Friday, August 31, 2012

View from the Opposition: Arsenal

By Michael Owen

With Liverpool set to play host to Arsenal at the weekend we talked to Gunners fan and football writer Jamie Dalton about the fixture. 

It's been a big summer for Arsenal in the transfer window, both in and out, is there a sense of dismay around the club after losing more key players or are you optimistic of a fresh start with the signings brought in?

It's been a long summer, a very long summer, on reflection we've done three excellent pieces of business with Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud coming in, they've seemed to settle well off the pitch but understandably will take a bit of time to get a understanding but goals should flow. As for Van Persie, it was always going to happen the minute he decided to wait until the end of the season for talks, he's 29 and only has one major trophy to his name so I can completely understand why he'd move, just have issues with his statement being made public and also Arsenal for selling to Manchester United. Most Arsenal fans would have said that last season Alex Song was Arsenal's most creative and frustrating player, there has been talk about his attitude and application but the decision to sell was very much Arsenal's and not Song's. There's not a sense of dismay around the club about the players leaving, there is a tenseness about whether those players will be replaced sufficiently.

What do you make of Liverpool's dealings in the window? Money well spent or more waste on largely unproven players?

I think Brendan has been sensible with the purchases (I'm excluding Aissaldi because I've never seen him play), they are players he knows well and players that respect him and work within the system and ethos he's trying to lay down. I always wince when I see other fans complain about prices other teams pay because if Joe Allen is the catalyst for Liverpool to get into the top 4 then he's been worth the money, Borini is an excellent worker and never goes missing which kind of makes me want to compare him to Dirk Kuyt and then we get to Nuri Sahin. Sahin is an excellent player and although as an Arsenal fan i'm upset to miss out, I don't think it was a signing we should of made in the first place and again, should settle well and give Gerrard a bit of freedom.

Which Arsenal player should Liverpool be most worried about going into the fixture?

Santi Cazorla. The guy is a wizard and I've only watched him for 2 games, he provides Arsenal with the thought and drive that we've lacked since Fabregas left. Will play behind the striker but move to either flank as needed, he can take set-pieces with both feet and gives Arsenal an option from long-range which we've missed.

And which Liverpool player do you think will cause the most problems for Arsenal?

Luis Suarez. One of the few players in the Premier League I would pay money to watch, I'm not a fan of the antics he gets himself caught up in but on his day is one of the best players in the league, can take a game away from you in seconds and for us it's lucky that Laurent Koscielny will be back as the thought of Mertesacker vs Suarez gives me nightmares

Do you think the loss of Van Persie and Song will do any serious damage to Arsenal's Champions League hopes?

I think it will be limited far more than last season, We've signed Podolski and Giroud to do Van Persie's work and hopefully we'll see a defensive minded midfielder before the deadline. We'll be there and there abouts for Champions League as we are every season it seems.

And what of Liverpool's European hopes this season. Do you think they're good enough to clinch a Europa or Champions League spot?

I'm not sure if it'll click enough for Top 4 this season, definitely good enough to be sniffing in and around but Brendan has a hell of a job reshaping that team and this season may come a season too soon.

Finally, can we get a prediction for the game?

Hate predictions, going to Anfield is never straightforward, I think this game might suit Arsenal more as we're playing a team that will attack us and leave more room on the counter, it could be a spanking as we've had there a few times or we might be able to squeak out 3 points as we did last season. If I were pushed I'd say 2-2.

Jamie is a freelance writer who has written for many Arsenal related sites as well as on French Football. His work can be found mainly at or

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Hearts: Late Suarez strike ends Hearts hopes

By Michael Owen 

A last-gasp goal from Luis Suarez ruled out David Templeton's strike moments earlier to ensure that Liverpool made it through a tricky qualifying round and into the Europa League proper. 

Events off the pitch overshadowed a rather dull affair on Merseyside, with Andy Carroll securing a loan deal, with view to a permanent move, to London club West Ham United, whilst Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing also moved closer to moves away from the Liverpool. 

David Templeton scored the first goal of the game with only five minutes to go in the fixture, shooting from distance and seeing his effort fumbled into the goal by Pepe Reina. 

But Hearts hopes were quickly dashed as a quick Liverpool break allowed Luis Suarez to beat the last man before firing home from a tight angle to ensure the Reds progression to the Europa League proper. 

Brendan Rodgers handed starts to youngsters Adam Morgan and Jonjo Shelvey, with last seasons big money signings Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson also featuring in the starting line-up, the former of whom started at left-back as the Liverpool boss looks to fit the £20 million man into his new-look side. 

Whilst Rodgers opted to field several young players, stalwarts such as Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Luis Suarez were all included in the starting line-up, with the former Swansea boss not underestimating the Scottish opposition after the Reds only recorded a slender win in the opening leg. 

The first half saw Liverpool largely dominate, though they failed to make their grasp on possession pay off, with Hearts restricting the hosts to few chances in the opening 45 minutes, whilst also trying to create something on the break themselves. 

Suarez nearly opened the scoring with twenty minutes on the clock, latching on to a ball from the left hand side and heading towards goal, but the Uruguayan front man saw his effort cleared off the line to keep the Reds aggregate lead at just one goal. 

With just over half an hour played Suarez broke down the right, cutting inside and laying off Adam Morgan, who fired into an open goal to score what looked to be the Reds opener, but the referee's assistant ruled out the goal, with Suarez having knocked the ball over the line and out of play when cutting inside.

With half-time fast approaching Hearts could have had a goal themselves, breaking quickly and only being stopped by a last ditch challenge on Templeton by Jamie Carragher stopped the visitors from breaking clear on goal. 

Liverpool looked lively at the start of the second half, winning two corners which were scrambled away by the visitors defensive line before Shelvey took a shot from distance which flew just over the bar and out of play. 

The Reds had another strong chance just before the hour mark, with Carragher playing a long-ball down the left-flank to the advanced Downing, who cut past his man before floating in a ball to Morgan, but the 18 year-old front man couldn't quite connect. 

Moments later the young striker was replaced as Rodgers looked to shake up his attacking line in order to break down Hearts rigid defence, with fellow youngster Raheem Sterling, who put in an impressive performance against Manchester City at the weekend, coming on the replace him. 

Suarez had two chances to increase the Reds lead in the space of a minute, first beating the Hearts offside trap, breaking out right and cutting inside but his effort on goal was deflected out of play moments before another drilled shot went wide of the mark. 

A scintillating run from Sterling, working his way past several Hearts players before being dispossessed in the box, allowed Suarez to take the ball out wide and chip it back in towards the youngster, but his ball was deflected into the path of Gerrard who saw his knock down tapped away by MacDonald. 

MacDonald once again made a good save with fifteen minutes left to play, with Martin Skrtel latching on to a well placed lob from Shelvey, but despite getting his effort on target and forcing a good save out of the Scottish keeper the defender was adjudged to be offside by the referees assistant. 

Liverpool made another change moments later, with Rodgers once again opting to switch around his attacking options, taking off Henderson and bring on Italian front man Fabio Borini for the last ten minutes of the game. 

A Hearts corner cleared by Liverpool fell to Templeton, who broke inside before taking a shot from distance, catching Pepe Reina off guard, with the ever-reliable goalkeeper making a rare mistake and fumbling the ball into his own net to bring the visitors level. 

But the lead was short-lived as Luis Suarez broke forward quickly and cut past one striker and shot home from a tight angle to give the Reds the win with just three minutes of normal time remaining. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Five Things We've Learned: Liverpool v Manchester City

By Robert Nevitt

1. If in doubt, kick it out!

Pass, pass, pass. Brendan Rodgers' footballing philosophy is simple. If you keep the ball, the other team can't hurt you.

For the majority of the 90 minutes on Sunday against Manchester City, it worked brilliantly, with the Reds playing some wonderful football. But, Sunday's game will be remembered for one moment when Rodgers' passing ideology should may be have been overlooked in favour of the good old-fashioned kick it out!

At 2-1 with ten minutes to go, Liverpool looked on course to upset Champions City. But when Martin Skrtel wandered out to the left back position and realised there was no pass on, with Rodgers' pass-pass-pass no doubt ringing in his ears, the centre back dismissed the idea of booting it long and instead attempted to pass back to Pepe Reina. Unfortunately, Carlos Tevez read it, intercepted the pass and rounded Reina to ensure the points were shared.

Rodgers will no doubt lay the blame on the lack of passing options available rather than the Slovak's decision to try to play football, but surely with ten minutes to go, even the Reds boss must concede that Skrtel may have been better served playing percentages.

It didn't have to be a big Wimbledon-style lump up the field. A simple chip over the defence to the corner would've sufficed. Yes we would've surrendered possession, but it would've allowed us time to regroup.

There were a few times where the same thing happened at West Brom a week earlier, as pointed out by Alan Hansen on Match of The Day. On one occasion Reina attempted to chip the ball out of defence rather than kick it long and we ended up under pressure, whilst Albion's second penalty came as a result of Skrtel trying to control the ball and pass rather than get shut of the ball.

It may only be early days into Rodgers' regime, but already his brand of football has been refreshing and great to watch. The 89% successful pass rate at West Brom was our best for 10 seasons, whilst we knocked it about brilliantly against City. The worry though is that we will sometimes overplay it, especially at the back.

It may not be as pleasing on the eye, but sometimes simply clearing our lines may be just as efficient s playing keep ball.

2. A £15m bargain

Thirty-five million for Andy Carroll. Another twenty for Stewart Downing. £17m for injury-plagued Alberto Aquilani and sixteen million for Jordan Henderson.

In recent years, Liverpool have rightly been criticised for being wasteful in the transfer market. But, if one thing came from Sunday's game, it was proof that the acquisition of Joe Allen from Swansea City was an absolute steal at £15m.

The young Welsh International has already impressed with a man-of-the-match performance at West Brom and a 20-minute cameo against Hearts. But, on his Anfield debut on Sunday, Allen's performance reached new heights.

Up against City powerhouses Yaya Toure and Nigel De Jong, and having seen midfield partner Lucas Leiva depart after only 4 minutes, Allen simply stepped up a level.

