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.

[ MORE: Latest news from Premier League ]

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.

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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

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova