Premier League Playback: Reassessing the title contenders, debutants after Week 1

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EARLY IMPRESSIONS: ASSESSING THE TITLE CONTENDERS

Okay, so we’ve seen 90 minutes of action from each of the Premier League’s 20 teams during the opening weekend of the 2015-16 season and, as is always the case in August each year, plenty of people are jumping to hefty assumptions about each club.

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Let’s pump the breaks a little and take a closer look at the five title contenders to see how they fared on the opening weekend and if there’s any correlation between these early displays and their title chances. Remember, it’s a long old season.

Chelsea: A 2-2 draw at home against Swansea City isn’t the perfect way to start a title defense. Throw in a shaky defensive display and your star goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois getting a red card and giving away a penalty kick and Jose Mourinho has certainly had better days at the office. Chelsea led 2-1 at the break against the Swans but Branislav Ivanovic had a nightmare against Jefferson Montero and Blues players lost individual battles across the pitch. Playing with 10-men for over 30 minutes wasn’t ideal, and this start to defending the crown they won in 2014-15 wasn’t ideal either. Mourinho wasn’t happy with his medical staff towards the end of the game as they left his side with nine-men, but the Blues show plenty of grit to grab a draw against an impressive Swansea side. It’s too early to drawn conclusions, but it certainly seems like the Blues will have a tougher time of winning the title this time around and most of that will be down to themselves and the fact that their rivals have spent big this summer.

Manchester City: Manuel Pellegrini’s men saw their odds to win the PL title slashed following their impressive demolition of West Bromwich Albion away from home on Monday. The Citizens strolled and led 2-0 after 25 minutes with Yaya Toure scoring a beauty and Vincent Kompany powering home a header to round off a 3-0 win. If Toure and Kompany regain their best form and stay fit this season — the regression of those two last season was key to City’s slump in the second half of the campaign — then they will push Chelsea all the way for the title. With Raheem Sterling, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Wilfried Bony and possibly Kevin De Bruyne in attack, Pellegrini has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. The Chilean boss signed a contract extension on the eve of the season which will add stability, as City aim for success domestically and in Europe. The PL champions in two of the last four seasons looked the best of the bunch on the opening weekend and hungry to not finish in second once again.

Premier League Schedule – Week 1

Result Recap & Highlights
Arsenal 0-2 West Ham Recap and watch here
Bournemouth 0-1 Villa Recap and watch here
Chelsea 2-2 Swansea Recap and watch here
Everton 2-2 Watford Recap and watch here
Leicester 4-2 S’land Recap and watch here
Man United 1-0 Spurs Recap and watch here
Newcastle 2-2 Saints Recap and watch here
Norwich 1-3 Palace Recap and watch here
Stoke 0-1 Liverpool Recap and watch here
WBA 0-3 Man City Recap and watch here

Arsenal: As you can see in the video above from our analysts, just when everyone thought they were on the up, Arsenal’s problems persist as they fired a blank on the opening day and suffered a shock defeat to West Ham United. Over the offseason the Gunners won every single game, even beating Chelsea at Wembley in the Community Shield, and Arsene Wenger’s men looked to have solved their defensive issues with the signing of Petr Cech in goal. Think again. Cech, 33, has been their only signing of the summer and in his home debut against the Hammers he was at fault for both the goals Arsenal conceded. That’s not the way Wenger was expecting to start the season and if Arsenal are going to be genuine title contenders then bolstering their forward line is key.

[ MORE: Latest transfer news

Karim Benzema has been linked with a move to the Emirates and if Wenger is serious about winning the league for the first time since 2004, he must spend big on a striker in the final days of the window. There was lots of optimism around the Gunners this offseason, but most of that has already dissipated after a poor opening day result.

Manchester United: The Red Devils put in a workmanlike display against Tottenham Hotspur in their 1-0 opening day win, but it certainly wasn’t pretty from Louis van Gaal’s side. The new boys all settled in well, with Matteo Darmian looking particularly solid at right back, but you feel like they still need to strengthen at center back if they’re going to challenge for the title this season. And then there’s the issue with David de Gea to sort out. The Spanish international goalkeeper was sat to my left at Old Trafford in the stands on Saturday, as van Gaal said he wasn’t focused enough to play.

Asked afterwards if De Gea will ever play for United again, here is LVG’s response.

