Any mid-August observations about the destination of the Premier League title race should be taken with a fistful of salt, but there was enough in the opening-round showings to suggest that some contenders are in better shape from the start than others.
In the grand history of papering over cracks, Arsenal have always excelled, and their barnstorming/barmy Friday-nighter against Leicester managed to cram in almost a whole season’s worth of pure Arsenal. A bright start, some defensive fragility, a glimpse of Danny Welbeck, shooting themselves in the foot…and then Olivier Giroud coming on to do what Olivier Giroud apparently always does: only the sight of a marauding Sead Kolasinac reminded us that this was a new season after all.
Having witnessed what Friday could do, Saturday asked us – as the popular internet meme says – to hold its beer. After Watford and Liverpool eschewed the art of defending early doors, defending champions Chelsea (an ominous set of words these days) welcomed Burnley to Stamford Bridge…and utterly lost their heads, in the sort of way that only this Chelsea squad can.
Even with the heavily mitigating circumstances of going down to 10 men after less than quarter of an hour (Gary Cahill was rightly dismissed, no matter how much howling of injustice it caused), Antonio Conte’s side were a dishevelled rabble for most of the opening hour of their title defence.
Chelsea's Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta look dejected after Burnley's Sam Vokes scores their third goal
Image credit: Reuters
Alvaro Morata’s bright cameo from the bench was their only positive takeaway, and a week of alarmingly early introspection is in order at Cobham. Next up, a fearsome sight – Tottenham (A) – a prospect made slightly less daunting by Wembley’s accommodating expanses, if not by the way Spurs brushed past Newcastle.
That left Manchester United to complete the set of big-gun opening salvos – and Jose Mourinho’s reinforced spine was more than enough to withstand the force (such as it was) of the perennially, charmingly, all-over-the-shop West Ham. Romelu Lukaku scored twice, Nemanja Matic pitched his tent in midfield, and Victor Lindelof…actually, he wasn’t even needed.
Romelu Lukaku (left) scored twice, but Jose Mourinho praised the Manchester United striker's all-round contribution
Image credit: PA Sport
There will be ample opportunity for each set of title-aspiring supporters to feel aggrieved and deflated this season, you sense, but it’s unquestionably Chelsea fans who will be feeling that peculiarly football-inspired Monday-morning gloom.
The game in Spain falls mainly on the plainly brilliant
The annual quest to ensure Barcelona and Real Madrid play each other as often as humanly possible kicked off, as it usually does, with the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday evening.
Messi+Ronaldo | Barcelona-Real Madrid | Supercopa España (IDA)
Image credit: Getty Images
Some fans’ loyalties may have been rather confused (although “Mealdo” sounds like he’d be a hell of a player), but the rest were treated to a curtain-raising rollercoaster ahead of the new La Liga season. The first half was relatively quiet – just the five yellow cards – but things kicked off decidedly swiftly in the second period.
First Gerard Pique slid the ball into his own net, then Ronaldo – on as a sub – had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside. Then Luis Suarez “earned” a penalty for Lionel Messi to convert and level things up, before Ronaldo stormed forward to belt in an absolute beauty to restore Real’s lead and reacquaint the world with his naked torso.
Then he received a second yellow card for diving, pushed the referee in disgust, Real Madrid scored a third anyway…and they play again on Wednesday.
Honestly: what’s the rush, 2017/18?
IN OTHER NEWS
Getting embroiled (always “embroiled”) in a Twitter storm is now some sort of rite of passage for a Premier League footballer, but it takes some going to chalk one up before you’ve even set foot on a pitch in English football.
Manchester City’s £52m Benjamin Mendy – apparently no stranger to Top Banter – was an enthusiastic spectator as his team-mates eased past Brighton, and he seemed to thoroughly enjoy Lewis Dunk’s own goal that doubled City’s lead.
After some brief fuss – the BT Sport punditry pair of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard shared a rare moment of synchronicity by giving Mendy a very English ticking-off – the social-media climb-down swiftly followed.
Ah, the banter defence. Mendy knows the Premier League inside-out already.
HEROES AND ZEROS
Hero: Stefano Okaka
Second Season Syndrome, it seems, works both ways. While some players worry about “getting found out” and all that jazz, Watford’s clanking, bustling Stefano Okaka seems happily intent on making a proper name for himself this time around.
Okaka looked rather out of place last season – admittedly as just one part of Walter Mazzari’s square-pegs-in-round-holes operation – but he began 2017/18 like a man possessed. Liverpool shirts went flying when he got the ball, possession was recycled cleverly and quickly, and he powered home the header that kicked-off the opening day’s goal glut.
Still just 28, Okaka’s increasingly peripatetic career could do with a defining chapter. Watford, meanwhile, could do with a new hero. This might just work out.
Zero: Jonjo Shelvey
Newcastle United's English midfielder Jonjo Shelvey (C) passes Tottenham Hotspur's Argentinian head coach Mauricio Pochettino (L) and Newcastle United's Spanish manager Rafael Benitez
Image credit: Getty Images
The irony of where Newcastle captain Jonjo Shelvey focused his St James’ Park frustration wasn’t lost on many. Dele Alli’s gleaming footballing career has been punctuated with moments of impetuous microaggressions, and it was he who lured Shelvey into the trap of rag-lossage: Newcastle studs met Tottenham ankle just three minutes into the second half, referee Andre Marriner pursed his lips disapprovingly from about six yards away, and off Shelvey went.
Naturally, just to rubberstamp the collective tutting, Newcastle gently went to pieces soon afterwards. Dele Alli further proved his superiority in all departments by ghosting in and steering home the opener, while Shelvey presumably sat in the dressing room embarking on yet another hard personal lesson.
The Sky studio is now the domain of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, whose whip-smart analysis and righteous rants have made the Monday night show depression-lifting telly at long last, even if the Lancastrian rivals shtick is trotted out to a degree that Frank Randle might have found a tad too parochial.
On this very day, 21 years ago, the Amsterdam ArenA (their wacky capitalisation, not mine) had its cherry popped with a visit from AC Milan. Not content with having pick-pocketed Ajax for two of their Champions League-winning squad, Milan also spoiled the party with a 3-0 win.
Marco Simone’s volley alone is worth pressing the play button here, not to mention Edgar Davids’ comprehensive rejection of the whole muted-celebration nonsense when he wins a penalty.
Unless you’re dead-set on Hansa Rostock v Hertha Berlin in the German Cup tonight, enjoy a moment to take stock of all the one-game, knee-jerk reactions before some Champions League action in midweek.
Tomorrow’s edition will be brought to you by Nick Miller, whose train home from Newcastle might just have got back by then.