Three talking points from the English Premier League this weekend:
|Rooney's injury is an early litmus test|
For much of his United tenure, Rooney has been the club's focal point. Even during the Cristiano years (2006-2009), the club looked to Scouse leadership rather than Portuguese when needing a lift. In the only sport to use the adjective “talisman” to describe players, he has embodied the post-Ronaldo Manchester United side.
However, despite an impressive goal tally last term, Rooney's play wasn't quite to the standard of past years. In fact, he's never quite been the same since his transfer demand in October 2010. The results are (generally) there but only sometimes has the end justified the means. He's still capable of the magnificent and of sustained brilliance, but his reputation is ever so slightly beginning to overshadow the performance.
His clearly sub-par opening match versus Everton aside – which earned him a place on the bench for United's 3-2 weekend win against Fulham – Rooney has seemed unable to finish games strongly since even before the Euros.
With Kagawa, Cleverley, van Persie and Ashley Young all wanting a piece of his no. 10 role, the his four weeks he will miss with a leg injury might confirm this decline. Alternatively, absence may once again make the heart grow fonder. It's an early test for United and especially for their new signees.
Everton for the Champions League?
Miserly defence? Check. Stolid midfield? Check. Goal poachers? Check. Belgian? Check.
Everton has all the ingredients needed for a club to challenge for European football this year. And despite a relatively thin squad, the Toffees could even challenge for a top-four finish. Such an achievement seems unthinkable considering their financial position, but David Moyes has assembled a clinical squad capable of beating the Premiership's best and dismantling its worst.
Newcastle United proved last year that clubs can challenge for a top four berth with prudent, rather than lavish investment. Everton could replicate that success in 2012-13: Jelavic, Fellaini, Pienaar and Naismith are a mobile, precise quartet no defender willingly faces and they're backed by the wily Phil Neville and Darron Gibson's sledgehammer shot.
The team hasn't got great depth, but their bench for their match against Villa on Saturday featured Seamus Coleman, striker Kevin Mirallas (top scorer in Greece last year), Netherlands centre-back John Heitinga and Next Big Thing™ Ross Barkley. A girdled squad hasn't really hurt Barcelona, nor the 2004 Invincibles – but it is crucial that the Toffees stay healthy.
They have also strengthened at the right time. Liverpool and Tottenham are adapting to new methods, Spurs only have two strikers, Chelsea are somewhat … unpredictable and Newcastle must prove that last year's form wasn't a blip. Over the past two years, cracks have appeared in the veneer of the once-impregnable Big Four and Everton could well take advantage.
Eden Hazard might be the best player in the Premier League
Six assists and one goal in three matches makes one suggest Eden Hazard spent the preseason playing possum. After arriving from Lille laden with two Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year awards and another two Player of the Year awards, Hazard was overshadowed in early games by Marko Marin's speed and Romelu Lukaku's sheer physical presence – the Blues even brought in his younger brother Thorgan to help him acclimate to England.
But when things have mattered, Hazard has been simply wonderful. Fast, incisive and possessing a beautiful eye for a pass and perhaps a better one for a goal, he is already drawing comparisons to Chelsea great Gianfranco Zola. It's still early – remember Marouane Chamakh didn't stink his first half-season – but Hazard has the resume and intangibles to remain a Premier League highlight for the rest of his career.
When you look down the list of Premier League's best players, a few stand out: Yaya Toure, David Silva, van Persie, Kompany, Vidic, Rooney (perhaps, if you squint) … and after that the list begins to get thin and increasingly unbelievable. Realistic challengers for League's Best don't come along very often, and Hazard has shown glimpses that he could belong in this company – and perhaps, in time, at the very top of this list.