“Of course,” van Gaal explained. “Especially with the position of the goalkeeper, it is a position where you need the highest concentration, the highest focus during 90 minutes. When you are in circumstances where David de Gea is, it is difficult to cope with that. We have seen that, we have observed him in the matches against Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, and that was not the David de Gea — he felt the same — as last year. Of course when the situation has been cleared after the first of September, we look again. But I am very happy Sergio [Romero] did well.”

De Gea, 24, still hasn’t committed his future to United and rumors regarding a switch to Real Madrid remain as he has just one-year left on his current deal. New signing Sergio Romero stepped in and made some big saves late on after a shaky start, but de Gea was United’s star man last season. If he leaves and they can’t sign a new center back, United will be unlikely to make the top two.

Liverpool: As other teams stumbled to start the season, Brendan Rodgers’ boys exorcised a few demons and sealed a solid 1-0 win away at Stoke City. Philippe Coutinho’s stunning winner five minutes from time (see in the video below) was worthy of winning any game, but Liverpool’s display was still a little disjointed, but that’s to be expected. Going to the stadium where they closed out their 2014-15 season with the heaviest defeat of their PL history, 6-1, Liverpool rolled up at the Britannia on the opening day and looked more business than brilliant. With James Milner and Jordan Henderson in midfield, they have a solid base to build off and new full backs Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez impressed in an improved defensive display. Going forward, Liverpool lacked spark, but that will come as Christian Benteke and Roberto Firmino settle in and Daniel Sturridge returns. Liverpool may not be many people’s title favorites, but maybe their additions this summer after the departures of Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard will give them a better chance of finishing in the top four than many previously thought.

DEBUT WATCH: HIT, MISS, MAYBE

There were plenty of players either making their bow in the Premier League, or just starting with new clubs after transferring over the summer.

[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every PL game via Live Extra

After their opening day displays, let’s take a look at some of the players who looked the part, others who certainly did not and some we haven’t quite made our mind up about yet.

Hit

Reece Oxford (West Ham United) – Just 16 years old, Oxford is the second youngest player to start a game in PL history. He played 80 minutes and shackled Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey in the Hammers’ stunning 2-0 win. A huge prospect.

Dmitri Payet (West Ham United) – Another key part of West Ham’s big win, the man who signed from Marsielle this summer has bags of creativity and was the man threat going forward. Looks like a key addition for Slaven Bilic.

source: Getty Images
Reece Oxford, West Ham United

Andre Ayew (Swansea City) – Scoring on his debut for the Swans at Chelsea, the Ghanaian forward linked up well with Swansea other attackers (Montero, Sigurdsson and Gomis) and took his goal really well. Promising.

Georginio Wijnaldum (Newcastle United) – Could have had a debut hat trick on another day, but his towering header at the Gallowgate End put Newcastle 2-1 up in the second half. The Dutch midfielder made several lung-bursting runs. He’s already a fans favorite at St James’.

Matteo Darmian (Manchester United) – Louis van Gaal singled the Italian right back out in his post-match press conference as the best of United’s debutants. It’s hard to argue with that. Darmian was solid and steady in United’s 1-0 win at home vs. Spurs. His presence will help to steady the backline.

James Milner (Liverpool) – An experienced head in the center of midfield, exactly the type of player Liverpool needed to win away at Stoke on the opening day. Milner returning to his preferred role in the center will bring the best out of him.

Ibrahim Afellay (Stoke City) – Plenty of sparks to excite Stoke’s fans, as the former Barcelona winger dazzled out on the left wing. When Bojan comes back, those two will be a joy to watch.

Yohan Cabaye (Crystal Palace) – A debut goal wrapped up Palace’s 3-1 win at Norwich and it’s like Cabaye never left the PL. So graceful on the ball, he’s a calming influence in midfield.

Jose Holebas (Watford) – Solid and dependable at the back for Watford and had a hand in their first goal, the Greek international who signed from AS Roma this summer has real quality.

Sebastian Prodl (Watford) – Another new defensive signing shone for the Hornets, as Prodl was composed and Quique Flores’ men were unlucky to not beat Everton away on the opening dday.

Miss

Jordan Ayew (Aston Villa) – Hardly had a touch on his PL debut and was replaced by Rudy Gestede who subsequently scored the winner.

Aleksandar Mitrovic (Newcastle United) – Must have broken the record for the fastest-ever booking in PL history. Mitrovic came on in the second half and could have got a red card for lunging into Matt Targett. Lucky boy. Not a great first impression.

