4.00pm –Anfield, Liverpool
It is possible that this is a fixture that neither side would ideally have chosen for the first weekend of a season that has been cause for both cautious optimism and nerves amongst the support of two of England’s biggest clubs. For Roy Hodgson, it means a first league game as Reds’ boss that is neither a bankable home victory, nor an away trip free from the spotlight of ‘main event’ status. For Arsene Wenger’s eternal ‘team of the future’ an acid test of whether his ensemble of proteges will finally graduate from football’s school of hard knocks could surely wait a month or so? Both will know that this is the game of the week, and may well wish it was not.
How many expect Liverpool to fare in the coming nine months rather depends on one’s answer to a very pertinent question. Was last season’s disappointing seventh-placed finish a chronic underachievement, or were Liverpool in reality the seventh best team in England during 2009-10?. If one believes the first analysis to be true, then the start of this season is reason for at least a degree of optimism. Rafa Benitez’ departure from Anfield was hardly met by an outbreak of Princess Diana style mass-mourning, and Hodgson is a man who has a track record of not only being relatively successful, but is also both liked and respected by those within the game. The signings of Milan Jovanovic and Joe Cole in particular look like upgrades that have given Liverpool an added attacking dimension to offset the sale of Yossi Benayoun to Chelsea, while ex-Rangers defender Danny Wilson looks a promising player for the future. It is strange, but this season may well go as far in explaining last year’s Anfield misery as it will in indicating a timescale for a Red revival. Regardless of whether or not one of the multitude of prospective buyers takes the plunge, we are about to find out how far Rafa lost the plot in the dressing room, and to what extent Liverpool were genuinely overtaken by their immediate opponents.
For Arsenal, their young guns who threatened to be the team of this decade are all a couple of years older, and while their star turn Cesc Fabregas ultimately committed to the club, there is a sense that another season without major honours would be a cue for his departure come the summer. Against this backdrop, one would be inclined to see this as a make-or-break period for Arsene Wenger and his side. Are youngsters like Jack Wilshere ready to step up to the plate? Have the Gunners’ key personnel matured into seasoned professionals who can perform with the required consistency? And what will happen to Wenger if it proves to be another season of unfulfilled promise and frustration. As ever, Arsenal played so much of the best football on show last season, but with more than a glimmer as the final straight approached, their inability to grind out results a la Chelsea and Manchester United was ultimately the difference between being a team with a chapter dedicated to them and a mere footnote in history. This writer cannot help but muse over whether further relative failure may leave Wenger with a sense that his ideals are not suited to winning the top prize in English football. And where would that leave the man unimaginatively dubbed ‘the Professor’?. We would miss him dearly were he gone, and for that reason alone, this writer hopes that 1) Marouane Chamakh and Laurent Koscielny are the big successes they need and 2) a collective outbreak of maturity in the Arsenal squad results in them winning at least something.
This is a very difficult game to call, as many big occasions are, and much may depend on the Anfield crowd’s ability to warm to their new manager and his choices of personnel. If those who wanted rid of ‘the Spanish waiter’ can take something from the fact he has gone and unite behind the Red machine, Anfield could become a surprisingly intimidating fortress this season. A man who has cultivated the same effect at Craven Cottage can surely do the same at a ground steeped in the culture of the twelfth man? As ever, Arsenal’s ability to grind out a result against a side who will pose problems of their own is bound to come under the microscope. If they are not any further along the road that Wenger has mapped out for them, then they will almost certainly come unstuck against a Liverpool you can expect to be far better than the shambles that passed for them last season. A 2-1 home victory in these circumstances may well be a sound bet.