EPL

Premier League 2021-22: Toffee Rafa, Kane in limbo and points to prove for Sancho and Lukaku

By Sports Desk August 12, 2021

The new Premier League season has not even begun yet and we're already enjoying some enthralling narratives.

Beyond the mundane matter of who might win the league, who will beat the drop and how thick the VAR lines will be, there are some tantalising stories we'll be following closely in the coming weeks.

Below, Stats Perform takes a look at some of the big talking points...

 

Blue Benitez

Predicting football is often a fool's game – especially in an era when Lionel Messi no longer plays for Barcelona – but Rafael Benitez at Everton? Who saw that coming?

The Spaniard is back in the Premier League, two years after walking away from Newcastle United, having been tempted by the same project that won over Carlo Ancelotti before the lure of a Real Madrid return became too great.

Benitez was a fans' favourite at Newcastle, arguably as much as he was at Liverpool, where he reached two Champions League finals including the unforgettable triumph in Istanbul. His connection to the red half of Merseyside meant his decision to head to Goodison Park raised the eyebrows of some and the blood pressure of others. In fact, only one man has ever managed both clubs: William Edward Barclay, Everton's first boss in 1888 and Liverpool's manager from 1892. We'll forgive you if you don't remember.

The scrutiny on Benitez, who has recorded 11 wins against Everton in his coaching career, will be severe. He has the credentials, but if he cannot quickly prove he is the man to realise the dreams of owner Farhad Moshiri and challenge the 'big six', the pressure could become pretty uncomfortable.

 

Virgil return lifts Reds

For a while, it seemed everything would be okay. In the first 11 games after Virgil van Dijk was injured against Everton last October, Liverpool conceded just six goals and kept as many clean sheets. Perhaps the loss of the Netherlands colossus would not be quite so damaging.

Of course, as injuries in defence piled up and confidence in their title chances waned, Liverpool's season ended up being one of major disappointment even though a strong final few weeks saw them snatch a Champions League spot.

Van Dijk's impact cannot really be disputed: since his move to Anfield in January 2018, Liverpool have won 75.8 per cent of matches with the centre-back in the side and only 54.3 per cent without him. They average 2.4 points per game with him (compared with 1.9 without), and even score more goals on average (2.3 compared with 1.8) when he's playing. No wonder fans began to count down the days to his return.

On Saturday, we can finally expect to watch Van Dijk in competitive action again, with Jurgen Klopp confirming he is fit to start the season. He could even begin his partnership with new signing Ibrahima Konate against Norwich City at Carrow Road. How Liverpool's campaign progresses over the opening few weeks, and how Van Dijk's return goes, might just tell us whether another title tilt is on the cards.

 

Rom-ember us?

Two of the biggest transfers in this pre-season have seen stars returning to England: Jadon Sancho, who finally got his Manchester United move for £72.9million a year after Borussia Dortmund had demanded a sizeably bigger sum; and Romelu Lukaku, who is heading to Chelsea for roughly £93m.

Sancho left Manchester City for the Bundesliga as a teenager and promptly became one of Europe's standout attacking players, with 50 goals and 57 assists in 137 appearances. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted a player to get fans on their feet, and he's almost certainly found it: Sancho completed 48 multi take-ons (beating more than one player with a dribble) in the Bundesliga, at least 14 more than any other player in his time in Germany.

For Lukaku, it's a case of unfinished business at Chelsea, the club he left back in 2014. The standout performer for Inter last season, with 30 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, he propelled his side to their first Serie A title since 2010 before taking up the chance to return to Stamford Bridge, where a consistent goalscorer could be decisive to their Premier League title hopes.

Sancho and Lukaku initially struggled to convince managers to give them a shot as youngsters in the Premier League. They return as elite players determined to prove a point. Given the costs involved, the pressure will be on both to perform – and quickly.

 

Did Jack hammer Harry's City hopes?

Manchester City are not exactly frugal in the transfer market, but rarely will they willingly pay over the odds for an individual. That's what made their willingness to spend £100million on Jack Grealish, a player with 12 senior international caps and zero Champions League experience, a touch surprising.

This is not to suggest Grealish is not a good player, of course. This is a man who was involved in a remarkable 376 open-play attacking sequences over the past two seasons for Aston Villa, a team who finished 17th and 11th in those campaigns. It's just notable that Pep Guardiola felt it was warranted to smash City's transfer record by nearly £40m to sign yet another midfielder, especially given what's going on – or not going on – with Harry Kane.

Kane was expected to be City's marquee signing in this window but, as of now, his future is unclear. He is finally due to return to Tottenham training this week but whether he is involved against City in their opening game is harder to know. And if City were willing to spend nine figures on Grealish, you can expect Spurs chairman Daniel Levy to demand top dollar for last term's golden boot winner, who has three years left on his contract.

Will City stump up the cash? Will Kane try his best to force Spurs' hand? Will he be staying in north London for at least a few months more, his form undimmed, the goals flowing as normal? It will be fascinating to watch.

 

Related items

  • 'Making you trip over would have been well deserved' – Conte pokes fun at Tuchel on Instagram 'Making you trip over would have been well deserved' – Conte pokes fun at Tuchel on Instagram

    In the wake of Tottenham's last-gasp 2-2 draw against Chelsea on Sunday, Spurs boss Antonio Conte poked fun at the situation after both he and Thomas Tuchel were shown red cards.

    The game featured a number of twists and turns, with Chelsea feeling they had won the game when Reece James put them 2-1 ahead in the 77th minute, only for Tottenham to snatch a point deep into stoppage time through a Harry Kane equaliser.

    After the final whistle sounded and the managers came together to shake hands, Tuchel refused to let go, indicating he did not appreciate Conte's lack of eye-contact, sparking an exchange where the pair had to be separated, and both were shown red cards.