The 5ft 6in midfielder was simply wonderful, especially in the first 45 minutes. When City threatened, he stepped in to regain possession. When Liverpool had the ball, he made himself available. When he received a pass, no matter if he was unmarked or had two men on him, he was able to engineer a yard of space to move the ball on. Short, long, inventive, his passing range had it all.

Only 3 misplaced passes from 46 attempts against the Champions tells its own story, but the way in which Allen moved about the pitch and bossed the midfield tells another.

Before the ink had dried on Allen's Liverpool contract, Rodgers commented that he would have paid double the £15m to bring the diminutive midfielder to Anfield. On his early showings, even at that inflated amount, Allen would have been a bargain.

3. Raheem Sterling lives up to the hype

Ever since his five-goal salvo against Southend in the FA Youth Cup last February, Raheem Sterling has been the name on many Reds lips.

Brief cameos at the end of last season whetted the appetite, with a brilliant goal in the recent friendly against Bayer Leverkusen leaving the Kop wanting more.

At Tynecastle on Thursday night, 17 year old Sterling was handed his first competitive start for the Reds and performed so well that he was given his first league start against City on Sunday.

But even the thought of lining up against the Champions in front of a packed Anfield didn't faze the winger. Instead he rose to the occasion and gave the experienced Kolo Toure the run around.

Lightning quick, Sterling's gave Liverpool a new dimension in attack. Confident in his own ability, he consistently looked to run at the City defence, whilst he showed his quality when he brilliantly crossed for Fabio Borini to narrowly poke a volley wide.

More impressively though, he also showed a game intelligence which belied his tender age as he tracked back on a number of occasions to help thwart City attacks.

Not 18 years old until December, Rodgers will have to handle Sterling with care. But with performances like the kind he produced on Sunday, the clamour for Sterling to become a regular in the first team will be hard to ignore.

4. A couple of tweaks and we should be OK

Going into Sunday's game, most Liverpool fans would have been happy with a point. The fact that there was disappointment at the final whistle shows how well the Reds performed.

More importantly though it showed that when on-form, the Reds are able to compete with the best.

However, inconsistency and a lack of squad depth mean that even though we more than matched Roberto Mancini's men, come the end of the season, they will be fighting for the title whilst the best we can hope for is a top four finish.

The inconsistency is something which Brendan Rodgers will look to address over the coming months, but the lack of squad depth is one which can be improved upon this week before the Summer transfer window closes on Friday.

It may be wise for a revolving door to be introduced to Anfield this week such is the number of deals that could be done. The likes of Charlie Adam, Andy Carroll and Jay Spearing look almost certainties to leave, whilst the futures of Joe Cole, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson may all lie elsewhere too.

Whilst talented midfielder Nuri Sahin has already joined on a season-long loan from Real Madrid, there promises to be more arrivals by the weekend. We desperately need an injection of firepower, with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar linked.

Raheem Sterling's performance at the weekend showed how pace and directness on the wings can improve a teams performance, so someone in the ilk of Theo Walcott or Ibrahim Afellay would be an ideal signing.

Sunday's game showed that the Reds have the nucleus of a good squad. A few more tweaks here and there this week could be the difference between good and very good.

5. Famous Anfield atmosphere on show once again

On Sunday, Anfield was at its brilliant best.

Packed to capacity, the ground was decked out in red, apart from a few thousand City fans. The Kop was full of flags, the songs were belted out one after another and every Liverpool fan were fully behind the team. And when Luis Suarez put us two-one up, I felt the Kop literally shake as 'Just Can't Get Enough'

When installed as manager, Rodgers emphasised the need to make Anfield a fortress, to make matches feel like the longest 90 minutes of an opponents life. He has since made little alterations to help, bringing back the original This Is Anfield sign aswell as the Red nets.

On Sunday, we as fans answered Rodgers' rallying call. The mood on the terraces translated to the players on the pitch and, had it not been for mistakes, would have resulted in an impressive three points.

But, it was the first home game of the season, the first of a new regime, and against the Champions. The atmosphere was bound to be good. It will no doubt be good when Arsenal visit next weekend and again when Manchester United travel down the East Lancs Road next month.

Too often in recent years, the visit of so-called lesser teams has seen the atmosphere at Anfield drop, with the team's performances following suit.

Sunday showed the level of performance we can reach both on and off the pitch. Whilst we demand the players repeat the trick for the remaining 18 Anfield league games, us fans need to do the same if Anfield is to become a fortress once more.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Liverpool 2-2 Man City: Skrtel turns from hero to zero as impressive Liverpool drop two points.

By Ben Hardy

Joe Allen produced a man of the match display as an irresistible Liverpool team lead twice but ultimately drop two points due to a poor back pass by goal scorer Martin Skrtel against the Premier League champions at Anfield. 

Skrtel, who was arguably man of the match until his blunder, scored a thumping header in the first half before Yaya Toure equalised against the run of play as a result of sloppy Liverpool defending. City were only level for 181 seconds as Luis Suarez fired Liverpool back in front with an perfectly placed free kick until Skrtel passed straight to Carlos Tevez who scored his 100th Premier League goal late in the second half.

Roberto Mancini made five changes for the trip to Anfield and handed the maturing Mario Balotelli his first start of the season as he replaced the injured Sergio Aguero. Joleon Lescott was dropped to the bench in place of Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy missed out as Man City decided to go with three at the back. Spain international David Silva was surprisingly left on the bench a long with Jack Rodwell as James Milner, Nigel de Jong and Aleksandar Kolarov all came in to the starting XI.

Liverpool recalled the likes of Fabio Borini, Luis Suarez and Captain Steven Gerrard who were all rested during the week against Hearts whilst 17 year old Raheem Sterling was given his first Premier League start as Brendan Rogers once again deployed his Swansea-esque 4-3-3 formation. Sabastien Coates was peferred over the experienced Jamie Carragher to replace the suspended Daniel Agger.

With both teams starting with attacking formations, it was Man City who was enjoyed the early possession, with their five across the midfield outnumbering Liverpool's three. Nevertheless, the Red's defence were disciplined and no early chances were created.

Liverpool were handed an early blow as Brazil international Lucas Leiva had injured himself in the pre match warm up and only managed four minutes on the pitch before clutching his thigh and being replaced by youngster Jonjo Shelvey. An unlucky injury for Lucas, especially as new loan signing Nuri Sahin was sat watching his new team mates.

The first real chance of the match came on 18 minutes after Glen Johnson played an in swinging cross from the left for an under pressure Fabio Borini to strike just wide from the edge of the six yard box. A difficult chance but one in which he should have at least tested Joe Hart.

It was then Man City's turn to come close with a bizarre chance, as just a minute later Carlos Tevez had managed to get to the by-line and square it past Pepe Reina only to find that no Man City attackers had made a run into the six yard box. The ball tamely bounced off the post from an impossible angle back to Reina - Mancini's displeasure was clear to see as he came racing off the bench to express his anger.

The game was starting to come Liverpool at this point as Joe Allen, Steven Gerrard and Jonjo Shelvey had started to dictate the tempo and control the midfield.

On 28 minutes, Borini had another opportunity as he was once again played in by Glen Johnson, this time his shot was blocked but Borini turned and rallied the crowd to raise the noise level within Anfield - A key moment as the fans really got behind Liverpool and the players responded. A good passage of play followed, crisp passing, good possession and high pressing gave Liverpool the momentum and tempo to cause Manchester City real problems all over the pitch.

It was important for the Redmen to capitalise on this good pressure and it was Steven Gerrard's turn to come close on 33 minutes. Gerrard whipped in a very dangerous cross from the right as he so often does and a slight touch from Vincent Konpany had Joe Hart flying to his left only to see the ball just go over the bar for a corner.

From the resulting Gerrard corner, Martin Skrtel made an un-marked, 15 yard run from the edge of the box to power home a thunder bolt of a header, beating two City players to the ball in the process to give Liverpool a deserved lead. The atmosphere around Anfield at this point was electric.

It was Liverpool who ended the half on top as they kept pressing to try and double their lead before half time and it was Liverpool who had the final chance of the half when Joe Allen played a brillaintly disguised pass into the path of the un-marked Luis Suarez, who curled  a shot just wide from outside the box.

Teenager Raheem Sterling was looking lively and every time he got the ball he was looking to get at the Man City defence and cause problems all afternoon. Other key players from the first half included Skrtel who as well as scoring a goal, his defensive display was disciplined and solid. Joe Allen also impressed, boasting a 100% pass completion record in the first half.

The second half continued exactly as the first half had ended, with the Liverpool midfield controlling the game as Liverpool pushed on to get the vital second goal and came close with a couple of half chances from Suarez and Borini.

On the hour mark, Mancini made his first sub by bringing on former Evertonian Jack Rodwell to replace the ineffective Samir Nasri, to help the away teams midfield from being over run. His second substitute quickly followed a couple of minutes later when Edin Dzeko came on for Mario Balotelli, who couldn't get in the game and reproduce his Euro 2012 performances.

The Sky Blue's equaliser came against the run of play on 63 minutes as Tevez crossed a hopeful ball from the right. Pepe Reina came out to clear but couldn't get close to it and the ball then rebounded of Martin Kelly right into the path of Yaya Toure, who wasn't going to miss from 6 yards. The equaliser was harsh on Liverpool who had totally dominated the game until then but with defending as indecisive as that you are bound to concede, especially when you are playing against the current champions. 

However, Liverpool soon restored the lead just a little over three minutes later. Steven Gerrard's shot was closed down well by Jack Rodwell outside the box but the ball deflected of his thigh onto his arms and a harsh free kick was awarded by referee Andre Mariner. Luis Suarez stepped up, looking to make amends for his many missed chances against West Brom and produced a stunning free kick from 25 yards which curled outside of Joe Hart's post and crept past the England number one.

Suarez certainly has had his critics since joining Liverpool but there is no denying the Uruguay international has incredible talent and technique and could fit into any Premier League team when he is in this kind of mood.

