#360view: Slow start for top teams

Alex Rea 10/08/2015
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Opening day blues: The EPL title contenders were unconvincing.

For some, namely Manchester United and Liverpool, at least it was better than last season. For others, that’s you Chelsea and Arsenal, there’s work to do and a degree of pressure on already.

It’s early days but not one of the top sides has laid down a marker on opening weekend – though Manuel Pellegrini’s Manchester City could spring out the stocks at West Brom on Monday night after others stumbled.

On Saturday, United got off to a winning start but they needed a Kyle Walker own goal to do it. Louis van Gaal’s side were ponderous and leggy, a stark contrast to a side who might challenge for the title, and given their £80 million (Dh455m) outlay over the summer, there was not a lot to show for it.

They were not terrible against Tottenham, that mantle was taken by the Gunners on Sunday, but the result was far from convincing.

It was better than this time last year when the new dawn of the Dutchman’s reign ended with a 2-1 defeat to Swansea at Old Trafford but his new-look side have not resolved all of their past problems.

They still look uncertain at the back and the forward line did little to support the argument that they don’t need any attacking additions.

There were some genuine positives, though. Memphis Depay looked sharp in the first half and Matteo Darmian’s bursting runs are sure to be a feature this season.

And that’s plenty more than can be said of Arsene Wenger’s men, who had the rude awakening that there’s more to plotting a genuine assault on the league title than signing a prized goalkeeper from the current champions.

– Jose Mourinho: ‘Chelsea medical staff were naive’
– De Gea: Van Gaal hopeful ‘keeper will stay at Utd
– GALLERY: The EPL’s biggest opening day upsets

There’s been a cauldron of optimism around the Emirates Stadium since Petr Cech’s arrival. But when the real business started, it was West Ham who showed up. That optimism now replaced with the lingering concerns about the same old problems.

Cheikhou Kouyate’s opener shows they’re still flimsy at the back and their missed opportunities prove the Gunners are lacking a punch up front when Alexis Sanchez is not in the side. Most depressingly for Arsenal fans was Cech. Exposed for both goals he is going to find this season tough in a side designed to pour forward. 

It will be a major shift for a goalkeeper so used to a goal area as secure and well-protected as the one at Stamford Bridge. But even there was a reminder of how difficult it will be for Jose Mourinho to retain the Premier League crown.

The Blues were rattled by Swansea and with three weeks before the transfer window shuts, surely the Portuguese is contemplating opening Roman Abramovich’s chequebook.

That’s something Brendan Rodgers has done over the summer and even though vengeance was theirs against Stoke, it’s clear more work is needed if they are going to compete at the top end.

Philippe Coutinho bumped the monkey off Rodgers’ back in a match of huge significance following their embarrassing 6-1 battering on the final day of the season.

But there was caution in their play and it’s clear they’ll need to learn how to get the best from Christian Benteke.

Sat in the stands was Xherdan Shaqiri, and his imminent move to Stoke is an example of the impressive business done by teams considered as mid-table operators.

There’s plenty of stutters and tumbles from the front-runners to come but will anyone emerge as the sole thoroughbred this season?

Over to you, Manuel. 

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Friendlies round-up: Al Ain finally taste victory but Al Ahli fall to defeat

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On target: Omar Abdulrahman (c).

Winger Rashed Essa stroked home the decisive penalty as Al Ain edged Wydad Casablanca for the inaugural UAE-Morocco Super Cup and gained their first pre-season triumph.

The Boss had battled their way to a 3-3 draw in normal time on Saturday at a raucous Stade Mohammed V, thanks to Omar Abdulrahman, Lee Myung-joo and an own goal from Brahim Nekkach. 

A shootout followed and new boy Fellipe Bastos’ missed from 12 yards but was made up by two superb saves from UAE No2 Khalid Essa to claim a 5-4 victory.

The result ended a four-match winless run for the Arabian Gulf League champions, who had previously drawn with Al Sadd and lost to Lokomotiv Tashkent, Hull City and Al Hilal during the Austrian leg of their preparations. 

