Mixed beginnings for new bosses
AUG 21 — A number of top flight English and Spanish clubs are under the leadership of new managers this season, and it’s fair to say they endured mixed fortunes in their opening league games over the weekend.
To start off with the good, Tito Vilanova enjoyed an eminently comfortable first day at the office as Barcelona classily swept aside the challenge of Real Sociedad with a 5-1 victory that was every bit as comfortable as the scoreline suggests.
Lionel Messi, inevitably, was to the fore — the Argentine maestro scored twice in a highly eventful opening 16 minutes as Barca raced into an early 3-1 lead.
I was fortunate enough to be watching the game from the Camp Nou press box, and witnessing Messi’s skills in the flesh really is a treat. The thing that most stands out is the speed of his footwork, illustrated by his first goal.
There seemed to be little chance of even getting a shot away when the ball came towards him in a crowded penalty area — there were simply too many defenders filling the space. But Messi darted between two of them and, before anyone had time to react, thrashed a fierce left-footed shot into the corner of the goal. Simply unstoppable.
Messi isn’t Barca’s only great player, of course, and Vilanova’s debut was turned into a perfect evening when David Villa came off the bench to score the final goal with a stylish left-footed finish from Andres Iniesta’s precise cut-back.
It was Villa’s first competitive appearance since last December, when he suffered a badly broken leg in the Club World Cup, and his emergence from the bench earned the biggest cheer of the night from the delighted home crowd — only to be supplanted by an even louder reception when he scored a few minutes later.
It goes without saying that Villa, Spain’s all-time leading scorer, is an absolutely key man for Barcelona. They lacked match-winning options during his absence last season and were overly-reliant on Messi as a result, so his return to fitness and form is an enormous boost for Vilanova. The new manager’s debut day could barely have been better.
Vilanova will have also been more than happy to see another La Liga managerial novice make a good start: earlier on Sunday evening, Valencia boss Mauricio Pellegrino led his new team to a hard-fought and unexpected point with a 1-1 draw against champions Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Pellegrino, you may recall, was an excellent servant to Valencia as a classy central defender before later acting as assistant manager to Rafa Benitez at both Liverpool and Inter Milan.
He owed a great deal to goalkeeper Diego Alves for Sunday’s point in Madrid, with the Brazilian stopper repelling shot after shot during a heavy period of second-half pressure — the woodwork also came to Valencia’s assistance to keep out a header from Gonzalo Higuian. Somewhat fortuitous, but Pellegrino will be more than happy with his opening day point.
Over in England, Michael Laudrup enjoyed a sensational first day in charge of Swansea City — the Premier League’s answer to Barcelona — as they romped to a stunning 5-0 victory away to a beleaguered Queen’s Park Rangers.
Laudrup will have been particularly delighted to see his team’s first two goals scored by Michu, who was signed this summer from Rayo Vallecano after being La Liga’s top-scoring midfielder last season.
With Joe Allen departed to Liverpool and Gylfi Sigurdsson now at Tottenham, there was real concern that Swansea’s midfield play — the key to their smooth style — would be significantly weakened, but Michu’s magnificent debut has quickly allayed those fears.
Another Premier League boss enjoying a great first day was Steve Clarke, Kenny Dalglish’s former assistant at Liverpool, who has taken over from new England manager Roy Hodgson at West Brom.
The Baggies were outstanding in their 3-0 victory over Liverpool, the very same club that sacked Clarke in the summer, although they needed some help along the way as the Reds conceded two penalties and had Daniel Agger sent off.
Clarke will be cautious enough to avoid excessively joyous reactions: although West Brom were running riot by the end of the game, Liverpool had been slightly the better team before Agger’s dismissal. Nevertheless, it was a very encouraging start for Clarke, whose loan signing from Chelsea of immensely promising young Belgian striker Romelu Lukaka — aka Mr Muscle — could prove to be a masterstroke.
On the receiving end at the Hawthorns, of course, was Liverpool’s new boss Brendan Rodgers, the most high profile of the opening day managerial casualties.
It was truly a disastrous afternoon for Rodgers. Not only did his team lose heavily against an opponent they would hope to beat, he also saw a key player (Agger) sent off and Joe Cole suffer an injury within minutes of appearing from the bench. In stark contrast to Vilanova at Barcelona, not much more could have gone wrong for Rodgers.
But the Northern Irishman is made of tough stuff, and he’ll bounce back. Liverpool fans: give him time. It might not feel like it right now, but Rodgers is an intelligent, hard-working and ambitious coach who has an astute understanding of the game, and he will turn things around at Anfield if fans and owners show patience.
At least Rodgers didn’t suffer a 5-0 hammering on his first day, as Chris Hughton did with Norwich at Fulham. With Paul Lambert, the man behind their rise to the Premier League, now in charge at Aston Villa, there is a real chance that Norwich will be victims of the dreaded second-season syndrome and endure a tough relegation battle this season.
Lambert, however, could also be in for a difficult campaign at Villa. The Midlands club simply have a rather ordinary squad, and their opening day 1-0 loss at newly-promoted West Ham was a worrying beginning. Lambert has his work cut out.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.