Would you pay a barber to cut your hair if he only had the tools to do half your head, or a chef to cook you a meal if he could only provide half a plate of food? Probably not, I imagine, and yet football clubs the world over readily employ half-players.

I am talking, of course, about the strange phenomenon of the strictly one-footed player.

Some one-footed players get away with it. I am thinking primarily of players like Diego Maradona, Gheorghe Hagi and Rivaldo, whose left feet possessed more guile and dexterity than most players possess in both put together.

But these are rare exceptions. Most one-footed players suffer by virtue of their one-footedness. Witness the fear on Michael Owen’s face as he realises he will have to shoot with his left foot, or the panic that grips Petr Cech when forced to clear a back-pass with his right.

Most of the time, players get away with it. After all, if you’re a one-footed professional player you’ve had plenty of time to teach yourself how to quickly transfer the ball to your stronger foot.

But occasionally situations arise when you simply have to use your weaker foot. And one such situation arose in Chelsea’s defeat at Aston Villa yesterday, when Ashley “When I heard Jonathan repeat the figure of £55,000 I nearly swerved off the road” Cole used the wrong foot when attempting to clear Zat Knight’s goalbound header off the line.

Likewise, it was a misjudged, left-footed clearance from Cole in a game against Reading last season that directly caused an own goal by Michael Essien.

In these circumstances, the one-footedness of the player actively harms his team. If Ashley Cole finds a wage of £55,000 a week so incredibly insulting, he would do well to consider how much he might be worth if he could use two feet instead of one.


And so, after weeks of unprecedented hype – which, given the levels of hyperbole which have surrounded England’s top division since Sky invented exciting football in 1992, is an achievement in itself – the Premiership is back. Or, rather, the Premier League, for its name has now been officially changed as well.

The reason for all the hype is the hope that in the huge bucketfuls of TV cash which have been thrown at the league’s 20 clubs there lies the possibility that this season will be genuinely competitive. And the opening weekend’s results suggest that may well be the case.

All of the ‘big four’ were made to struggle, and – with the exception of Liverpool – made to struggle against teams they would have felt pretty confident about overcoming without too much fuss. Chelsea were made to look ragged by a resolute Birmingham City, Arsenal were minutes away from an underwhelming home draw with Fulham, and Reading struck a blow for fans of stubbornly unadventurous 4-5-1 football with their ‘gutsy’ 0-0 draw at Old Trafford.

Of the teams harbouring serious ambitions of playing in Europe next season, Tottenham lost, Portsmouth were held to a draw by lowly Derby, Villa succumbed at home to Liverpool and only Everton, Blackburn and Newcastle recorded victories – and only Newcastle’s was comfortable. In The Battle of the Shiny New Squads at Upton Park, Sven Goran Eriksson’s team of strangers played with a cohesion seemingly at odds with the fact most of them were signed on the basis of video footage alone.

But most heartening of all were the performances of the three promoted teams. Birmingham may have lost, but they gave Chelsea some real scares along the way, Derby’s draw with Portsmouth proved they can tough it out with the Premier League’s established players and Sunderland’s last gasp win over Spurs suggests the Black Cats are already imbued with a doggedness and resilience that were the hallmarks of their illustrious manager.

Goal of the weekend was Steven Gerrard’s inch-perfect free kick to clinch victory at Villa Park, but Obafemi Martins’s overhead kick against Bolton and Matt Derbyshire’s sweet curling finish at the Riverside caught the eye as well.

So, twenty-eights goals, some truly competitive fixtures and signs that the big four have really got their work cut out if they wish to continue to lord it over their more fiscally challenged opponents. Things are shaping up nicely…

1st. Manchester United

Owen Hargreaves, Nani, Anderson and (legal wrangle pending) Carlos Tevez will give United strength in depth and options in attack, both of which were missing last season. Ferguson’s biggest problem will be managing such a talented squad. Injury to Louis Saha will leave the team bereft of a traditional attacking spearhead, but United have too much quality in midfield to be denied.

