A couple of scary reminders; the question of Suarez's weight
Chris Herd and Didier Drogba both survived scary collisions in Saturday's games
Luis Suarez is playing well for Liverpool, but can his stocky physique hold up?
Saturday's small crowd shows fans may not believe the fast start by Aston Villa
Five things we learned from Saturday's action in the Barclays Premier League:
1. Soccer can be dangerous. When Chris Herd, the Aston Villa fullback, lunged for a header Saturday, missed and crashed head first into a goal post, the terrifying incident was instantly replayed in high definition from several different angles. After a couple of minutes, the young Australian climbed groggily to his feet and played on. He seemed all right, even coming close to scoring when he did manage to strike the ball with his forehead in the second half. But it was a scary reminder that soccer, like any sport where fit young men hurl themselves around, carries risks. That point was brought chillingly later in the afternoon, as Didier Drogba lay for a long period unmoving on the grass at Stamford Bridge. Drogba plays as if he would, and could, run through brick walls. He showed all his power, athleticism and strength as he sprinted forward and leapt to John Ruddy, the Norwich keeper, under a bouncing ball. And suddenly Drogba's vulnerable humanity was exposed. The two collided. Drogba appeared to be already unconscious as he fell. His head smashed into the turf. Ruddy was later sent off for tripping Ramires, but in this case the referee Mike Jones saw nothing wrong. It was a normal soccer challenge yet it ended with Drogba strapped immobile to a stretcher with an oxygen mask on his face. He was taken to a hospital and was released after tests. The club later reported that he had suffered only a concussion.
2. The Suarez question. Liverpool's game against Bolton was effectively over after 53 minutes when Charlie Adam put the home team three goals ahead. Bolton, the worst away side last season, was pretty toothless as they lost 3 -1. Even so, Kenny Dalglish left his best payer, Luis Suarez, on the field for 20 more minutes. Perhaps Dalglish wanted Suarez to get the goal he deserved and continue his record of scoring in every game this season. Perhaps Dalglish was simply being stubborn, having been asked during the week whether he would rest Suarez. In any case, he allowed us more time to consider the surprising question: Is Suarez fat?
It is remarkable that professional soccer players, with two games a week, daily training and professional trainers and dietitians monitoring their bodies, can get fat. But in his time at Rangers, Adam showed it could be done. One of the reasons the Scotsman is enjoying a second bite at the big time is he seems to have learned his lesson and now has almost no body fat.
Suarez starts with a stocky physique. He is built like a barrel. And it's not as if he has had a slothful summer. He led Uruguay to victory in the Copa America, where he was voted player of the tournament, which is why Dalglish is facing questions about resting him. Maybe Suarez is trying to bulk up. After all, Harry Redknapp, when excusing his failure to buy Suarez for Spurs, reportedly said he doubted the Uruguayan had the physique for the Premier League. There have been issues about Suarez's eating habits. He was banned last year while still at Ajax after taking a bite out of Otman Bakkal of PSV Eindhoven.
On one level, it doesn't matter if that really is a spare tire tucked under his rib cage. Suarez again showed that he has the close control, awareness and quickness of thought to stay one step ahead of defenders. On the other hand, the victory put Liverpool top of the table but there are 35 games to go. That's a long way for a player who had no summer vacation to carry any extra weight.
3. Villa fans vote. It was a West Midlands derby with more glory at stake than any in recent years. Whatever the result, the game between Aston Villa and Wolves would end with one of the teams atop of the league. A local derby with first place as a prize might seem an inviting prospect, but the official attendance was 30,776 at a ground that holds another 12,000. Maybe the fact that the game kicked off at noon so it could be shown live on TV cut attendance. But maybe it's just that Villa fans think they know what's coming, not just on Saturday but also over the coming nine months.
The game itself ended 0-0. Even though Wolves fielded a starting 11 made up entirely of players born in Britain and Ireland and Aston Villa started with eight, it was a match that lacked not only atmosphere but also the traditional abrasive physical edge. These are two well-drilled, hardworking, cautious teams with little spark or flair. Both passed the ball nicely enough until they reach the business end of the field. Wayne Hennessy, the Wolves keeper, had to make a couple of saves, but that was about it.
Wolves were the away team. They should be happier with a draw that briefly put them on top of the league. Their fans can have few illusions. Wolves are not going to win the title. Their seven points after the first three games simply offer hope that, unlike the club's three previous Premier League seasons, this one might not be fight to avoid relegation.
The banks of empty seats said more about the home club. Villa is historically a huge club. It is the biggest team in Britain's second-biggest city. It finished second in the first Premier League season. Now, it is a finishing school for Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City. Fan frustration boiled over when Alex McLeish has hired from despised and relegated neighbor Birmingham City. The fundamental problem is not that McLeish is a "bluenose." It's that his hiring suggests that Randy Lerner, the club's owner, has given up hope of breaking into the top four. The two previous appointments, Martin O'Neill and Gerard Houllier, suggested the club thought it might be possible to go toe-to-toe with the big boys. McLeish did win a couple of Scottish titles during his checkered reign at Rangers. Yet nothing in his recent past, or in Saturday's display, suggests that he will break Villa's soul-sapping 12-season streak of finishing somewhere between sixth and 16th. What we learned Saturday was what most Villa fans already knew, this team is not going to be in contention nor is it in danger of relegation. It doesn't have any thrilling stars. Why bother watching?
4. Where the action isn't. When Chelsea scored its first goal of the André Villas-Boas era last Saturday and the oh-so-cool new manager stopped stoking his chin and suddenly jackknifed jubilantly into the era, the television commentator breathed an audible sigh of relief. The new man would provide a little sideline showmanship. On Saturday, Villas-Boas was not in jumping-around mood as Chelsea scored two late goals to eke out another home victory, beating Norwich, 3-1, and briefly becoming the second league leader of the day. Yet the camera still lingered longingly on him as it does on every modern manager.
Managers gesture and grimace and sometimes kick a water bucket, but they never kick a ball in a way that influences the result. If the director is lucky, he may catch a manager poking an opponent in the eye. (Take a bow, José Mourinho.) But really, the quick glimpses of generally grumpy middle-aged men on the sidelines only raises questions. What is David Platt saying to Roberto Mancini? Why is Mancini pretending to listen? Is Harry Redknapp really asleep? What has Roy Hodgson done to his hair? Can Alex Ferguson really not tell the time? What else does Neil Warnock have in his pockets? On Saturday, the burning question as Wolves and Villa scuffled to a 0-0 draw, was: why does Mick McCarthy (like younger Owen Coyle later in the day) insist on wearing a soccer kit rather than a suit on the sideline? If he wants to play, then he should write his name on the team sheet. Maybe he's trying to show solidarity with his players. But, if there is one thing we learned when the camera panned to McCarthy, it's that while fit young men can just about get away with wearing soccer short if they are chasing a ball, a 52-year-old man, standing there with arms akimbo and naked knees, looks like a complete dork.
5. Paying the penalty. This is already the season of missed penalties. After Saturday's games, there have been nine penalties this season. Only three have been converted (four have been saved and two more missed the target altogether). Blackburn Rovers had two against Everton and Ewood Park. Junior Hoilett wasted the first and Mauro Formica the second. Then in the 90th minute Chris Samba collided with Marouane Fellaini, and Lee Mason, the referee, gave his third penalty of the afternoon, this time to Everton. Mikel Arteta did not miss. Scoring to give Everton a 1-0 victory and send Blackburn down to last place. It's hard enough to score in soccer, especially if you're Blackburn, without missing the easiest of chances.
Peter Berlin has been following English soccer for 45 years and reporting on it for 25 years.