Petr Cech (Arsenal) – Well, that didn’t go to plan. Cech came flying out in full Superman mode but missed the ball on West Ham’s first goal, then for their second he went down in installments as Zarate’s shot bobbled past him. Poor debut from the man who was meant to be Arsenal’s savior.

Younes Kaboul (Sunderland) – The French center back had a day to forget on his Sunderland debut. Kaboul and the Black Cats were all over the place at the back and trailed 3-0 at half time. Oh dear.

Tom Cleverley (Everton) – Roberto Martinez managed Cleverly at Wigan Atheltic in the past so knows what he is all about, but the former Manchester United midfielder did little to suggest his patchy form for Aston Villa last season has dissipated.

Maybe

source:
Depay, left, had a decent debut.

Memphis Depay (Manchester United) – Some flashes of brilliance, especially early on, but Memphis (as he wants to be known) didn’t look happy when he was hauled off early in the second half. Jury is out.

Joe Gomez (Liverpool) – The 19-year-old is a right back by trade but Liverpool deployed him at left back against Stoke and he did well. Can he make the spot his own ahead of Moreno?

Sergio Romero (Manchester United) – Two really good saves late on from Christian Eriksen proved that there may well be life after David de gea at Manchester United. Distribution was sloppy though.

Angelo Ogbonna (West Ham United) – A powerful display from the West Ham center back who was key in their clean sheet at the Emirates Stadium. Looks the real deal alongside Winston Reid.

Rudy Gestede (Aston Villa) – Only took 13 minutes for him to score on his Villa debut and what a superb header it was. Tim Sherwood raves about his aerial ability and after excelling with his beautiful bonce in the Championship, Gestede made a dream start. Now, can he become more than an impact player?

NEW BOYS ON THE BLOCK

New boys Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich City struggled on the opening weekend as both Norwich and the Cherries lost at home. Watford came within a few minutes of beating Everton away from home and were good value for their point, as the Hornets’ host of new signings and new manager Quique Flores may have the best chance of staying up this season. Very promising start from the Hertfordshire club who were relegated at the first time of asking in their two previous seasons in the PL.

For Bournemouth, their first-ever PL game ended in a frustrating defeat down at the Vitality Stadium. Basking in the sunshine on the South Coast of England, Eddie Howe’s boys started off brightly and should have led but Marc Pugh, Dan Gosling and Callum Wilson were all guilty of missing gilt-edged chances in the first half. Then, they were welcomed to the PL and its brutality in the second half as Aston Villa stepped up through the gears and Gestede’s header gave them all three points despite the Cherries bossing most of the game and creating plenty of chances. Welcome to the Premier League.

As for Norwich, they could also feel slightly aggrieved. They started brightly too, with Alex Neil’s side flying out of the traps at home to Crystal Palace. But then Lewis Grabban missed a glorious chance six-yards out in the first half and either side of half time sloppy defending cost them dear with Wilfired Zaha and Damien Delaney punishing the Canaries. Again, welcome back to the Premier League. To their credit, Norwich rallied late on at Carrow Road with Nathan Redmond pulling one back and Cameron Jerome inexplicably having what looked to be a perfectly good equalizer ruled out for a high foot, but Neil’s side were naive defensively and that will cost you dear when you’re back in the big time.

GOALS GALORE ON OPENING WEEKEND

30 goals were scored this weekend in the Premier League, as any early season apprehension went out the window. From a thriller at St James’ Park between Newcastle and Southampton, to slack defending at Stamford Bridge and the King Power Stadium, we had plenty of good finishes and terrible defending which always combines for a good time for neutrals.

If this weekend is a precursor of what is to come, we are in for a goal-fest in the PL this season. Check out the video above which has every single goal scored on Saturday. While the video below has all the goals from Sunday.

USMNT CORNER: GUZAN, HOWARD, CAMERON ALL START

Three out of the four U.S. men’s national team players with PL clubs started at the weekend, but Brad Guzan was the only victor. The Aston Villa goalkeeper made a superb reaction save just before half time at Bournemouth as he blocked Marc Pugh’s thunderous effort to seal a clean sheet. Elsewhere, Tim Howard and Everton struggled against Watford with the Toffees twice falling behind but they managed to grab a point late on.

