At last, the Premier League season kicks off in full, with Liverpool taking the field under Brendan Rodgers for the first time in league play at West Bromwich Albion. Former assistant Steve Clarke took over for the West Midlands side after Roy Hodgson's departure, and while he'll likely be familiar enough with much of the personnel for Liverpool, he'll be facing a club that's sought to forge a much different identity on the pitch than the one he oversaw with Kenny Dalglish.
Things started to accelerate pretty quickly over the past few weeks--right after the Euros it seemed like it would take forever for the league season to get here, but with the North American tour and Europa League action breaking what would normally be an uneventful stretch, all of a sudden we're less than 24 hours away from watching Liverpool play a Premier League match again.
Which is thrilling and terrifying, as usual, but even more so this season as they begin life under a manager who's not been shy about where he feels his squad are in their development. He wants to play a very distinct style, it's fairly significant departure from what they've done over the past two seasons (at least on the whole), and, while the early returns have been encouraging, there's likely to be plenty of growing pains.
That they start their journey in a different direction against a former coach seems fitting enough, even if it doesn't quite carry the significance of a matchup against the man that was his immediate predecessor. Steve Clarke's appointment is a solid one for a club that's searching for stability in the top flight after yo-yoing for a brief period; their promotion at the end of the 2009-2010 season came on the heels of having been relegated a season earlier, and while they've stayed up each of the past two seasons, it hasn't come without incident. Roy Hodgson did about what you'd expect with a side looking to survive, and while Clarke doesn't quite have the history of the 36-year continental veteran extraordinaire, he seems a solid choice at the helm.
He's got a few challenges in the squad ahead of tomorrow's match, though--the BBC's got Jonas Olsson, James Morrison, Markus Rosenberg, and Graham Dorrans either as doubts or confirmed absences, with Dorrans out for sure after his young daughter was diagnosed with meningitis (and thankfully it looks like she's recovering). Clarke will have Shane Long and Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku to pick from up front, though, and on the other end he's secured Ben Foster after the goalkeeper earned player of the year honors while on loan from Birmingham City. Also expected to play a part throughout the eleven are Peter Odemwingie, Youssouf Mulumbu, Zoltan Gera, and Liam Ridgewell, with new signing Claudio Yacob joining Mulumbu in the midfield.
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Downing Suarez Borini
Almost impossibly, there's no injury worries for Liverpool after a season in which that seemed a constant concern. There was the midweek slate of internationals that saw a number of squad members participate, most notably Joe Allen who logged a full 90 for Wales as they fell to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Whether or not that's enough to keep him out of the eleven is one thing, but with plenty more taking part and coming back healthy, it's nice to have nearly everyone available. No information just yet if new boy Oussama Assaidi is eligible, but it'd be a big surprise if he found his way into the squad.
Little explanation is needed for much the predicted eleven, particularly at the back. That's the best back five available so long as all are fit; pictures from training might indicate there could be something different--those that subscribe to the bib theory of lineup predictions have Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson in without Jose Enrique, which would mean Kelly on the right and Johnson left. Either is serviceable, and while Enrique has been better in the preseason, I don't think it's a huge dropoff to have Glen Johnson there.
Allen's participation midweek is cause for some concern, as I mentioned, but I think Rodgers will want to have him involved alongside Lucas as soon as possible. They're as good as it gets for Liverpool deeper in the midfield, and with Gerrard providing the action without having to do too much in the way of dictating play, the guests should expect to dominate things in the middle of the park.
Across the front it's likely to be normal service, at least from the limited sample size we've seen thus far. Stewart Downing has a place for now, and if he continues to develop confidence as part of an active forward line, he's got potential to have a positive impact. Most will expect that to come from Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini, with the former already seeming to be at his best and the latter settling in quickly. With the support of Gerrard, there's good reason Brendan Rodgers is excited about his front four.
Getting off to a good start is crucial, with a punishing first two months of the season on tap and the type of expectancy that's become commonplace. Three points would be terrific, as is a continuation of the football we saw against Gomel and Leverkusen at Anfield. As we've seen so often, particularly last season, performance and result don't always match up, and tomorrow presents a great opportunity for Liverpool to show that they can close the gap between the two on a regular basis.
Kickoff is set for 3:00PM BST/10:00AM EST, with Fox Soccer Channel set to air the match live in the US. We'll have the matchday thread up a few hours prior to match time, and we'll include any other ways to watch that we're aware of. Team sheets will run around an hour or so before kickoff as well. It's also final call time for the two different fantasy football leagues we've got going--there's ESPN Premier Fantasy and the Fantasy Premier League through the official Premier League website, so join up if you'd like to watch my slow descent to the bottom of both tables.
Hope to see you all back here first thing tomorrow, and that we'll be able to get the weekend and Liverpool's 2012-2013 season off to a good start.