EPL Week 4 Update: Arsenal and ManU Go Nuts, Liverpool Nudges Out Of Relegation Zone

A quick wrap up of what’s gone on this weekend in the EPL:

Arsenal 6-Southampton 1: Only two bummers for Arsenal fans — first goal of the year let in, and Giroud still hasn’t scored (and didn’t even get in the game until the last 20 minutes). But Arsenal’s back in the top four after four weeks, and Southampton is the only EPL team to date that’s lost all its games. Too early to relegate them now? Blackburn Rovers are at the top of the Championship League standings right now — anyone feel like bringing back the Blackburn chicken?

ManU 4, Wigan 0: Oh, the Latics. They let four in today — all in the second half, starting with the ginger magic of Paul Scholes and including a Chicharito goal. Roberto Martinez really deserves better talent, given his coaching acumen.

Liverpool 1-Sunderland 1: Luis Suarez brought Liverpool from the brink of relegation right in time — well, right in time for the Being: Liverpool documentary debut tomorrow night (9 pm ET, Fox Soccer Channel. BE THERE!) Now, with a few games still to play (and Reading still needing to make up the rainout game), the Reds have hoisted themselves up to 17th place.

QPR 0, Chelsea 0: No handshake and no scoring, but Hazard almost put one in during the dying throes of the game. Despite the tie to the ever-puzzling QPR (looks relegation-worthy, but hangs tough against top-tier teams), Chelsea still stays on top of the table.

Other games: Aston Villa beat Swansea (fading Swansea?), Fulham beat West Brom, Stoke managed to hang on and tie Man City, and the aforementioned West Ham-Norwich tie happened.

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It’s a Ferdinand-Terry Non-Handshake Saturday!

So, news out of Loftus Road is that despite official Premier League assurances that the QPR-Chelsea pre-game handshakes would go as planned, it’s been anything but. Despite an attempt by John Terry to make up for the whole alleged racism incident by reaching out to Anton Ferdinand, the handshake did not happen — and Ferdinand snubbed Ashley Cole for good measure.

At halftime, Cheslea’s leading QPR in yellow cards, 2-0, but the score’s tied. Southhampton’s put in three goals to Arsenal’s two — but two of those have been own goals, and even though Arsenal’s allowed its first goal of the season (just before halftime, ruining a 3 1/2 game streak), the Gunners are putting the butt-hurt on The Team Most Likely To Be Relegated. Berbatov’s slotted two for the Dempsey-and-Dembele-free Fulham side against West Brom, and Peter Crouch apparently used his hand to guide in Stoke’s first goal, and they’re tied with the Defending League Champions at the half. There’s just one final so far, and it’s boring: Norwich 0, West Ham 0.

Thoughts on the First Three EPL Weeks

First off, I haven’t been hiding — I’ve been contributing over at FourFiveTwo. My recent posts there (where soccer meets what we call comedy) includes a primer on how to insult fans of all 20 EPL teams, a musing on reports that Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t celebrate a milestone goal in a Real Madrid home game because he was “sad,” and a celebration of a goalie’s set piece bicycle kick to tie up a crucial (well, maybe not that crucial) Danish second division game.

So, the first three weeks of the EPL are in the books, and already, it’s looking like a season just as joyfully, awesomely as weird as last season. Some initial thoughts on where we’re at:

* We really shouldn’t be surprised that Chelsea’s at the top of the table — Hazard was a spectacular pickup, and they’ve made some other smart moves (read: Oscar) to bolster an already loaded lineup. Still, though, Torres as the main striker option is just waiting to bite them at some point in the season, and Hulk — despite the rumors that he’d be ending up in blue — is instead set to experience well-paid exile in Russia. But apparently Drogba might be looking for a team with the Shanghai situation not being as promised? Could he return to Chelsea? Could it be staged like a surprise pro wrestling comeback if he does? Pretty please?

