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Tense, nervous, eager to make a good first impression and lots of new friends, your first day at a new school is always a tough one. When that school is one of the finest establishments in the country, a national institution that has educated and entertained so many throughout the years, then the intensity of the day only grows even further, and it can be tough not to give in to fear. Roy Hodgson has had his Anfield induction, but his Liverpool education starts for real on Sunday afternoon.
If Anfield were a school, then any inspectors who visited last season would have failed the club on the spot. Fans warring with owners, owners warring with themselves, unhappy players slumping to dismal, dire displays and a Spanish headmaster whose tenure was slowly unravelling before everyone’s eyes – but enough of that. The arrival of the decidedly ‘old school’ Hodgson heralds a new era, a new chance for many and a new beginning. Lessons have to have been learned from last season, and the fact that there is now a new head to help teach them adds a freshness to a club who were in extreme danger of going stale under Rafael Benitez – an excellent boss for the club, but a man who would have been unable to turn things around now after so many mistakes. Change was needed, and Hodgson’s start has proved to the minority of sceptical supporters that his is a change they can believe in. Now comes the real test though.
Arsenal’s Andrey Arshavin has scored more goals at Anfield than all but five members of the Liverpool squad, but when little Russian arrives on Merseyside this weekend he will be faced with a very different home side to the one he has faced before. Hodgson’s arrival has brought with it the likes of Joe Cole, Milan Jovanovic and most recently the Dane Christian Poulsen, but – Cole apart – it is not the new signings that have shaken up the club, more Hodgson’s attitude and approach to his undeniably tricky task – so far every move has been a right one. From the confidence boosting displays from the youngsters out in Skopje in the Europa League to the ease with which the second leg was negotiated. From the re-signing of the popular Fabio Aurelio to the – on the surface somewhat irrelevant – decision to promote the exciting Dani Pacheco from his No. 47 shirt to the No. 12, every decision made by the veteran boss has gone down well, but now, with the visit of Arsene Wenger’s men imminent, the spotlight will fall upon his in-game tactics and nous. He has got plenty of course, and he has got a player who can often transcend even the most rigid of systems in Cole.
Put simply – and hopefully this will not seem like an exaggeration – the free transfer arrival of the England midfielder has the potential to be the most important signing that Liverpool have made in the past 20 years. In 1990, the Reds won the title for the last time, and in the summer of 2010 they looked as far away as they havve ever been from the summit of the English game. Of course no-one is suggesting that Cole’s arrival will help the Reds win the league – there should be no such extravagant thoughts at Anfield at the beginning of this campaign – but the signing did at least prove that Liverpool can attract the top talents. The subsequent declarations from both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres that they were staying at the club then spoke even more volumes, and suddenly things were looking rosy for the first time in a long time. It should be stressed that a bid was never made for either of the pair, but the prospect of Liverpool lining up against the Gunners without any of Cole, Gerrard and Torres at the club would have signalled the death knell for any hopes of challenging near the top end of the table for the foreseeable future, but that isn’t happening.
Instead what is happening is that a bullish club will start their Premier League campaign on Sunday afternoon with a real sense of optimism in the air. Takeover talk can wait, it is the new headmaster Hodgson’s approach to taking on one of the Premier League’s heavyweights that now comes into sharp focus. The veteran boss would love to teach Wenger a lesson in his first real challenge. A new term is about to begin.