Young Pretender takes the stage
As part of a new weekly feature, Premier League Spotlight previews the top-flight weekend fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds. Under the microscope this week ahead of the opening round of games: Andres Villas-Boas, a meeting of two clubs in a pickle, and the new boys.
Andre Villas-Boas: The Young Pretender?
Chelsea's youthful manager would be wise to not, firstly, go sprinting down the touchline when/if his side scores against Stoke on Sunday, and then, secondly, make a triple substitution before half-time when/if his side are in a spot of bother. Doing so would fuel the already-tiresome comparisons with a certain ex-Chelsea manager, who also arrived from Porto having enjoyed European success at a relatively young age for a coach. He's his own man, and to describe him otherwise is, frankly, lazy. And, therefore, being his own man, it will be rather intriguing to see how the Blues perform versus 2011's FA Cup runners-up with Villas-Boas orchestrating matters from the touchline.
With few new faces actually added to Chelsea's ranks thus far, there is further interest in how Villas-Boas manipulates the current crop, whether there is an actual degree of difference to Carlo Ancelotti's reign. Indeed, this is only the Portuguese's first competitive match in charge, and making your mark takes time, but an insipid display would be best avoided regardless, if only to dodge the flagging up of his age of 33. A visit to the Britannia Stadium is something of a baptism of fire, yet Villas-Boas arrives in England boasting a quite inspiring away record at Porto. Indeed, the coach witnessed his former side lose just one away game in all competitions last season (against Villarreal in May).
To add weight to Chelsea's cause, the club have won their last nine opening day fixtures - the longest run of its kind since the Premier League formed. And, while Stoke usually provide a fierce battle, Chelsea have done well against them in recent times, winning five of their last six meetings with the Potters. Asked about Villas-Boas' impact at Stamford Bridge, captain John Terry said: "He has brought a lot of new fresh ideas to the training, to the way he wants us to play, which will hopefully get us to lift this at the end of the season. His whole demeanour and the emphasis he is putting on training, he has brought an awful lot to us in a very short space of time."
Pair in a pickle
Talk of 'crisis' with regards Newcastle or Arsenal is premature, and hyperbole at its best. However, neither team have exactly had the most seamless preparation ahead of the 2011-12 season. The Magpies, who host Arsenal on Saturday live on ESPN from 1645 BST, have seen Jose Enrique join the list of key players to have left the club in the past 12 months. The pressure is on manager Alan Pardew and the club's board, and the campaign has not even yet begun. The same can be said to Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, and their board too, following a summer of frustration for fans.
Initially, this section planned to be a dissection of the want-aways, alas Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri both look highly unlikely to play this weekend, while elsewhere Luka Modric will not be donning a Tottenham shirt, not because he has joined Chelsea, but because Spurs' match has been postponed due to the riots. Magpies midfielder Joey Barton can perhaps be blurred into the want-aways category, although it is the club that want him away. In spite of this unrest, Barton is expected to feature versus Arsenal, a team he has, oddly, been linked with. And one wonders whether Newcastle will go full circle with regards their stance should the Twitter addict again perform to the level that helped Newcastle mount their stunning comeback versus Arsenal to draw 4-4.
For the Gunners, the proverbial knives are out, as Fabregas and Nasri head to the exit doors. Looking at last season's form, Arsenal head into this match having won just one of their last 11 matches in all competitions away from home. Anything but a solid display will turn the heat up on Wenger, in particular if his defence continues to crumble. There is a shining light for Arsenal, though, in Robin van Persie, who has scored in his last nine Premier League outings on the road - a division record.
The new boys
There will be much interest taken in how the promoted sides fair in their first outings. Yet, it is worth noting that to draw too strong a conclusion from their performances/results would be hasty. For example, West Bromwich Albion were hammered 6-0 by Chelsea on the opening day last campaign, but ultimately stayed up. Newcastle were also defeated, 3-0 at Old Trafford, but avoided the drop come May, while Blackpool were emphatic 4-0 winners versus Wigan, yet did eventually suffer demotion.
This season's new boys are Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Swansea City. The former begin at Loftus Road - infamous for its high ticket prices this term - against Bolton Wanderers, presenting, in theory, a winnable game for Neil Warnock's men. Bolton ended the 2010-11 season in wretched form, losing their last five games. And with Stuart Holden joined on the sidelines by Lee Chung-Yong and Tyrone Mears, the Trotters could be there for the taking. Throw into the mix that Bolton, now without on-loan striker Daniel Sturridge, managed just 18 goals on the road in the previous term, coupled with QPR's excellent defensive record (25 clean sheets in the Championship in 2010-11), and the Hoops may fancy their chances of a bright start.
Norwich make the trip to the DW Stadium to lock horns with Wigan Athletic. The Latics remain in England's top tier after escaping the drop by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season. Similar to Bolton, Wigan have been weakened, not through injury but through the sale of a key player: Charles N'Zogbia. And they have begun to make a habit of starting slowly, losing both of their previous home games on the opening day without finding the net. Wigan also leaked 34 goals on their home soil in 2010-11, a statistic Canaries boss Paul Lambert will likely take note of - his side having finished as the Championship's top goalscorers with 83 strikes to their name. That said, Norwich have quite the monkey on their back, the club without a win in their last 30 Premier League away games, a run stretching back to December 1994.
Lastly, Swansea, who gained promotion through the play-offs, are in action on Monday when they face the daunting task of a journey to Manchester City - easily the toughest of the promoted sides' opening matches. City, you would imagine, will be hungry to muffle any early doubters of their potential after they let a two-goal lead slip at Wembley to their Manchester rivals United. That drive coupled with the summer addition of Sergio Aguero spells concern for the Swans. However, they can take a modicum of optimism from a statistic which states City have drawn all five of their home games on the opening day of Premier League terms. Yet, countering that, Swansea have lost their last five games on the opening day - the longest run of any side in the four tiers of English football.
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