Roberto Di Matteo has had a productive summer in the transfer market. Oscar, heir apparent to Brazil's number ten shirt, and Eden Hazard, who everyone else wanted and a couple of rivals thought they had, have added a zest and imagination to his side which, as when they won the Champions League, had previously been largely acknowledged for their mastery of the art of bus parking. Hazard started against Wigan, withstood some robust tackling and created both goals with his passing. Oscar suggested in a second half cameo reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo's brief debut for Manchester United, that he will not be long on the substitute's bench.
Indeed the possibilities at Stamford Bridge offer up this enticing thought: we could be in for the most attacking Premier League title fight in years.
There was much made before last weekend's Premier League kick off — by Alan Pardew among others — of the need for football to learn from the Olympic Games. A bit of fun, a bit of fair play, a bit of humility, everyone seemed to agree these wouldn't go amiss. The truth is, it is possible to like both the open generosity of the Olympics and the driven partisanship of the Premier League. The thing about the Olympics was that, without emotional investment, we could watch events with a clear head knowing that ultimately the result didn't really matter to us. Sure, it was great when a home athlete won a gold or when a world record was broken or when you saw something superhuman as in the performances of David Radisha, Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. But what was so refreshingly pleasant about the games was that we could take pleasure whatever the result.
Football can only rarely offer than unconnected sense of enjoyment. Results are always filtered through the prism of our personal prejudice. Which is as much a strength as a weakness. The fact is, when we go to watch Liverpool against Everton or Arsenal against Spurs or City against United, it really, really matters.
But, if the Premier League does need to re-assert itself as the nation's number one cultural offering after the fortnight long distraction in East London, then the hints from the weekend suggest it could not have set about things better. Manchester City looked as alluring as ever, scoring three and missing about twelve. Chelsea were smooth, competent and compelling. Even while being deservedly beaten by a spritely Everton at Goodison, Manchester United, in the person of Shinji Kagawa, appeared not to have forgotten the principle long at the heart of the club: to entertain.
Add to that the signing of Gylfi Sigurdsson by Spurs, Arsenal's acquisition of Santi Cazorla, and Brendan Rodgers' insistence that passing is the only route to success at Anfield, and suddenly the top flight looks to have the most potent of products. Skill in abundance, attack to the fore.
It could be called the Barcelona effect; this fashion for the sharp, the quick and the technically gifted. Managers have looked at what was delivered by the Catalans over the past five years and decided that was the best way to achieve success. Swansea helped the cause last season and Reading and Southampton seem to have arrived in the Premier League keen on continuing the experiment. Sure, not everyone is buying into it. Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis are about as likely to embrace tika-taka as Julian Assange is a one-way ticket to New York.
Still, as the season starts, everything is in place to make the Premier League as attractive and compelling as it has been in its 20-year history. The perfect response to those who seek to diminish it by comparison to the Olympics.
There is just the one caveat to such optimism, however. When listing those newcomers likely to shine creatively this season — Oscar, Hazard, Kagawa, Sigurdsson, Cazorla — a pity none of them hail from these islands.
- Sports & Recreation
- Premier League
- Eden Hazard
- Manchester United