Saturday, August 18, 2012

West Bromwich Albion vs. Liverpool preview

Steve Clarke is probably feeling pretty confused right now. After being number 2 to Kenny Dalglish at Anfield, Clarke showed that he was a loyal man by offering his resignation to Liverpool in the immediate aftermath of the legend's sacking. Clarke must have been pretty chuffed at finally getting a chance to be in charge of first team matters outright when he became manager of West Bromwich Albion. The fixture list however has ensured that he gets off to an awkward start against his old employees at the Hawthorns.

Starting a managerial career at a club like West Brom has its share of advantages and disadvantages. The faithful at the Hawthorns don't expect more than steady progress nowadays, however if things seem to go wrong, the board can be pretty ruthless as demonstrated when they sacked Roberto Di Matteo in 2011. While Clarke will not be under pressure initially, he knows he can't afford to be complacent.

Clarke has done well to keep the axis of the team in tact. Ben Foster, Jonas Olsson, Chris Brunt, James Morrison, Graham Dorrans and Youssuf Mulumbu form the spine of the team, with impressive strikers Peter Odemwingie and Shane Long both still at the club. The additions of Craig Dawson and Claudio Yacob are par for the course for a club of West Brom's stature, however they have bolstered their forward options with two left-field signings.

Markus Rosenberg has played in the Champions League as well as at international tournaments, hence he should be a reliable back-up to Long and Odemwingie. Football fans will finally get to see if Romelu Lukaku is worth the hype as he arrives on loan from Chelsea, with the hope of getting first team opportunities. Overall, West Bromwich Albion have a decent squad that should comfortably sit somewhere around mid-table. It could come down to a question of Clarke's management. If he fails to transmit his ideas, a downward spiral could be difficult to avert, similar to the manner of Di Matteo's reign. If Clarke gets his methods right though, West Brom should have a safe season with a high number of clean shoots to boot.

Fans of Liverpool Football Club have never entered a season with expectations as unknown as this one.  On the one hand is the support that will always bellow out that Liverpool is a big club and should challenge for the title, and on the other are fans who realize that solutions to long-term problems are not easy to come by, as proven with the failure of the Messiah Kenny Dalglish.

Brendan Rodgers himself admits that most Liverpool fans are sceptical about his chances of success. While it is inconceivable that his possession-based style will immediately take root at Anfield, the early signs for Rodgers at Liverpool are promising. Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini have dovetailed really well in attack, with both capable of making smart runs, creating chances and finishing themselves. Steven Gerrard has also moved on to a more advanced role further up the pitch, and getting Gerrard's goal tally high again will be absolutely crucial in Rodger's plans.

Rodgers has hinted that he wouldn't hesitate to try out a 4-6-0 formation in the style of the Spanish national team. For this to happen, Liverpool need two midfielders at the defensive base of midfield who have the ability to dictate play from the deep as well as provide defensive cover when the opposition have the ball. Lucas Leiva and Joe Allen will be expected to perform in these positions. There is a case for the unheralded Brazilian to be the most instrumental Liverpool player under Rodgers.

At the back, Jamie Carragher's days seem to be numbered. The defensive stalwart does have the infuriating tendency to play aimless long balls from the back, and under Rodgers' philosophy, giving the ball away so cheaply is a cardinal sin. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel should be the first-choice partnership, although the classy but raw Sebastian Coates can expect to get more game-time this season.

Both full-backs will be extremely comfortable embracing Rodgers' plans. Jose Enrique's natural style of movement with the ball and interchanging ability with midfielders meant that he played the tiki-taka way even under more conventional managers. Glen Johnson loves the ball at his feet, and his fluidity will be cherished by Rodgers. The beauty of Rodgers' system is that it can cover Johnson's obvious defensive deficiencies. Substitute full-back Martin Kelly can also fit in seamlessly.

The only doubts surround the role of the English contingent at the club. Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole will have to work hard to get into Rodgers' plans. If Rodgers feels they can't embrace his philosophy, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them jettisoned out of the club in January.

Prediction: Steve Clarke will be eager to get a good result on his home debut, especially against his old club. However, Liverpool know this is their easiest game before an incredibly difficult run, and getting three points will be imperative. With Gerrard, Suarez and Borini all looking sharp, and the midfield dominating possession, Liverpool should return to Anfield with a tightly contested victory.

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