* After two and 1/3 games in which Arsenal seemingly forgot how to score, Podolski and Cazorla look like awesome pickups, and Giroud looks like he’ll score eventually. And no goals scored on Arsenal in three games! The only team in the EPL with three clean sheets thus far! And two of those with Vito Mannone in goal! (Still, though, their only deadline day pickup being a 17-year-old Macedonian goalkeeper made me all kinds of sad, especially when coupled with …

* Dempsey is a Spur! Dempsey is a SPUR. That came out of nowhere. And after all the swirling Liverpool rumors (which didn’t entirely make sense, given Liverpool’s increasing remoteness from the Champions League football that Dempsey said he wanted to play, but we’ll get to them in a moment), Spurs swoop in and get a fantastic player for a very reasonable price, and in the process, pick up a fantastic young goalkeeper in Lloris. (But then, oops, start a goalkeeper controversy in the process. And, since France is involved, an international incident to boot. The good times with AVB continue.)

* Oh, poor Liverpool. If the season were to end today, Liverpool would be (gasping at the practically unthinkable here) relegated along with QPR and Southampton. Certainly, it’s not that dire at Anfield, and it seems that they’ll eventually figure out how to score goals and not blunder horribly like they did in the game against Man City, which they could have won and stemmed much of the “What’s wrong with Liverpool?” talk. Yep, it’s going to be a fascinating documentary for sure.

* Southampton is in as bad a position as they could be after three weeks, but they’re one of the EPL teams that don’t look as bad as their position would indicate. If not for some insane late-game heroics (fueled by the ginger magic of Paul Scholes, and the very real possibility that RVP really CAN score when he wants — except for on a muffed PK), ManU would have fallen to Southampton in dramatic fashion, in what might be one of the most entertaining games of the young season. If only somehow the whistle could have been blown around the 83-minute mark …

* Everton looks incredible. Swansea looks better than I’m sure everyone expected them to be — who knew that Michu would currently be one of the best players in the Premiership so far. Somehow, West Ham is 7th and has a rejuvenated (though now nicked) Andy Carroll, and Aston Villa is 17th (despite moves that should have nudged them away from the relegation zone and into mid-table-ville).

EPL, thank you for being so dramatic and amazing. We’ll at least hang on to this if rainy 0-0 slogs in November are looming.

Finally, the EPL!

I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve. The EPL starts tomorrow, but there’s all sorts of mystery with the transfer window and possible changes afoot for key teams. Of course, none more key than my team of choice, Arsenal. The RVP move was no mystery, as I detailed in this blog post on FourFiveTwo, but the Alex Song-to-Barcelona move seemingly came out of nowhere, especially after he seemed so happy. I just don’t get it. Other transfer mysteries: 

1. Chelsea doesn’t have a striker, unless you count Torres. (Translation: Chelsea doesn’t have a striker.) And they like Hulk. And Hulk had an awesome Olympics. And Hulk doesn’t seem terribly beholden to Porto. So WHY isn’t Hulk a Blue right now? And why is Chelsea instead courting Chicharito, when clearly, he needs to come to Arsenal? 

2. Why has the Dempsey move taken so long? It’s not like Dempsey was going to stay at Fulham — is this a holding out for the RVP move to get to Arsenal? Is this forcing Liverpool to make a move when they’ve been reticent because they can’t yet move Carroll. Does this, God forbid, get Chelsea involved in the Dempsey sweepstakes? 

3. What about the teams that mostly held pat this transfer season? Man City’s got so much talent that they didn’t need to do much, but are Spurs aware that they only have Defoe as a striker? Newcastle’s top four players are nursing injuries; is that a concern? Liverpool was supposed to get better this transfer season; did they? (And are they going to keep Carroll? And how will Carroll feel, knowing he was almost moved to West Ham.) 