Liverpool brought on Jose Enrique in between the free kick and the goal for Martin Kelly. Glen Johnson returned to right back in the hope that it would give the defence a better balance and see out the game with a victory.

Andre Mariner, who helped add to the entertainment by letting the game flow, was once again being asked questions as Glen Johnson broke free into the Man City box at pace and was brought down by Kolarov. Replays suggest that there was no contact with the ball and should have resulted in a penalty for Liverpool - A difficult decision for the referee to make at match pace however. 

Then on 80 minutes, a moment of horror for man of the match contender Martin Skrtel. He received the ball in his own half and got himself into trouble and instead of clearing the ball down field or even out of play, he turned and played a blind back pass to Pepe Reina only to realise Carlos Teves was ready to intercept the pass, round Reina and slot home to join the likes of Alan Shearer and Andrew Cole in the 100 goals club.

There was still time for Andy Carroll to come on for a late cameo to a massive cheer from the Anfield faithful. He instantly caused a threat as a string of crosses were aimed in his direction, nearly finding the net in the final 5 minutes. 

Four minutes of injury time was added and the only moment of interest was when Luis Suarez picked up the first yellow card of the game for dissent, which showed the game was played in good spirits and controlled well by referee Mariner. 

A very entertaining match for the neutral and even though Liverpool will be kicking themselves for not seeing the game out for the three points, Brendan Rogers and the Liverpool fans can take many positives from the display. Man City were outplayed for the majority of the game and could end up being a very valuable point gained for them come May.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

LFC Scout Report: Manchester City

By Ben Hardy 

Manchester City have seemingly taken over Chelsea as the team that everybody loves to hate after their multi million pound investment, but with the wealth of talent they have in their squad, it is very difficult not to sit back and simply enjoy the style of football they play, no matter which team you support.

Source: Roger Goraczniak
The Premier League champions have had a surprisingly quiet summer in terms of transfers, managing to keep hold of their top players and only bringing in Jack Rodwell from Everton for £15million so far. However, Sheikh Monsour's best signing of the summer was arguably getting captain Vincent Kompany to sign a new 6 year contrct with The Blues - The longest contract in the clubs history.

The season has started with two wins out two for City, which include the Community Shield victory over Chelsea and a hard fought 3-2 win over newly promoted Southampton.

However, Roberto Mancini will be wanting more from his team as they were so nearly embarrassed by The Saints after their courageous performance at the Etihad Stadium. Man City showed that there were weak points that can be exploited by any team.

Brenden Rogers and his team will have looked at the weaknesses and hope to emulate Southampton and go one further by getting a result at Anfield which would help smooth over last week's blemish against West Brom.

Team News

Man City will once again be without Micah Richards and Gareth Barry due to ankle and abdominal injuries respectively, although the latter is expected to start playing reserve matches next week.

Jack Rodwell was preferred over Nigel de Jong last Sunday but the Dutchman is pushing for a start at Anfield and could provide a bit more defensive cover against the likes of Gerrard and Suarez.

The main injury news coming out of the blue side of Manchester is that Sergio Aguero is expected to be out for a month with a knee injury. The Argentinean was taken off in the first half in last week's victory over Southampton and thankfully for the City supporters the injury isn't as bad as first feared. Surprisingly, Aguero has been included in the Argentina squad for the upcoming matches against Paraguay and Peru on 7th and 11th September, which confirms that he's not expected miss too many games.

Edin Dzeko was deemed the man to replace Aguero and repayed Mancini's faith by grabbing himself the equaliser against Southanpton. He is likely to start against Liverpool although Mario Balotelli will be doing his best to get his first start of the season.

Adam Johnson has secured a transfer back to the North East, this time in the shape of Sunderland for an undisclosed fee.

Key Players

With a team filled with superstars such as Man City's, the main threats can come from all over the pitch. The new, leaner looking Tevez has started the season well scoring in both games so far and will always be a key player when he plays, whether he's scoring the goals or creating them.

Another man to watch, as always, will be David Silva, the Spanish maestro can pull the strings of any match and dictate the rate of play such is his influence. In defence, both Vincent Kompany and Joe Hart could have a busy afternoon and will be looking to keep out the Liverpool attack and return back to Manchester with a clean sheet.

Earlier in the week, Mancini described Liverpool as one of the main title rivals for this year. Liverpool and Rogers still have plenty to show if that is to be proved correct. There is no better fixture to show their ambition and potential than a Premier League tie against current champions, Man City.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Hearts 0-1 Liverpool: Own Goal Gives Reds The Advantage

By Robert Nevitt

An Andy Webster own goal twelve minutes from time was enough to give Liverpool victory at an atmospheric Tynecastle and edge them towards the group stages of the Europa League.

Backed a vociferous Edinburgh crowd, unfancied Hearts matched their illustrious opponents until centre-half Webster could do little but divert a vicious Martin Kelly cross into his own net.

Following Saturday's opening day defeat at West Brom, and with one eye on Sunday;s clash with champions Manchester City, Brendan Rodgers decided to utilise his squad by making seven changes to the team that started at the Hawthorns. Star quartet Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson all remained on Merseyside with the likes of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey given the chance to shine. Exciting youngster Raheem Sterling was also handed his first competitive start in a red shirt.

Eager not to suffer a repeat of their 5-0 drubbing against Tottenham Hotspur last season, Hearts started well. John Sutton, younger brother of former Blackburn and Celtic star Chris, nearly capitalised on Jamie Carragher's weak backpass, whilst Arvydas Novikovas swerving left-foot shot forced Pepe Reina to save high to his right.

Lively forward David Templeton also went close before the visitors slowly got into the game, with Adam forcing Jambos' keeper Jamie MacDonald into a save low to his left.

As the Liverpool midfield saw more of the ball, youngster Sterling started to exhibit just why he is thought of so highly.

After already causing problems down the left which resulted in Hearts doubling up on him, the winger received the ball on the touchline before cutting in and stinging the palms of MacDonald with a swerving 25-yard effort.

Italian striker Fabio Borini was next to go close for the visitors after beautifully exchanging passes with Henderson, though the former AS Roma striker failed to connect to Henderson's pin-point clipped cross.

The home side responded with Templeton again going close, but the best chance of the half fell to the visitors on the stroke of half-time.

Inevitably, Sterling was involved as he intercepted just inside the Hearts half before bearing down on goal. With Borini in support, Sterling teed him up, only for the Italian to fire against the post from 12 yards. The Reds' woodwork curse from last season rearing its head once more.

The second half started as the first with Harts' Callum Paterson going close, whilst Novikovas unsuccessfully tried his luck from range. But as Hearts' high-tempo pressing game started to ease up, Liverpool upped their game and slowly exerted their class.

Adam shot narrowly wide from 25 yards, whilst Sterling continued to cause problems down the left.

Searching for a winner, Rodgers brought winger Stewart Downing on in an unaccustomed left-back slot, whilst the introduction of recent signing Joe Allen helped the Reds assert control, with the Welsh International hardly giving away possession in his 23-minute cameo.

On 78 minutes, the Reds mounting pressure finally told. Martin Kelly bombed down the right flank before delivering a fierce low cross into the Hearts six-yard box. As Borini swung and missed, Jambos' defender Webster could do little as the ball rebounded off his knee and past the despairing MacDonald.

Sterling nearly capped a fine debut minutes later when he tried to curl a shot into the far corner, only to see it drop a yard wide, before he forced MacDonald into another save with the next attack.

To their credit, the goal didn't result in Hearts heads dropping. Substitute Andrew Driver was unlucky when the ball got caught up in his feet just inside the Reds' box resulting in a weak shot at Reina, before the impressive Paterson forced the Reds stopper into a fine save low to his right with the last action of the game.

The Hearts faithful will be delighted with their side's performance, but in truth, after surviving the home side's initial pressure, the Reds rarely had to get out of third gear as they secured a narrow advantage going into next week's second leg.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

View from the Opposition: Heart of Midlothian

By Robert Nevitt

Liverpool travel to Edinburgh on Thursday night to face Hearts in the first leg of the Europa League Qualifier. In preparation, we spoke to Laurie Dunsire, editor of Paint the Town Maroon, a website dedicated to Hearts, and writer for the official Hearts matchday programme.

Scottish football has hit the headlines this summer due to the financial problems at Rangers. But, you have seen your fair share of debt-related problems at Hearts in recent years. What is the current situation at Tynecastle?

We’ve had some serious financial problems at Tynecastle in recent times. Last season there was a lot of controversy surrounding the club, and our eccentric owner Vladimir Romanov, when players’ wages were repeatedly paid late, at times delayed by up to a month. The reality is that we’ve spent well outwith our means for too long under Romanov, in an attempt to challenge the Old Firm dominance of Scottish football.

We experienced a certain degree of success, finishing 2nd and qualifying for the Champions League in 2006, as well as bringing home two pieces of silverware in the last 6 years. But we’ve cut back this campaign, severely. Our wage bill has been dramatically reduced, with our squad being one of the youngest in the SPL. We played more graduates from our youth system on the opening day of the season than any other club, which is a positive step. But it also means we may experience a transitional phase on the park.

To qualify for the Europa League, you beat fierce Edinburgh rivals Hibernian 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final. Does football get any better than that?

Quite simply, no it doesn’t.

The game at Hampden Park on the 19th May was the best day I have ever experienced as a Hearts fan and it will probably never be eclipsed. I’m sure you can imagine the feeling if Liverpool put 5 goals past Everton in an FA Cup final – it would be pretty memorable for you guys!

To be honest we have a ridiculously dominant derby record against Hibs, so many people were not surprised by the result in the final. But it was the perfect chance for Hibs to make all of our previous wins seem pretty insignificant. Thankfully, we still have the upper hand on them, by a fair distance, and no matter how many times they may beat us in the coming years, it will take a similar result, on an equally important occasion, to ever live down our famous victory.

This will be Liverpool's first ever competitive meeting with Hearts. Are the Jambos faithful looking forward to welcoming Brendan Rodgers' men?

There is a real buzz about the city, excitement has been growing among the Hearts faithful ever since the draw was made.

