Friday, September 17, 2010

The end of the beginning: United helping Liverpool finally get its season started

Sunday brings us the final installment in Liverpool's opening set of fixtures. They were matches that looked like cruel piling on from the football world as they were first viewed when the schedule was released.

Time for some judgments, then, about Liverpool in the 2010-11 campaign, right? Not even close. Well, surely Sunday's match will offer an accurate assessment of where they're headed. Doubtful.

Wary of the toilet-paper-roll-length list of jokes this statement could unleash, Joe Cole was brought in to play a major role in the first team. It might work or it might not, but Roy Hodgson is going to try and get him in there. He played one half against a depleted, but still composed and well-drilled Arsenal, and he'll probably come back for his second run with Liverpool's best eleven this Sunday. I'm hoping for him to get a few close passes in to Torres, or otherwise contribute to getting those passes made from a distance where the passer can see Fernando without a set of binoculars. That's all anyone should expect of him. A goal from him would be amazing, but the contempt for United shouldn't create ridiculous demands from supporters – or lead neutrals to jump to any conclusions. (Of course they will, but this is an attempt at reason on the Web. Forgive my Don Quioxte-ness.)

After Sunday, three of Liverpool's next 20 league matches catch the eye as daunting challenges – away to Everton and Spurs, and home to Chelsea. (Stoke away also is in there, but for all of Stoke's home ground moxie, I'm not classifying them with the Merseyside derby or away to London-based participants in the Champions League.) That's three matches until Feb. 5 (away to Chelsea) that even the most positive Liverpool supporter can see as ending in a loss. The other 17 present opportunities for any team that believes in itself enough to finish fourth.

Now, prediction games are dangerous and nearly always wrong. That's why bookies exist. But, aside from predicting results (and inserting all the usual caveats about injury), there's nothing in Liverpool's short-term or long-term Premier League campaign that compares with:

(H) Arsenal
(A) Manchester City
(H) West Brom
(A) Birmingham City
(A) Manchester United

And that was how they started. With a new manager, playing style and several players moving in and out among the regular contributors. The team remains far from settled, and it won't be until Hodgson can push Joe Cole out there with Gerrard, Torres, Jovanovic, Carragher, Reina and company – I'm hoping Meireles features regularly too – for several games in a row and the players figure out how to work with each other.

What, then, to make of this United match on Sunday? It's always a surreal experience watching Liverpool play United. It's as though my world elevates a few feet higher off everyone else's plane of existence. I wouldn't be shocked at all if scientists observed me and reported my eyes opened wider, my ear canals somehow grew larger and my tongue was able to taste concepts like delirium and trust. Then the camera pans to Gary Neville and the whole thing gets even weirder.

I'd imagine United will win the match, although Antonio Valencia's broken leg leaves me unsure what to make of them right now. He would've been able to lash Liverpool's left flank to whatever extent he wished, and perhaps whoever Fergie drops into that role (Nani) will still do it. Who knows? Berbatov seems to have suddenly figured out how to be damn good again, and I haven't even mentioned Rooney.

OptaJoe hasn't tweeted anything yet about the last time United drew at home in the Champions League and Premier League during the same week (or had three consecutive draws), so I'll rule out a draw for Sunday's match. Bookies, I'm sure, make a United win the most likely result. And for anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, I'm hoping for another fantastic Liverpool result at Old Trafford.

But Sunday's result only closes the prologue to Liverpool's season. Far less talented teams than this one have gone on to qualify for the Champions League, and that's all Reina, Hodgson and anyone else is talking about when asking for patience from supporters. Dammit it'd feel great – I mean, worthy-of-breakdancing-in-the-street great. But Liverpool doesn't have to beat United on Sunday to save the season. The Stadium of Light, Upton Park, White Hart Lane, Molineux and elsewhere are the places Liverpool will have to find its salvation.

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