4. Can Southampton be our butt of jokes for the coming year? I’m ready for this. 

USWNT, I Love You

Two games into the 2012 Olympics, and there’s already so much to love about the U.S. Women’s National Team, trying for a third straight Olympic gold medal. Strongest squad ever? I’d say yes. Fun to watch? Absolutely. Dramatic. Absolutely yes.

First game against France: They go down 2-0 in the first fifteen minutes. It’s utterly shocking. France takes great advantage of tactical defensive lapses, and all of a sudden, there’s an air of vulnerability to the U.S. team.

Until Abby Wambach scores off a brilliant header in the 19th minute. Then, there’s a shift in momentum, and it’s a mudslide and then an avalanche, and somehow, Alex Morgan has two opportunistic goals, Carli Lloyd adds another, and the U.S. ends up winning 4-2. There’s barely a French threat after those first 15 minutes.

Today, the U.S. plays Colombia, and it’s tight for most of the first half scorewise, though the U.S. has more chances and clearly has momentum working. Then, late in the first half, Colombia’s Lady Andrade (“She’s no lady!”) reaches out and whacks Wambach in the face while running past her. It’s the most egregious act in a game in which the U.S. star forward is being roundly abused.

Though it was Megan Rapinoe — arguably the best of the American players right now — who scored the first goal, Wambach’s goal to make it 2-0 was the defining moment of the tournament. On a play where Wambach got knocked to the turf, she got up, saw that Tobin Heath was sending a through ball to her, and she ran past/through (mostly through) three defenders to get on the end of the pass and angle it in past the goalie.

In other words: Don’t get mad; get even.

So, the U.S is on to the quarterfinals. They’ve scored seven unanswered goals in 1.8 games, and they’ve been behind just a little over 20 of the 180-plus minutes they’ve played thus far. Though France proved a decent test — they are 6th in the world according to the FIFA World Rankings, after all — there will be challenges between now and the gold medal podium the USWNT seems almost pre-ordained to be on.

For anyone who doubts the drama or electricity of women’s soccer, it’s definitely there — maybe not with every team, but it’s decidedly there with the American women. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Paris St. Germain: Welcome to the New Relevance

So, there was the Eden Hazard sweepstakes, which ended pretty quickly, and there’s the ongoing Robin van Persie saga, and there’s the question of what is Man City going to do with seven strikers (when RVP is apparently the one they really want) — and all of a sudden, in the weirdness that is transfer season, Paris St. Germain launches itself into Champions League relevance, and international notice — with the twin signing of AC Milan’s Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Whoa is right.

Both signings bolster a squad that came close to winning Ligue 1 this past year, without the star power of the top English, Italian, and German clubs. Many feel (as this Agence France-Presse article details) that Zlatan is the signing of note, and I’m inclined to agree. Getting the top Serie A scorer from the past season is a coup — and mystifying on AC Milan’s part, since they seem to be a good soccer team that would like to win games still. (The rumors about Andy Carroll or Dimitar Berbatov moving there seem a little underwhelming in comparison. Surely there’s something in the works.)

It’s also a bit weird that both players will swap cities, leagues, and uniforms, but will still keep the same “Fly Emirates” sponsorship on the front of their jerseys, as both teams (and Arsenal) have this in common. I suddenly sort of would like to Fly Emirates, though I don’t think this is ever going to happen in my lifetime.

But, overall, I think it keeps things interesting. I’m feeling like this won’t be the last we hear of PSG making moves and bolstering its team, and it’ll be worth watching their progression to see what they can do in the Champions League. Also, this is going to make Ligue 1 a little more watchworthy in the coming years. (Well, maybe. Not sure how the rest of the league will hold up, especially with two of its top players from last year off to London.)

On Transfers: We Promise, No Ridiculous Bleacher Report-Style Slideshows

Thinking about transfers a lot these days. Obviously. Arsenal fan. The van Persie news last week was initially staggering, the worst fears coming true etc., but now there’s a sort of giddy, Christmas morning expectation to the whole proceedings. I’ve moved on from van Persie. I’ve put my van Persie jersey on eBay. I’m looking at a lineup with Giroud in RVP’s spot and trying to figure out how I’d make it better if I was in a position to actually make moves and spend Russian oil oligarch money.

