EPL Review: 9 Top Players from Opening Day
There's few things quite like the first day of Premier League football.
The excitement before the first batch of games, the agony and ecstasy moments later—depending on where your loyalties lie.
Saturday was vintage stuff from the Premiership, whose sides have shown an inclination to turn expectations on their head in recent seasons.
Such was the case in the seven games on tap, with West Bromwich Albion turning away 10-man Liverpool 3-0 at the Hawthorns, Sunderland holding Arsenal scoreless at the Emirates and Swansea City and Fulham both putting five goals past their opponents.
A thoroughly thrilling day, and with Chelsea and Manchester City both primed to take the field tomorrow, it should only get better.
Michu, Swansea City
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Newly-appointed Swansea City manager Michael Laudrup had tipped star striker Danny Graham to push his goal-scoring tally to 20 this season, but with the first game of the season as evidence, he may have got the wrong guy.
Graham came close to opening his account for the visitors to Loftus Road, but it was attacking midfielder Michu—like Laudrup, new to Swansea this season—who provided one of the most impressive opening displays of the day.
The former Rayo Vallecano man is no stranger to finding the back of the net—he scored 15 times last season—but in a new league, and with a new team, to have shown this sort of production will have future Swans opponents racing to find ways to stop him.
It will be a difficult task. Laudrup was familiar with Michu from having faced him in Spain while the former Danish international was at the helms of Getafe and Mallorca, and recognized the outsized effect the 6'1" mid can have on an encounter.
He'd looked sharp in preseason, and on Saturday he compounded that form with a terrific debut. Scorer of the first two goals in a 5-0 shellacking of favored Queens Park Rangers, Michu will have Swansea fans looking forward to this season in a big way.
Carlos Cuellar, Sunderland
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His performance will likely be lost amid the din of surprising results emanating throughout the league, but the Sunderland center back was an absolute bastion in defense against Arsenal on Saturday.
The Gunners pushed, prodded and pulled every string imaginable to unlock the defense Martin O'Neill had set up, but Cuellar and the rest of his team stood fast to the end, producing block after courageous block to halt the Gunners' advances.
Cuellar was dealing with a muscle problem for most of the second half as well, only amplifying his resolute display.
It was a well-earned point for the Black Cats, and a terrific way to kick off their 2011-12 campaign.
Santi Cazorla, Arsenal
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It was a banner day for Spaniards abroad in England, as both Michu and Cazorla enjoyed spectacular introductions to Premier League football.
Cazorla couldn't be more different from his compatriot when styles of play are considered, but the international stalwart was far and away the best player on the pristine Emirates pitch Saturday.
Not since Cesc Fabregas left for Barcelona had Arsenal fans witnessed such a mesmeric display in midfield. Cazorla was everywhere throughout the first half, shedding aside worries he might have brought heavy legs back from a midweek friendly with Spain in Puerto Rico.
Robin van Persie once said that part of Fabregas' brilliance and disproportional influence in games stemmed from his ability to play much quicker than his physical limitations would otherwise have allowed.
It was the Catalan's ability to think "two seconds ahead" that thoroughly impressed the Dutchman, who frequently had to deal with the neat combinations and deft feints employed by Fabregas in training.
Cazorla's a far cry from "lumbering," but like Fabregas, he is not blessed with searing pace.
You'd never have known it on Saturday, however, as Cazorla flummoxed Sunderland's defense so thoroughly in the opening minutes, using the tricks Fabregas had employed in training, that Black Cats manager Martin O'Neill had midfield enforcer Lee Cattermole man-mark him for the rest of the match.
It worked in stages, but Cazorla still found openings in the opposing defense, perhaps seen best in his neat little pass for Olivier Giroud, who despite finding himself open on goal fired well wide of the target.
Jermain Defoe, Tottenham
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New managers mean new chances, and Defoe took full advantage of the starting position afforded him by Andre Villas-Boas against Newcastle on Saturday, scoring the lone goal for Spurs in a 2-1 defeat.
Defoe had nabbed 11 league strikes last season in just 25 games, a superb return that wasn't deemed good enough to Harry Redknapp's mind to supplant Emmanuel Adebayor and mid-season arrival Louis Saha in the pecking order for the lone striker position.
Villas-Boas continued to employ one striker, but with Saha now at Sunderland and Adebayor mired in contract negotiations with Real Madrid (the Togolese hit man was on loan at White Hart Lane last season), the onus fell to Defoe.