For us it’s mainly about the occasion, we have nothing to lose really. As the Tottenham game showed last year, the gulf is immense between top English sides and our own teams north of the border. Of course anything can happen, football has sprung bigger surprises in the past than Hearts beating Liverpool. But any sort of result for the Jambos would be a bonus.

Personally I am just going to enjoy the atmosphere and the rare chance to see a club of Liverpool’s stature playing at my beloved Tynecastle.

The Scottish League started two weeks earlier than it's English counterpart. How has Hearts' start been?

It’s been a mixed start really.

On the plus side we are still unbeaten after three matches, but I’ve not been overly impressed with our performances. That said, we have a lot of younger players in the team and there is very little squad depth, so I think the fans, including myself, will have to show some patience.

We defeated St Johnstone on the opening day 2-0, before drawing with Hibs 1-1 in the Edinburgh derby. Our last game, on Saturday, was probably the most disappointing though. We were leading 2-0 against Inverness, at home, facing ten men. Somehow we capitulated and managed to throw away 2 points, succumbing to an injury time equaliser.

The lads will really have to up their game if they want to even compete with Liverpool on Thursday.

The likes of Dave McPherson, Neil McCann, current Scotland boss Craig Levein and goal machine John Robertson have all starred for Hearts in the past. Which of the current crop are capable of causing Liverpool the most problems?

Ahhhh, mentioning some great names of the past – such a tease! We have very few players in the current team even close to the calibre of the men you mention, although there are still a couple of talented individuals.

In terms of danger men for you guys, David Templeton is probably the most likely man to cause any problems for the Liverpool rearguard. He’s a tricky winger, who loves to get the ball down and run at defenders. We generally deploy him on the left wing, so that he can cut inside onto his more favoured right foot.

Our attack will be lead by lone striker John Sutton, who is the younger brother of former Blackburn, Chelsea and Celtic forward Chris Sutton. He’s certainly not the fastest, but he’s strong and good in the air. Whether he gets a sniff at goal against Liverpool is another matter entirely!

In terms of keeping out your attack, which I imagine will be our biggest challenge, Scotland international Andy Webster is arguably our best defender. He played down South previously, for Wigan Athletic, and rumour has it that a number of English clubs are currently interested in signing him. He is an imposing figure at the back, very strong, powerful in the air and a good reader of the game. If Andy Carroll starts then Webster will probably be given the task of marking him. A big forward would probably suit him if I’m honest, as he doesn’t possess much pace. I’d be worried that the likes of Suarez could really cause him problems.

And which Liverpool players are you most worried about facing?

Where do I begin? All of them!

Seriously though, it depends what sort of side Liverpool put out. I know you have a massive game with Manchester City on Sunday, which will surely take centre stage for Rodgers. In saying that, a good win on Thursday might be the confidence boost that your side needs after the disappointing result against West Brom, so maybe he’ll go with a strong side?

Tottenham approached the match at Tynecastle last season with a team to completely kill the tie in the first leg, allowing them to rest faces in the return game, which is an approach I fear Rodgers might take as well. Suarez is a player I’m very concerned about, especially after his poor finishing at the Hawthorns. He’ll be hungry to prove his doubters wrong and if he is on his game then Hearts could really feel the brunt of that.

Steven Gerrard is a magnificent midfielder, someone who I’m really looking forward to seeing in the flesh. If these two players are involved on Thursday, then they’d be the two I’d be most worried about from a Hearts perspective.

In saying that, Andy Carroll may also have a point to prove if given a chance, so he’s another player to keep an eye on.

Finally, can we get a prediction for the game and the tie as a whole?

My head says we will get absolutely thumped, my heart says we will keep the score down!

I don’t want to appear too negative, but the reality of the situation is that there is a huge gulf between the two sides - Steven Gerrard earns far more than the entire Hearts team combined! Liverpool may not be the force they once were, but they are still on a different planet quality wise to Hearts.

I just hope we can be more competitive than we were against Spurs last year. We were outclassed, undoubtedly, but the most disappointing thing was we didn’t perform to the best of our ability on the night. If our players give their all for 90 minutes and lose 4-0, I won’t hold it against them.

I’m going to be mildly optimistic though and give us a goal. C’mon, you’ve got to give us a small amount of joy surely! 3-1 Liverpool. Yes, that’s me being optimistic!

You can follow Laurie on twitter @PaintItMaroon or @LaurieDunsire

Monday, August 20, 2012

Five things we've Learned: West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool

By Robert Nevitt

1. Defeat to Baggies puts new-look Reds under pressure already

Optimism was high going into Saturday's opening game of the season at West Bromwich Albion, but by the end of the 90 minutes, the scale of Brendan Rodgers' task to turn Liverpool into Top four contenders was clear for all to see.

The new Reds' boss will take positives from the first hour of the game which, Zoltan Gera's stunning drive apart, wasn't that bad. The Reds new 'Tika-Taka' style saw a 89% successful pass rate, Liverpool's highest for 10 seasons.

But, as the diagram on the right shows, much of the passing was done in the middle third of the pitch, with a lack of quality in attacking areas, with most of the chances being created through the individual brilliance of Luis Suarez.

At 1-0, the Reds were very much still in the game, but once Daniel Agger was dismissed, Rodgers will be extremely concerned at how the team visibly capitulated. To their credit, West Brom took full advantage, with the introduction of sub Lukaku stretching the ragged Liverpool defence. By the final whistle, the Reds were lucky to get away with only a 3-goal deficit.

Though he publicly praised the players for their efforts and instead queried the referee's controversial decisions, Rodgers will hopefully have noted the Reds all-too-familiar failings. Missed chances, a lack of creation on the wings, no real backup in full-back areas and a mental fragility all contributed to the defeat.

With Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United all coming up in the next four games, it was important that Liverpool got off to a good start at West Brom. The fact that they didn't now puts added pressure on Rodgers and his team. Whilst it is far too early to panic, the next few weeks, in terms of the aforementioned matches and the closing of the transfer window, could go along way to defining the Reds' season.

2. Time for Suarez to move out wide

It took less than 10 minutes for Luis Suarez to pull off his first customary nutmeg of the season. A little longer for him to twist, turn and leave the Baggies defence wondering where he had gone. But, disappointingly, it also didn’t take long for the Reds’ number seven to showcase his increasingly alarming profligacy in front of goal.

There is no doubting the Uruguayan’s class. His workrate and trickery are both exceptional, but when it comes to putting the ball in the net, he has a poor conversion rate. On Saturday, he had eight efforts on goal, but only made the goalkeeper work twice. He headed one clear opportunity over from six yards, which would’ve put the Reds’ 1-0 up and subsequently changed the dynamics of the match, whilst he squandered two more opportunities in the second half, where on both occasions he should have at least hit the target.

But, this wasn’t a case of one of those days though. Last season the Reds amassed a paltry 47 league goals, with Suarez netting only 11 times from a total of ?? efforts on goal. As we try to become more potent in attack, I think it's time we looked at how we are utilising our number seven.

With Rodgers favouring a 4-3-3, Suarez' looks well suited to occupy a starting berth on the left of the front three, with a licence to roam, a position from which a lot of his best work is done anyway and one in which he excelled at previous club Ajax.

Not only would the new position give the Reds some much needed creativity on the flanks, but it would also allow the introduction of a more natural goalscorer, whether it be Borini or A.N. other, to play as the middle striker and help take the goalscoring burden off the Uruguayan's shoulders.

3. Joe Allen looks a player

One bright spot for the Reds on Saturday was the performance of new signing Joe Allen.

After completing his £15m move from Swansea last week, this was Allen's first start in a Reds' shirt and the young Welshman took no time in showcasing just why Brendan Rodgers was so keen to bring him to Anfield.

Confident, always available for the ball and with a 95% completion rate from 68 passes, Allen was Liverpool's standout performer.

4. Time for duo to be shown the Anfield exit

Saturday’s match at the Hawthorns surely helped hammer the final nails into the coffins of two the Liverpool careers of Joe Cole and Andy Carroll

Cole’s time at Anfield has been littered by set-backs; a sending off on his debut v Arsenal, a missed spot-kick against Trabzonspor, a combination of poor form and injuries and a season-long loan to Lille.

But with new boss Rodgers at the Anfield helm, Cole sensed a new beginning. A good US Tour saw him named in the European tie with Gomel, but before he'd even had time to do his trademark bent over hands on hips routine, ping went his hamstring.

On Saturday, with the Reds 2-0 down at the Hawthorns, a fit again Cole replaced Lucas on 68. But, a short sprint later, he suffered a recurrence of his hamstring injury and was subbed. Surely now Rodgers must realise that it just isn’t going to happen for ex-England international at Anfield, though his latest injury could scupper any late August transfer.

Up until Cole clutched his hamstring, his replacement Carroll, had remained seated on the bench, despite the fact that Liverpool found themselves three-nil down.

Throughout the summer, the press have made it common knowledge that Liverpool are looking to sell their £35m man, but Saturday’s decision to leave him on the bench when the team were crying out for a Plan B, is the biggest public indication that he has no future at Anfield.

It is debatable as to whether or not this is the correct decision, but with Rodgers seemingly having made his mind up, it is in the interests of both the club and player that Carroll is moved on before September 1st.

5. Sometimes you've just got to hand it to your opposition

Sometimes, no matter what tactics, philosophy or personnel you have on display, you simply can’t account for everything that happens on a football pitch.

On Saturday, referee Phil Dowd’s decision to award West Brom their first penalty was controversial, whilst his dismissal of Daniel Agger left many mystified. Less than five minutes later, he incensed the travelling Kop as he pointed to the spot again.

But it wasn’t just Dowd’s performance which was uncontrollable as the manner of West Brom’s opening goal was simply unstoppable.

From a James Morrison corner, Liverpool seemingly did what was required with Martin Skrtel rising above the attackers to powerfully head away, whilst Glen Johnson followed the ball out.

But, as Zoltan Gera chested the ball down 25 yards from goal, the ball sat up perfectly for the Hungarian to hit a half-volley which flew into the top corner. If we’d have had Pepe Reina, Brad Jones and Alexander Doni all in goal at the same time, I doubt we’d have been able to keep the effort out such was its power and precision.