[ MORE: All of our latest USMNT news ]

As for the other USMNT players in the PL, DeAndre Yedlin was not in Tottenham Hotspur’s 18-man squad for their 1-0 defeat at Manchester United, while Geoff Cameron started and played the full 90 minutes at center back for Stoke City in their narrow 1-0 defeat to Liverpool. If Cameron gets some serious minutes at center back in the first few months of the season in the heart of Stoke’s defense, which he is very likely to do after a solid start, Jurgen Klinsmann will almost certainly play him at CB for the Confederations Cup playoff game against Mexico in October… right?

Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Portland beats Orlando to win MLS is Back championship

MLS is Back
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) Soaked in sweat and doused in water, the Portland Timbers hoisted the MLS is Back trophy at midfield and then headed toward a giant TV screen filled with fans cheering from afar.

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It was a huge Zoom party. It might just be the way to celebrate championships in 2020.

Dario Zuparic’s first goal of the season gave Portland a 2-1 victory against Orlando in Major League Soccer’s return tournament finale Tuesday night, capping a month-long event that showed sports can be played safely inside a bubble.

“I always think the more difficult the fight is the more beautiful the victory is at the end,” said Portland’s Larrys Mabiala, who scored the game’s first goal.

Orlando was slow to react to Diego Valeri’s corner kick in the 66th minute, allowing Eryk Williamson to collect the ball, change direction and take a shot that Jeremy Ebobisse deflected to Zuparic’s feet. Zuparic didn’t have to do much to get it by Pedro “The Octopus” Gallese, who had made two fantastic saves in the lead-up to the corner kick.

The goal started the celebration on Portland’s sideline and sent Orlando into panic mode. The Lions had a chance in the closing minutes, but failed to get the equalizer.

“It’s a group of players in a lot of pain right now,” Orlando coach Oscar Pareja said. “Things didn’t bounce our way. We made a couple of mistakes.”

The Timbers, who spent 39 days in the MLS bubble and remained on West Coast time, hugged and danced after the final whistle. They raised the silver trophy while hooting and hollering. But the lasting image will be players and coaches waving at a camera and reaching hundreds back home.

It ended a wild month for the MLS, which managed to play 51 matches in 45 days at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World.

No family. No friends. No fans.

But it was by most accounts a rousing success, especially considering how it started. FC Dallas and Nashville were forced to withdraw days before the start because of positive coronavirus tests.

Players, coaches and support personnel were tested regularly inside the MLS bubble. The league reported just two positives out of nearly 35,000 tests following the initial setbacks that threatened to derail a tournament that came with a $1.1 million purse.

“We just told ourselves we need to make it worth it,” Mabiala said, adding that his son has been calling, crying and clamoring for him to come home in recent days.

Portland will get $328,000 in prize money to split. The Timbers also earned a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, their first since 2016.

Orlando settled for $150,000 to share.

Orlando’s appearance in the finale was a surprise considering the team finished 11th out of 12 in the East last season and fired coach James O’Connor. Pareja took over in 2020 and made an immediate impact.

Pareja convinced his players, including star Nani, to settle into the bubble several days early. They won the tournament opener, a group-stage victory against Miami, and ended up spending nearly seven weeks quarantined in the bubble.

Portland’s experience – the Timbers won the MLS title in 2015 and were runners-up two years ago – showed in the finale.

Portland’s first shot on goal found the back of the net. Valeri delivered a perfectly placed free kick into the box that Mabiala headed past Gallese in the 27th minute. It was Valeri’s 93rd assist with the Timbers.

But considering Portland has managed just three clean sheets in its last 23 matches, it was no surprise to see a defensive breakdown just a few minutes later.

Nani worked the ball down the left side following a turnover and created enough room to get a crosser into the box. Mauricio Pereyra got a foot on the ball and then took advantage of a fallen defender to tie the match.

The equalizer came shortly after Portland’s Sebastian Blanco exchanged words with Pareja during a hydration break. Referees stepped between them, and they later apologized and hugged it out.

The league resumes its regular season Wednesday night with Dallas playing at Nashville. The league’s 26 teams will play 18 games apiece. A majority of the games will be played without fans because of local regulations. Teams will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and will use charter flights or buses to limit outside contact.

“We have to see if it works,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “If it does, we go through with it. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to adjust.”

