Georgina Turner
Monday August 16th, 2010

The opening weekend of the Premiership was hardly a feast of goals -- in August 1926, spectators at the top flight's first round of fixtures gorged themselves on a record-setting smorgasbord of 52 goals; despite the best efforts of Chelsea and Blackpool, this weekend brought a total of 23, restrained even by more recent standards. Joe Hart, newly installed as Manchester City's No. 1 goalkeeper, was almost single-handedly responsible. If not for him, Tottenham Hotspur could have pushed the total closer to 30.

One of legendary manager Brian Clough's fundamental beliefs was that a good goalkeeper was worth his weight in gold, a point he determined to prove by spending $390,000 (that was a lot of money to the Nottingham Forest board in 1977) on Peter Shilton. Within months, Forest won its first (and last) top-flight title, with Shilton preserving the trophy-winning, goal-less tie with Coventry City by pushing Mick Ferguson's close-range header over the bar.

Manchester City's impotence on Saturday moved Spurs manager Harry Redknapp to cast doubt on the idea of Hart's heroics proving quite as significant in the title race, but he has surely proved himself to be the finest Englishman between the sticks and will have a strong claim to being Premiership keeper of the season if he continues in this vein.

He batted away a near-post Peter Crouch header shortly before getting a strong hand to Jermain Defoe's spin shot; he reached a wonderful Tom Huddlestone volley that fans behind the goal had already leapt up to celebrate just before nudging a dipping, wickedly deflected Benoit Assou-Ekotto drive over the bar; he got his foot to another Defoe effort before making a double-save from the forward, sprawling himself bravely as Defoe looked guaranteed a tap-in.

Hart had faced 10 attempts at goal (80 percent of them on target) before his opposite number, Heurelho Gomes, was called upon to collect a weak shot from Yaya Toure in the 38th minute. Had the referee awarded a penalty for Micah Richards' hapless 29th-minute wrestle with Gareth Bale, you'd have bet your bottom dollar on Hart saving that, too. His efforts earned City a crucial early point, but also provided evidence that the art of goalkeeping was not, in fact, dead -- much needed on a weekend that bore the hallmarks of a Buster Keaton classic.

Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland's comedic contribution to his team's 4-0 humbling by Blackpool looked choreographed for a jaunty piano jingle and a couple of cymbal clashes. Marlon Harewood's low shot went straight through him, and Harewood -- the kind of striker who usually makes scoring look as complicated as advanced algebra -- powered home the Tangerine's third when Kirkland spilled Elliot Gradin's strike. Alex Baptiste was probably cursing himself for putting his cross too close to the goalkeeper at precisely the moment it whistled past a flapping Kirkland and into the net for the fourth.

West Brom keeper Scott Carson was only marginally less hapless, allowing six goals at Chelsea, but could at least deflect attention from the blunder that created Chelsea's first goal by barking at his defense, which looked like it had won the chance to play at Stamford Bridge in a cereal packet. Was it really so long ago that these two men were talked about in sentences including words like "future" and "England's No. 1"?

And it wasn't just the natives who were at it: Tim Howard didn't seem to be under pressure catching El-Hadji Diouf's header, but somehow dropped it for Blackburn's Nikola Kalinic to send goalward. New Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet let Scott Dann's header wriggle beneath him and into the net to start Birmingham's comeback in Saturday's 2-2 draw, but the horror on his face was nothing compared to Pepe Reina's 90th-minute agony at Anfield.

Reina made a couple of good saves, from Thomas Vermaelen and Theo Walcott free kicks, and pulled off a fingertips save from Tomas Rosicky in the 86th minute to maintain Liverpool's 1-0 lead. But it was doomed to be forgotten four minutes later, when he shoveled the ball into his own net trying to pick up a Marouane Chamakh header that had come back off the post. All that was missing was a man with a trombone to wah-wah-wah-waaah the ball over the line.

Was it all just a result of first-day-at-work jitters? It's probably a bit too early to declare a goalkeeping crisis, especially with Hart in such fine form and Fulham deputy keeper David Stockdale (who's barely featured since being signed two years ago) frustrating Bolton so successfully for a 0-0 tie. Stockdale wasn't told he would play until hours before kickoff (fueling rumors that Mark Schwarzer's move to Arsenal is all but done), but was commanding under pressure and pulled off several excellent saves, particular from Johan Elmander.

Those who fumbled at the World Cup had a ready-made patsy in the Jabulani, but it'll take some spiel to convincingly blame the Premier League's new ball for the opening weekend's blooper reel.

Plenty of Premier League debuts over the weekend, some more successful than others. David Silva made a quiet start to life as a Manchester City player, though he at least survived his first 90 minutes intact. Fellow City newbie Aleksandar Kolarov looked impressive -- solid, up for the fight -- but had to come off at halftime after sustaining a knee injury. A more serious-looking ankle injury put Kenwyne Jones out of his Stoke City debut after just 14 minutes, and he is likely to be out for long enough to force Tony Pulis back into the transfer market before the window closes.

Mame Biram Diouf (Blackburn), Nedum Onuoha (Sunderland) and Marc Albrighton (Aston Villa, I hate to say I told you so) all enjoyed excellent debuts, unlike the trio of debutantes -- Pablo Barrera, Frederic Piquionne and Winston Reid -- who had little impact for West Ham. Perhaps they'll be slow burners, like Arsenal's Chamakh, who seemed intimidated enough by Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel to stay quiet until that last-minute leap.

Anfield played host to the most explosive debut action, in fact, with Joe Cole's attempts to assert himself all in vain, at least until he launched himself at the Gunners' new central defender, Laurent Koscielny (who would also be sent off late in the game). Cole received the first red card of his career; Koscielny was taken off in a stretcher, but reappeared for a steady second half once the medical staff had made sure that his right leg wasn't broken. Cole is said to be "devastated" by it all, but at least he has Jonathan Woodgate's 2005 debut for Real Madrid, which involved scoring an own goal and being sent off, for comfort.

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