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Aug 18, 2014

A deceptive opening Prem weekend

The FC crew breaks down Arsenal and Tottenham's narrow victories.

I hate to be a buzzkill but after spending the past 48 hours in the fever dream grip of the Premier League's opening weekend, here are some things that I don't see happening this season:

-- Manchester United to be relegated
-- Spurs to finish in the top four
-- Sam Allardyce to be hoofed out the West Ham door by Labor Day
-- Liverpool to win the league
-- Yaya Sanogo to lead the Prem in scoring

And yet from my personally engraved perch at the bar of New York's Football Factory, I heard otherwise reasonably sane beings utter all of the above (OK, not the Sanogo prediction) without seeing any evidence of mind-altering substances. So starved for the real thing have Premier League fans been -- the World Cup doesn't count because you're not as emotionally invested in the players, managers, owners, physios and the new, neon away kits -- that they exhibit a rush to judgment based on the smallest of sample sizes: one match.

Is there a bright new dawn in their future or an end-of-days scenario? Just give them 90 minutes to watch their team's opening game and you'll have your answer.

It was a disappointing start for Louis van Gaal but Man United will be fine ... right?
It was a disappointing start for Louis van Gaal but Man United will be fine ... right?

Anyone remember the rhapsodic predictions for David Moyes' United team a year ago after they dismantled Swansea City away 4-1 in their inaugural post-Sir Alex Ferguson contest? Good old Fergie; picking a successor who would continue the club's stranglehold on the Prem and bring joy and trophies to Old Trafford. That, at least, was the initial impression in the giddy afterglow of Moyes' managerial debut. The reality was a tad different: United finished seventh, 22 points behind the champions, Man City.

You would think that by now United fans would have learned that opinions at first sight are illusory. Yet, after the Louis van Gaal era went off with a historic whimper at Old Trafford -- the 2-1 loss to those previous whipping dogs from Swansea was United's first home opening day defeat in 42 years -- many of their supporters were feverishly writing their team's obituary.

"I'm ready to dial 1-800-Tony Pulis," said Jack Keane, the normally exuberant Football Factory proprietor and life-long United supporter. "At least with Pulis, we know we won't be relegated."

But Jack, it's only one game, United had nine players out injured -- including Robin van Persie and Michael Carrick -- van Gaal was forced to blood two teenagers in the team and he was trying out his new-look three-man defensive formation ...

"Yes," said Jack, "but they showed me nothing going forward and you can't change that overnight."

Van Gaal was a picture of deflation on the United bench, where he alternated between muttering to Ryan Giggs, perhaps trying to coax the ageless winger out of retirement, and jotting notes into his diary of pain, including mapping out a horse's-head-in-the-bed surprise for Ed Woodward if United's talent purveyor doesn't get him a bunch of better players pronto.

Losing to Swansea puts Man Utd in a tough spot as the transfer window slowly closes.
Losing to Swansea puts Man Utd in a tough spot as the transfer window slowly closes.

Still, any team with van Persie (due to return next weekend) and Wayne Rooney (Captain Wazza scored the equalizer on a lovely hooked volley) is in no danger of going down and Jack knows it. "Maybe," he conceded, "but I won't bet the pub on us getting back into the Champions League, either."

By contrast, fans of Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs were dizzyingly optimistic despite the fact their teams were all fortunate to walk away with three points after eking out victories over their respectively gallant opponents, Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham. There is nothing like a cathartic late winner to paper over the cracks in the foundation and put a smile on supporters' faces. Or, in Brendan Rodgers' case, trigger the kind of wild-eyed, fist-pumping, racing-down-the-touchline celebration that Jose Mourinho patented at Porto after eliminating Manchester United in the 2004 Champions League knockout round.

Never mind that Liverpool's first performance in the AS (after Suarez) era was hardly of the caliber to cause Man City and Chelsea any sleepless nights; the Anfield faithful could once again indulge their title fantasies after Daniel Sturridge's 79th-minute winner.

Brendan Rodgers will be elated at Liverpool's opening win but they're no title winner yet.
Brendan Rodgers will be elated at Liverpool's opening win but they're no title winner yet.

Tottenham's stoppage-time escape at Upton Park was even more painful, especially since they were down to 10 men and would have been behind 1-0 if not for West Ham's Mark Noble making a hash of a first-half penalty kick, his first miss since 2009. The Hammers' attack was as imaginative as ever with fire-me-first Allardyce's men lumping balls into the box even though their only player who might conceivably get on the end of them, Andy Carroll, was on the bench with an injury.