2nd. Chelsea

The promised return of the counter-attacking 4-3-3 formation that brought Chelsea their first two Premiership titles could make goals, and subsequently victories, easier to come by. Much rests on the Stamford Bridge hierarchy avoiding the in-fighting and speculation that plagued them last season. New signings have added cover, but not much more, and the success of the 4-3-3 will depend largely on Joe Cole’s fitness, Florent Malouda’s ability to adapt to the Premiership and Andriy Shevchenko not kicking up too much of a fuss about sitting on the bench. Will suffer during the African Nations Cup.

3rd. Liverpool

If Fernando Torres hits the ground running, Liverpool could well prove unstoppable. If he struggles, important early-season momentum might be lost. Benitez has made some bold acquisitions, but he will have to get the balance of the team right quickly. Too much tinkering, and the Anfield faithful might be left ruing another false dawn.

4th. Tottenham Hotspur

Did well to recover from a slow start last time around. Ambitious signings show a commendable dedication to young talent. The signing of Darren Bent means they now possess the strongest set of strikers in the country, but they must stiffen up at the back if they are to force their way amongst the hallowed ‘big four’. Ledley King’s fitness and Paul Robinson’s confidence will be crucial.

5th. Arsenal

Last season’s glorious Carling Cup run suggested that Arsenal had the strongest squad in the league, but the departures of David Dein, Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg have cast a cloud over that memory. The talent is undeniably there, but Arsenal’s youngsters will have to learn quickly if they want to avoid the ignominy of yielding the North London initiative to Spurs. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie will feel the pressure of expectation more than most.

6th. Portsmouth

Have spent big and signed fairly well. There is no guarantee that David Nugent will score goals in the Premiership, but Harry Redknapp’s large squad boasts a wealth of striking options. Sylvain Distin and Sol Campbell looks like a formidable pairing at centre half. Last season’s 9th placed finish owed much to formidable home form, but Pompey will need to pick up more points on the road if they’re to sustain a serious European challenge.

7th. West Ham United

Another of the league’s big spenders. Although most fans would gleefully see them fall through the Championship trapdoor this season, one suspects it won’t happen. Curbishley has brought in some big names, and the Hammers now boast strength in every department, but he will have to learn how to soothe damaged egos if he wants his big names to achieve any kind of consistency.

8th. Everton

David Moyes has turned Everton into a well-drilled, hard-working outfit who play attractive football and know how to get results. But at the same time, the sole signing of Phil Jagielka is unlikely to propel them into the top five, and goals will be a real problem if Andy Johnson can’t find form. Players of the calibre of Lescott, Cahill and Arteta should ensure they keep their heads above mid-table.

9th. Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn will always be tough, and Ewood Park will always be a difficult place to play, but it’s hard to see Mark Hughes’s men flying up the table when the unproven Roque Santa Cruz is the only new signing of note that has been added to the squad. Solidity and hard work should see them through.

10th. Fulham

Lawrie Sanchez has worked industriously during the summer, and his signings blend youthful (predominantly Northern Irish) promise with Premiership experience. He’s trimmed the squad of deadwood, and if he can re-create the magic of his tenure as Northern Ireland manager, Fulham could be in for a memorable season. It will be interesting to see if David Healy can score as prolifically in the Premiership as he does on the international stage.

11th. Manchester City

Sven is hardly likely to turn City into a team of free-scoring entertainers, but clearly has a vision of what he wants to achieve, and the players he has already brought in look promising. However, the departures of Sylvain Distin and Joey Barton ripped the heart out of the team, and the squad looks bereft of leaders. Bianchi and Mpenza will have to start scoring quickly if City are to avoid a repeat of last season’s goal-shy drudgery.

12th. Aston Villa

Villa’s streamlined squad will need to avoid injuries if it is to build on last season’s progress. The first eleven picks itself, with Agbonlahor and Ashley Young supporting John Carew up front, Reo-Coker, Barry and Petrov manning the pumps in midfield, and Laursen and Mellberg holding the fort at the back. The team has a pleasing shape, but Martin O’Neill will count himself a lucky man indeed if he’s able to field the same eleven every week.