    When queried about the altercation after the game, Tuchel insisted that "it's between two competitors and nothing bad happened" and implied things were being blown out of proportion.

    Conte said he believes the video of the situation exonerates him from any blame, and even implied the next time these sides meet there may not be a handshake, saying "next time we will pay more attention and don't shake the hands and we solve the problem… he stays in his bench, I stay in my bench, with my staff on one side and no problem about this."

    He added: "For sure I am not passive. If I see aggressivity, then my answer is with aggressivity, but I repeat this is not a problem."

    In the hours after the match, Conte took to Instagram to post a story of Tuchel running down the sideline while celebrating James' go-ahead goal to make light of the situation, captioning it: "Lucky I didn't see you… making you trip over would have been well deserved" followed by three laughing smiley faces, indicating it is meant with a tongue-in-cheek tone.

    Chelsea will make the trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the return fixture on February 25.

  • Almeria 1-2 Real Madrid: Alaba's stunning first touch seals opening day win for champions Almeria 1-2 Real Madrid: Alaba's stunning first touch seals opening day win for champions

    Substitute David Alaba scored a stunning free-kick with his first touch as Real Madrid started their LaLiga title defence with a 2-1 turnaround win over Almeria on Sunday.

    Carlo Ancelotti's side started poorly at the Power Horse Stadium in Andalusia, and fell behind inside the opening 10 minutes courtesy of a clinical finish from former Manchester United youth player Largie Ramazani.

    Madrid struggled to find a way past an inspired Fernando Martinez in the Almeria goal, before Lucas Vazquez, who had an effort ruled out in the first half for offside, eventually pulled Madrid level shortly after the hour mark.

    Alaba replaced Ferland Mendy in the 74th minute and with his first touch curled a sumptuous free-kick past Fernando from 25 yards to seal all three points.

    Madrid's defence was caught out in just the sixth minute when Ramazani latched onto Inigo Eguaras' superb ball over the top and fired past Thibaut Courtois from just inside the penalty area.

    At five minutes and 50 seconds, that was the quickest goal Madrid have conceded on the opening day of a league season since Sergio Aguero scored against them for Atletico Madrid in August 2007.

    Los Blancos had a whopping 17 shots before the interval, yet a combination of smart goalkeeping from Fernando and uncharacteristically wasteful finishing from Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior prevented them from finding a leveller.

    Fernando continued to frustrate Madrid after the break, denying Benzema with a fine save, but he was eventually beaten in the 61st minute when Vazquez slammed home after the Almeria goalkeeper had kept out Vinicius' effort. 

    Alaba then ensured Madrid went back to the capital with maximum points, whipping past a helpless Fernando immediately after entering the action.

    What does it mean? Madrid bounce back to deny plucky hosts

    Almeria had won just one of their 12 games against Madrid in LaLiga prior to Sunday's clash, but they looked like they might earn a famous victory thanks to Ramazani's early strike and some inspired goalkeeping from Fernando.

    Vasquez and Alaba had other ideas, though, as Los Blancos stretched their unbeaten run on the opening day of LaLiga to 14 games.

    Alaba's instant impact

    Alaba did not need to settle into the action before dispatching a glorious free-kick past Fernando with his first touch. That goal meant he is one of only two players, alongside Real Betis' Nabil Fekir, to have scored two goals from free-kicks in LaLiga since the start of last season.

    Fantastic Fernando

    Fernando can consider himself exceptionally unlucky to have finished on the losing side. The 32-year-old made an incredible 13 saves to frustrate the visitors, but there was little he could do about Madrid's two decisive strikes.

    What's next?

    Madrid are away at Celta Vigo on Saturday, while Almeria visit Elche two days later. 

  • Chelsea boss Tuchel takes aim at referee after ill-tempered Tottenham draw Chelsea boss Tuchel takes aim at referee after ill-tempered Tottenham draw

    Thomas Tuchel does not want referee Anthony Taylor to officiate a Chelsea game again, with the Blues boss left furious after his side's 2-2 draw with Tottenham.

    An ill-tempered encounter at Stamford Bridge looked set for a victory for the hosts after goals for Kalidou Koulibaly and Reece James, despite Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's response.

    But a last-gasp Harry Kane header earned a draw for Spurs, with the full-time whistle marked by an aggressive confrontation between Tuchel and opposite number Antonio Conte.

    Both men were shown red cards by Taylor, but much of the German's ire stemmed from his belief that the referee failed to spot a number of incidents, including an alleged offside before Tottenham's first goal and an apparent foul on Marc Cucurella by Cristian Romero prior to the late equaliser.

    Speaking after the game, Tuchel suggested it was far from an isolated number of Chelsea fans who felt Taylor made mistakes during their matches.

    "I don't think just some of the fans think that," he stated. "I can assure you the whole dressing room of us, every single person, thinks that. 

    "I can't understand how the first goal is not offside and I can't understand how when a player is pulled by their hair, the other player stays on the pitch."

    Asked whether he would prefer Taylor not to oversee Chelsea's matches, Tuchel concurred, though he also pointed to the VAR official as equally culpable for the decision-making process.

    "Maybe it would be better, maybe it would be better," he added. "But honestly we also have VAR, to help make the right decisions.

    "Since when can players have their hair pulled, since when is that? And if he does not see it I don't blame him – I didn't see it.

    "We have people at VAR who check this, and then you see it. And how can this not be a free-kick, and then a red card? How?

    "This does not even have to do with the referee in this case. If he does not see something that's why we have people to check if this is a decisive error or not."

    Tuchel failed to spot his own post-game dismissal for his part in the fracas with Conte, and made clear his displeasure that he faces a touchline ban, adding sarcastically: "So good - I cannot coach but the referee can whistle the next game."

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