The 29-year-old, who'd scored a terrific individual goal for England in midweek, was rampant throughout, running at the Coloccini-less Newcastle defense and showing his sharp eye for goal.
He hit the post before finally cashing in with a finish that brought Spurs level, and will have given Villas-Boas every reason to have confidence in him heading forward.
Ricardo Vaz Te, West Ham United
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In a 1-0 win over Aston Villa that will have done West Ham a world of good, Ricardo Vaz Te looked terrific in fits and spurts on a shadow-ridden Upton Park pitch.
Capable of running at defenders as well as using guile to flummox, Vaz Te employed his dizzying array of skills to great effect against a stout Villa defense.
Combined with his keen eye for a pass—exemplified by his cut back for Kevin Nolan's winner—Vaz Te could be applauded for a job well done.
Relegation may yet be a real threat for Sam Allardyce's Hammers, but Vaz Te provides a creative spark that could go a long way toward keeping the promoted side in the top flight where, to be quite frank, they belong.
Zoltan Gera, West Bromwich Albion
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Gera's strike, a powerful right-footed half volley that smashed into Pepe Reina's net, was a perfect encapsulation of West Bromwich Albion's performance on the day.
They had been on the back foot for much of the first half, but when chances came, they were able to take them.
By the time the full-time whistle had gone, one of this season's trendy relegation picks had finished off a performance that made them look anything but, defeating new-look Liverpool 3-0 at The Hawthorns.
Steve Clarke has them playing good football, and looking very, very good on the counter.
It will have done the Hungarian a world of good to open his account on the opening day of the season.
After returning to West Brom from Fulham last season, the midfielder made just three appearances before suffering a "serious knee injury" in November that ruled him out for the rest of the campaign.
Three times named Hungarian Footballer of the Year, and Fulham's Player of the Season in 2009-10, when the Cottagers embarked upon that terrific run to the Europa League final, Gera could play a critical role for new manager Steve Clarke.
Cheik Tiote, Newcastle United
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Demba Ba and Hatem ben Arfa got the glory for their goals in Newcastle's 2-1 win over Tottenham, but Cheik Tiote will surely have received a hearty handshake from manager Alan Pardew.
After combining so brilliantly with Yohan Cabaye in central midfield last season, Tiote was at his considerable best on Saturday with the Frenchman struggling for fitness and form after a short preseason following his participation in the European Championships.
Able to combine a no-nonsense defensive approach with savvy distribution—he was involved in the buildup to the first Newcastle goal—it was Tiote's ability to disrupt Tottenham's offensive formula that will have brought smiles to many a Toon supporter.
With the top four a very realistic ambition this season, Tiote will need to continue with these sorts of performances.
Mladen Petric, Fulham
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That it was Swansea and Fulham who grabbed the five-star plaudits on the day was one of the biggest surprises yet of this opening weekend.
Both clubs were aided in their routs by standout performances—for Fulham, it was Mladen Petric who earned the glory in providing the second and third goals of the day for the Cottagers, who waxed Norwich City 5-0.
He also chipped in an assist for good measure before being subbed out in the 67th minute.
Soccernet called it "a sublime display," and given that it was Petric's full league debut, it's hard to disagree with that sentiment.
Damien Duff will also earn plaudits for his work down the wing, but it was Petric's day, and rightly so.
"I am very happy," Petric told the club's official site after the game. "Not only because of my performance, but because we had an amazing start today which will be very important for us throughout the rest of the season."
Top of the table for the time being, Fulham must navigate a tricky fixture against Manchester United next weekend. But that's for then. For now, their fans can enjoy a week of celebration after watching their standout Croatian signing flummox EPL defenses.
Garath McCleary, Reading
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Adam Le Fondre got the glory after converting a late penalty to salvage a point in a 1-1 draw for Reading against Stoke City at the Madejski Stadium, but it was Garath McCleary, signed this summer from Nottingham Forest, who "turned the game on its head," according to Agence France Presse.
"Garath come off the bench and make an impression," Reading manager Brian McDermott told the club's official site afterward. "That's why we have 20-odd players and all of them can play in the Barclays Premier League."
McCleary's unchecked run took him into the penalty area, where he was bundled over by Dean Whitehead—who drew red for the challenge—leading up to Le Fondre's spot-kick.
Despite being on the back foot for much of the encounter, the newly promoted side will have been injected with confidence by the fight-back for a point, which could come in handy toward the end of the season.