So as Andy Gray would say; Take a Bow Zoltan Son!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

West Bromwich Albion 3-0 Liverpool: Baggies triumph as Reds slump to opening day defeat

By Michael Owen

Three goals from Zoltan Gera, Peter Odemwingie and Chelsea loan star Romelu Lukaku gave West Bromwich Albion a convincing win over Liverpool at The Hawthorns. 

Brendan Rodgers side started the game well, controlling possession and looking solid at the back, doing well against a Baggies side who looked dangerous on the counter.

But the visitors were punished for failing to make their attacking moves pay dividends, with Zoltan Gera firing in a wonder strike from 25 yards out which Pepe Reina was never likely to save.

A poor bit of defending from the Reds allowed Shane Long to break free, forcing Daniel Agger, as the last man, to bring down the striker in the box and take the following red card, though Long ultimately couldn't convert his chance from the spot.

It was second time lucky from the spot for the hosts as Martin Skrtel brought down the ever-troublesome Long, with Peter Odemwingie stepping up this time and firing past Pepe Reina confidently.

The final nail was put in the Reds coffin by Chelsea starlet Romelu Lukaku, with the youngster jumping above the Reds defence and heading home from a James Morrison corner to seal a fantastic victory for his new club.

At times Liverpool showed signs of playing the attractive style of football which made Rodgers so successful at Swansea, with Joe Allen, the £15 million signing from the South Wales club, putting in a particularly strong performance despite the poor result.

However shades of last seasons Liverpool were still evident, with the forward three of Suarez, Borini and Downing failing to make their few chances pay, whilst Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, normally so consistent for the Reds, failed to put in the assured performance expected.

Liverpool kicked off their league campaign with a strong line-up featuring new signings Fabio Borini and Joe Allen, whilst Brendan Rodgers once again threw cold water on speculation linking Daniel Agger with a move away from Anfield, opting to include him in the back-line for the trip to The Hawthorns.

The hosts included new signing Claudio Yacob and former Manchester United goalkeeper Ben Foster, who joined The Baggies on a permanent deal this summer following a season long loan spell with the club during the last campaign, with Steve Clarke opting to leave loan signing Romelu Lukaku on the bench.

The Baggies created the first chance of the game, with Liam Ridgwell playing a quick one-two down the right-hand side with Zoltan Gera, before cutting inside and firing off a shot from just outside the box which rose just over the bar for the goal kick.

Liverpool got more of a foothold on the game in the early minutes, but West Brom still looked threatening, with Shane Long getting the better of the returning Lucas on Liverpool's left hand side, cutting into the middle along the byline and attempting to chip Reina, with the ball dropping on the top of the net.

Suarez nearly put the Reds in the lead, but saw his effort well saved by Ben Foster before Long once again troubled the visitors back-line, breaking quickly down the middle and forcing a foul out of Agger. The free-kick and corner following, however, came to nothing.

The Uruguay forward was once again involved when Johnson made a run down the left wing and chipped it over the the striker, who tricked his way around a couple of Baggies defenders before firing off a shot which was too close to Foster to cause the keeper any trouble.

Both Suarez and Borini continued to chip away, but the Reds troubles of last season continued to haunt them as the two of the front three failed to convert some good chances, with West Brom also continuing to look dangerous on the break despite Liverpool's stranglehold on possession.

A clever cut inside down the left from Suarez allowed him to drive the ball low towards the feet of Borini, but McAuley managed to get a foot to the effort, knocking it towards Glen Johnson, who fired a shot well over the bar for a West Brom goal kick.

West Brom got the first goal of the game with ten minutes to play in the first-half, with Zoltan Gera, a fans favourite at The Hawthorns, latching onto Martin Skrtel's header away from a James Morrison corner and firing a thunderous 25-yard strike past Pepe Reina and into the top corner.

On the verge of half-time Suarez was booked by Phil Dowd in what was a questionable decision, with the number seven throwing his arms in the air after being adjudged offside by the referee's assistant.

Liverpool's woes were increased  as a misplaced pass by Steven Gerrard allowed Shane Long to quickly break through the Reds defence and force Agger to make a poor challenge as the last man which left Phil Dowd with no choice but to award the defender a red card.

Brendan Rodgers quickly moved to consolidate for his missing defender, taking off Stewart Downing, who had little influence over the game, and bringing on veteran defender Jamie Carragher.

There was a silver lining for the Reds, however, with the spot kick, taken by the penalty winner Long, being an incredibly poor one, with Pepe Reina easily saving the weak effort to give his side a fighting chance of getting something out of the game. .

The Reds hopes of pushing on with ten men were short-lived however, with Skrtel controversially have being adjudged to have brought down Long in the box, allowing Peter Odemwingie to step up and and fizz the ball past Pepe Reina to increase the hosts lead to two goals.

Following the goals both teams opted to make changes, with the Baggies taking off the impressive Shane Long and replacing him with Chelsea loan star Lukaku whilst the visitors took off Lucas to bring on Joe Cole.

Another break away by West Brom nearly saw the hosts increase their lead, with Lukaku breaking quickly down the right wing, past Johnson and teed up an open James Morrison. The midfielder couldn't take his chance, however, slicing his shot over the bar as he tried to lob the advancing Pepe Reina.

It was the Chelsea youngster Lukaku who did increase Steve Clarke's side's lead with just over ten minutes to go, heading in from a James Morrison corner to end any hope that the ten-man Reds would bounce back.

To further increase Liverpool's problems Joe Cole, who had been brought on just over ten minutes early, was quickly taken off injured, being replaced by Andy Carroll.

Friday, August 17, 2012

View from the Opposition: West Bromwich Albion

By Michael Owen

With Liverpool set to begin their Premier League campaign at The Hawthorns on Saturday, we talked to blogger and West Brom fan Andrew Highfield about his thoughts on the game and season ahead. 

There's been lots of change at The Hawthorns this summer, with Roy Hodgson departing to take the reigns at Wembley and Steve Clarke replacing him. Do you think the former Liverpool Assistant Manager is up to the task?

I think no Albion fan would begrudge Roy the England job, it was a sad day when he departed but Steve Clarke has now come in with fresh methods. He has inherited a wonderful squad with no pressure to sell players and the nucleus of a mid table team that can now drive on into the top ten. Always the bridesmaid, Steve Clarke has had a good few years as a No 2 and worked under some excellent managers in Jose Mourinho and Kenny Dalglish. I think the first three months are crucial for him and from the early signs I think yes, he is up to the task. He has experimented with formations in friendlies so far and the squad looks ready for Saturday. It is one of those things where you never know how a long standing assistant is going to step up to be the top man, but the benefit Steve has I think is coming to a new club with no previous ties and where he is a 'head coach' rather than manager.

Speaking of Steve Clarke, how do you rate his initial transfer dealings? And where else should West Brom be looking to add players?

As alluded to, Clarke is a head coach and therefore it will be difficult to judge him on transfers as the structure the Albion employ means the main man in transfers is Dan Ashworth (Technical Director). Ashworth has been been a credit to the club and is being linked with the technical director role for England.

The players coming in so far have created a positivism at the Hawthorns that I have not seen for a good few years. Ben Foster is a very solid goal keeper and a fantastic addition after being on loan last season. Markus Rosenberg and Claudio Yacob are more unknown (maybe not to Football Manager fans!) but will hopefully integrate into the squad and have both played international football for Sweden and Argentina respectively. The trump card is Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea, still unproven at this level, but thank you Roberto Di Matteo! The Albion were really struggling with goals last season and I think Lukaku can be the 15 goal a season striker we need. I'd still like to see another centre back, particularly if Jonas Olsson moves, as is rumoured. Although the rise of Craig Dawson and his experiences in the England U21s/Olympics have shown he can step up.

What do you reckon to Liverpool's appointment of Brendan Rodgers? Have they brought in an innovative young manager or someone who is too inexperienced for such high pressure job?

I am impressed and glad that he has got the opportunity. I think it has created a bit of a buzz in the media following Swansea's brilliant exploits last season and has painted Liverpool in a good light for the start of the season. Even though Rodgers is young this is already his fourth club and he has experienced relative failure at Reading, which is fantastic for Liverpool providing he has learnt from his mistakes! It seems as an outsider looking in that the owners took their time with the appointment and did their research thoroughly. I really do think that Rodgers was the better choice than Roberto Martinez. I don't think he is inexperienced and the owners must have been impressed by his strategy for the club, he has of course only had one season in the Premier League but sometimes you have to take a risk.

How do you rate the Reds transfer dealings thus far? Do you think there's more room for the squad to be strengthened?

Good, I don't think they are completed with transfer business yet as well. Rodgers has made a conscious decision to purchase players he knows well in Fabio Borini and Joe Allen who will know his strategy and integrate into his system straight away. With 6 players going out, I expect there will be more business to come and I think maybe Rodgers will now move for players that may have been a little out of Swansea's budget. I can't say I know the Liverpool squad inside out but from attending the Albion Liverpool game back in April, when you created multiple chances yet we still came away with a win, a proven Premier League goalscorer is required. Can Borini and Suarez get 30-35 goals between them? I'm not sure. I think the squad definitely needs a few more players for the Europa League campaign but hopefully some of the youngsters will also get a chance.

Which West Brom players should Liverpool be worried about on Saturday? And is there any players you think mat surprise Reds fans?

Romelu Lukaku - A complete unknown quantity, although I am sure Liverpool centre halves had him in their pocket in a game last season? I'm sure his presence and movement will drag defenders out of position and create space for Peter Odemwinge who is another one to be worried about as he can always get a goal.

I think Yassine El Ghanassy could be a real surprise this season, a pacey winger/striker from Belgium. We have needed someone to assist Jerome Thomas in offering creativity on the wings. He may start on the bench but I would expect an appearance at some point.

Which Liverpool players do you think West Brom should be most wary about going into the game?

