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Dublin: 22 °C Monday 25 June, 2018

Stephen Ward the goal machine and more Premier League talking points

Meanwhile Huddersfield return to the top flight with a bang and Wayne Rooney grabs a goal on his second Everton debut.

A former striker, Stephen Ward got his goal tally for this season off the mark against Chelsea today.
A former striker, Stephen Ward got his goal tally for this season off the mark against Chelsea today.
Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Updated at 9am

1. Even Virgil van Dijk would struggle to resolve Liverpool’s defensive woes

LIVERPOOL HAVE BEEN defensively inept for what seems like years now.

Despite boasting the best attack in England at the time, their 2013-14 title charge was famously ruined due to inadequacies at the back. Remember that 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace, which put the nail in the coffin of their title challenge? It was one of a series of occasions when the brilliance of a Luis Suarez-inspired attack could not compensate for flaws elsewhere on the pitch.

It was the same story last season under Jurgen Klopp — the Reds conceded 42 goals, which was more than any other top-six side apart from the similarly error-strewn Arsenal.

And this season, there are few signs of change in this regard, if today’s 3-3 draw against Watford was anything to go by.

Two of the three Watford goals this afternoon were conceded from a set piece and such regular errors reflect poorly not just on the players but the coaching staff too.

Watford v Liverpool - Premier League - Vicarage Road Liverpool conceded two goals from set pieces in their 3-3 draw with Watford. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Over the years, footballers such as Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip have come into the club in an attempt to resolve these perennial problems.

And even if Liverpool do shell out for wantaway Southampton centre-back Virgil van Dijk, it is hard to imagine there will be a sudden drastic defensive improvement at Anfield.

The problems at the club lie deeper. Defending is an art form and the top teams in this regard play like a well-oiled unit, do the basics well, and rarely concede from set pieces — think Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team of the 1990s or even Chelsea last season, to cite a more modern example.

Liverpool need to re-evaluate how they coach defending, as it has been clear for some time now that the problem is a collective issue rather than being down to any individual weakness.

- Paul Fennessy

2. Olivier Giroud proves his worth

Arsene Wenger’s substitutions were criticised initially by some onlookers during Arsenal’s highly entertaining 4-3 win over Leicester on Friday.

On 67 minutes, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey replaced Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny.

This move left some questioning the manager’s wisdom, as the Gunners then had to make do with a makeshift back three featuring two full-backs — Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin.

However, the changes proved inspired ultimately, as Arsenal came from 3-2 down to win in dramatic fashion, with both Ramsey and Giroud scoring vital goals in the final 10 minutes of play.

Giroud’s acrobatic header was especially accomplished and capped a remarkable late comeback. The Frenchman has been heavily linked with a move to West Ham over the summer, but surely Arsenal would be unwise to sell the striker.

The 30-year-old has now scored 70 Premier League goals for the Gunners, managing 20 in all competitions last season, and tends to be highly effective off the bench more often than not.

Giroud doesn’t start every game and his inability to contribute enough in general play means he is not quite at the level of the Premier League’s elite strikers.

Yet while he might not be good enough to get into the starting XI of most top-six sides, the France international is as good a back-up striker as there is in England’s top flight and so Arsenal would be unwise to let their super sub leave.

Truly great sides always need an unsung Ole Gunnar Solskjær-esque player to be relied upon as a plan B, and that is exactly what Giroud offers Arsenal.

- Paul Fennessy

3. Stephen Ward is a class act with an eye for goal

He began his career as a striker and as recently as his early days at Wolves, Stephen Ward played in a much more advanced position on the left wing.

The player scored twice on his debut for Bohemians way back in 2003 in an FAI Cup game against Skerries Town and today Ward again showcased his ability to bag a goal with the sweetest of strikes against champions Chelsea.

Chelsea v Burnley - Premier League - Stamford Bridge Burnley stunned Chelsea 3-2 at Stamford Bridge. Source: John Walton

He played in all but one of Burnley’s 38 Premier League fixtures last season, scoring three goals. That means he scored half as many goals as the top scoring Irish player in the Premier League, Jonathan Walters, and already Ward has opened his account this year.

It was a stunning strike right into Thibaut Courtois’s top corner to cap off an unforgettable evening’s work for his side. Burnley went into the break 3-0 up against the champions and, despite a late rally, saw out a famous 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge.

The defender is still just 31-years-old and has some big seasons ahead of him. It took him a few years to find his feet at Wolves but today’s performance showed that Ward is an established Premier League player who often goes without the credit he deserves. As a defender, or a goalscorer.

- Aaron Gallagher

4. Huddersfield make a stunning return to the top flight

The Premier League returned with a bang this weekend. Goals galore, a disdain for defending, and major upsets all featured across an opening round of fixtures which was high on entertainment at almost every turn.

Huddersfield’s promotion to the Premier League was the stuff of dreams and their 3-0 opening day victory over Crystal Palace will never be forgotten. It was their first game back in the top flight of English football in 45 years and they returned with a bang.

Two goals from record signing Steve Mounie and and an own goal from Joel Ward means that David Wagner’s side swagger to the top of the table for one night at least.

Tipped by many to go down, they have sent out clear warning signals that they do intend to stick around with a fight.

Coincidentally Selhurst Park was the scene of the club’s last game in the old First Division. It was a happy return this afternoon, four and a half decades later, and a game Terriers supporters won’t forget in a long time.

- Aaron Gallagher

5. Rooney rolls back the years with goal for Everton on his second debut

It was the moment Rooney and Everton supporters alike had dreamt about ever since he signed the contract that would bring the Merseysider back to Goodison Park.

A glancing header just before the break was the difference between the Toffees and Stoke in an ugly, hard-fought 1-0 win. Rooney scored a scorcher in his first game back in blue, a pre-season friendly last month.

Everton v Stoke City - Premier League - Goodison Park Rooney returned to Goodison Park with a winning goal. Source: Dave Thompson

But this strike, his 199th Premier League goal, will mean so much more. How long has it been since the striker scored a goal which gave him such an adrenaline rush? In front of his children back playing for his local club, it was a feelgood moment of the weekend.

More significantly though, it showed that despite scoring just five league goals last season, Rooney still presents a threat in front of goal. With the departure of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United, there’s a danger that Ronald Koeman’s side may struggle in the goals department this season.

But today Rooney rolled back the years. A milestone goal but a crucial three points, too. Everton believe they can crack the top four this year. That goal of Champions League football, be it too ambitious or outlandish beyond the realms of possibility, began today.

- Aaron Gallagher

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