But, alas, I’m not. I’m just a fan over here, trying not to get too high (an Italian paper reported that Sneijder might be going to Arsenal!!!) or too low (Dempsey to Liverpool’s all but done, and Fulham actually wants Andy Carroll as part of this). The Dempsey-to-Arsenal/Dempsey-to-Liverpool saga’s particularly distressing to me, as I’ve been hopeful about this whole favorite player to favorite team possibility for about a year now — there was talk of this happening last summer, and I can see how it would work perfectly. And how it won’t quite be the same in Liverpool — I’m not sure how Dempsey and Suarez co-exist, and I can only imagine how fluid Arsenal would be with Dempsey either able to finish chances, or be an assist machine, taking perfect through-balls from Song on the wing and playing them into Giroud/Podolski/mystery bonus striker in RVP deal to be named later. I’m so ready to get a Kreuger (what I’m calling the new Arsenal away kit) with “DEMPSEY 23” on the back.

I can’t think of a sport that’s more wide-open with its possibilites than soccer for getting in new players year-to-year — basketball’s got its occasional deals that dramatically change teams, and the NFL has its occasional Payton-level blockbuster, and you can count on baseball for throwing out its end-of-July bad team dumps great player to contending team moves. But only in soccer can you get a scenario like a C-Ron starring at ManU but deciding that Real Madrid’s the perfect destination for him, or a player like Eden Hazard excelling at a Lille and having his pick of EPL Champions League teams to transfer to, or seeing (in the reverse of that) Ronaldinho going from Barcelona to AC Milan to Atletico Mineiro (and losing his Coke endorsement deal by showing up to a press conference drinking Pepsi). (Really? There’s a difference?)

The EPL starts in five weeks. Manchester City has seven strikers but not the one it really wants. Manchester United has a new star Japanese midfielder with a Japanese porn star for a girlfriend (if you’re to believe the Mirror), Chelsea still might start Fernando Torres at forward (who is now, remarkably, Euro 2012 Golden Boot Winner Fernando Torres), and Arsenal has a discontented captain who wants to go somewhere else (* cough Man City cough *) to win trophies, and thanks to what amounts to a mean blog post, that’s now probably going to happen. And Spurs got a defender and a new coach. And Liverpool signed Borini. And Newcastle’s landed Debuchy. And random players like Hoilett and Moses are still out there.

And there’s intrigue. Which is delicious. But I’d like to know who my team is as well.

On Robin van Persie Leaving, Probably Leaving, Staying But Not Being Very Happy About It

There’s an excellent post on an Arsenal blog here that examines the timeline of events that led to Robin van Persie announcing that it’s his summer of discontent with Arsenal. Some of it is conjecture and best guessing, but it puts forth an interesting story that pits one player’s ambition to win trophies with one team’s long-term vision for success, and how those two things sadly can’t reconcile.

What’s fascinating to me, as an Arsenal fan, is how quickly many fans, myself included, have turned on RVP. There is the “be grateful for what he’s done” faction, but there are also the large number of fans frustrated by the feeling that our captain would rather be one of seven Man City strikers (or so it appears) than stay with Arsenal right when it’s on the cusp of something really, really good. As in trophy good.

Of course, there’s lots of intriguing fan reaction, including someone who posted a video of himself taking RVP off his FIFA 12 team. The excellent Arseblog has some excellent reactions of the “I was going to post about how lovely Euro 2012 was, but then RVP went and crapped in everyone’s corn flakes” variety, that muse on our feelings and what happens next.

