Everton face a crunch clash with Arsenal, don’t write off Shane Long yet and the return of Mario Balotelli … and Barry Davies
First impressions can be deceptive. Manchester City didn’t exactly sparkle in their Community Shield defeat to Arsenal, before cantering to an opening-day away win at Newcastle last week. David Moyes looked positively messianic after Manchester United’s 4-1 win at Swansea in last season’s first league match before … well you know what happened. Likewise his successor, Louis van Gaal, a victim of south Wales vengeance in last weekend’s opener, shouldn’t be judged too hastily.
It’s not all gloomy. With the return of Robin van Persie, the expected introduction of Marcos Rojo and another week getting used to a 3-5-2 in training, United should be stronger at Sunderland on Sunday. But Adnan Januzaj, who made his name scoring two on his full debut at The Stadium of Light last season, must surely start. Be it the fearlessness of youth, or simply his overwhelming talent, the Belgian stood out last season in a team devoid of creativity and confidence. With United again looking short of ideas last week and with Van Gaal stating that the defeat to Swansea had “smashed down” their pre-season confidence, the onus may again be on United’s new No11. Anything less than a victory in the north-east, and knives (and pens) will be sharpened on fan forums. But however desperate United fans are to return to glory, the reality is that this is still a side in transition. With Burnley and QPR to follow after Sunderland, it is smarter to assume Van Gaal can rebuild that confidence and come good. Give him time. MB
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Having passed up a wonderful opportunity to open his Southampton account at Liverpool last weekend, Shane Long will be anxious to break his seasonal duck in front of home fans against his former club West Brom on Saturday, although there’s no real reason for him to be. Averaging just one goal every four games throughout his career, the Irish striker has never been prolific and is renowned more as a tenacious grafter. His £12m price tag was the source of much incredulity when he moved south from Hull City, but in a world where top end Championship strikers now change hands for £10m, it doesn’t seem quite so remarkable.
Responding to suggestions that the purchase of the Irish international smacked of desperation in a press conference last Friday, the Saints manager Ronald Koeman conceded that “in general you pay too much money for players, especially in England, so it’s not unique to Long”. Koeman also said he saw Long as a contrasting player to fellow striker Graziano Pellè, who scored frequently for the Dutchman at Feyenoord. “Long is a different type of attacker and you need both qualities in the squad,” he said, suggesting he did not bring in the man from Gortnahoe in County Tipperary for his goal-scoring prowess. Long has been successful in his three previous spells of employment in England and assuming he maintains his prodigious work ethic, there’s no reason why he should fail now. BG
“I can categorically tell you Mario Balotelli will not be at Liverpool,” Brendan Rodgers said earlier this month. Oh Brendan, you trickster (it seems). The Italian divides opinion, but for entertainment value alone, the Premier League has been a poorer place since his departure from Manchester City 20 months ago. Come on, the man filled up his World Cup sticker album with pictures of himself! It seems only fitting that his first match as a Liverpool player, should he sign of course, would be back at the Etihad in Manchester, a place he once described as being “not up to my taste.” As a City player, Balotelli played the role of both hero and villain, but assuming he is signed in time for Monday night’s match, it will be intriguing to see what kind of reception the City fans give him. Whether it is in their rival’s match-day squad, or in the stands, it may well be a warm welcome. MB
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With Swansea having beaten woeful Manchester United at Old Trafford without looking entirely convincing, and Burnley having been comprehensively beaten by Chelsea without looking hopelessly out of their depth, one gets the feeling that it is the meeting between the two sides in Wales, rather than those of the opening weekend, that will give both clubs a better idea of the lie of the Premier League land for the season ahead. Both are clubs in transition, with Swansea City still adjusting to life under Garry Monk and the departure of their Spanish contingent, while white-hot relegation favourites Burnley are to be commended for keeping faith with the players who won them promotion as they set about trying to find their feet in the Premier League. With two ambitious young managers full of bright ideas going toe-toe, this is one of the more intriguing fixtures of the weekend. BG
It is fair to say that Harry Redknapp has copped his fair share of flack for his transfer dealings but having committed to 3-5-2 at QPR, you might argue that his last two signings, Mauricio Isla and Leroy Fer, represent a canny bit of business. Neither were cheap – Isla’s wages and Fer’s reported £7m fee burning more holes in Tony Fernandes’s Emmental-like pockets – but, crucially, both know the tactical system: Isla has excelled as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 for both Juventus and Chile, while box-to-box midfielder Fer has played in the formation under Louis van Gaal for Holland. The importance of a strong start to the season is obviously not lost on Redknapp and he needs players who are capable of performing from day one – Isla and Fer are exactly that.