The Suarez/Borini combination will be the one for the Albion to worry about most. Gareth Macualey and Jonas Olsson, our centre halves are not the quickest and I am hoping they keep their discipline and we don't let Liverpool get in behind our back four. Fabio Borini is a player that really impressed me when watching a few Roma games last season and he has a point to prove after his lack of opportunities at Chelsea. I'm also expecting the Yousuf Mulumbu - Joe Allen tussle to be fascinating and I don't think Allen will get much time on the ball at all.

Finally, can we get a prediction for the game and for where either team are going to finish this season?

I'm going for a score draw 2-2, everyone loves some opening day excitement and I am no different. As for final positions, I am in an optimistic mood and can see Liverpool just pinching the fourth position and the Albion breaking into that top ten with a ninth place finish.

Andrew Highfield is a Blogger on all-things football, though is main passion is West Bromwich Albion, who he started supporting following his first game away at Crewe. You can follow Andrew on Twitter. 

LFC Scout Report: West Bromwich Albion

By Ben Hardy

With both the European Championships and the Olympics taking place this summer, the start of the Barclays Premier League season has somewhat pleasantly crept up on us this year.

A lot has changed during the summer at The Hawthorns, with managerial changes and several players coming and going.

A strong 10th place finish last season was their highest ever in the Premier League and when you realise it was achieved with the second lowest budget out of the 20 teams, it is then you begin to comprehend what a fine job the staff and players did and that it is a club on the up.

Just as Roy Hodgson was poised to stabilise the leagues traditional “yoyo” club however, he was appointed as the new England manager.

Steve Clarke, former assistant to Mourinho and Dalglish, was appointed as Hodgson's successor and as the only rookie "head coach" in the EPL this season, both the club and the fans will be hoping to hit the ground running and aim for another mid-table finish.

No less than seven experienced, first team players have been released or sold so far this summer, including the likes of Ireland international Keith Andrews, Nicky Shorey, Simon Cox and Paul Scharner. This clear out has made way to bring in some new faces such as Markus Rosenberg, Claudio Yacob, Yassine El Ghanassy, Romelu Lukaku and the permanent signing of goalkeeper Ben Foster.

West Brom had a pretty steady preseason which included  games in Sweden and Denmark, losing only 1 out of 6.

But as has been proved on many occasions, pre-season results tend not to bear any correlation for the new season. The Baggies will be hoping to get some points on the board as soon as possible as they face a difficult August, with a fixture against Tottenham to follow and a Capital One Cup tie away at Yeovil.

Team News

Steve Clarke is the latest top flight coach to express his disapproval at the mid-week international friendlies and with good reason. Scotland’s James Morrison was forced off after just 27 minutes during their win over Australia with an ankle injury and could be well be a doubt for tomorrow’s opener against Liverpool.

First choice centre backs Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley both played the full 90 minutes for Sweden and Northern Ireland respectively and Clarke confirmed that Olsson had returned with a knock, the seriousness of which will be assessed today.

Romelu Lukaku featured for Belgium on Wednesday and scored an important goal in their 4-2 victory over The Netherlands and this will only help wet his appetite for Premier League goals. Steve Clarke suggested earlier in the week that Lukaku would have to fight for his place but he is expected to feature on Saturday.

New signing Markus Rosenberg is another who is expected to miss out as he continues to struggle with his fitness since joining.

Midfielder Graham Dorrans is likely to miss out due to his family receiving sad news that his 3 month old daughter has meningitis. The news coming out of West Brom is more positive this week however and Dorrans could be back in the squad before the end of August.

There is better news though as Shane Long is fit and expected to start after he revealed the reports he was injured for Ireland mid-week were “misleading”.

Key Players

The biggest danger from West Brom undoubtedly comes in attack with internationals Shane Long, Peter Odemwingie and new loanee signing Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea all vying for starting roles. The latter of the three is expected to eventually lead the Chelsea attack and he will relishing playing week in, week out for the midlands club.

Despite Clarke traditionally being defensively minded, it is clear that this new look West Brom side will aim to cause problems for the defences of every team in the league. Liverpool, who only finished 5 points ahead of West Brom, must be careful not underestimate them, especially when they are playing at The Hawthorns and the addition of new signing Rosenberg only helps to cement this theory.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Anfield Opinion Premier League Preview 2012-13

By Robert Nevitt 

With the 2012-13 Premier League season about to kick-off, here is the definitive Anfield Opinion preview for the season ahead. 

Below is our predicted final table, scroll down or click on the links for a team-by-team guide.

1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Arsenal
5. Liverpool
6. Tottenham Hotspur
7. Everton
8. Newcastle United
9. Queens Park Rangers
10. Sunderland
11. Aston Villa
12. Swansea City
13. West Ham United
14. Fulham
15. Southampton
16. Stoke City
17. Wigan Athletic
18. Norwich City
19. West Bromwich Albion
20. Reading

Team By Team Guide

It’s ironic that in a summer where the Gunners have finally loosened their purse strings to bring in quality signings like Santi Cazorla, Lucas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, they will more than likely make the headlines for selling two of their prized assets in Robin van Persie and Alexander Song.

However, the loss of the prolific Dutchman may not be as bad as first thought. Obviously van Persie is a superb striker, but too often last season Arsene Wenger’s men relied on him to provide a goal threat. Following his departure, goals will need to be spread around, but with the trio of new additions and exisiting players such as exciting winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and possibly the some-time returning Jack Wilshere, Arsenal should be more than capable of finding the net on a regular basis.

After conceding eight goals at Old Trafford last season, defensively there are still questions. If Song does indeed leave, Wenger will need to replace the Cameroonian, but with the excellent Yann M’Vila and Nuri Sahin amongst those linked, they should be well covered. If Wenger can consistently pick a back five of Szcesny-Sagna-Koscielny-Vermaelen-Gibbs, then the Gunners should have enough quality to once again finish inside the top four.

One to watch: Santi Cazorla – The Spanish playmaker is an absolute bargain at £16.5m.

Prediction: 4th 

Aston Villa
There was uproar at Villa Park when former Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish was named as Aston Villa manager last summer. And the Villa faithful were proved right with a disastrous campaign that saw Villa only escape the relegation zone during the last few weeks of the season.

McLeish subsequently paid the price and in came Norwich City manager Paul Lambert. Suddenly there is an optimism flowing through Villa Park.

At Norwich, Lambert managed to get his players playing above their level. At Villa he will hope to have the same impact, though with the likes of Charles Nzogbia, Stephen Ireland, Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor on the books, Villa do possess proven Premier League quality. 

Lambert has added to his squad with Dutch international defender Ron Vlaar brought in from Feyenoord along with team-mate Karim El Ahmadi, who looks a snip at £2.5m.

One to watch: Karim El Ahmadi - Signed from Feyenoord for only £2.5m, El Ahmadi is a strong box-to-box midfielder who has already impressed in pre-season.

Prediction: 11th

After a poor first half of last season, manager Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, with Roberto Di Matteo appointed to steady the ship. What happened next was sensational as the ex-Blues midfielder guided them to the FA Cup and, more impressively, their first ever European Cup.

Owner Roman Abramovich rewarded the Italian by giving him the job on a permanent basis, as well as bankrolling a stunning summer spending spree which has seen Eden Hazard, Oscar and Marko Marin join an already supremely-talented squad, with a host of further signings linked.

One notable departure though is that of Didier Drogba. So often the matchwinner for Chelsea, Drogba's winning penalty in Munich proved to be his final act in a Blues' shirt as he decided to embark on a move to Chinese football. 

Without Drogba's physical presence, Di Matteo will need to change his side's style of play, but with the quality at his disposal, Chelsea should find themselves a lot closer to the Manchester clubs come the end of the season.

One to watch: Fernando Torres – With Didier Drogba gone, Torres will take on the role as Chelsea’s number one striker. Can he finally reproduce his Liverpool form? 

Prediction: 3rd 

The Toffees enjoyed a fine season last term finishing sixth, one place above their Merseyside rivals Liverpool.

With the club short on money, the summer has seen many of their star names linked with a move away. Fortunately for manager David Moyes though, only Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell, a player who often found himself on the fringes of the first team, has been sold.

As for incomings, Steven Pienaar has returned the club following his successful loan spell from Spurs, whilst Moyes took advantage of the situation at Glasgow Rangers to bring in forward Steven Naismith. Further signings are in the pipeline with Belgian Kevin Mirallas the latest to be linked.

In previous seasons Everton have started badly only to improve after Christmas. If Moyes' men can start the season strong, the goals of the prolific Nikica Jelavic should ensure that they are once again challenging for European qualification.

One to watch: Nikica Jelavic - Signed from Glasgow Rangers in January, Jelavic was an instant hit with the Goodison Park faithful as he netted 11 goals in 13 games. Much will be expected from his first full season on Merseyside.

Prediction: 7th 

Under Martin Jol, Fulham once again enjoyed a fine season last term, finishing in ninth position.

With the excellent Brede Haangeland marshalling the back four, the Cottagers solid base allowed the creativity of Moussa Dembele and seasoned campaigners Danny Murphy (now Blackburn) and Damien Duff to prosper. Adding the finishing touch was American forward Clint Dempsey, who notched an impressive 17 league goals. With the US Star linked to a host of clubs during the summer, most notably Liverpool, and the loss of six-goal on-loan striker Pavel Pogrebnyak, Fulham may find goals hard to come by this term.

To rectify this, Jol has brought in former Wigan striker Hugo Rodellaga on a free transfer, whilst midfielder Mladen Petric, a free signing from Hamburg, has enjoyed a prolific pre-season. Having enjoyed brief cameos towards the end of last season, youngsters Kerim Frei and Alex Kacaniklic have also impressed as Jol has tried to lower the average age of his side.

A repeat of last year's ninth place finish looks beyond Jol's side, but the West Londoners should have enough to steer clear of any potential relegation dogfight.

One to watch: Moussa Dembele – Clint Dempsey rightly took most of the Fulham plaudits last year, but Moussa Dembele was also another consistent performer. Skillful and creative, the Belgian midfielder has been linked with a number of top clubs, so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his good form.

