It was Roberto Mancini who called it a “crazy season”, so crazy that, after all the madness which had preceded the dawning of the final day in the Premier League last time around, Alex Ferguson was left with not unreasonable grounds for hoping the noisy neighbours would do “something stupid”, maybe even a “Devon Loch”, at the death.
In fact, it turned out to be even crazier than that, with City duly performing a belly-flop in the final furlong only to hop up on their hind legs again just in time to get their noses over the line to claim first place in the most mind-boggling of photo finishes.
I suggested in these pages last week that, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the new Premier League season didn’t only have a hard act to follow in the form of London 2012; it actually had a much harder act to follow in terms of the thrills and spills served up in 2011/12.
And even though I know that, as Big Ron used to say, it’s still early doors, the encouraging signs are that the new campaign is taking up where the old one left off, even down to the eerie re-run on the opening day of a 3-2 winning scoreline for the champions. Wrapping up last time, they had to do it against a side flirting with relegation; this time they came out best from a five-goal thriller against a newly-promoted team. The win over QPR was enough to claim the title; the win over Southampton enough to tell you City are going to have to do it the hard way again to claim back to back gongs.
And, again, the first round of fixtures suggested if City retain their crown, it will probably be with a little help from their friends and enemies, as opposed to the product of their own invincibility. Having provided an assist for their title rivals in the run-in last year, Manchester United helped clear the way for them on their very first outing this time, a low-key cameo by Robin van Persie scarcely enough to compensate for a virtual no-show by Wayne Rooney, as last year’s runners-up came off second-best against those sticky Toffees.
Arsenal’s joyless stalemate at home to Sunderland was also very much in keeping with the spirit of 2011/12, with the poor, demented denizens of the Emirates left to mourn the passing – or, rather the shooting – of the departed Van Persie, just as they had mourned the passing – definitely the passing – of Cesc Fabregas 12 months before. Still, I wouldn’t be too down-hearted, Gooners; I very much like the cut of jib of the boy Cazorla and feel pretty sure by Christmas time we’ll be snowed under with headlines to the effect Santi is delivering the goods for Arsene Wenger. I would also not be alone, I’m sure, in very much liking the look of Edin Hazard, who built on a splendid opening day performance for Chelsea – in their 2-0 win at Wigan – with an even more sumptuous display as playmaker in chief against Reading on Wednesday. But yet again, the Blues’ 4-2 win was ultimately still very much in keeping with the spirit of last season, the plucky promoted side at one point leading 1-2 and the Champions League holders requiring an offside Fernando Torres goal before closing the deal with a comic breakaway effort on the stroke of full-time.
Throw in five of the best from those renowned world-beaters Fulham and Swansea and, even if there is clearly a way to go to match some of last season’s fantasy scorelines — recall United 8 Arsenal 2, City 6 United 1, Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5, Arsenal 5 Spurs 2 and Everton 4 United 4 – the main thrust of the action so far adds up to the sense of another madcap rollercoaster of a Premier League season in the making.
This weekend’s round of fixtures should offer some clarity. Or, then again, perhaps not. The expectation might be that Damien Duff and company will be brought crashing back down to earth at Old Trafford today but were Fulham to manage even a point against Man U, then the sense of concern following the defeat by Everton would quickly turn to panic. Similarly, Andre Villas-Boas will really start to feel the heat if Spurs – losers away to Newcastle on the first day — don’t get three points on the board at home to a West Brom side who were only marginally flattered to put three past Liverpool last week.
And, tomorrow, Brendan Rodgers will be putting his hand back in the fire as Anfield nervously awaits the visit of the champions, that away win in the Europa League at Hearts scarcely registering on the bouncebackability index in light of that opening day horror show at the Hawthorns. Yet, who would be really surprised if Liverpool were to rise to the occasion and put a dent in City’s stride just as their Merseyside neighbours have already done to United’s? The beauty of the Premier League, the great strength which also reveals its weakness, is that we would be shocked if there weren’t a few shocks served up by this weekend’s round of games And if the whole season does turn out to be a groundhog version of the last campaign, you can be sure that no-one will be complaining about there being too many repeats on the box.
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