The only negative was attackers Ryan Babel and Emmanuel Emenike are still goalless since moving this summer.

Zlatko Dalic saw his side fall behind in the seventh minute when Abdelatif Noussir took advantage of some awful defending to poke home. The Boss responded through star man Omar Abdulrahman’s free-kick, parity ending when forward Fabrice N’Guessi got between leaden-footed centre-backs Ismail Ahmed and Mohanad Salem to volley in.

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– AGL: Clubs yet to receive confirmation of league delay
– AGL: Al Shaab pounce to sign Egypt midfielder Amr Al Sulaya

An enthralling opening half ended with centre midfielder Lee firing into the roof of the net from 20 yards. Only two goals followed after the break, Emenike’s bravery forcing Nekkach to deflect into his own net before Salaheddine Saidi earned penalties when following up from a late corner.

Meanwhile, Al Ahli ended their Italian tour with a narrow defeat to Serie A new boys Carpi. Brazilian midfielder Raphael Martinho scored the only goal from a 71st-minute rebound as coach Cosmin Olaroiu rotated his squad.

There was disappointment for Al Wahda, Qatar attacking midfielder Hassan Al Haidos’ penalty earning Al Sadd a 1-0 victory.

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Coutinho rocket gives Liverpool revenge

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Coutinho (r) scored an astonishing winner.

Philippe Coutinho scored a stunning late goal as Liverpool avenged their humiliating defeat on last season’s final day against Stoke City with a 1-0 victory on Sunday.

The Reds were thrashed 6-1 — their heaviest defeat in 52 years — at the Britannia Stadium 77 days ago, but made partial amends for that loss with a hard-fought win in their opening Premier League fixture on the same ground.

Neither goalkeeper had a meaningful save to make in the match, which appeared to be destined to end in a goalless draw.

But with four minutes left Brazil international Coutinho, one of five survivors from that capitulation in May, gave Liverpool the points with a sublime long-range effort.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers gave debuts to four of his close-season signings, with Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez in at full-back, James Milner in midfield and striker Christian Benteke leading the line.

The Potters handed first starts to winger Ibrahim Afellay, midfielder Marco van Ginkel and ex-Liverpool defender Glen Johnson.

Both sides prodded and probed for signs of weakness in the opening 20 minutes.

A miscued shot from Mame Biram Diouf and a sliced effort from Charlie Adam were the best that Stoke could manage, while the visitors showed neat build-up play with Coutinho’s clever runs at the heart of their attacking forays.

Stoke, who were watched in the stands by Inter Milan playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri amid reports of a loan move, opened up the Liverpool defence just after the half-hour mark.

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– Firmino makes entrance –     

From Van Ginkel’s cross Afellay saw his volleyed effort blocked by Clyne, with Johnson unable to capitalise on the loose ball as he lifted his effort from near the penalty spot over the crossbar.

Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren was fortunate to only escape with a yellow card shortly after the break when his elbow caught Diouf as the pair challenged for a high ball.

Rodgers withdrew the ineffective Adam Lallana for Emre Can just after the hour, but it was Stoke who at that stage looked the most likely to break the deadlock.

Indeed, Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet did well to tip a dangerous curling free-kick from Adam around the post, as Diouf lurked with intent, before the visitors built some momentum of their own.

Coutinho stole the ball on the edge of the box, but it was pinched back off him, while Benteke subsequently saw his first real effort of the game blocked.

With 15 minutes left Can played an intelligent through-ball for Benteke to chase, only for a combination of Marc Wilson and Geoff Cameron to deny the former Aston Villa man a chance to shoot.

Rodgers gave the visiting supporters their first glimpse of the Brazil attacker Roberto Firmino, but it was his compatriot who provided the game’s standout moment.

In the 86th minute, Coutinho spun away from Stoke substitute Steve Sidwell and ran at goal before unleashing an unstoppable shot from 30 yards that flew over the despairing dive of Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland and into the net.

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