A week-end of surprises, none greater than Barcelona’s result on Saturday, pointed to potentially more balanced competition in the 2010-2011 campaigns, particularly in Serie A, Ligue 1 and in the Bundesliga. A look at the early season standings in Germany reveals minnows Hoffenheim and Mainz undefeated at the top, while Bayern Munich, Bremen, Schalke, and Wolfsburg figuring in the bottom half of the table, Stuttgart rock bottom. Chievo and Cesena enjoy the view at the top in Italy. No struggles for Chelsea and Arsenal, who are off to great starts to the Premiership, but Man United’s weaknesses were on display again in Everton’s stunning injury-time comeback. Still in England, Liverpool is yet to find its groove under Roy Hodgson, while Aston Villa keeps searching for solutions.
Barcelona suffered a rare home defeat to a vibrant Hercules Alicante team powered not only by underrated Paraguayan forward Nelson Valdez, who scored both goals, but also former Juventus man David Trezeguet and a couple of Madrid players on loan. Barca played without the injured Puyol and Guardiola rested Dani Alves, Busquets, Xavi and Pedro, not imagining that Hercules would be such a difficult opponent. Argentina cpatain Javier Mascherano made his Catalan debut in a game where Barca never fully gained control. It is still very early in the season, but Mourinho’s arrival in Madrid greatly limits Guardiola’s room for error. Neither team can afford to drop points at home to little teams. Barca has an immediate chance for redemption in the Champions League against Panathinaikos, then a tough encounter against Primera leader Atletico Madrid at the week-end. Real notched its first win of the season with a narrow victory over Osasuna, but faces a difficult test in the Champions League away at Ajax Amsterdam.
Roma is in near crisis mode just two matches into the new Serie A season after a scoreless home draw with newly promoted Cesena was followed by a 1-5 trouncing away at Cagliari. It does not get any easier with a midweek trip to Munich to face Bayern. Results aside, Roma’s play in every sector of the pitch is slow and predictable, in dire need of urgent improvement. The day’s other big surprise in Italy was delivered by a fresh Serie A arrival. On Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut, Milan stunningly crashed to newly promoted Cesena, Ibra missing a penalty near the end for good measure. Having parted with Marco Boriello and Huntelaar, two excellent forwards, in favor of the Ibra-Pato-Robinho-Ronaldinho formation, Milan took a very calculated gamble that generates plenty of buzz off the field. Whether or not this formation translates into success on the pitch is far from clear.
Juventus and Sampdoria provided the most entertaining match of the week-end in Serie A, a 3-3 draw at the Stadio Olimpico, on the day when new Juventus manager Luigi del Neri faced the players he left to take over at Juve. The much anticipated “new” Juventus is yet to show up. Inter squeezed a slim victory over Udinese, but there are signs that the Mourinho swagger might be slightly inactive. Inter’s personality under Rafa Benitez is yet to be determined, but the experienced group has clear standards. Fiorentina and Palermo suffered away defeats to newcomers Lecce and Brescia, more welcome evidence of some healthy balance in the competition. Supporters and the game itself benefit when the gap between the rich and less affluent clubs is narrowed so that there are no easy points.
The week in England, regrettably, was dominated by paparazzi stories about Wayne Rooney’s personal life, something that has absolutely nothing to do with football. This episode marks the latest example of the insatiable British appetite for gossip involving a public figure. It is a cultural problem with commercial implications, of course, a tabloid fascination with other people’s personal lives supported by those with a lack of flavor in their actual lives. Rooney’s absence from the United line-up in a highly charged match against his former team was justified by Alex Ferguson as “for his own protection,” an unfortunate explanation. United may have dropped two points with or without Rooney, but keeping him on the sideline simply because of the social pressure is lamentable.
What is clear is that United desperately needs to acquire a play-maker to compete at the highest level. In addition, if Rio Ferdinand cannot return to full fitness and stay fit for the entire season, United needs to do whatever it takes to bring in someone like Luisao from Benfica. No one is intimidated by the current Man United formation. Chelsea, on the other hand, is stomping on every opponent without breaking a sweat. Four out of four for both Chelsea and West Ham, the Hammers on the wrong end of the streak. Arsenal continues to look like Chelsea’s most intriguing contender playing a continental game with an international cast that has mastered the Wenger symphony. On Merseyside, the wait for Liverpool’s revival continues after another lackluster performance away at Birmingham. Gerrard aside, even with his inconsistencies, a midfield of Lucas, Maxi Rodriguez, Poulsen and even Portuguese newcomer Raul Meireles is the glaring weakness. Torres is showing signs of improvement, but his sharpness is still off. Liverpool’s best player was Pepe Reina, who literally saved a point. And Maestro Hodgson, why not play Ryan Babel?
River’s revival under Angel Cappa continued in Argentina with a slim 1-0 victory over a tough opponent in Arsenal de Sarandi, enough for a share of the lead with Velez Sarsfield and Estudiantes. River has yet to convince with its play, but it has laboriously gathered points as it looks to put an end to a string of dismal campaigns in recent years that have left the club uncomfortably close to the relegation area, an unthinkable possibility for a club of such magnitude. San Lorenzo and Velez split the points in the round’s most interesting clash, while Boca got three much needed points at Olimpo but Independiente continued to struggle with a scoreless draw against newly promoted Quilmes. Six rounds into the Apertura, the five teams at the top are separated by just one point, with Arsenal and San Lorenzo trailing the three leaders.