August 18, 2012

Six days after the Olympic flame was snuffed out to signal the end of the Games, Premier League soccer returned to reclaim hearts, minds and headlines. With memories of last season's stunning climax still fresh, 2012-13's opening day supplied enough drama and surprises to suggest we are set for another exciting campaign. Here are five thoughts off Saturday's action ...

1. Nightmare start for the new Liverpool. Sometimes a new dawn is more like a false dawn. Liverpool went to West Bromwich Albion with a new manager and a lineup showing six changes from the XI that ended last season, but the feeling of frustration was horribly familiar after a shocking 3-0 loss to opponents who also missed a penalty.

Daniel Agger sent off, Joe Cole injured soon after emerging from the substitutes' bench, fans leaving after 80 minutes, Luis Suarez booked for dissent ... and Brendan Rodgers outwitted by Kenny Dalglish's former assistant.

This was Rodgers' first league game in charge of Liverpool after he jumped ship from Swansea to replace the fired Dalglish. And West Brom head coach Steve Clarke's first significant match as a manager, period -- unless you count the Scot's one match as Newcastle caretaker in 1999.

In Liverpool's defense, it went behind to a wonderful goal from Zoltan Gera in the 43rd minute, West Brom's first shot on target. But the second half was simply horrible. The home side was rampant and Romelu Lukaku, the loanee deemed not yet good enough by Chelsea, scored on his debut.

Opta statistics suggested that Rodgers' new signing, Joe Allen, passed the ball with great accuracy in midfield. Not much to cheer about, but the manager must devour crumbs of comfort wherever he can find them.

He cannot afford to hit the ground stumbling given Liverpool's awkward forthcoming fixtures. After Thursday's trip to Hearts in the Europa League, Liverpool faces Premier League champions Manchester City next Sunday. Arsenal and Manchester United await in September.

2. Subdued start to the post-Van Persie era for Arsenal. You can't say Arsenal isn't consistent, even if these days it is consistently underwhelming because it "only" qualifies for the Champions League every year rather than seriously challenging for the Premier League title.

As last summer, its best player agitated for a move, Arsenal resisted then relented. At least Cesc Fabregas went to Barcelona in 2011 while Robin van Persie is now with direct rivals 200 miles north in Manchester after a season in which he scored 40 percent of the Gunners' league goals.

So it was not a huge shock that Arsene Wenger's team began this term with a goalless draw against an opponent from England's Northeast -- Sunderland -- just like 12 months ago. Summer signings Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud were unable to shatter a determined defense. Giroud replaced a disappointing Podolski after 64 minutes while Gervinho -- sent off in last year's opening-day draw with Newcastle -- did not look ready to step into Van Persie's golden boots.

According to a tweet from The Associated Press' Rob Harris, there were plenty of empty seats at Emirates Stadium. Perhaps a few people decided that this isn't an Arsenal side worth interrupting a vacation for.

3. Who needs Clint Dempsey? Frankly, Fulham could certainly still use the Texan given the epic contribution he's made to its prosperity in recent seasons. And on today's evidence, Liverpool could do with his creativity and swagger.

But Martin Jol's team showed it can score (and then some) without its most talented forward, who is reportedly refusing to suit up as he tries to force a move to a bigger club. Fulham crushed Norwich City 5-0.

Another reliable source of goals when fit, Andrew Johnson, joined local rivals Queens Park Rangers this summer. No matter: Croatian striker Mladen Petric scored twice on his debut and added an assist, and the former Wigan forward Hugo Rodallega was an option for Jol off the bench as Chris Hughton joined Rodgers in managerial debut hell.

Hughton was a solid choice by Norwich's owners but so often an apparent safe pair of hands turns out to be the biggest risk. The temptation for Norwich given its superb 12th-place finish in 2011-12 under now-Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert is to minimize change and aim for more of the same, but overachievement is hard to replicate the second time around.

The scale of the scoreline will worry Norwich because only Manchester City (5-1 and 6-1) thrashed them so brutally last season. Still, some perspective for the Canaries: this time three years ago they lost 7-1 at home to Colchester in the third tier.

4. Green left red-faced again. Time was, Robert Green was considered a sturdy, reliable goalkeeper. Rarely brilliant but a guy you'd expect the newspapers to award a "seven out of 10" in the player ratings every week.

Then came his pressure-induced flub at the 2010 World Cup, when he let a docile shot from Dempsey squirm past him, literally to hand the United States a celebrated 1-1 tie with England. Now 32, Green has never been quite the same player since. He's only made one more appearance for his country.

The former West Ham man's QPR debut today had the bad memories flooding back. His mistake allowed Swansea's Michu to score the first goal of the campaign with eight minutes gone and there was no way back, Swansea going on to eviscerate Mark Hughes' team 5-0 at Loftus Road. Quite some start for the Welsh club's new manager, Michael Laudrup.

This after Hughes made some good-looking moves in the transfer market. Maybe he should consider reinstating Joey Barton to the team. Still, QPR opened last season with a 4-0 home loss to Bolton, and it turned out all right in the end for the west Londoners -- while their conquerors ended up relegated.

5. New boys are quietly effective. Reading's 1-1 draw with Stoke: it's the match they're all not talking about. But let's give some praise to Reading, easily the Premier League's least-discussed club. Hiding in plain sight, if its profile was any lower, it'd be subterranean.

That's the way manager Brian McDermott likes it, mind you. And he will be happy with a point from the club's first top-flight fixture since it was relegated in 2008. One secured in dramatic style, too, with a late penalty from Adam Le Fondre, a prolific lower-league striker who's bidding to prove he has what it takes to triumph at the highest level. That goal canceled out one from Michael Kightly that came courtesy of a goalkeeping blunder by Adam Federici.

For Stoke, this was a day marked by red tape and a red card. Dean Whitehead was dismissed for the foul that gave away the spot kick while the new signing from Houston Dynamo, U.S. international Geoff Cameron, was ineligible as he awaited the completion of work permit formalities.

Michu, Swansea City

Signed last month from Real Vallecano for around $3 million, the 26-year-old Spanish midfielder was prolific in La Liga last term and showcased his goal-scoring potential with a pair: one lucky, one superb. He also hit the crossbar as Swansea crushed QPR. Perhaps Swansea won't miss Gylfi Sigurdsson, who joined Tottenham after an eye-catching loan spell at Liberty Stadium last season.

The end of the season on May 12 is far, far away -- but it's unlikely we will see a more dismal on-target penalty than Shane Long's for West Brom against Liverpool. Saved with embarrassing ease by Pepe Reina as it trickled toward him at geriatric pace, it was worse than most of the kicks you see struck by young kids at mascots during clubs' half-time entertainment. Luckily for Long, teammate Peter Odemwingie showed him how to do it from 12 yards later in the contest.

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