Prediction: 14th

It's been an eventful summer at Anfield. Despite League Cup success, last season's dismal league form, at Anfield especially, resulted in owners FSG dismissing Kenny Dalglish within a week of the seasons end.

Two weeks of speculation saw names ranging from Pep Guardiola to Roberto Martinez linked with the job, but it was Swansea City manager Brendan Rodgers who was appointed.

In the weeks that have followed, Rodgers has made all the right noises, projecting his gratitude for being given the chance whilst also instilling his virtues on the club.

He has tried to remodel his squad with Maxi, Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Alberto Aquilani amongst those who have left the club so far. With the likes of Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing all having struggled last season, more departures are sure to follow, with record signing Andy Carroll set to be the biggest casualty of the new regime.

As for incomings, striker Fabio Borini has been brought in to bolster a strikeforce which netted only 47 times last season, whilst Rodgers has raided old club Swansea to sign midfielder Joe Allen. Talented midfielder Nuri Sahin is set to arrive on-loan whilst Rodgers is also looking to bring in at least one of Christian Tello, Theo Walcott, Clint Dempsey and Adam Johnson. 

More important than any new signings though is the fact that Rodgers has been able to call on the services of key midfielder Lucas Leiva, who has returned to fitness having missed the second half of last season due to injury.

The early signs look promising, with Rodgers pass and move philosophy producing a fine performance in the Europa League qualifying 3-0 win over Belarussian outfit FC Gomel. 

If Liverpool can consistently name their best eleven, then a top four finish is well within their reach. A lack of quality backup in forward areas though may mean that Rodgers has to settle for a place in the top six.

One to watch: Steven Gerrard – Luis Suarez may make most of the headlines, but Gerrard remains Liverpool’s standout performer. If the Reds can build a system where their talismanic captain consistently finds himself in the final third of the pitch, a top four finish may not be out of reach for Brendan Rodgers’ side

Prediction: 5th 

Manchester City
In the most dramatic title race for years, Sergio Aguero's last gasp strike handed Manchester City their first league title for 44 years.

But if winning it was hard, City are about to find out holding onto it is even harder.

With England keeper Joe Hart and the excellent Vincent Kompany, City have arguably the best defence in the league. Midfield powerhouse Yaya Toure will once again dominate most opponents whilst the skill and guile of David Silva will open up most backlines. Up front, boss Roberto Mancini has an embarrassment of riches  with Argentine duo Aguero and a now fully-focused Carlos Tevez, competing for spots with Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko. Keeping all the big names happy will be a challenge once more for the Italian supremo.

Despite the quality at his disposal, Mancini has been frustrated in his attempts to freshen things up, with Everton midfielder Jack Rodwell the only arrival so far.

The Community Shield victory over Chelsea saw City display the swagger that comes from their title win, but as Champions they will now face an added pressure as the team everyone wants to beat. Success in the Champions League may also hamper their bid to retain their title.

One to watch: Mario Balotelli – After starring for Italy in their run to the Euro 2012 final, Balotelli will be aiming to cement his place in City’s first eleven. Even if he doesn’t perform on the pitch, his off-the-field antics will ensure he is continually making the headlines.

Prediction: 2nd 

Manchester United
It pains me to say it, but if anyone is going to win the league, they will have to finish above Manchester United.

After losing the league to neighbours City on the last day of last season, much has been made about United needing to strengthen. The fact of the matter is though that despite the current crop not being as good as past United sides, they still only lost out to City on goal difference.

With captain Nemanja Vidic fit-again after missing much of last season, the excellent Shinji Kagawa added to midfield and Robin van Persie signed to form a formidable strikeforce with Wayne Rooney, United will be much stronger this time around. To win the Champions League they maybe needed a midfield enforcer, but such is their attacking philosophy, they will steamroller their way through most Premier League games and thus win back their title.

One to watch: Shinji Kagawa - Not only an excellent signing from a commercial point of view due to the amount of shirt sales he will generate in Asia, the Japanese star is also a fantastic footballer, creative with an eye for goal.

Prediction: 1st 

Newcastle United
Last year's surprise package were Newcastle United, who defied the odds to finish fifth.

For little money, manager Alan Pardew assembled a squad full of pace, creativity and goals. Fabricio Colloccini was a rock in defence, the partnership of Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye a revelation in midfield, whilst Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa were constant attacking threats.

Already in the top six mix at Christmas time, the signing of striker Papiss Demba Cisse proved an inspired signing as he went on to score a remarkable 13 goals in 14 games, many of which were goal of the season contenders.

Importantly, Pardew has kept hold of all of his star players, but he will be disappointed that so far, apart from Ajax midfielder Vurnon Anita, he hasn't been able to significantly add to his paper-thin squad. One name likely to seal a move to the North East before the end of August though, is former striker Andy Carroll. Quite how the £35m Liverpool forward would fit into the current Geordie set-up remains to be seen.

Last season, Pardew's men were able to go about their business with little pressure, but following their exploits, they will now be expected to repeat the feat. With teams around them improving that may be easier said than done.

One to watch: Yohan Cabaye - The French schemer was one of the revelations of last season. Signed from Lille, Cabaye impressed in the Newcastle midfield with his range of passing and eye for goal.

Prediction: 8th 

Norwich City
Under Paul Lambert, Norwich City went from a League One opening day 7-0 thrashing to a fantastic 12th place Premier League finish.

Lambert built a team full of team spirit, endeavour and creativity, with skipper Grant Holt netting 15 league goals as the Canaries won many admirers.

However, this summer has been eventful. First, talismanic striker Holt handed in a transfer request, only to rescind it before pre-season training started. More worryingly though, manager Lambert's head was turned by a move to become Aston Villa boss and he subsequently resigned before turning up at Villa Park. 

In Lambert's place came Birmingham City boss Chris Hughton. Early signs are good with Hughton cleverly bringing in winger Robert Snodgrass from Leeds United as well as Scottish International Steven Whittaker from Rangers.

But, such was the impact Lambert had at Carrow Road, his loss could prove to be big factor in how the Canaries perform this term. Add in the fact that a second season is always more difficult for a promoted side, then I can see Norwich failing to repeat their success of last term.

One to watch: Grant Holt - Holt is something of a cult hero at Carrow Road. After spending much of his career in the lower divisions, he has scored 60 goals from 120 games as Norwich have progressed through the divisions. After an impressive 15 goals last season, Holt needs to repeat the feat if the Canaries are to survive again.

Prediction: 18th 

Queens Park Rangers
It wasn't until the final day of last season that Queens Park Rangers finally escaped from relegation, but now the target for the R's is more than just survival.

With this in mind, Mark Hughes has been the busiest of all the Premier League managers so far, bringing in no fewer than 7 players. But,despite the number of signings, Hughes has spent little money. He cleverly utilised the free transfer market to capture keeper Robert Green, striker Andrew Johnson, Ryan Nelson and the impressive Blackburn winger Junior Hoilett. Manchester United youngster Fabio was brought in on a season-long loan, whilst clubmate Park Ji Sung is an impressive £2m acquisition. The biggest outlay so far has been for Samba Diakite who has made his move from Nancy permanent following an impressive loan spell last term.

A blow for the Hoops will be the loss of club captain Joey Barton for the first months of the new season following his 12-game ban for his misdemeanours against Manchester City in the season finale. 

But, with the likes of Djibril Cisse, Bobby Zamora and Abel Taarabt already at Loftus Road, the new signings should ensure QPR are no longer looking over their shoulder at the bottom three, with a mid-table finish on the cards.

One to watch: Junior Hoilett - After impressing for Blackburn Rovers last term where he scored 6 goals, the pacy and exciting winger was linked with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool, but Mark Hughes stepped in to sign the Canadian-born star.

Prediction: 9th 

A stunning second half to last season saw Reading overhaul West Ham United and Southampton to win the Championship and thus secure their place back in the Premier League after a 4 year gap.

In his first managerial post, Brian McDermott has assembled a well-drilled squad. With 20 clean sheets from 46 Championship games, it's clear to see where the Royal's strengths are. Goalkeeper Adam Federici performed heroics, whilst centre-halves Kasper Gorkks and Alex Pearce provided a more than adequate defensive shield. Further forward, captain Jobi McAnuff provided guile and creativity, whilst Jimmy Kebe is pacy and direct. 

Up front goals were spread around rather than limited to one player, though the signing of veteran Jason Roberts proved inspired as the former Blackburn striker scored 6 times in the promotion run-in.

During the close season, McDermott has been busy adding to his squad, with 7 arrivals, including Russian striker Pavel Pogrebnyak who scored six goals in 12 games whilst on-loan at Fulham last term.

With many of the Reading squad untried at Premier League level, staying up would be a massive achievement, though with Russian millionaire Anton Zingarevich now owning 51% of the club, funds should be available if McDermott needs to buy his way out of trouble come January time. 

One to watch: Pavel Pogrebnyak - Whilst on-loan at Fulham, the big Russian striker hit an impressive six goals in 12 games. Reading will be relying on him doing the same in blue and white.

Prediction: 20th 

Like Norwich City before them, Southampton are riding the crest of a wave having achieved back-to-back promotions to return to the Premier League.

Former Scunthorpe United physio Nigel Adkins has masterminded the Saints' rise from League One, bringing together a squad as equally adept at defending as they are attacking, not to mention an excellent team spirit.

The highest scorers in the Championship last term, Rickie Lambert was the jewel in the crown, netting 27 league goals to follow on from 21 and 30 the previous two seasons. Lambert may not hit those heights in his first taste of Premier League football, but Adkins has attempted to share the burden by spending a club record £7m on Burnley striker Jay Rodriguez, to add to strikers Billy Sharp and Tadnari Lee. In midfield, it will be interesting to see how the talented Adam Lallana does against the very best.

Defensively, Jose Fonte and former Celtic defender Jos Hooiveld will be charged with keeping Premier league strikeforces at bay, whilst highly-rated right-back Nathaniel Clyne has arrived from Crystal Palace.

Survival will be the only thing on the mind of Saints' supporters, but with momentum high and plenty of sources of goals, I can see Adkins' men following Norwich's lead and preserving their top flight status for another season.