But then I remember that the last weeks of the just-finished EPL campaign, plus the Netherlands’ performance at Euro 2012, and I see RVP with a lot of fabulous chances in front of goal muffed or skyed or otherwise missed horribly. And I’m sort of (irrationally?) excited about the Giroud/Podolski era. And I’m still holding out hope for Dempsey to Arsenal. So I think I’m Team Sell RVP to Juventus Now. I hate that it has to end this way.

Thoughts on the Euro 2012 Quarterfinals, and Trying to Entice My Brother with Penalty Kicks

Just a few thoughts on the Euro 2012 quarterfinals, which I was admittedly not as eyes-on as I had during the group stages. It just so happened that I had a major work project nipping at my heels for most of Thursday, though I was able to keep an eye on Portugal and the Czech Republic (which was essentially keeping an eye on Portugal, thrilling to every C-Ron almost-goal and exhortations, but knowing in my bones it’d only be a matter of time before he found the net). Then, on Friday, hideous traffic to New Orleans — because, you know, eating and drinking vacation in New Orleans — kept me refreshing the Guardian live-blog on my iPhone rather than watching the game from some Magazine Street bar.

To which I must publicly complain to I-10 Eastbound. Really, I-1o? A work crew in Lake Charles? (That’s work crew in name only.) Then God knows what in Lafayette? And again in Baton Rouge? (But it was Germany-Greece, which is about as foregone conclusion as a quarterfinals get, though it was 1-1 at one point.)

Then, on Saturday, it was France and Spain, and my ladyfriend and I were in the midst of a bike tour through the non-touristy sectors of New Orleans to various restaurants while the match was going, though it was on in the restaurants we visited, so I got to temper my disappointment over France’s inability to penetrate the latticework that is the Spanish midfield and defense with gumbo and Abita. And then, on Sunday, with England and Italy clearly on the way to a hopeless deadlock and my ladyfriend and I finding ourselves unable to eat anything else that New Orleans had to offer, I got to my brother’s house on the way out of town, to share the wonder and amusement of penalty kicks with him. (He proclaims it his favorite part of soccer.)

(Though first, we watched extra time, and his American football fan perceptions of soccer = scoreless = boring played out in real time — though there were a few engaging chances and my reactions to those, which are generally of the scream or gasp variety.) (I get a little caught up in all the excitement, especially when it’s an international tournament.)

But then the penalty phase happened, and it was delicious high drama — with the pivot point, of course, coming on the third Italian kick, when Pirlo had to be absolutely clutch, and did so with a ridiculous dink that looped over to where Joe Hart’s chest had been seconds before, just prior to guessing Pirlo would be going to the left corner of the goal. Hart dove to his right, and then watched the shot come in at a ridiculously lazy arc … it was both a spectacular move from a prototypical wily veteran, and a heartbreaking, game-changing moment that all the English fans seemed to palpably register.

And then, two Ashleys in a row missed for England (Young, hitting the bar, and then Cole, shooting too weakly to beat a diving Buffon), which might lead to a new maxim about Ashleys and penalty kicks, and that gave Italy the chance to win outright with its fifth kick. Which happened.

My brother, who plays softball and loves throwball (American football) above everything else, still didn’t see enough from the game to move him. And he did ask if the United States was in the tournament — I know he’s not the only person who’s asked such a question, and I’d love to see how the Yanks stack up against the current group of Euroteams — but, you know, Euro 2012. (I was stumped when he asked how many European teams there were. I guessed 50. It’s actually 53 — remember, in UEFA, Turkey and Israel are part of Europe. And the Faroe Islands, wherever those might be.)

Nothing that happened in the quarterfinals is particularly shocking, though I thought either France or England would make it through — and England so very nearly did. We’ve got a Group B vs. a Group C matchup in each semifinal, meaning that even though the most likely finals outcome is a Group B vs. Group C matchup as well — Spain vs. Germany, obviously, two of the four possible outcomes involve group play rematches. After a quarterfinals that didn’t go so well in the watching department, I’m back on board for tomorrow.