Friday, August 30, 2013
True test of Liverpool's promise
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.
Liverpool's litmus test
Choosing not to tap in the open goal of already dubbing this 'Liverpool's year', there is tentative cause for optimism just two games into the new season for Brendan Rodgers and his band of Mersey followers. Certainly, back-to-back 1-0 wins over an in-transition Stoke City and a jaded Aston Villa should be taken with a pinch of salt, but these are the 'types' of games in which the Reds often stumbled in last campaign. For example, their corresponding home match against Stoke in the 2012-13 term ended in a frustrating goalless draw -- one of 13 stalemates endured.
Next up, though, comes a proper barometer of where they are at when on Sunday they host rivals Manchester United, against whom it will be far tougher to keep at arm's reach should Daniel Sturridge work his magic for a third league game running. Sans the influence of the banned Luis Suarez, Liverpool have so far looked a structured unit, with Philippe Coutinho and the aforementioned Sturridge demonstrating a creative understanding, while at the back matters have looked tighter -- although that threatens to be loosened after Kolo Toure was stretchered off during midweek.
Rodgers' counterpart Moyes, meanwhile, heads into the game off the back of one of the dullest matches witnessed by fans of football in living memory. A point, though, was sufficient enough for the Scot, particularly as opening his side up for victory and at the risk of suffering defeat so early on in his United career would have resulted in inevitable knee-jerks from some. He will, however, be expected to go more for the jugular in future matches against title rivals. And, while Liverpool do not constitute as such right now, it is expected Moyes would settle for another gritty point ahead of the international break.
Welcome to the English (and Welsh) Premier League, Manuel! Here, anything can happen -- especially if your goalkeeper and right-back fail to execute the basics. Such slackness from Pablo Zabaleta is unusual, but the rickety display of Joe Hart was par for the course. His form, for both club and country, has been poor for some time now, yet it is only recently that the mainstream have made it a more prominent narrative -- presumably as they got bored of waiting for David de Gea to stop being so good.
Pellegrini has a decision to make over his No. 1: whether to trust him to climb out of his rut or to drop him for a few games so he 'can get his head straight', handing the alarmingly tall Costel Pantilimon a run in the team. It will be interesting to see how the Chilean handles the situation, particularly after the criticism of former City boss Roberto Mancini's man-management. Anyway, the 2012 champions host Hull City this weekend, when usual service should be resumed in spite of their opponent's battling win with ten men against Norwich City last time out.
Since last week's edition of Premier League Spotlight, Arsenal have put together two convincing victories. Which is good. What's bad is, at the time of writing, their threadbare squad issues have been exacerbated by no significant signings made and a long-term injury to Lukas Podolski. Over at North London rivals Tottenham, meanwhile, they've continued to rub Gunners fans' faces in it via confident moves in the transfer market, with Erik Lamela arriving and others potentially on the way.
The free signing of former player Mathieu Flamini will do little to placate the Arsenal faithful, as the question marks loom over each of the starting XI's positions. Further to the issue of backup for Arsene Wenger is quite what to do with Jack Wilshere. While plainly one of the team's most talented members, it can be argued the Arsenal midfield looks more balanced without the England international in the line-up. It is not really known what Wilshere's best position is, and, right now, whether it is as the deeper midfielder or a No. 10, he is being outshone by Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla/Tomas Rosicky respectively.
Swansea are bottom of the table, for what the table is worth at this stage of the season. Any points gained from a home match against United and a trip to Tottenham would have been a bonus, yet the specifics of their performance in the latter were troubling. Swans were not their fluid and neat selves, allowing an admittedly impressive Tottenham side to boss the match. The display came after both sides' Europa League involvements, an infamously sapping process for squads, and it was clear which team was the sprightlier. It will be of note if the Swans are again sluggish when they travel to West Brom on Sunday off the back of Thursday's trip to Romania.
As for their weekend opponents, there is a bluntness about them already this term. Not having Romelu Lukaku, scorer of 17 top flight goals last season, was always going to be felt, and indeed just three shots on target have been managed in their opening two matches, with no nets a-rippled.
News that Nicolas Anelka won't be hanging up his boots following the passing of his agent means their attacking options are not depleted further, while manager Steve Clarke might look to his midfield, swelled by Scott Sinclair's arrival, to offer better support to a frontline so far lacking gusto.
It is said, by whoever says these things, that Ian Holloway's position as manager of Crystal Palace is already under threat, even in the month of August. An opening day defeat against Tottenham was not cause for alarm but the relinquishing of a lead at Stoke City raised the eyebrows, which ascended further when Bristol City put the club out of the League Cup on Tuesday. Holloway, whose side welcome Sunderland to Selhurst Park, has pointed to a vital week in the transfer market, with his team understandably feeling the absence of Wilfried Zaha and the injured Glenn Murray.
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