After a week that saw the first managerial casualty of the season swiftly followed by the second, there were a number of compelling questions waiting to be answered during the latest round of Premier League fixtures. How will Rafa Benitez fare in his first game as Chelsea boss against champions Manchester City? Will the sacking of Mark Hughes spark life into QPR’s stuttering start to the season? Can André Villas-Boas stem the rot after three successive defeats for Tottenham? Can West Brom continue to defy the odds and maintain their flying start to the season? How will Brendan Rodgers fare on his return to the Liberty Stadium with his new side Liverpool? It took 10 games, 24 goals, three goalless stalemates and a few goalkeeping howlers to finally arrive at the answers.
Rafa is Back
Rafa Benitez made his return to English football in a manner truly befitting to his legacy. In his previous spell, the Liverpool side he managed were renowned more for their defensive organization and industry rather than their attacking flair. Taking charge of a Chelsea side which had not kept a clean sheet in their last 9 games, the Spanish manager went back to the basics with his team’s focus being on stifling the opposition. With his opposing number Roberto Mancini also looking to play safe at a ground where City lost last season, the game was reduced to more of a tentative tactical contest instead of an end-to-end edge of the seat thriller. Neither side, wary of their opponent’s counter attacking abilities, were willing to commit too many bodies forward and ultimately the game petered out to a predictable goalless draw.
To the neutral observer, the reaction of the Stamford Bridge faithful provided an intriguing sub-plot to the drab display on the pitch. Many of the supporters seem to have nailed their colour to the mast with regards to their antipathy towards Benitez and a plentitude of ‘Rafa Out’ banners (or something in a similar theme) were on display. The fact that the man whom Benitez has replaced is held in high regards by the fans – they even took the pain to stage a stadium wide applause on the 16th minute as a mark of tribute to Roberto Di Matteo who wore number 16 during his playing days at Chelsea – does not help his case with the fans. Being the experienced manager he is, Benitez would surely know that all it will take to win favour among the fans, or at least among the majority, is to win football matches. Retaining favour with Roman Abramovich, the owner with the itchiest trigger finger in the league, though may be something beyond Rafa’s grasp. In fact, if anything, with his pragmatic brand of football, as sampled on Sunday, Benitez is perhaps more vulnerable than any of his recent predecessors.
West Brom continue dream start
One of the first challenges facing Benitez in his new job will be to overtake the team that sits currently above Chelsea in the table. After 13 matches, little West Bromwich Albion sit pretty on 3rd in the standings looking down on the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. The word fairytale does not even start doing justice to the start made by a club tipped by many to go down this season. And just in case anyone can says Hull City or Burnley, at the same stage Hull had collected 21 points during 2008-09 season and Burnley collected 18 the following year whereas the Baggies currently have a point total of 26. The club which spent the last decade bouncing back and forth between the Premier League and Championship, à la Crystal Palace in the 90s, finally seems to have settled on a more permanent home – and unlike their predecessors Palace, they have chosen the right division to settle in.
This weekend saw them visiting Sunderland at Stadium of Light in a fixture that would normally prove to be daunting on most seasons for a team like Albion. But this is not most seasons and on this day the Baggies were on top throughout since the stunning long range strike by Zolton Gera put them in the lead and ran out 4-2 winners in the end. The game also featured a horrendous goalkeeping gaffe by Black Cats keeper Simon Mignolet resulting in Shane Long, one of the form strikers in the league, tapping in.
A lot of credit for Baggies run of form should be attributed to manager Steve Clark, who is showing why he was much sought after as assistant by some of the leading managers in the game. Even then the transition from No. 2 to No. 1 in managerial sense often proves to a quantum leap in football as demonstrated by the likes of Brian Kidd, Carlos Queiroz and Sammy Lee. But Clark till now has looked the part in his new role and has kept things simple with generally opting for a 5-man midfield with Long leading the line. There is bound to come a stage during this season when things will start to go against West Brom. How Clark responds to such a potential slump will say a lot about his ability to make it as a manager in the long run.
Redknapp watches from the stand as QPR relinquish lead against Manchester United
Sacking the manager is not perhaps the ideal way to prepare for a trip to Old Trafford, but QPR owner Tony Fernandez obviously had other ideas when he bid farewell to Mark Hughes after Rangers’ atrocious start to the season. And for a long while on Saturday afternoon with the manager-elect Harry Redknapp in attendance, his ideas seemed to be paying off as Rangers frustrated United in the first half before taking a shock lead at the start of the second – only the third time they have done such a thing in the league this year. Unfortunately for Rangers, their lack of experience in scoring first is not shared by their opponents in conceding first this season. The goal served only to wake the home side from their slumber and within a quarter of an hour United had established a two goal lead. One of the goals came from Darren Fletcher who was making his first league start since overcoming a career threatening ailment in ulcerative colitis. The win took United back to the top of the pile and City’s draw on Sunday meant they ended the weekend on the same position.
Spurs back to winning ways
After a run of three consecutive league defeats, the pressure was very much on manager Andre Villas-Boas as Tottenham hosted cross town rivals West Ham United, a team sitting above them in the table before the game. But West Ham old boy Jermaine Defoe bagged himself a brace and Gareth Bale added one to put Spurs’ quest for a top four finish back on track. In goal, Hugo Lloris started his third match in a row, a fact which indicates Villas-Boas may have finally decided on his no. 1, and put in a commanding display to boot. For West Ham, the only silver lining was the identity of the scorer of their consolation goal. It may have taken him nine games, but Andy Carroll is finally up and running in West Ham colours.
In other action on Sunday, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers endured a frustrating return to Swansea as his side failed to break down the hosts even after doing most of the running whereas Southampton picked up their second win on the bounce by beating Newcastle at St. Mary’s.
On Saturday, Aston Villa and Arsenal played out the first of the three goalless encounters of the weekend at Villa Park, Stoke got the better of Fulham at Britannia Stadium thanks to a close range strike from Charlie Adam and Wigan edged a five goal thriller against Reading with Jordi Gomez netting a hattrick for the Latics thereby saving goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi’s blushes after a howler that eclipsed Mignolet’s ‘effort’ earlier in the day.