The flip side to this is that there are existing players at the club who clearly do not fit the new system – Richard Dunne looked lost on the left of a back three against Hull last week. Will Redknapp persist with said players in the hope that old dogs might learn new tricks from Glenn Hoddle and co in training? While the window is still open, it’s not likely. How true Redknapp stays to the formation remains to be seen, but it’s not entirely implausible that come the 78-minute mark at Tottenham on Sunday with QPR, say, a goal down, that Redknapp might throw his whiteboard out the window and start yelling instructions to Isla and Fer to lump it in the direction of Bobby Zamora’s head. MB
While games this early in the season are not decisive, one would think that Everton’s Champions League aspirations would already take a serious dent should they lose to fellow top-four hopefuls Arsenal on Saturday. With their own European campaign not underway until 18 September, it is not the worst time for Everton to play Arsenal. Arsène Wenger’s side laboured to victory over Crystal Palace last weekend, travelled to Turkey and back this week, and have a crucial Champions League second-leg play-off to think about against Besiktas next Wednesday.
Roberto Martínez’s side are a team who need momentum: six of their eight league defeats last season came in two three-week spurts, while their seven-match winning streak between March and April, including the 3-0 drubbing of Arsenal at Goodison Park, put them within touching distance of fourth. Martínez was bold in talking up Everton’s ambitions over the summer – he will hope this team can steal a march on a European rival and lead from the front in the race to get into the top four, rather than playing catch-up. MB
There may well be some sort of catch, but with the increasingly ridiculous prices of admission for Premier League matches having made headlines recently, Hull City are to be commended for putting the remaining tickets for their match against Stoke City on general sale for £16. Quite what this says about the popularity of the local football team in Hull City is unclear, while cynics will argue it’s still far too high a price to pay to watch even the new-look Stoke. But in times when the Football Supporters’ Federation are justifiably concerned with working-class fans being priced out of the game, £16 seems an eminently sensible price to see a game of Premier League football. BG
Of Chelsea’s three big-money summer signings, only two started against Burnley. While Diego Costa and Cesc Fábregas were among the London club’s brightest performers on Monday night, another new recruit Filipe Luís watched on from the bench, in much the same way that Ashley Cole became accustomed last season. César Azpilicueta barely put a foot wrong at left back, winning 100% of both his tackles and aerial duels. Following Luís’s reported £20m move from Atlético Madrid, he has been touted as the long-term solution for Cole, but it is increasingly clear that José Mourinho doesn’t see him and Azpilicueta as a No1 and deputy, but rather two players to rotate depending on the opposition.
Chelsea fans will be eager to see their new man in action against Leicester on Saturday but Mourinho would be wise to stick with the Spaniard. Being right-footed at left-back, Azpilicueta would well be suited to nullifying Leicester’s chief threat down the right flank, Riyad Mahrez, who likes to cut in on his left foot. Luí’s time will come, but the scurrying efficiency and defensive understanding Azpilicueta already has with John Terry in central defence means the Brazilian is by no means first choice yet. MB
Is this a false dawn for Aston Villa? Going into the game against Stoke, they had lost their last six successive away matches, conceding 17 goals, and scoring just two. However, with a back four of Alan Hutton, Philippe Senderos, Ron Vlaar and Aly Cissokho, they defended stoutly and deserved their win. Vlaar aside, it is a team of outcasts that for one game at least, came good. However, one gets the feeling that Villa are just a Vlaar away – be it a transfer or an injury – from unravelling. They surrendered 65% possession to Stoke (!), and against Newcastle on Saturday, who showed promising attacking intent in their defeat to Manchester City, desperate defensive blocks will likely not be enough. The arrival of Carlos Sánchez, nicknamed The Rock, looks a promising addition at the base of midfield, but retaining the ball higher up the pitch – and giving the likes of Senderos a rest – is essential if Villa are to survive this season. MB
The reason Barry Davies retired from being a Match of the Day commentator 10 years ago was that he “wasn’t getting enough big matches.” It is perhaps surprising then, that in the 76-year-old’s one-off return to the commentary box this weekend, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the programme, he’s been given Crystal Palace v West Ham. Davies had, and one hopes still has, a wonderful turn of phrase – his finest moments occurring when he spontaneously combusted in the wake of a magical onfield moment. There are countless: “Lee … interesting … very interesting! Look at his face! Just look at his face!” described Francis Lee’s goal for Derby in 1974, while his outpouring of joy – such as Dennis Bergkamp’s 1998 World Cup goal – had a primal reaction that often mirrored that of the viewer or fan. Not a perfect commentator, his voice at times having too much partisan enthusiasm – shouting “Ohhh no!” when Gareth Southgate missed that penalty in Euro ‘96 or even asking “Where were the Germans? Frankly who cares?” when Team GB’s hockey team beat Germany to gold in the 1988 Olympics – but these imperfections only added to his legacy. This weekend at Selhurst Park, his voice will be a nostalgic throwback to simpler times. Bask in the glory of Davies’s tones on Match of the Day, probably for the last time. MB