13th. Newcastle United

Big Sam has had the whole summer to prepare his squad for the new season, but he’s still not happy with the players he’s got. Newcastle should be a little tighter at the back now that Titus ‘Calamity’ Bramble has been shipped off to Wigan, but Joey Barton’s injury leaves them looking light in midfield, and Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins have had very little time to work on developing their partnership up front. Need new blood if they are to escape the mid-table quagmire.

14th. Bolton Wanderers

Poor Sammy Lee. The season hasn’t even begun, and critics are already grimly forecasting Bolton’s post-Allardyce demise. Christian Wilhelmsson is an exciting acquisition, but the other new players hardly set the pulse racing, and Lee’s ready admission that Nicolas Anelka is free to join any Champions League club that meets his asking price is hardly a statement of intent.

15th. Middlesbrough

It’s been a fairly uneventful summer at the Riverside. Jeremie Aliadiere looks a poor replacement for Mark Viduka, but Luke Young is a good signing, and with the club’s academy continuing to churn out impressive home-grown talent, Boro fans can look forward to another season of characteristic trundling along at the Riverside.

16th. Wigan Athletic

Chris Hutchings is relishing his first season in charge, and he has invested in tough, proven players who won’t be afraid to get their hands dirty. It won’t be pretty, but it should be reasonably effective. Jason Koumas has a big opportunity to prove his previous reputation as The Best Player Outside the Premiership, and the JJB Stadium is a sufficiently inauspicious location to allow him to go about his business diligently.

17th. Reading

Ah, that tricky second season. As Paul Jewell found out last season, that Premiership first-season mentality is a difficult thing to stretch out over two years. Key man Steve Sidwell has hot-footed it to the Stamford Bridge subs’ bench, and with only the unheralded Kalifa Cisse brought in over the summer, it’s hard to see them repeating last season’s heroics.

18th. Birmingham City

It seems unfair to consign all three promoted teams to relegation, but even with the money they’ve spent they will struggle. Steve Bruce has done better than most in the transfer market, but a lot of his signings are risky, and there’s no guarantee the whole will equal the sum of its parts.

19th. Sunderland

Roy Keane has spent a lot of money, but most of his new players were signed on potential alone. If Michael Chopra can’t adapt quickly enough they will struggle to score goals, and there’s no guarantee last season’s Championship heroes will be able to step up to the plate. Having said that, Keane’s first season in management was such a spectacular success that he might just surprise us all over again. He’ll certainly make sure his team plays the football he wants to see.

20th. Derby County

A predictable prediction, but it’s hard to see anything but a long hard struggle ahead for Billy Davies and Derby. Robert Earnshaw can be relied upon for goals, but it might all be a bit too much for what is a recently assembled and largely inexperienced squad.

Louis Saha celebrates his goal in the 2-3 FA Cup victory over ReadingUnited were very lucky last night. I’ve never seen such a free-scoring start to a football match. United looked superb in the game’s opening stages, but when they went 3-0 up so early a comeback was always on the cards.

From the middle of the second half onwards, I thought United were pretty disappointing. Van der Sar flapped uncharacteristically, the defence looked shaky, Heinze’s erratic involvements demonstrated why he has fallen so far behind Patrice Evra in the left-back pecking order, Kieran Richardson had a thoroughly forgettable game, Darren Fletcher’s usually reliable distribution was found lacking, and Ji-Sung Park buzzed around to no real discernable effect.

The forwards, though, were superb. Solskjaer’s movement was marvellous, and I thought Saha looked completely unplayable. Not many forwards give Andre Bikey the brush-off quite so easily, but Saha had him in his pocket all night. Rarely do you see a centre forward play with quite such confidence in his strength and ability, and I thought he took his goal superbly.

But United did look wobbly. In the last fifteen minutes they defended like schoolboys – literally. And while the first team continues to purr like a new Ferrari, the Robin Reliant feel of the second eleven suggests the squad is considerably weaker than Chelsea and Arsenal’s.