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World Cup absences loom large over Premier League's opening weekend

Sergio Agüero was one of a handful of World Cup players that made an impact on the opening weekend in the English Premier League. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Sergio Agüero was one of a handful of World Cup players that made an impact on the opening weekend in the English Premier League.

It has been five weeks since Sepp Blatter handed out the winners medals in Rio, but that doesn’t mean the effects from World Cup are over. Indeed, because of the World Cup, the season has not yet started in earnest for everyone. The opening weekend lineups of Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City and even Tottenham showed the World Cup is casting a shadow.

The last Premier League season ended on May 11th. The World Cup ended on July 13th. For some players, that’s two busy months, normally reserved for rest. Clubs know that players who appear in the World Cup often struggle to survive the following club season. The longer the player’s World Cup, the bigger the risk.

Robin van Persie, last seen limping off at the start of extra time as the Dutch lost a World Cup semifinal, did not appear on Saturday as Louis van Gaal, the manager of that Dutch team, made his league debut in charge of Manchester United. For Van Gaal, the worry that the already injury-prone Van Persie will be even more fragile after the World Cup only makes worse a weekly lose-lose calculation. Play van Persie, and you run the risk of injury. Don’t play him, and you sit out your best player. On Saturday, United paid the price and lost 2-1 to Swansea at Old Trafford.

Arsène Wenger also erred on the side of caution. None of Arsenal’s three World Cup winners were in sight on Saturday. Olivier Giroud, whose last World Cup appearance was as a sub in France’s quarterfinal loss on July 4th, was on the bench. On the other hand new arrival Alexis Sanchez, who played 120 minutes as Chile lost to Brazil in the Round of 16, did start.

Arsenal was awful against managerless Crystal Palace, yet Wenger’s gamble paid off and it won, 2-1.

For Arsenal, one question is whether the World Cup will have a psychological as well as a physical effect. The enigmatic Özil is now a World Cup winner. Will that build the self-belief that sometimes seems lacking? When confronted with a shooting chance, will he think “I am a world champion” and score, or will he continue to panic? Will success encourage a player who attempted fewer than one tackle a match in the World Cup to believe he can continue to shirk defensive duties? 

Unsurprisingly, Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini’s philosophy is more old school. On Sunday at Newcastle, all of his three Argentine World Cup finalists were in uniform. Martin Demichelis, who played 120 minutes in the final, started. Some might point out that Demichelis doesn’t run that much anyway. In any case, he’s expendable. City has just spent $53 million on his replacement, Eliaquim Mangala.

Sergio Agüero, who was nursed through the World Cup by Argentina as he was nursed through last season City, came off the bench like he did in the World Cup final. Only this time he scored another of his late, late goals in a hard-fought 2-0 victory over Newcastle.

Perhaps Liverpool will have an advantage. Its team has been built around England players, who once again came home nice and early from a major tournament. And the display of Raheem Sterling on Sunday suggested the experience has not left scars.

Unfortunately a player who does leave scars has left Anfield. If Luis Suarez had stayed, Liverpool would have paid a high price for his World Cup participation with another early-season biting ban.

There are some around Anfield promoting the Gareth Bale fallacy, that the club is better off because it was able to buy seven (or eight or nine) good players with the money it received for the best player in the Premier League. That would be fine if Liverpool was now allowed to start 17 players. It cannot and, struggled horribly to eke out a 2-1 home victory against Southampton -- a club seemingly in disarray.

The problems City, Arsenal and Chelsea, which plays Burnley on Monday, face in managing their World Cup stars are the price they know they must pay for success. If a club wants to contend in the Premier League, it needs to buy the best players and they tend to come from the countries that reach the last four at the World Cup.

Short corners

Little has really changed at Manchester United where Van Gaal, like David Moyes, has inherited a squad with hardly a single outfield player under 28 with proven top-of-the-league quality. A defensive 3-5-2 formation is not even a short-term solution as the home loss to Swansea showed…

Van Gaal’s English is surprisingly shaky. Did he really mean the dire implications when he said United’s morale was “smashed”? The phrase he was no doubt seeking was “I need £150 million of new players. Now!”….

Aaron Ramsey saved Arsenal again, this time with a winning goal in added time against Palace. Last season he scored at almost a goal every other game. When the going is tough, Ramsey, not Ozil, is Arsenal’s best and most important midfielder. At 23, he’s going to keep getting better…

Tottenham’s problem last season was that, whoever was manager, it kept losing to the big four: Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and West Ham. The lucky victory that ended a three-game losing streak to the Hammers, means Mauricio Pochettino can already check one box…

Celebrity ex-managers Glenn Hoddle (QPR) and Roy Keane (Aston Villa) prefer to rehabilitate their reputations as assistants with Premier League strugglers rather than in charge of clubs lower down the pyramid: more visibility but less culpability.

English Premier League: Predicting the top 4

SI's Grant Wahl predicts the top of the English Premier League in 2014.

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