Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Premiership Preview--2. Liverpool

For Liverpool FC, it's all about the Premiership this season. Another deep run in the Champions League would be nice, don't misunderstand, but the primary focus for Rafa Benitez and his team is the domestic league. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher, the two leaders of the club, have said as much since the middle of last year. Liverpool has won the most top flight titles in English history (18) but haven't added to their total since the 1989-1990 campaign. That's not good enough, no matter how much success they have in Europe.

The Reds have taken a major step towards their ultimate goal with the signing of Robbie Keane from Tottenham. It's no coincidence that Keane put up his best numbers in his last two seasons in North London (45 goals combined in all competitions; he benefited from playing alongside Dimitar Berbatov, who took a lot of the defensive pressure and focus off Keane. With that said, though, Keane was a solid striker before Berbatov's arrival for the 2006-2007 season -- the Irish national team captain scored 13, 16, 17, and 16 goals, respectively, in all competitions in the four years prior to linking up with Berbatov. He goes from strength to strength anyway, because his new strike partner, Fernando Torres, is even better than his last one and so is the cast of characters behind him. Keane gives Benitez some versatility up front; he can play in the middle behind Torres in the 4-2-3-1 that worked wonders for Liverpool in the second half of last season, or he can play right next to Torres in a traditional 4-4-2.

Liverpool also added two fullbacks -- Andrea Dossena (left) and Philipp Degen (right). If today's Champions League game is any indication, and I think it is, Dossena will get the lion's share of playing time at left back, allowing Fábio Aurélio to be used off the bench at either left midfield or in the back. Degen has more of a fight on his hands for minutes, as he has to compete with both Steve Finnan, who has been at Liverpool for a while and is liked by the fans, and Alvaro Arbeloa, a favorite of Benitez.

The departures of Harry Kewell and John Arne Riise are really addition by subtraction. Neither had any future with the club and were only hamstringing the wage budget, in Kewell's case, and on-field results, in Riise's case. Peter Crouch is a very good player and will probably be successful for Portsmouth, but he wasn't given the consistent opportunities he needed to be at his most effective by Benitez. Crouch didn't fit into the system, though he was a spark off the bench late in games, so he was sold off and Liverpool made a nice profit on the tall, lanky center forward. He was replaced by David N'Gog, a talented 6'3" striker who has scored at every youth level he's played at for France. Just 19, N'Gog has a real future at Liverpool and don't be surprised if he scores some meaningful goals this season as well.

Like many of the other teams in the Premiership, Liverpool is strongest in midfield, though their defense, anchored by Carragher and Pepe Reina in goal, is also very solid. Gerrard is the club captain and heart and soul of the team. He's a natural box-to-box midfielder and probably his country's best in that role. He played behind Torres in that 4-2-3-1 I mentioned earlier and really caught fire towards the end of the season, but will likely move to the right side this year if Benitez continues to use that formation. If he reverts to a 4-4-2, Gerrard will play in the center with the tough-tackling, hard-nosed Javier Mascherano behind him. Dirk Kuyt is a workhorse on the right wing and will run and run all day, which makes up for his lack of natural talent. Ryan Babel plays opposite his fellow Dutchman, using his pace and dribbling ability to either beat opposing defenders to the endline or cutting inside and launching an effort with his lethal right foot. Neither Kuyt not Babel are natural wide players, but they get the job done. Xabi Alonso is a great passer and plays in the center, as will Lucas and, to a lesser extent, Damien Plessis. Jermaine Pennant is a decent right winger when his head is screwed on right. Yossi Benayoun is extremely versatile and can be plugged in anywhere across the midfield.

Projected Starting Lineup (4-4-2):
GK: Reina

RB: Arbeloa
CB: Carragher
CB: Daniel Agger
LB: Dossena

RMF: Kuyt
*DMF: Mascherano
CMF: Gerrard (captain)
*LMF: Babel

ST: Torres
ST: Keane

*Mascherano and Babel will miss the start of the season due to their participation in the Olympics, but both are sure starters and will reclaim their places upon their returns. Lucas, too, is at the Olympics, but he's only one of a group of players that provide suitable cover in the middle. Benayoun should fill in for Babel on the left, and Alonso will do the same for Mascherano.

Liverpool's season got underway today with a 0-0 draw in the first leg of their Champions League Third Qualifying Round tie against Standard Liege. The game was in Belgium, and Reina bailed Liverpool out with a penalty save in the 11th minute. Benitez would've loved to have an away goal to take back to Anfield in two weeks, obviously, but his team will still get the job done in that return leg and progress to the Group Stage.

Counting that game, four of Liverpool's next six fixtures are at home. The most intersting of those six, though, is away on the last day of August, when they'll pay a visit to Villa Park. The corresponding game last season was very exciting, and Gerrard's terrific curling free kick won it for Liverpool late, just a few minutes after Gareth Barry had converted a penalty to tie the game. Villa will be a European contender this season, so expect this rematch to be another classic.

Liverpool will play their two biggest rivals, Manchester United and Everton, in September, sandwiched around what should be an easy win at home against Stoke City. The Reds host United the week before and contest the first Merseyside derby of the season at Goodison Park to finish up the month.

A six-day span in late November and goes a day into December will be tricky, as Liverpool plays at Chelsea, hosts Portsmouth, and travels back to London to take on Tottenham. After that, though, Liverpool welcomes West Brom to Anfield (win), oes to Bolton (win), and then play Fulham and West Ham at home (both wins).

Visits from Everton and Chelsea highlight Liverpool's January slate, which also includes games at Stoke and Wigan, a feisty little team that went to Anfield and came away with a draw last season.

After playing Arsenal on April 18, by which point Arsenal's title hopes will be no more, Liverpool finishes up their season with five games that should net them 15 points if they bring their best effort -- Hull City, Newcastle, @West Ham, @West Brom, and Tottenham. Liverpool will likely need all of those games to make one last push at the title, but again, they should get them.

Bottom Line: The combination of Gerrard, Keane, and Torres is good for 50 goals. Benitez needs someone else to step up, though, and that player could turn out to be Babel. Agger's return from injury is like another impact signing; he and Carragher are as good as any center back pairing in the Premiership. Reina is great in goal. The midfield is loaded, but could use a true winger. As I said earlier, it's clear that the Premiership is Liverpool's first priority, and with a little bit of luck, this is a team that can compete for the title.

Tomorrow, then, is my preview of Manchester United, who I believe will win their third Premiership trophy in a row. I know -- surprise, surprise, right? It's not an original pick, I'm not going out and taking a risk, I understand all of that. You know what, though? Too bad.

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