One to watch: Rickie Lambert - 78 goals from 132 games for Southampton makes impressive reading. If Saints are to have any hope of survival, they will hope Lambert's first taste of Premier League football proves equally as rewarding.

Prediction: 15th 

Stoke City
This will be Stoke City's fifth season running in the Premier League proving they are now an established top flight side. But I feel, this coming season, may be one of their most difficult campaigns.

Last season, the Potters finished in 14th place, their lowest position and with lowest points tally since promotion in 2008. Granted they only really struggled towards the end of the campaign when the efforts of their first European campaign eventually caught up with them, but still it is a cause for concern for the Britannia faithful.

With the likes of Peter Crouch and Jonathan Walters, Stoke will continue to play the direct way, though the addition of Michael Kightly from Wolves, to compliment Matthew Etherington on the other wing, may help inject a more measured approach. At the back, Ryan Shawcross will remain as dominant as ever, whilst all of football will hope Robert Huth quickly recovers from his bout of suspected meningitis.

With the Britannia stadium an intimidating place to go, Tony Pulis' men will no doubt continue to be hard to beat at home. However, I think they will struggle to pick up points away from home and thus may find themselves towards the lower reaches of the league, though I do think they are too good to go down.

One to watch: Peter Crouch - Crouch will be Stoke's main source of goals and will have a point to prove having missed out on England's Euro 2012 squad.

Prediction: 16th 

Swansea City
After a fantastic debut season in the Premier League, the summer has seen a number of changes at Swansea City. Manager Brendan Rodgers has left for Liverpool, taking influential midfielder Joe Allen with him, and Icelandic midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson, who scored 9 times whilst on-loan for the second half of the season, is now at Tottenham Hotspur.

Chairman Huw Jenkins refused to panic though as he took his time before pulling off a major coup by bringing in Danish legend Michael Laudrup as boss. With Laudrup’s philosophy akin to Rodgers and past Swans’ bosses, the transition for the players should be seamless.

Having impressed last term, keeper Michel Vorm and defender Ashley Williams will once again need to be in top form to ensure the Swans have a solid base from which the likes of Leon Britton and new signing Jonathan De Guzman can play football. Whilst Danny Graham will once again be the main goal threat, the loss of 9-goal Sigurdsson may not be as big a blow as first feared due to Laudrup’s stunning £2m swoop for Michu, a player who netted 15 times in La Liga last season.

In fact, the main obstacle for the Swans to overcome may be the expectation following their excellent debut season last term. But I expect them to perform well again and register another mid-table finish.

One to watch: Michu – 15 goals for Rayo Vallecano in La Liga last term, Laudrup somehow managed to nab him for just £2m!

Prediction: 12th

After a disastrous start to last season, Steve Bruce was sacked as Sunderland manager, with Martin O'Neill his replacement.

Immediately the Northern Irishman worked his magic to transform the Black Cats' season leading them to a solid 13th place finish, despite the fact that they only recorded two wins in their last 13 matches of the season.

This summer though O'Neill has been frustrated in his attempts to strengthen his squad. After the completion of Asamoah Gyan's move to Al-Ain and Niklas Bendtner's return to Arsenal after last seasons loan spell, coupled with doubts over Fraser Campbell's long-term fitness, Sunderland are short on numbers up front, with only the impressive Stephane Sessegnon a certain starter. With that in mind, O'Neill has targeted Wolves' Steven Fletcher but with bids of up to £12m rebuffed, O'Neill may be priced out of the move.

Despite the lack of signings, O'Neill's infectious managerial approach should see the Black Cats improve on last year's finish.

One to watch: James McClean - On 1st January 2012, O'Neill handed a debut to 22 year old winger McClean, who had signed from Irish outfit Derry City at the start of the season. The youngster took to first team football instantly, scoring 5 times in 23 games, impressing so much that he was named as Sunderland's Young Player of the Year as well as earning a call-up to the Republic of Ireland Euro 2012 squad.

Prediction: 10th

Tottenham Hotspur
One of the biggest shocks of the summer was Tottenham Hotspur parting company with Harry Redknapp. In his place, Spurs chose to appoint former Chelsea boss Andre Villas-Boas, who endured a torrid 6 months in charge at Stamford Bridge last season.

Under Redknapp, Spurs vibrant attacking football made them one of most entertaining teams in the Premier League. Up until as late as February 2012, they were still in the title hunt until a late Mario Balotelli's late penalty sentenced them to a 3-2 defeat at Manchester City. Then came Redknapp's link with the England job and Spurs fell away, finishing fourth, only for Chelsea's Champions League win to deny them qualification for Europe's elite competition.

So, Villas-Boas' task is straight forward. Get them back in the Champions League. Though he already has hurdles to overcome.

Stalwart defender Ledley King has finally succumbed to the knee injuries which have dogged his career, whilst star midfielder Luka Modric has made no secret of his desire to leave for Real Madrid, a move which is likely to happen sooner rather than later. Up front, Jermaine Defoe is the only recognised striker after the failure to tie Emmanuel Adebayor on a permanent contract after his loan move from Man City. To top things off for AVB, midfield dynamo Scott Parker has been ruled out until at least Cctober with an achilles injury.

But there is good news. The vast majority of Redknapp's exciting squad are still at the Lane, including the superb Gareth Bale and fit-again centre-half Michael Dawson. Two new signings have arrived in the shape of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen, with others almost certain to arrive with the likes of Gaston Ramirez, Yann M'Vila, Fernando Llorente, Brazilian Leandro Damiao all linked. 

At Chelsea, AVB struggled as he tried to move the Chelsea old guard of Drogba, Lampard and Terry out too quickly. Despite the loss of King and Modric, the Spurs squad he has inherited should suit his high-intensity, attacking philosophy. But, with teams all around them strengthening, AVB may have to wait another season before returning Spurs to the top four.

One to watch: Gareth Bale - A perfect blend of pace, power and skill, Bale is the complete modern day footballer. Criticised for playing for Spurs in pre-season despite pulling out of the TeamGB squad through injury, Bale will be hoping his performances hit the headlines instead.

Prediction: 6th

West Bromwich Albion

West Bromwich Albion are yet another club to start the season with a new manager. Following Roy Hodgson's appointment as England boss late last season, the Baggies search for a boss ended when former Liverpool no 2 Steve Clarke was given his first chance as a manager.

The challenge facing Clarke is to replicate the excellent work of Hodgson who masterminded the Baggies to a 10th place finish, which, much to the fans delight, included a 5-1 thumping of bitter rivals Wolves.

Clarke has re-jigged the playing squad, releasing eight players as well as bringing in striker Markus Rosenberg from Werder Bremen and Argentine midfielder Claudio Yacob, whilst also making keeper Ben Foster's loan move from Birmingham City a permanent switch. Clarke has also managed to bring Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku in on a season-loan as the exciting youngster looks to impress after failing to get a look in at Stamford Bridge.

Key to West Brom's season is how Clarke reacts to being the man in charge. If he does well then Baggies' fans can expect another mid-table finish. If he struggles, expect West Brom to be involved in the relegation fight.

One to watch: Romelu Lukaku - After being heralded as one of Europe's hottest prospects, a big money move to Chelsea last summer didn't work out for Lukaku, with the striker making only 8 appearances for the new European Champions. On his loan move to the Hawthorns, the 19 year old has expressed his "relief" to have left Chelsea. Baggies fans will now be hoping he can reproduce the form that alerted Europe's elite.

Prediction: 19th

West Ham United
Despite the reservations of some supporters' about the Hammers' style of play under Sam Allardyce, Ricardo Vaz Te's Wembley winner sent West Ham United back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

A veteran of Premier League survival campaigns, Allardyce will now be looking to consolidate their place in the top division. As always, Allardyce has been very active in the transfer market, bringing in highly rated Mali striker Modibo Maiga from Sochaux, Welsh defender James Collins and France Euro 2012 midfielder Alou Diarra amongst others. Big Sam has also brought in ex-Bolton goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen having lost former England keeper Robert Green to QPR on a free transfer, along with 5 other members of the Hammers' promotion-winning squad.

One move which didn't come off though was that of a spectacular swoop for Liverpool striker Andy Carroll. West Ham agreed to take Carroll from Merseyside initially on-loan with a view to a permanent move, but the player declined the opportunity.

In the Championship, West Ham's form at Upton Park was patchy, with their excellent away performances often keeping them in the hunt for promotion. An improvement at home will be vital if the Hammers are to survive the drop, but with many of their squad having already tasted life in the top flight, I predict the Irons' should have enough quality to preserve their Premier League status.

One to watch: Modibo Maiga - A 6ft 1in £4.7m signing from Sochaux, Maiga is exactly the sort of player Sam Allardyce favours. Powerful with plenty of pace, he can operate on the wing, though is more likely to feature as a target man for the Hammers. He netted 24 goals in 59 appearances in France and was on the verge of joining Newcastle United in January, only to fail a medical.

Prediction: 13th

Wigan Athletic
A remarkable end to the season saw Wigan triumph over Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United on their way to Premier League safety.

Lining up in a swashbuckling 3-4-3 formation, such was the manner of the Latics’ displays, boss Roberto Martinez was heavily linked with a move away from the DW Stadium during the summer, even going as far as meeting Liverpool chairman John Henry in Miami as the Reds searched for their new boss.

He has remained in the Wigan hotseat though, and is gearing up for another fight against the drop. To help the survival bid, Martinez has made some shrewd signings with defender Ivan Ramis captured from Mallorca, highly-rated Arsenal youngster Ryo Miyaichi brought in on-loan and, more recently, 15-goal striker Arouna Kone signed from Spanish side Levante.

If Martinez continues to deploy his 3-4-3 formation, the Latics will be an entertaining side to watch. With confidence gained from finally beating some of the big boys, I can see Wigan surviving by the skin of their teeth once more.

One to watch: Victor Moses – The young winger came of age towards the end of the season with his performances attracting the advances of the likes of Chelsea. If Wigan are to have a chance of staying up, keeping hold of Moses will be key.

Prediction: 17th

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