicked it into cruise. We’ll have to wait for stiffer competition before passing judgment on the Blues.

There were hints, however, of what we could expect from Mourinho’s second term, including in the way Chelsea cruised. Perhaps the team didn’t pile on goals as Mourinho’s Real Madrid might have, but team’s return to a belligerent pragmatism that won two Premier League crowns will be welcome by some. Frank Lampard, despite having a penalty kick saved, lent credence to the notion his effectiveness will be prolonged by his reunion with Mourinho, while the Blues’ three substitutes (André Schurrle, Romelu Lukaku, Marco van Ginkel) confirmed new blood will play a key part.

Hull’s limited performance never gave Chelsea a chance to truly convince, but there were still things to learn from the Special One’s return.

source: Reuters4. PROMOTED SIDES SHOW LITTLE LIFE IN TOP FLIGHT RETURNS

Hull weren’t the only promoted side to disappoint. Crystal Palace, picked 20th by so many coming into the season, were able to keep the score close, their 1-0 loss to visiting Spurs disguising the fact Tottenham controlled the game. Cardiff City, winners of last year’s Championship, fell 2-0 at West Ham United.

Underdogs in each match, it’s no surprise all three Premier League newbies lost, yet their inability is still concerning. Out-shot by a combined 59-24 (13-6, shots on goal), the trio of neophytes seem to lack a Norwich City or Southampton – two promoted sides who managed to stay up last season. While recent signings from Cardiff and Hull may soon change their teams’ outlooks (and it is far too early to condemn any of the new clubs), matchday one was a grim reminder of how far the new teams have to go.

source: Getty Images5. PENALTY KICK GRACE PRESERVES RESULTS

Liverpool’s Saturday win over Stoke recalled the good and bad of last year: strong play; at times not reflected in the score; sometimes leaving matches to be stolen by lesser teams. Thanks to Simon Mignolet’s 89th minute save on Jon Walter’s penalty kick, Daniel Sturridge’s first half opener held up, giving the Reds the 1-0 win they probably deserved.

But penalty kick grace was also evident at The Hawthorns, where West Brom nearly held on for a 0-0 with Southampton before Ricky Lambert converted in the 90th minute, giving a Saints team that had been the ever-so-slightly better side an ever-so-slightly better result. And in South London, Roberto Soldado’s early second half conversion assured Spurs a result to mirror their control.

source: Getty Images6. SUNDERLAND AS IMPRESSIVE ON GRASS AS ON PAPER

Going into Saturday’s match, the on-paper Black Cats’ didn’t look too impressive, but given the club that survived last year’s Premier League, it was easy to look at the additions of Jozy Altidore, Emmanuel Giaccherini, Cabral, Valentin Roberge, and Ondrej Celustka and see an improved team, overlooking the possibility they may still be inferior to their competition.

Saturday reinforced the notion this team’s facing significant obstacles. Against another flawed side (Fulham), the Black Cats lost at the Stadium of Light , putting only three shots on goal. They did out-shoot Fulham 21-5 and held 57 percent of the ball, but given nine of those shots came after the 52nd minute (when the Pajtim Kasami’s goal gave Fulham incentive to change their approach), Sunderland should lament the result rather than dwell on the circumstances.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.