Searching desperately for a silver lining, the West Ham fans at the bar found one in hoping that the dispiriting loss ushered Big Sam that much closer to the trap door. That may be true, but the club's board is likely to dither for as long as Ricardo Vaz Te did in front of the Spurs' goal, which means West Ham supporters probably have another month to kick Allardyce around, preferably up in the air.

So disheartened was I by Spurs' good fortune that I bolted out of my seat and into the life-affirming sunshine outside, only to behold an even more hideous sight as I stepped through the door -- a MINI Cooper painted white and blue and emblazoned with the Spurs crest. Was this some kind of cruel joke?

"You need to move your car," I barked at the woman standing beside it. "This is a no-Spurs parking zone and I'd hate to see it go up in flames when the rest of the Arsenal fans get here."

The woman explained that it was there as part of NBC's Premier League promotion and that there was no need to get my Arsenal Spanx in a twist. "I'll make you a deal," she said. "If you refrain from torching the Spursmobile, I'll arrange for the Arsenal car to pick you up at your house and drive you to the bar for tomorrow's Liverpool game."

Craven opportunist that I am, I agreed to the Faustian bargain and ducked back inside for what I stupidly assumed would be a couple of stress-free hours watching Arsenal romp over a demoralized Crystal Palace team still grieving over the sudden resignation of their miracle worker, Tony Pulis.

In what's becoming a regular occurrence, Aaron Ramsey rescued Arsenal.
In what's becoming a regular occurrence, Aaron Ramsey rescued Arsenal.

Not even the toxic memory of last season's opening day embarrassment at the Emirates -- a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa that was so dire, the game ended with Aaron Ramsey playing center-back for the depleted Gunners and boos raining down on Arsene Wenger -- could temper my buoyant mood. After all, unlike years past where Wenger had conveniently misplaced his wallet during the transfer window, the Gunners had reloaded impressively over the summer.

True, Arsenal were still without their trio of World Champion Germans -- Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski -- but they were hardly missed in last week's 3-0 Community Shield beatdown of the defending champions Man City (albeit a weakened side) and surely new boy Sexy Alexy Sanchez would run amok against a Palace defense that shipped 48 goals last year.

The only slightly disquieting note was that Wenger had once again opted for Yaya Sanogo over Olivier Giroud as the lone striker. I know the young Frenchman is energetic and hard-working, but if those were criteria for being in the Arsenal lineup Marouane Chamakh would still be doing his headless chicken routine for the Gunners instead of for Palace.

And yet, Sanogo wasn't even the worst player in red on the field Saturday. Smokin' Jack Wilshere and Skitterin' Santi Cazorla had such stinkers that Arsenal might as well have been playing two men down. At least the Spaniard had an excuse for being invisible, having been inadvertently maced by referee Jon Moss with a blast of vanishing spray before he delivered one of his many wretched dead balls.

Santi Cazorla was poor for the Gunners but it didn't matter thanks to Ramsey.
Santi Cazorla was poor for the Gunners but it didn't matter thanks to Ramsey.

It was the same old Arsenal, dominating possession and having very little to show for it. Even Alexis Sanchez was out of sync, his normally brisk passing and electric dribbling lacking their usual assurance. He was also guilty of some slapstick defending on Palace's goal, though whichever tactical genius on the Arsenal bench had the bright idea of asking the 5-foot-5 Chilean to mark the mountainous 6-7 Brede Hangeland needs to get a job at Upton Park.

So once again, that familiar stomach-churning feeling of Arsenal needing a late goal to salvage a victory came roaring back after a three-month absence. And just as he did at Wembley in the FA Cup, Aaron Ramsey saved the Gunners at the death. By his standards, he may have had a quiet game but in the 93rd minute, he popped up in the box after Palace keeper Julian Speroni had parried a point-blank Mathieu Debuchy shot and hammered the ball into the net. Thank you, Welsh Jesus.

An ugly win, to be sure, but three points is three points. Or put another way, one down, 37 to go. How far down that road the Gunners can go is anyone's guess but I'm happy to report that the Arsenal car that drove me to the pub the next morning made it all the way to its destination without breaking down.

Of course, it was only one ride.

David Hirshey

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."

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