Monday, 9 August 2010

Defining Weeks Approach For Roy's Reds

The Premiership campaign is rightfully regarded as the ultimate long haul, particularly when compared to the relative short hops that make up some of its European counterparts (most of which enjoy the much-vaunted Christmas break). As such, any suggestion that the opening weeks of the new season, thankfully about to break upon us (depending on the location from which you are consuming this prose of course), represent an exceptionally pivotal period in the medium-term fortunes of one's chosen club could be regarded as foolhardy or ill-thought through. However, for Merseyside's much-maligned Red contingent, the next month or so really has the potential to set the scene for Liverpool's attempts to heave themselves from the dirge that was 2009/10 and back into England's elite.

Great changes are afoot at the head of the club, and their significance simply cannot go underestimated. A rare moment of bright thinking was evident in the decision to axe the cold Benitez at the beginning of June, and he was replaced by everyone's favourite gangster-impersonator, Roy Hodgson, inside a month. Hodgson's miraculous exploits as Fulham boss have received more than enough column inches, but nevertheless it is extremely difficult to begrudge the London-born adventurer his first (and most likely single) stint at one of England's most prestigious names - even for a lifelong Red Devil like yours truly. Roy's endeavours at Anfield are unlikely to be of the fantastical quality of those on the banks of the Thames, and certainly should not need to be, but some saintliness may yet be required; this will concern his patience.

Swirling around the club - if the news outlets are to be believed - at the time of writing are several consortia, all with the goal of buying out Liverpool's hated American owners (are there any other sort in English football at present). It would appear that the outfit headed by Yahya Kirdi, a Canadian-based Syrian, is in pole position and plans to tie up the deal by the start of Liverpool's domestic campaign on Sunday afternoon. This clearly leaves plenty of time for Chinese tycoon Kenny Huang, and to a lesser extent the third-placed Sahara Group of India, to jostle behind Kirdi, casting in promise and counter-promise, in the run up to the big day.

What is most important here is not the identity of the bidder, nor which succeeds; it seems moderately likely that Kirdi's consortium will win the day. No, it is the timing which fascinates most. Hodgson himself has suggested that any transfer funds potentially available to him would not manifest themselves in time for well-considered player recruitment ahead of the transfer deadline on September 1st. This would lead to the possibly damaging situation of Hodgson having a hole slowly burning in his pocket until January, while the gossip columns feed off Liverpool's increased spending power and existing squad members begin to feel the squeeze. There are plenty of players in the squad who have a great deal to prove in the coming campaign, even with some of the deadwood having been chopped away already, and the availability of resource to strengthen a squad under heavy pressure from the get-go is sure to make the likes of Babel, Aquilani and Insua look nervously over their shoulders, straight into the sage eyes of the plotting Hodgson.

Such an explosive situation could be afforded an early spark or two by the opening fixtures of the season, and the fixture computer seems to have it in for the Merseysiders this time around. The Reds face Arsenal first up, before visiting Man City eight days later and their arch-rivals United three games later. In 6 league games against these opponents last season, Liverpool secured 5 points from a possible 18, and only 1 from 9 available in 2010. Moreover, Liverpool's clash with City is sandwiched by a tricky looking Europa League play-off with Turkish side Trabzonspor. The Turks finished fifth in the Super Lig last season and won two domestic cup competitions; the tie also sees Liverpool travel to Turkey for the second leg just three days after facing City and less than 48 hours before a clash with promoted West Brom at Anfield.

Given the frenetic start to the season, Roy will be grateful that his current roster appears fairly settled and in slightly better shape than those who disappointed under Benitez in finishing seventh last time out. Troublesome Spaniard Albert Riera has been jettisoned, with Milan Jovanovic coming in on a free transfer (a deal ironically initiated by Benitez in a surprising appreciation of good value). Yossi Benayoun was sold to Chelsea, with the consistent Israeli being replaced with another free transfer in the form of the gifted playmaker Joe Cole, who has reportedly looked sharp in pre-season. These moves give Liverpool's front line a more direct aspect, although it remains to be seen if either will be able to force themselves ahead of the ever-dependable Dutch workhorse Dirk Kuyt. Roy still lacks potent youth in the most advanced positions, and neither Jovanovic nor Cole will do much to lower the team's average age. But more is expected of David N'Gog, who fired the Reds past Rabotnicki in the Europa League, and of course the infuriating Ryan Babel.

In defence Liverpool should remain solid; they claim to possess the league's top stopper in Jose Reina, although this is certainly a matter of opinion, and the centre-backs remain, with the addition of the versatile and promising Danny Wilson, who was snapped up from Rangers by Hodgson on July 21. Wilson has drawn comparisons with Alan Hansen, and at just 18 looks like a marvellous investment who could, alongside Dan Agger, form the heart of the back four for many years. In midfield, the seemingly Inter-bound Javier Mascherano may be replaced by Juve's Danish holding midfielder Christian Poulsen, while Hodgson also seems to be toying with a deeper role for the talismanic Gerrard. There is no question that Gerrard can excel in this position, in the same way that Paul Scholes does for Manchester United, but with added drive owing to his fewer years.

Most Liverpool fans, I imagine, would simply have been happy to start the season in the knowledge that Fernando Torres would be putting on the famous Nine again. With this commitment secured just last week, many minds were set at ease, and the Spanish hit-man would surely receive the largest cheer, drowning out any mutterings about his World Cup failings, of all the returning players if he made the squad for this Sunday's curtain-raiser. But this rapturous welcome will soon give way to a whole host of questions, the answers to which have barely been hinted at here. Liverpool have a daunting array of obstacles to overcome if they are even to remain ahead of Moyes' boys, and only then can they make eyes at the logjam that threatens to develop in front of them, where City's overspilling coffers, a Drogba-powered Chelsea and a fired-up United, fronted by a smiling Mexican, all stand in their path.

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