It hurts being outside of the Big Four. For years it was seen as our rightful place. Our history, our heritage, our prestige all guaranteed we’d be up there with the top boys. Playing the important matches. Winning with flair and a healthy disregard for our opponents. Feeling the envy, loathing and quiet respect of our peers. A 7th place finish last term and the roles are now reversed.
We’re in awe of Aston Villas domestic rebirth. We’re looking up at Manchester City with their billions of dollars and Tottenham with — well, whatever the fuck they have. And we know how they feel. To be the ones to knock on fates door and have it answered. Last season was a disappointment, yes. But at the beginning to this one, we can look towards it with renewed optimism. A clean slate. Nothing is prettier than starting from zero….
Out with the old and in with the new. Rafa Benitez, the much malaligned, love him or hate him Manager has moved on. Fired by mutual consent as one might put it. In his place, comes Roy Hodgson, journeyman extraordinare. Despite some dodgy sunglasses1, he’s got a knack for doing a lot with a little and aims to galvanize a team wracked with disappointment and confusion. Some may question his appointment by a board that few believe should still be making the decisions but his record speaks for itself. Whether or not he’s up to the challenge of restoring Liverpool to past glories, if only Champions League football this time around, remains to be seen.
The departure of Benitez left a question mark hanging above the heads of the much glorified “spine” of our squad, with the biggest punctuation marks hanging over Steven Gerrard and star striker Fernando Torres. Much media speculation2 was laid to rest after the close of the World Cup when both went on record re-affirming their commitment to the team in Red. With the bulk of our offence being propped up by this pair, the casual optimist can be at ease knowing these boys will be running out an Anfield week in and week out. Another ray of sunshine beaming down is the fitness of Alberto Aquilani. The Italian will begin the season ready to do the job he was brought in to do after struggling with injuries3 the majority of the previous campaign. Branded a “failure” and the “worst summer signing of 2009″, Alberto will have his work cut out for him. First impressions last a lifetime but ifhe can stay fit, he could play a key role in restoring our fortunes.
This summer hasn’t been all fairy tale endings and passionate speeches though. Javier Macherano, our Argentinian wrecking machine, is slowly finding his way to the exit door4 after talks with the new Gaffer broke down. An integral component of the Mersey Machine for the past 2 and a half years, he looks likely to make a spectacular leap to another side. Where that other side will be, at this time, remains to be seen. Yossi Benayoun, another Kop favorite, ended his days in Liverpool by joining Chelsea in a protracted transfer saga spanning months of speculation. And what of ill tempered Albert Riera? Shown the exit door with a one way ticket to Greece. If only we knew that the money generated from these deals could be re-invested in the squad, rather than going towards paying debts and outstanding loans5, these departures would not be as negative as they might sound.
Depth in attack was always going to be a priority after repeated spells on the sidelines forced Fernando and Stevie out of the squad and Roy has moved quickly to address this. Former Chelsea star Joe Cole6 has been brought in on a free transfer, Standard Liege striker come-winger Milan Jovanovic also joined for no money down while Dirk Kuyt, Ryan Babel, Lucas and Maxi Rodriguez have stayed put despite media speculation linking the lot of them with an Anfield exit.
In our Europa League opener and pre-season friendlies, Hodgson gave a number of our youth squad valuable pitch time with Dani Pacheo, Lauri Dalla Valle and David Amoo all showing the boss7 what they are capable of. David Ngog, who’s understandably played 2nd fiddle to Torres since his arrival, was on hand to score 3 goals in 2 matches and make sure progression was assured for the Reds. Another one to watch, the plucky Frenchman has had his highs8 and lows9 in his short time in the EPL but with him as the only other recognized first team striker, much will be expected of him if and when Torres hits the treatment table.
Zonal marking was always a polarizing topic when it came to Liverpool on the defensive and it’ll be interesting to see how the back line handles a switch, if any, in tactics. One thing that’s for certain is we’ll have depth in numbers, and for once, quality all the way across. England may have had a off color World Cup10 but one of the few players to emerge with his credibility in tact was Glen Johnson. We’ve got vice-captain Jamie Carragher, Martin Skertel, Daniel Agger and the big Greek all vying for roles in the center and after a mini left back crisis, we’ve got the same pair holding down the other side. Insua was tipped for a move to Fiorentina before it all broke down and Fabio Aurelio was actually released from the club before Roy came out of the blue to signhim back up. Waiting in the wings for the right side is Martin Kelly11 who put in more than one solid performance during the pre-season and looks to be a real talent.
Despite the limited funds available in the transfer kitty, defensive re-enforcements haven’t been overlooked. Danny Wilson, one of the best players in the SPL last season, was brought in as well as Juventus hard man Christian Poulsen12. A real mixture of youth and experience is what great teams are built on and that fact has not been lost in translation, at least this time around. Depth on the bench was one of the many factors Liverpool had been lacking and in order to put last season behind us, we’ve finally begun to address this. With the transfer window still alive and well, more new faces are likely on the way13. We’ve been linked with every footballer with two feet and a pulse so who those players will be still remains a mystery. Despite the talent already in the squad, Roy needs to make it uniquely his own.
So much has been made about restoring us to the domestic force we once were. To make Anfield a fortress. To make Liverpool unstoppable. But, I suppose, the disappointments are what makes sports of all kinds interesting. It’s a reality check when expectations, sometimes the bare minimums, are not met. Sides bloated14 on success and over confidence are the ones waiting for a fall. Without the setbacks, there’s no real sense of achievement in the accomplishments. Without the anxiety of the unknown, the pay off when the best laid plans fall into place isn’t quite as sweet. Without the anger, the pain, the shame of coming up short, you can’t truly know the unbridled joy of redemption.
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