England's Premier League kicked off again on Saturday and another long and gruelling season beckons.
Manchester United, the team most likely to win it, have most of their first-choice defence injured already. While other nations take a breather over Christmas and New Year, England keeps its players charging over hard pitches in freezing weather, increasing the likelihood of burnout and injury. The national team should qualify for Euro 2012, but don't expect England's players to be any less sluggish than they were in South Africa in 2010.
United looked slick and composed however, and Ashley Young on his debut played like a regular with assured interplay, creativity and danger. Phil Jones is another shrewd acquisition, more useful than Tom Cleverley and Daniel Welbeck.
At the other end though David De Gea, who won Euro u21 with Spain in the summer, had a nervous exodus in English football, flapping at crosses and allowing a shot to go under his body. Shades of Massimo Taibi perhaps, but beware a bad start in goal. Tim Howard excelled in his opening year at Old Trafford before losing his touch badly before being transferred.
Man U's early promise however should not obscure the fact that England's best team were outclassed in last year's Champions League final by Barcelona. The closing stages of that competition are a long way off, but the grand imperative for Premier League teams must be to learn from the blaugrana masterclass if we are to avoid another sobering evening. There is only so much credit to be gained in winning the Premier League but falling woefully short in Europe.
Many eyes will be trained on Arsenal, and more particularly Arsene Wenger, whose excuses for a lack of trophies are beginning to run out. Having lost Cesc Fabregas ovenight to Barcelona and with Samir Nasri's move to Manchester City imminent, the heat will be on the Gunners to perform. Should they miss out on the Champions League places this year, the board may have to contemplate the unthinkable.
Chelsea are not generally expected to win the league this year, although their ace in the pack is the amazing rejuvenation of Fernando Torres, who looked his old self at Stoke yesterday. If they can bring the creative Daniel Sturridge into the frame too, their goals haul could bring them close to glory.
Andre Villas-Boas' first game yesterday saw a clash of styles as Stoke's controlled aggression thwarted Chelsea's passing ambitions. The Potters' success with this evolved version of the physical styles which held sway in the late 1980s is remarkable, but great passing teams like Barcelona press every bit as keenly.
Barcelona shirts are much in evidence on kids' backs in England this summer, the first time a foreign club team has captured so many young Anglo imaginations. If we can copy their style of play so much the better, though Stoke show another route to success.
Manchester City play tonight and are expected to spend their way if not to the title then at least to a high finish and Champions League progression. But the purists are not yet ready to applaud his team's rather mechanical style.
What else did we learn from the first day? QPR's 0-4 baptism of fire at home does not necessarily mean there is a chasm between the divisions. I watched Reading, runaway winners of the Championship, in their first game in the Premier League and they were two down at home in 20 minutes to Middlesbrough. They finished in the top half.
Wayne Rooney has new hair, Joey Barton got into another scrap and there were more swathes of empty seats at Wigan.
Oh and the grass looked green.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile
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