It has been a long old 12 months for Liverpool football club. This time last year, hopes were high around Anfield as Rafael Benitez talked up his side’s chances of winning a first Premier League title, having pushed Manchester United to the wire in the 2008-09 season. An opening day defeat to Spurs was a sign of things to come and the predicted title challenge failed to materialise.
This time there is a renewed sence of optimism among the red half of Liverpool, though the ambitions are no longer as lofty. Roy Hodgson’s target is simple: qualify for the Champions League. This is the former Fulham boss’ first priority and he has brought in Joe Cole and Christian Poulsen – adding to existing new faces Milan Jovanovic, Danny Wilson and Jonjo Shelvey – to help him achieve that goal. A determination not to lose will perhaps characterise the first performance of the season, but Liverpool looked a tidy outfit in their Europa League qualifying stroll past FC Rabotnicki. There have been some enthralling clashes with Arsenal at Anfield in recent memory – notably the incredible 4-4 draw in April 2009 – but a classic would appear unlikely this team around as both teams try to carefully feel their way into the new season with new personnel on board. The Cesc Fabregas transfer saga has dominated discussions about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger will be happy that it seems to have been put to bed, at least until next summer. Wenger has introduced a few new faces and a trip to Anfield will provide a stern test of their credentials, while one eye will always be on the development of the club’s promising youngsters.
Liverpool player to watch: Joe Cole. He may have arrived on a free transfer but Joe Cole was the club’s biggest signing of the summer. Possessing guile and technical ability in abundance, Cole has been brought in to add more flair and style to a Liverpool midfield and attack that was often bereft of ideas last season. Having been used sparingly by both Carlo Ancelotti and Fabio Capello over the past 12 months, Hodgson is hoping that Cole has a new lease of life as a regular first-team player at Anfield.
Arsenal player to watch: Marouane Chamakh. The Moroccan’s transfer from Bordeaux was one of the worst-kept secrets in football last season, and sure enough he departed French shores on a free transfer in May. A danger in the air thanks to his height and strength, Chamakh adds a dimension to the Arsenal forward line that has been lacking since Emmanuel Adebayor left the club. Facing up to Jamie Carragher will provide a stark realisation of what life is like in the Premier League, but Chamakh appears to have all the tools at his disposal to be a success in England.
Key battle: Laurent Koscielny v Steven Gerrard. French centre-back Koscielny was a surprise acquisition from Lorient over the summer and the 24-year-old has plenty of pressure on his shoulders as he will form Arsenal’s first-choice centre back partnership with Thomas Vermaelen this season. With Vermaelen likely to be tasked with marking Liverpool’s lone frontman – either Fernando Torres or David Ngog – Koscielny will be guarding against the threat of Gerrard’s bursting runs from midfield. The Liverpool skipper is high in confidence after a midweek brace for England and with the possibility of Christian Poulsen and Javier Mascherano marshalling the Reds’ midfield, Gerrard will be given license to roam forward.
Trivia: In their last three opening weekend fixtures that have been scheduled away from home, Arsenal have scored a total of 14 goals.Stats: Liverpool v Arsenal has seen more hat-tricks (5) than any other fixture in Premier League history.
Odds: Liverpool (2.5), Arsenal (2.87) and the draw (3.25) are available with Bet 365. Andrei Arshavin has scored five goals in two games at Anfield, back him to score the opener this time around at 8.00.
Prediction: Liverpool are still finding their feet under Hodgson, and Arsenal will be ready to take advantage of any uncertainty in the Reds’ ranks. But with both teams fielding new players, and the fear of an early slip weighing heavy on their minds, a draw appears the most likely result.