Getting down to the nitty gritty here. Today we'll hit up the Red half of Merseyside with a team near-and-dear to the hearts of a lot of readers -- Liverpool. Your preview comes at the hands of my Internet friend, Slade Sohmer, who needs your help as he launches a news-site to rule them all: Hyper Vocal. You can already follow it on Twitter. Oh right, he picked Los Reds for first place last year, too. Make fun of him for it.
By Slade Sohmer
Dreadful. Disgusting. Uninspired. Indefensible. Insulting.
One might expect those five adjectives to be used often in connection with Rafa Benitez's goatee. But coming off a momentum-building second-place finish in 2008-09, it'd be more curious to expect those adjectives to be used in description of the gaffer's Liverpool side as the season kicked off a year ago. Gone was Handsome Basque Xabi Alonso, sure, but the Steven Gerrard-Fernando Torres El Fantastico coupling remained, and optimism reigned for yitle No. 19.
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Only it wasn't to be. Not even close. Out of the gate, Tottenham dominated the opening-day match with Liverpool. Aston Villa then dropped a 3-1 whoopin' at Anfield. Fiorentina dismantled Los Reds' usually-strong-to-quote-strong European side in the first match of the group stage. Then came The Curious Incident of the Beach Ball in the Daytime at Sunderland. Three days later Lyon marched into Anfield and walked away 2-1 victors. By October 20th, both the Premier League and Champions League titles seemed woefully out of reach. Torres came up limping, Gerrard came up lame, Jamie Carragher aged 10 years in 10 matches and the squad sorely lacked in both depth and breadth of talent.
The subsequent seventh-place finish conjured up enough doom and gloom in the European Capital of Culture 2008 to result in the well-deserved sacking of a manager who'd clearly lost the plot and the dressing room. Fans protested in vain and heaped attention on the bloody Yank owners, but first Rafa had to go. We'll soon find out whether, like the geopolitical economy, the Americans cede control to the Chinese, and whether the new owners splash some of that U.S. Treasury-backed cash on world-class players. Clearly, though, Scousers are ready to transition from American Imperialism to the You'll Never Wok Alone era.
So Rafa's been sent packing to It'ly, where his preferred brand of lusterless mediocrity is a lifestyle. In stepped overachieving Fulham boss Roy Hodgson, who needed no nighttime televised press conference to announce he'll be taking his talents to Merseyside. Now, much like the 2008 presidential campaign, that clarion call for systemic Change begot heaps of cautious Hope in the air around Anfield. Torres and Gerrard soon after announced their commitments to Liverpool football.
In Hodgson, Liverpool possess a manager who's often paradoxically described a no-nonsense player-favorite. He's a hands-on guy, a practice-field perfectionist, a man who intends to make his players keep their shape more than anything else. Whether the superstars, and players who believe they're stars, will buy into focused, team-building repetitive practices the way guys like Simon Davies and Danny Murphy will define Hodgson's first year at the helm.
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Hodgson loves his 4-4-2 like Rafa loves his ugly ties, so it'll be interesting to see how Uncle Roy lines up a squad that has played some variation of the 4-2-3-1 for the past two seasons. Who will win the starting job up top with El Nino, and how will that person link up with a star forward renowned for operating best as a lone striker? Is it possible that 18-year-old Charlton-buy Jonjo Shelvey finishes the season as the breakout young player of the Prem (and win the award for Youngest Player to Look Like a 61-Year-Old Shoeshine)?
Or will that be 19-year-old Spaniard Dani Pachecho? Will The Gangly Handful return to do the Crouchbot at the Kop end? Or will David Ngog finally learn how to finish? All decent options, but the smart money's on Hodgson using World Cup star for Serbia Milan Jovanovic to partner Torres and have an immediate impact. Jovanovic not only has a keen knack for finding the net, but his work in The Fifth Element and Dazed and Confused was wonderful stuff.
Outside of Shelvey, Jovanovic and 18-year-old center back Danny Wilson, it's a former rival that has Liverpool spirits most inflated (and Liverpool clitori most stimulated). Christmas came in July, and Santa Claus delivered the naughty Liverpool side a Lump of Cole (heyooo!). Joe Cole became the club's best buy of the summer when management sent non-Christmas celebrator Yossi Benayoun to Chelsea in exchange for the pacey, oft-injured winger and a chunk of Abramovich's rubles. If Cole can stay healthy, and that IF is bigger than Cole himself, he brings much-needed creativity to a side that routinely plays as if paint drying is a mindfuckingly awesome spectacle.
But serious questions remain, and as optimistic as supporters have become this summer -- and they have...quickly -- one has to worry about the state of the defense and central midfield. Last year Liverpool allowed 35 goals, considerably more than previous seasons (when you concede two to Pompey Peed On My Sofa in a lopsided defeat you know it's not your season). The back line needs to perform better in the run of play, but the true culprit last year was the pitiful aerial defending on set pieces. Hodgson's zonal marking scheme may come under similar scrutiny to Rafa's if Liverpool allows such garbage set-piece defending to pass for a stout back line.
It's not zonal marking; it's the players themselves. Ever since Sami Hyypia's slowdown and eventual departure, the back line has been about as forgiving as Hillary Clinton after the Lewinsky scandal. Martin Skrtel's reputation is "tough-as-nails defender," but he has yet to take over as the in-air enforcer Hyypia was, and he's flat-out failed to protect Pepe Reina's net. Carragher clearly lost a step. Glen Johnson, aka Snoop for his likeness not to the famed rapper but the fictitious Baltimore nailgun operator on "The Wire", is an excellent attacker, but his defending is often as solid as a post-Jamba Juice bowel movement. And there's a gaping hole (I'll spare any inappropriate "gaping hole" analogies for now) on the other side, though Liverpool fans are praying to Fowler that He grants Emiliano Insua or Martin Kelly the strength to play at the big-boy level.
Here's the thing: Hodgson preaches defensive discipline, and if he holds true to form, the biggest problem set for Liverpool might resolve itself. That's reason for optimism right there.
Whether Javier Mascherano stays or goes will dictate who lines up with Gerrard in central midfield. That transfer seems likely, although Inter claims it must sell before it buys the diminutive Argentine with a predilection for hard challenges and mistimed yellow cards. Joe Cole might be deputized to play inside, though it makes more sense for him to patrol one flank while Dirk Kuyt diligently plays Labrador retriever on the other. So we're likely to see more in the middle of the quietly improving Lucas, youngster Jay Spearing, Crazy Eyes Aquilani and whomever else Liverpool picks up before the transfer window closes. Not exactly a Murderers Row.
It's possible that even if Captain Fantastic brings an old-school season to Anfield, they may still be dominated in the middle of the pitch.
Even the most tried-and-true Scousers must concede that Liverpool has virtually no chance to win the league this year. But the doom and gloom is gone (for now), and instead of fears that Torres and Gerrard would bolt and the club would fall further -- perhaps even behind the blue side of Liverpool -- there's hope that Hodgson will guide this club back to the Champions League. The first two matches of the season will be difficult, but if Liverpool can somehow snag four points from Arsenal and Manchester City, crooked-tooth smiles will emerge across Anfield. And maybe, just maybe, we can win the league ... The Europa League.
T.O.P. EPL Fantasy
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In case you missed it:
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* Newcastle United
* Aston Villa
* Birmingham City
* West Ham United
* Stoke City
* Blackburn Rovers
* Wigan Athletic
* West Brom