Football is back, and it hardly feels as though it’s been away. In a sense I suppose it hasn’t – since those days in May that saw Manchester City snatch the Premier League title in the final minutes and Chelsea record an unlikely Champions League win we had a wonderful Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine won by a majesterial Spain and the Olympic tournament, greeted with skepticism on these shores but featuring a young Great Britain team who impressed, a bunch of flair-filled young Brazilians and an against-the-odds gold medal win for Mexico, of all teams.
Against the backdrop of actual football we’ve had the usual summer goings on – transfer rumour silly season, a Chelsea cash splurge and the now standard Arsenal captain transfer saga. So we can’t have missed football, really, we’ve not had the time to. But even so in the unusual surroundings of Villa Park, champions of Europe and FA Cup holders Chelsea took on title winners Manchester City. It was a decent game – five goals, a potentially controversial red card and a goalkeeping howler. What, if anything, did we learn from the game and the summer these two heavyweights have had?
1. Fernando Torres might actually be back this time.
Ah yes, the old “Torres is back” line. Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. It’s been endlessly repetitive in the years since, for whatever reason, the once fearsome striker lost his way. Torres scores, everyone announces Torres is back, he then flops in his next few games until he scores again a few months later and is back again. So many people, from journalists, pundits and bloggers to fans and players have had their fingers burned by announcing that he’s back that few now are willing to say anything. But after (rather fortuitously) nabbing the Golden Boot award at Euro 2012, the signs are there that Torres has finally rediscovered himself. His goal in this game was gloriously old-school Torres, a lovely dink past Costel Pantilimon after good build-up work from Ramires and Hazard. It was instant, there was none of the hesitation or over-thinking that has besmirched his finishing more often than not recently. Whisper it, but he may actually be back this time.
2. Even £32m does not buy instant brilliance.
At the time of kick off Manchester City had not made any signings (though it was announced later on Sunday that they had agreed a £15m fee with Everton for Jack Rodwell) and with Chelsea’s Marko Marin unfit and Oscar having played in the Olympic final the previous day, Eden Hazard was the only big money new recruit on show. Placed on the left of an attacking triumvirate behind Torres, much was expected of the exciting young Belgian but he had a game that can at best be described as low-key, at worst poor. This is not to criticise him though, of course he needs time to adjust to his new surroundings. It reminded me of David Silva’s Premier League debut for City against Spurs. The tiny Spaniard looked bemused by the hurly-burly of new his surroundings and was largely passed by in the 0-0 draw. Plenty of people were writing him off that early. He was too small, too slow to weak to prosper in England. For imports to succeed it was not enough to be skilful, they had to be strong – look at Vieira, Bergkamp, Cantona, even the deceptively tough Zola. Of course, this was all hokum and soon enough Silva was making other players dance to his tune, not the other way around. I fear that similar nonsense will be pedalled about Hazard now after this initial struggle*. But lets not write him off just yet.
* Though it works both ways, after a recent cameo in a pre-season friendly in the states one tabloid scribe excitably called Hazard “Messi and Bergkamp rolled into one”. Perspective, please!
3. Chelsea still need more reinforcements.
Much of the talk this summer has been about Abramovic reopening his cheque book to turn Chelsea into a Barca-lite (presumably in readyness to try and tempt Pep Guardiola to London in a season or two) but despite revamping the creative side of the squad there are still issues that need addressing. Ivanovic’s sending off brought the lack of right back cover to the fore as he will now face a Premier League suspension. The Serbian prefers to play centre back anyway but even in his less preferred position he is better than the alternatives. The release of Jose Bosingwa leaves just Portuguese stalwart and the definition of mediocrity Paulo Ferreira the only other senior right back at the club. The inexperienced – and once retired through injury – Sam Hutchinson is the only alternative. The club’s interest in Ajax’s Gregory van der Wiel seems to have cooled but they could worse than battling Newcastle for Lille’s French international Matthieu Debauchy – while the Geordies may quibble over the asking price, Chelsea don’t need to.
4. Manchester City probably don’t need reinforcements.
Even though he’s a handsome, sophisticated, urbane Italian, Roberto Mancini does enjoy a good whinge. Perhaps that’s why we’ve taken to him so well in this country. His persistent theme of the summer has been frustration about the slow (read: no) progress with incoming transfers. City have been linked all summer long with a new striker, a new centreback, and midfield cover. Van Persie is the obvious choice up front but murmers persist that the Old Trafford neighbours are the front runners in that deal while Mancini’s first choice for a new defender, Liverpool’s classy Dane Daniel Agger, doesn’t look likely to be wearing a blue shirt anytime soon at this rate. Some progress has been made in midfield with the completion of the transfter for Everton’s Jack Rodwell likely to happen this week. The question is though – do City need any of these players? An unexpected switch from his favoured 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-1-2 formation suggests Mancini doesn’t lack tactical options. Up front they have Aguero, Tevez, Balotelli and Dzeko, and that’s before you consider that Adebayor and Santa Cruz (remember him?) remain on the books in addition to the talented young Swede John Guidetti who scored goals on loan at Feyenoord last year. For the defensive central midfield position Mancini wants cover for they have Barry (though he is currently injured), Yaya Toure and de Jong but also have the versatility of Milner, Zabaleta and even Kompany to fill in there if needed. Aside from the first choice centre back pairing of Kompany and Lescott Mancini call on Kolo Toure, the raw Savic or push Zabaleta or Richards infield. Having spent so much the Italian cannot complain he lacks options. Despite that, he will, and the promising young Rodwell will be signed to plug a non existent gap. Here’s hoping he doesn’t become a forgotten man at the Etihad.
5. AVB has a right to be annoyed.
It seems the Stamford Bridge rebuilding job Andre Villas-Boas was hired to do but only allowed to partly complete has now begun in earnest. The Portuguese managed to get rid of Benayoun (temporarily), Alex and Anelka but found the likes of Drogba, Malouda and Lampard harder to shift. Under Di Matteo Drogba has been shipped off to China and it would be no surprise to see Malouda begin the season elsewhere (Brazil is a possible destination). The youthful signings of AVB’s reign – Lukaku and Courtois – have again been loaned out, Lukaku to West Brom for Premier League experience, Courtios to Atletico Madrid for a second season, and joined by Belgian compatriots Thorgen Hazard (brother of Eden) and Kevin de Bruyne, who has also been loaned elsewhere. For the first team Oscar, the elder Hazard and Marko Marin have been signed, with talk of more to follow. Interest remains in Wigan firebrand Victor Moses, a winger-cum-striker who could add a dash more flair to the right wing than Ramires and also competition for Torres and Sturridge up front. While all this goes on that the Bridge, in North London a ginger-bearded Portuguese man will be asking why all this didn’t happen last summer.