Manchester United defends title with class; five EPL thoughts

Saturday August 17th, 2013

Wayne Rooney was benched to start Manchester United's opener, but still logged two assists.
John Peters/Getty Images

1. Why are those men kicking footballs? Just when the riveting sub-plots of English soccer's summer soap opera were building to an exciting climax, the Premier League confuses its fans by staging a bunch of matches. What's going on? We don't know where Gareth Bale is going to play, so how can they start the season?

Those who argue that business is ruining soccer are missing the point. Soccer is ruining the business. The games have become a means of providing extra funds as rich owners compete to buy the most expensive players.

Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has decided to stay, Real Madrid is the one club in the world that doesn't really need Bale. If Real really does pay a world-record fee for the Welshman, it would principally be a display of ostentatious machismo. We won't get any clues this weekend, because Bale has a convenient foot injury that means he will miss Tottenham's opener at Crystal Palace.

Luis Suárez might be the player that Real actually needs. The problem is he bites people. That isn't good for the corporate image. In any case, Suárez is suspended for another five Premier League games. He finally returned to training on Friday after either (a) apologizing to teammates or (b) not apologizing to teammates, depending on which anonymous tabloid source you believe. He should be match fit to play for his club, whichever one it is, by the time the ban ends.

That leaves the most bizarre transfer saga summer of all: Wayne Rooney to Chelsea. There is no footballing reason why Chelsea and José Mourinho should want Rooney. But Chelsea is the club that bought Fernando Torres. Mourinho is the coach who systematically provoked feuds with pretty much every senior player at Real Madrid. Rooney, an unfulfilled talent and world-class sulker, would be a perfect fit.

On Saturday evening at Swansea, Rooney was put in his place by his new manager, David Moyes. That place was the bench. He came on with 30 minutes left and United cruising. Rooney did look a little slimmer. He picked up two assists, including one to Robin van Persie on his second dazzling goal of the evening. The true humiliation for Rooney was that Danny Welbeck, who scored one league goal last season, started. Worse, Welbeck then scored twice in a, 4-1, victory. Suddenly, one of the summer soaps less plausible story lines grew even more complicated.

2. United Rolls On: Mourinho suggested mischievously last week that Manchester United was a second-rate champion last season. On Saturday, United showed a lot of the frailties it displayed last season. It also showed why it is the champion.

United allowed Swansea more possession and more shots. Many of Swansea's chances were dangerous. United's defense once again rode its luck. Yet that does not mean United's victory was lucky.

Mourinho is right. United often didn't look that good last season. Yet it ran away with the league. It won when it needed to win. On Saturday, under new, untried, management, and away to a tough opponent it won and won well.

"The first game of the season you just don't want to lose," van Persie, the difference maker, told Sky television after the match. United did not lose. Chelsea may be the bookmakers' favorite, but United still looks like a champion.

3. Short Memories: The silver lining for Swansea was that in spite of being part of a defense that leaked four goals, Ashley Williams' price just went up.

Williams has been a summer target for Arsenal. Despite boasting that it has £70 million, almost $100 million, to spend, the Gunners haven't paid money for anyone. They reportedly want to pay just £6 million for Williams.

Arsenal was already short of center-backs before Thomas Vermaelen suffered an injury that will keep him out for six weeks. On Saturday, things got worse. Laurent Koscielny was sent off and will be suspended. Worse, Arsenal lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, a team that barely escaped relegation last season.

At the end of the match, the few remaining home fans booed and chanted, "You don't know what you're doing," apparently at their manager, Arsène Wenger. Undoubtedly Wenger's stubbornness has contributed to his club's problems. Yet in his 17 years at Arsenal he has won three Premier League titles. So, he probably does know what he's doing. What the Arsenal supporters showed is how ungrateful, mean-spirited and impatient sports fans can be.

4. Altidore Starts Quiet: How long does it take to know if a new player is going to turn out to be a good signing? Some great players shine immediately. Others take half a season. Some do not really settle until their second season.

Jozy Altidore's debut for Sunderland in a 1-0 home loss to Fulham gave little clue as to whether he will succeed at the Stadium of Light, but in his case the question is hardly new. Eight years into his professional career, we still don't know just how good he is.

Altidore burst into the New York Red Bulls team with a blaze of goals at just 16. What happened next seemed to bear out the observation of Cyril Connolly, the English literary critic: "Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising." Altidore's career lurched downward as passed through Villareal, Hull, Jerez and Buraspor. Then last season Altidore broke Clint Dempsey's record for most goals in a season in Europe as he hit 24 goals for AZ Alkmaar. While his contemporary, Freddy Adu, has ended up beached in the Brazilian second division, Altidore, at 23, seems to have made the transition from former phenom to late bloomer.

Altidore was 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds when he broke in at 16. He's no bigger now. Players who have always been far faster and stronger than everyone they've faced in youth soccer, can develop lazy habits. There have been questions about Altidore's attitude, effort and anticipation.

In his Sunderland debut, Altidore was almost invisible for 85 minutes. While he stuck to the central striker's narrow sphere of operations, Dimitar Berbatov roved all over the field seeking the ball and creating danger for Fulham. But coach Paolo di Canio has Stephane Sessegnon and new signings Cabral and Emanuele Giaccherini to create chances. It's hardly Altidore's fault that they did so only intermittently.

Yet, on the few occasions when teammates managed to cross the ball towards Altidore in the air, he seemed to be caught flat-footed, either unable, or unwilling, to head the ball. As Sunderland slid to defeat, Altidore did show a couple of flashes of menace. With five minutes to go, he spun away from Brede Hangelande to open up a sight of goal. The shot, like an earlier effort, was tame, but it showed what he can do. If he can repeat the trick but with a scoring shot at he end once every two games, he will be a success

5. Mignolet Saves The Day: Simon Mignolet's first steps on a bigger stage were nervous and uncertain. On his Anfield debut against Stoke, Mignolet looked particularly shaky under high balls. One miss allowed the ball to drop to Robert Huth who took careful aim at the empty net and shot against the bar. Mignolet and Liverpool survived.

With five minutes left and Liverpool defending a one-goal lead, it conceded a penalty.

Liverpool's history is filled with goalies who have built their legends on saving spot kicks: Bruce Grobbelaar's knee-knocking display in the shootout at the end of the 1984 European Cup final, Jerzy Dudek's reprise in the 2005 Champions League final. Pepe Reina helped win an FA Cup final and a Champions league semifinal against Chelsea with shootout saves.

On Saturday, Mignolet faced Jon Walters with the game on the line. He lunged low to his right and blocked the shot. Kenwyne Jones raced onto the rebound. But by the time the Stoke striker thumped his shot goalward, Mignolet had bounced back to his feet. The ball smashed into his thigh. As the ball flew off for a corner and he fell to the ground, Mignolet pumped his left fist in triumph. Liverpool won, 1-0. Suddenly Mignolet looked like he belongs in the Liverpool goal.

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