|Manchester United are in for an awkward trip to the Vitality Stadium |
And so it begins! The most anticipated premier league season to-date for its sheer managerial quality kicks off this Saturday with pressure abound on more than a handful of managers to make an early impression.
When United completed the signing of Frenchman Paul Pogba in midweek, bookmakers started receiving money into United's stream for the column: Champions. If punters were not ready to back United for the title after forming an alliance with Jose Mourinho, having the most expensive player in the world on their books certainly did.
Indeed, Jose Mourinho's signings have ensured that there will be more than enough star dust around United's fixtures this season, creating a show-biz feel to games where some fans will prefer a 'get-on-with-it' approach. The fear around players firmly immersed in social media and plying their trade as brands as opposed to being 'just footballers' is that there will be more clamour to be a part of the first dab of the season as opposed to getting through the first weekend with all three points.
This is why Manchester United could have done with an opening home game in front of their own fans, with an expansive pitch on which to find solutions. The joys of playing Everton last week at Old Trafford and the Community Shield last Sunday at the even more expansive Wembley pitch will be quickly arrested at Bournemouth's Vitality stadium that boast just over 11,000 seats!
Like last season, the length and width of the Vitality will allow Eddie Howe's side to sit back and cover the spaces, hit on the break with limited fatigue, but most crucially, maximise set piece opportunities in a congested penalty box. Such were the spoils that the Cherries capitalised on to score twice against Louis van Gaal's side last season. The advantage Manchester United have is that there is nothing new he will encounter on Sunday.
Of all his managerial rivals, he can claim to having seen in all----including when it all goes horribly wrong as it did for Chelsea last season. He will know what to expect from a tight pitch and opposition that will put in the hard miles to ruffle United's feathers. And he will, in the least, attempt to avoid the pitfalls. We learnt as much in the Community Shield last weekend when he took preferred the physical qualities of Marouanne Fellaini and the directness of Jesse Lingard to the talents of Henrickh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata form the start. As such, United were able to match the hard running, physical challenges and effort of the league Champions whenever they lost possession.
One of the biggest sub-plots to Sunday's early kick off will therefore be Jose Mourinho's team selection. Wayne Rooney should remain the headline act in terms of will he or won't he play. The England captain turned in another dour performance at Wembley raising further concerns as to whether he is part of United's best XI. The general feeling is that United finally have a manager who will not be afraid to drop his captains if he feels he needs to. From that perspective therefore, it leaves Mourinho with the task of answering questions about his captain's performances when things do not go according to plan. Certainly, the acquisition of Paul Pogba ends the debate about Wayne dropping so deep to help out move the passage of play forward. It leaves the manager and indeed fans desperate to see their captain put in a decent shift.
Chris Smalling is suspended so Daley Blind should get to continue in the centre of defence alongside Eric Bailly. The goal keeper and a couple of other positions aside, the rest of the selection will be about who the manager feels can best cope with the helter-skelter conditions that United will be up against on the South Coast. It should make for entertaining viewing for fans of both sides and neutrals alike.
With the media desperate to get on the back of the manager that slips up first and in a season when the touchline rather than the pitch will dominate football columns, there will be more than three points at stake on Sunday for Manchester United and Jose Mourinho. Indictments do come fast in this league, and trends can be very difficult to turn around. It is why sometimes getting through the first weekend with your tail still up is no mean feat.
Ahead of the new campaign, there is a few changes that fans will have to get acquainted with during the flow of the game. Besides the obvious trivial seasonal changes such as the Nike ball to be used, the triple jeopardy rule has been done away with. Previously, a player who denied a goalscoring opportunity within the penalty area would give away a penalty (punishment one),be sent off (punishment two) and be suspended for a future game (punishment three). It has now been decided that a player committing an accidental foul that denies a goal-scoring opportunity in the penalty area should not be automatically sent off. A yellow card will be handed out instead.
Another important change that could get fans in a twist is in regard to treatment of a player on the pitch. Previously, the player would have to go off after treatment. Not anymore. If this rule was adjusted last season, Eden Hazard wouldn't have been required to leave the pitch against Swasea at Stamford Bridge, leaving his side with just 8 outfield players to defend a set piece. Therefore we wouldn't have had the Eva Caneiro saga that started the beginning of the end for Jose Mourinho at his second Chelsea spell.
Another that could get fans off guard is that referees can now send off players pre-match and post-match. For instance any violent conduct during a warm-up is punishable by starting the game short of the player sent off!
It all adds to a welcome change of the dynamic in what should be a more entertaining football fest than what the European Championships served up in the summer.