Nuno ‘proud of the boys’ after Wolves’ magical UEL run ends

Nuno Wolves
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Nuno proud, but frustrated: Wolves’ 2019-20 campaign kicked off 383 days ago, on July 25, and finally ended on Tuesday in a late, heartbreaking defeat to Sevilla in the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

From those early-round UEL qualifiers, to another fine season in the Premier League (finishing 7th), to reaching the quarterfinals, it’s been an incredible, dramatic, exhausting road for Nuno Espirito Santo and his players.

Speaking after the game, Espirito Santo revealed he was experiencing equal part pride and frustration at the way their season had just ended. Pride for meeting the challenges they faced along the way, and frustration for the missed opportunity — quotes from the BBC:

“We have frustration, in the last minutes it is something that has happened to us many times. We required focus on a set piece. I am proud of the boys, we played a tough team and we had moments, small details, small margins.

“That happens in football. We came this far and now it’s over. Let’s rest and look to the future. We need more players to help us, it’s a small squad.

“Sevilla made us run, we made a big effort to control it but of course there were players who gave everything and the legs and brain doesn’t work so good. We must be proud of ourselves, admit we made mistakes during the season that we need to rectify to compete at a high level. We must work harder and become stronger.

“We are here because we did things good the previous season. European football is something that we chase because we want to improve and compete agianst the best. The Premier League is challenging enough, it’s like playing the Champions League every week.”

The Wolves players will now have the next week or two off before reporting for the first day of 2020-21 preseason later this month. The 2020-21 Premier League season is currently scheduled for Sept. 12.

Europa League: Wolves knocked out by late Sevilla winner

Europa League Wolves
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Europa League: Wolves’ magical run through the Europa League came to an end on Tuesday, as Nuno Espirito Santo’s side was knocked out in the quarterfinals by UEL specialists Sevilla.

[ MORE: Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David ]

Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-1 Sevilla

Sevilla were quite comfortably the better side on the night, the side with the vast majority of the scoring chances, and thoroughly deserving semifinalists. Julen Lopetegui’s side will face Manchester United in the semis on Sunday.

It didn’t come easily for Sevilla, though. The game remained level at 0-0 for 87 minutes, until Lucas Ocampos rose above the crowd to head home his 16th goal of the season in the 88th minute.

Wolves had the game’s first — and virtually their only — chance to go ahead inside the first quarter-hour, but Raul Jimenez was denied from the penalty spot in the 12th minute. The real story here, however, is the ease with which Adama Traore left the pack behind and dribbled the ball 81 yards before Diego Carlos cut him down from behind.

Jimenez’s blunder from the spot was one of just two shots on target — both by Jimenez — that Wolves could muster in the game.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

Sevilla began to ramp up the pressure after halftime and went dangerously close to breaking the deadlock just after the hour mark, as Youssef En-Nesyri weaved his way through traffic inside the penalty area before firing a low strike on goal. Fortunately for Wolves, Rui Patricio was all over and denied En-Nesyri his wondergoal.

Ever Banega forced Patricio to make a vital save of his curling free kick in the 77th minute, but again the Portuguese was up to the challenge. He scrambled across goal and rose high to get a hand on the ball and push it over the crossbar.

Shakhtar Donetsk thrashed Basel 4-1 in Tuesday’s other quarterfinal. They will face Inter Milan in the second semifinal next Monday.

Other Europa League scores

Shakhtar Donetsk 4-1 Basel
Man United 1-0 Copenhagen (Monday)
Inter Milan 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen (Monday)

Lille sign $35-million Canadian star Jonathan David

Lille sign Jonathan David
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Lille sign Jonathan David: Lille announced on Tuesday their signing of Canadian star Jonathan David from Belgian side Gent for a reported transfer fee of $35 million.

[ MORE: Transfer news: Havertz to Chelsea; Ramsey available ]

The fee paid is a record not only for a Canadian player, but also makes David Lille’s club-record signing and the most expensive player ever sold by a Belgian club.

David had been linked with a move to dozens of clubs across Europe, including a handful of Premier League sides, in recent weeks but it would appear that Lille’s recent success with young players starring in the first team, before selling them to those bigger European sides for massive profits, was an important factor in David’s decision to move to Ligue 1.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Hojbjerg from Southampton; Walker-Peters to Saints ]

The 20-year-old operates predominantly as a center forward but has, on rare occasions, played as a second striker underneath the main man. David racked up 48 goals and 20 assists in his two seasons at Gent, including a number of standout performances in the Europa League.