Sunday, August 15, 2010

Preview : The Big Guns Opener

Great expectations as two giants aim to silence doubters

Roy Hodgson kicks off the new Premier League season as he ended the last one – with a game against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. But whereas in May he was in charge of Fulham, resting key players for their trip to the Emirates a few days before contesting the Europa League final, now he is at the helm of Liverpool, still England’s most successful club, even if the glory days are fast receding into the distance.

Taking over at Anfield is Hodgson’s reward not only for working wonders at Craven Cottage, but for a lengthy career of solid if not always spectacular achievement in European club and international football.

His task is a tough one: the Reds lost their way alarmingly in what turned out to be Rafa Benitez’s last season in charge, aiming for first and finishing seventh while making early exits from every cup competition, including the Champions League.

His first Premier League game as Liverpool boss will also be Wenger’s 525th in charge of the Gunners, and although the Frenchman has lost only 85 of those, compared with 307 wins, and has finished in the top four in every one of his 14 seasons in North London, he is arguably under even greater pressure to deliver than Hodgson.

‘Arsenal haven’t won a trophy since 2005’ is in danger of becoming the latest football cliché, and is something that no doubt irks Wenger as much as it frustrates the fans.

He’s been accused of being too frugal, too stubborn, too obsessed with the beautiful game and over-reliant on youth in pursuit of his principles. There’s talk he’s about to commit to a new contract that would effectively bind him to the Gunners for the rest of his career; but at the same time there is speculation that this will be his last season at the Emirates if he fails to end the trophy drought.

Will changes bring greater staying power?

Both squads have new signings who’ll be looking to integrate and impress from the off – including Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen, Milan Jovanovic, Laurent Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh.

But in an unwelcome echo of last season, both teams may also be without key players - World Cup finalists, no less - as Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie have all been struggling to reach match fitness in time for Sunday afternoon’s opener.

Injuries (and in some cases loss of form) were a recurring motif for both clubs last season, and for both, their prospects of improvement will depend on being able to keep their respective treatment rooms unclogged.

There have also been some significant departures over the summer: Arsenal have seen no fewer than four central defenders move on, while Yossi Benayoun has quit Anfield and Javier Mascherano could yet follow him.

Liverpool fans crave greater consistency (and a little less caution) on the pitch, and greater stability off it. Hodgson’s arrival has brought an air of calm and optimism to Anfield, but the ownership issue remains a distraction. Arsenal fans are looking for more durability, especially at the back, and less naivety, especially against Chelsea and Manchester United.

It is unlikely that either manager has concluded his summer transfer business, so both teams are works in progress; but this weekend's most compelling fixture may offer some clues about which one of these two giants has the stronger credentials.

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