The first weekend in this year’s English Premier League campaign kicked off with a mixed bag of matches that saw red cards, missed penalties, Joey Barton at his best, a match postponed due to rioting, and when it was all said and done left Bolton standing on top of the table (for now).  Freddy Adu made his return to the MLS and debuted with the Philadelphia Union.  To cap off the weekend, we also saw another El Clasico matchup between Real Madrid and Barcelona, which left nothing for fans to complain about. 

Liverpool vs. Sunderland            
Saturday’s matches opened up the EPL season with a relatively exciting affair at Anfield between Liverpool and Sunderland.  The match provided its share of excitement right from the opening when Luiz Suarez was pulled down in the 5th minute by Kieran Richardson.  Suarez failed to convert the penalty, blasting the ball into the stands, but was able to correct his mistake when he headed home a free kick from new arrival Charlie Adam.  Sunderland would not give up, and continued to fight for an equalizer, eventually finding one on a spectacular volley from Sebastian Larsson, that was so good it is now the background.  Both sides had chances down the stretch for a winner, but the game ended in a 1-1 draw.  Full match highlights including Seb Larsson’s masterstroke can be seen here:

Fulham vs. Aston Villa  
Fulham and Aston Villa played to a scoreless draw largely thanks to Irish keeper Shay Given’s safe hands.  Given was called upon by his team five times and was able to answer each time.  It was good to see Given actually on the pitch as opposed to the bench where he has spent the majority of the last two seasons.

Wolves vs. Blackburn   
Wolves were able to overcome an early goal from Blackburn’s Mauro Formica and a penalty save from Paul Robinson to earn a win in their Premier League opener.  Mick McCarthy’s side was led by goals from Steven Fletcher and Stephen Ward, who was able to hammer home the winner after Kevin Doyle’s penalty was saved by Robinson.  Despite the best efforts of Blackburn’s Ruben Rochina and David Goodwillie, Blackburn could not equalize and they were met with a chorus of boos upon the closing whistle. Highlights here:

Bolton vs. QPR
Bolton was able to cruise and to the top of the table with a 4-0 victory over newly promoted Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.  Goals from Gary Cahill, Ivan Klasnic, and Fabrice Muamba were also accompanied by an own goal by QPR’s Daniel Gabbidon.  It was truly a bad day for the The Hoops as it also saw new signing Kieron Dyer leave the match with what appeared to be a broken metatarsal, although x-rays have revealed no break and Dyer is expected to return in a few days.  Despite Neil Warnock’s claims that it was not time to “commit suicide”, with captain Adel Taarabt’s looming departure, QPR fans may want to begin tying the noose.  Full highlights from the beatdown can be seen here:

Norwich vs. Wigan         
Newly promoted Norwich City was able to earn a point in their first Premier League match, drawing 1-1 with Wigan Athletic.  Franco Di Santo earned Wigan a penalty when he was fouled in the box by Ritchie De Laet, and Ben Watson hammered home the spot kick to give the Latics the early lead.  Norwich was able to capitalize on a mistake by Wigan keeper Ali Al Habsi, when the fumbled ball fell into the path of Wesley Hoolahan who fired it into the back of net.  Norwich keeper John Ruddy (along with his posts) was impressive on his debut, making several saves to keep the game level despite the best efforts of the Wigan attack. Full Highlights can be seen here:

Arsenal vs. Newcastle  
Arsenal and Newcastle faced off in the final match of the EPL’s opening Saturday.  The game would end in a goalless draw, but not without its fair share of entertainment for the fans.  Newcastle turned in a solid performance overall, led by their transfer listed superstar Joey Barton.  Despite some nice passing from Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky, Arsenal were unable to break down the Newcastle defense, led by their new skipper Fabricio Coloccini.  Barton, always the man for controversy, yanked the new Arsenal arrival Gervinho to his feet by his collar after the Ivoirian simulated contact, attempting to draw a penalty.  Gervinho responded by slapping Barton in the face which led to Gervinho seeing the red card and an early shower.  Newcastle almost managed a winner at the end, but a good save by Arsenal’s Szczesny kept the game level.  After the match Arsene Wenger praised Barton for his performance, but said he would not look to sign him despite the departure of Cesc Fabregas and looming exit of Samir Nasri.  Highlights here:

Chelsea vs. Stoke           
Andre Villas-Boas’ debut with Chelsea had them traveling to the Brittania Stadium to face off against Stoke City.  Both sides had their fair share of chances, with the majority of Stoke’s coming in the first half off of a Matthew Etherington free kick.  Shouts for penalty were made during the first half when the ball appeared to make contact with Chelsea skipper John Terry’s arm, but Stoke’s pleas were denied.  Overcoming a concussion suffered midweek; Fernando Torres led the Chelsea attack, creating several opportunities including a very nice run towards the end of the first half that was capitalized with a mishit ball that went wide.  Chelsea looked dominant in the second half and they were unlucky not to score largely due to the performance of Asmir Begovic in goal and Ryan Shawcross and Jonathan Woodgate in defense.  Their best opportunity came from Nicolas Anelka who had his chipped shot tipped onto the bar by Begovic .  The game would end in a goalless draw.  After the match Villas-Boas complained about the persistent fouling of Stoke, a tactic that comes as no surprise to fans of the EPL. Full highlights here:

Manchester United vs. West Brom        
Manchester United’s title defense campaign began Sunday afternoon against West Bromwich Albion.  The scoring was started in the 13th minute when Rooney received a return pass from Ashley Young and fired a low shot into the goal.  United were forced to overcome another David De Gea goalkeeping disaster, which saw the  young Spanish keeper miss a relatively easy shot from Shane Long that ended up in the back of the net.  Ashley Young earned United the winner, but not the credit, after making a quick run down the left flank and taking a shot that deflected off of Steven Reid past Ben Foster for the own goal.  The game was not without consequence for the defending champions, as they saw both starting center backs Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand taken off with injuries to their calf (2 weeks) and hamstring (6 weeks) respectively.  Highlights can be seen here:

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona          
Outside the EPL, Spanish giants Real Madrid and FC Barcelona faced off in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup.  The Santiago Bernabeu was buzzing with excitement as Jose Mourinho and company itched to set the record straight after suffering defeat to Barca in the Champions League semi-final.  Their excitement continued when Mesut Ozil opened the scoring the 13th minute with a left footed shot following a pass from Karim Benzema.  Their excitement would be short lived though as Barcelona would fight back twenty-three minutes later when David Villa would unleash a perfectly placed right footed strike into the top corner of the net.  Barcelona would take the lead just before the end of the first half when Lionel Messi used his speed and the slick surface to weave through the Madrid defense and score.  The second half was a testy affair, but saw Xabi Alonso slide a shot along the ground past Victor Valdes for the equalizer.  The match would end level at 2-2, but not before both sides would appeal for penalties and tempers would flare between the sides.  This sets the stage for an exciting second leg at the Camp Nou on Wednesday.  Highlights here:

Ray Hudson's masterful commentary on the David Villa goal:

Thoughts on the Weekend:
Villas-Boas complained about the rough play from Stoke after Chelsea was unable to secure a win.  This may have come as a shock to Villas-Boas, but surely his staff was aware of the tactics that Stoke would use.  The Brittania is regarded by many as one of the toughest away fixtures of the season for many, no doubt as a result of these tactics and the rabid Potters fans, but Chelsea were not prepared to be hacked, grabbed, and harassed by Shawcross and company.  This must change before the next match.  That all being said I admire the way Stoke play and their performance to earn a draw should be praised.

Joey Barton admitted that he “made a meal” of the incident with Gervinho, but what else can be expected from Barton?  Barton’s controversy continued after the match on Twitter when he accused Gervinho of trying to “cheat” Barton and his teammates.  Despite all his controversy and the animosity he draws, Barton is good for the game.  Every game needs a villain and Barton certainly has no aversion to being one when the time calls for it. 

Arsenal is in big trouble.  After losing Fabregas this weekend and with Nasri set to leave any day now, Wenger has got to scramble to replace his two best players.  Even if he is to use some of the money to sign players like Scott Dann or Gary Cahill, they will do little to restore the creative genius that Fab and Nasri provide.  Unless they splash on a signing before the close of the transfer window, I would wager on Arsenal dropping out of the Champions League spots. 

I was excited to see Freddy Adu sign for my favorite MLS team, the Philadelphia Union, on Friday and was surprised to see him start the match on Saturday against FC Dallas.  Despite being booked for a “reckless” tackle, Adu gave a decent performance during his hour on the pitch before being replaced by Danny Mwanga.  Once Adu gains the match experience and regains match fitness I would look to see him making a nice attacking force with Sebastien Le Toux and Mwanga as Philadelphia makes their way into the playoffs. 

On a more serious note, Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel’s father, Michael Obi, was kidnapped on Friday evening in Nigeria.  Despite receiving news of this less than 24 hours prior to Chelsea’s match with Stoke, Mikel played the entirety of the match after speaking to his mother.  So far no ransom demands have been given, and an investigation by Nigerian police is underway.  Sadly this isn’t the first time a Premier League player’s family has been targeted.  I hope that this situation will be resolved expediently and peacefully, and that Mikel’s father is returned safely. 

Pat McCourt’s midweek goals against the Faroe Islands seem to be earning him some attention from at least one Premier League club, Liverpool.  Although the club have made a number of midfield signings this year, McCourt’s dribbling genius could find its way into Anfield from Celtic if some reports are to believed.  

More to come during the week.