Georgina Turner
Monday August 23rd, 2010

There is always something to enjoy about a World Cup, and South Africa was no exception. But the verdict this summer was that we'd all seen better. So much of the soccer was mind-numbingly defensive and the final was so teeth-grindingly short of the occasion. We emerged from the tournament nursing something like a hangover, squinting and groggy, with a bit of a thirst on.

Happily, the opening two rounds of the Premier League, featuring four -- four! -- 6-0 thrashings have arrived with a plink-plink fizz.

Now, before you shout "philistine" and double-check the spelling of tiki-taka (Spain's incredible, if slightly soporific, possession soccer), no one's suggesting that the number of goals scored was an absolute measure of quality. Last weekend's goalless draw between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur was compelling viewing. But it feels like we've seen more attacking intent in two weeks than we did in twice that time in South Africa, and as the sun over Britain finally gives up the fight with swollen rain clouds, it has been glorious fun to watch.

It's hardly become anybody-can-beat-anybody stuff (Chelsea and Arsenal were responsible for three of the four six-nils), but it seems that more teams than is customary have embraced a play-to-win policy. Even Wigan, which surrendered four to Blackpool in a haphazard opening display and chalked up a minus-10 goal difference by the end of the weekend, went after Chelsea on Saturday -- at least until Florent Malouda converted the Blues' first real attack after 34 minutes.

Blackpool was two goals and a man down by that stage of its encounter with Arsenal, but Ian Holloway instructed his team to continue to try to get forward even as he checked the clock and thought, "Holy mackerel." Mind you, when your defense is coping so badly -- Theo Walcott whirled like a dervish around left back Stephen Crainey -- why not? At least Arsenal converted only a quarter of the 24 chances it created.

Item No. 1 in the Premiership manager's stock of phrases reads: "You've got to take your chances in this league." It's adaptable to winning or losing situations, though it tends to get more mileage from managers who've watched their side squander several opportunities before being hit on the break. This weekend offered a striking lesson (no pun intended) in its importance, and from unexpected quarters: newly promoted Newcastle was as deadly as Manchester United was profligate.

Aston Villa arrived at Newcastle's St James' Park having started the season surprisingly well in the wake of Martin O'Neill's departure. In the opening minutes, the nimble movement of John Carew and Ashley Young in and around the Toon's suicidally high defensive line threatened an onslaught. When Carew put a ninth-minute spot kick over the bar and into orbit, it seemed only to delay the inevitable.

But after just more than half an hour, Villa had done most of the threatening and Newcastle was up 3-0. First Joey Barton took advantage of having half a yard to himself and lashed the ball into the top corner from outside the area. Then Kevin Nolan leaped at a Brad Friedel parry to head in a second. Andy Carroll scored the first of his three goals with an instinctive sweep of his right foot as Richard Dunne's attempted clearance dropped fortuitously onto it. Newcastle had created nothing so dangerous besides, but didn't need to.

Kevin MacDonald saw enough from his side to insist that "if we scored the first goal of the second half, we had a chance," but Newcastle's reward for such deadliness was the energy that coursed through its defense when Villa did get forward (shots on target: zero) and the belief that it gave to everybody who had possession of the ball. Newcastle dominated the second half to the extent that it might have scored six in that spell alone.

Manchester United and Fulham each created enough chances in their meeting at Craven Cottage to have given Newcastle a run for its money, but only converted enough to earn a 2-2 draw. Alex Ferguson tsk-tsk'ed at the "silly points" dropped by his side in conceding a last-minute Brede Hangeland header after having seen Nani's 87th-minute penalty saved by David Stockdale, but the damage was done in the first hour, when United's only return from numerous chances was Paul Scholes' superbly struck 11th-minute goal.

Without a second goal, United couldn't sap Fulham's faith as Newcastle had done to Villa. Instead, each misplaced blow galvanized the home side, which succumbed to a late United onslaught only when a corner pinged straight off Hangeland's shin and past everybody on the line. By the time the same player had powered home Fulham's second equalizer of the day, both teams had shot on target eight times, and tried as many times again.

Sumptuous as Scholes' goal was -- you won't see many first-time shots from this kind of distance directed so expertly into the bottom corner -- he couldn't replicate his recent form by wresting total control of the middle from Fulham and keeping the ball away from dangerous areas. All the time that United failed to pull more than one goal ahead, Fulham knew it was still in the game, especially given Nemanja Vidic's and Jonny Evans' occasionally shaky handling of Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele.

By contrast, Newcastle's central midfield pairing of Barton and Alan Smith was vastly more aggressive and energetic than Villa's Stephen Ireland and Stiliyan Petrov. Like Chelsea and Arsenal, the comfort of Newcastle's central midfielders gave them and the wide men (in this case, Wayne Routledge and Jonas Gutierrez) greater license to romp forward. It also settled the early nerves in the back line. As the game wore on, Newcastle snuffed out Villa's attacks while they were still being readied on the wing. Neither Stewart Downing nor Marc Albrighton enjoyed his tussle with Newcastle's Jose Enrique.

Newcastle won't always be so ruthless, and United almost certainly will be on occasions to come. Though Chelsea will probably try, it can't win every game 6-0, and Arsenal probably won't come up against a more accommodating defense this season, at least until it visits Blackpool in April. But the opening two weeks bode well for how entertaining the Premier League could be this season.

Though the results have thrown up the same old names as title contenders, the performances have suggested that even at the clubs picked to struggle, negative soccer is just so last year.

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