Over the weekend, we got our first look at this season's promotion winners: Reading, Southampton and West Ham United. Reading, which won the Championship last season, is back in the Premier League for the first time since being relegated after the 2007-08 season. West Ham returns after a one-year absence, securing promotion by beating Blackpool in the playoff final. Southampton, meanwhile, has re-emerged in England's top flight for the first time in seven seasons.
It's a tad early to judge the season that lies ahead of them, and each had a different kind of opponent, but what kind of first impression did they make?
Manager Nigel Adkins has taken the Saints from the third tier of English soccer to the Premier League in two seasons, but his starting XI in the season opener against reigning Premier League champion Manchester City tested the faith of a few supporters.
There was no place for last season's top scorer, Rickie Lambert, nor for Billy Sharp, who scored nine goals after signing in the January transfer window. Instead, Jay Rodriguez, the club's record signing who recently arrived from Burnley, started up front alongside Guly do Prado. In midfield, James Ward-Prowse debuted fresh from an excellent preseason; but at 17 years old, he was a surprise choice at the Ethiad Stadium. "What great players to bring off the bench," Adkins enthused, before kickoff.
The first half probably did little to ease the doubters' fears. It took until just before the interval for Manchester City to take the lead through Carlos Tevez, but the possession stats (at one point weighing more than 80 percent in City's favor) reflected an increasingly one-sided game that pushed Southampton further and further towards their own penalty area.
The second half began in much the same vein until Adkins brought on Lambert for Rodriguez; within four minutes, Southampton leveled the score and was playing with the same confidence that carried them to a second-place finish in last season's Championship race.
Adkins' second substitution worked just as well: Steven Davis was on the field about two minutes before stroking the ball into the bottom corner. The goal was brilliantly set by Southampton's young captain, Adam Lallana, a player who looks more than capable in the role. Whether this makes Adkins a tactical genius we'll leave for another day; what we can say with some certainty is that Southampton has the players not only to cope with a side like City -- Samir Nasri, who scored the 80th-minute winner, was adamant that the result was not down to the champions' cobwebs -- but also to compete.
And this is before the arrival of Gaston Ramirez, apparently on his way from Bologna for a club-record £11.8 million ($18.6 million). The real battle, however, may come against less-attacking sides; teams that have a midtable spot to protect and no truck with aesthetics. It remains to be seen how well the Saints can wrest open the pockets of space they were granted by City's marauding full backs, for example.
That was precisely the kind of challenge Reading faced. The Royals welcomed Stoke City to the Madejski Stadium and promptly found their visitors in no mood to force things -- especially after Stoke struck first when Michael Kightly's miskicked shot somehow managed to beat goalkeeper Adam Federici.
Reading eventually rallied for a 1-1 draw in its opener, but what will worry manager Brian McDermott when he pores over the video is how much time and space Stoke players -- most egregiously on Kightly's goal -- were given in the penalty area. That is, when the Royals finish fretting about Federici's slip.
Last season, Federici was a huge reason for Reading's promotion. No side kept more clean sheets; it was a season in which the Royals' most common result (home and away) was 1-0. Given that record, we can probably write this off as a one-off blunder (remember how worried we were about David de Gea early in his first season at Manchester United?), but it is a potential psychological burden that the side could do without.
There were definite positives for Reading, though. McDermott rightly praised his team's refusal to accept defeat. Stoke attempted to close up shop in the final 10 minutes. Potters manager Tony Pulis made two defensive substitutions, but McDermott responded by simply tweaking his attack. Garath McCleary came on to add fresh bursts of pace.
In my season preview, I suggested Reading looked a tad green, and I'm sticking to that, but I may have to revise the suggestion that recruiting from teams further down the table was cause for concern. McCleary, who arrived from Nottingham Forest, played like a man finally given the stage he has long felt his talents deserved. It was his run into the box that brought the penalty with which Adam Le Fondre --- who was turning out in the fourth division little more than a year ago -- equalized to earn a vital first point.
Yet Reading's first week back in the Premier League could have been even more profitable.
Against Chelsea on Wednesday, Pavel Pogrebnyak and Danny Guthrie scored within the match's first half-hour to give Reading a surprising 2-1 lead. But everything went south for the Royals in the final 20 minutes. Another mistake by Federici and a poor decision by the linesman on Fernando Torres' offside tap-in combined to spoil the Royals' chances for a famous victory at Stamford Bridge.
Reading, however, will have a quick chance at redemption. Its next match is a meeting with Sunderland on Saturday.
The Hammers started their previous Premier League campaign in 2010 against Aston Villa, and were on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline. That never looked very likely this time around at the Boelyn Ground.
Villa started the match brightly, allowing West Ham barely a touch of the ball. But after about 20 minutes, the Hammers perked up at the realization that their opponents' possession was not going to translate in to a goal threat.
Aston Villa striker Darren Bent cut an isolated figure up front. Paul Lambert's Villa team is still a work in progress -- a layer of context that cannot be ignored -- given the difference between his style and that of his predecessor, Alex McLeish.
This, however, is very much a Sam Allardyce West Ham side, and we can judge it on that basis. Allardyce received precisely the kind of performance he would have wanted from his stalwarts.
The phrase "chuck it in the mixer" -- i.e. get the ball into the penalty area and see what happens -- is never far from Allardyce's tactics sheet. And that's what happened in the 40th minute, when the ever-lively Ricardo Vaz Tê took control of a free-kick dropped in at the back post and cut it back in to the middle. Kevin Nolan (who played under Allardyce at Bolton Wanderers for eight years) was in the right place to turn it home. The goal was all West Ham needed to see off Villa 1-0.
"[Nolan] is on the move when other players are standing watching," Allardyce said afterwards. "He's as good in the box as any Premier League forward."
Carlton Cole spends a bit too much time rolling around on the turf for some people's tastes, but he, too, did as required. Villa defender Ron Vlaar must have bruises by which to remember his debut.
As for the new recruits, the match suggested good business. Mohamed Diamé, released by Wigan Athletic in the summer, looks as good as his best. He's strong and powerful yet light on his feet. It was his nimble touch that forced Ciaran Clark to concede the free-kick from which West Ham scored. Diamé and Mark Noble seem to understand one another, even if the latter was a little quiet.
Modibo Maïga had just 10 minutes in which to impress, but still managed to do so. Only a goalline clearance kept him from sealing the victory, having shrugged off his marker and rounded Villa goalkeeper Shay Given. "That piece of play shows he is a goalscorer," said Allardyce, adding Maïga to the list of the league's best. He is entitled to his optimism; West Ham looked safe before a ball had been kicked, and nothing last weekend disturbed that.