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Liverpool gain most from Premier League start

Liverpool gain most from Premier League start

By Alan Hansen
Last Updated: 11:31am BST 13/08/2007

At Sunderland, Newcastle and Manchester City, it has been a fabulous opening weekend of the new Premiership campaign but everywhere bar two clubs the result will probably make little overall difference to their season. They have played one game, they may have three points, one or none, and you can read nothing into it.

The exceptions are at Anfield and Old Trafford. However disappointing a goalless draw at home to Reading would have been, it would have concerned Sir Alex Ferguson far less than his supporters.

 Liverpool gain most from Premier League start
Job done: Liverpool finally got off to a winning Premiership start

Yes, Fratton Park, where they play on Wednesday, has not been a particularly happy ground for Manchester United and the Portsmouth manager, Harry Redknapp, has spent well in the summer. But an indifferent start will only become a problem if it extends to three or four games; the opening day is all about finding fitness and form and Ferguson has been around long enough to know that medals are handed out in May rather than in September.

What would be of far more concern was the loss of Wayne Rooney with a fractured foot. It says something for Manchester United's injury list that he was forced to use John O'Shea as a makeshift striker but United badly missed Rooney's influence. When a team like Reading, who defended magnificently, set their stall out to frustrate there is nobody better than Rooney in finding space, creating chances and making things happen.

Because of Rooney, Manchester United's opening game may be important only in retrospect. Liverpool's was vital however. Even before their season kicked off, it seemed Liverpool's first three games, away to Aston Villa and Sunderland and at home to Chelsea, may be the defining matches of their season. It flies in the face of logic and yet it is almost certainly true.

In his three seasons on Merseyside, Rafa Benitez has been undone by the starts Liverpool have endured -last time they lost five of their first six away games and were out of the title race even before it had begun.

This summer they spent big. The expectation after 17 years without a championship was starting to become overwhelming, and of the big four they had the most difficult opening fixture. Though the games hardly panned out the way people thought, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United could not have asked for more straightforward matches than at home to Fulham, Birmingham and Reading.

Liverpool not only found themselves away to Aston Villa but tomorrow morning they are due to fly out to Toulouse for a Champions League qualifier. Say they had drawn against Villa, just as Benitez had drawn all his previous opening-day games as Liverpool manager, and Chelsea had followed up yesterday's win over Birmingham by beating Reading in midweek. Liverpool would have come back from France knowing that if they lost to Chelsea at Anfield, they would be eight points off the pace by Aug 19. That is pressure and, although managers might say in public that footballers take one game at a time, it is difficult to do.

Twenty-five years ago, it was easier to play catch-up. Then, as a player you might pick up a paper and see a couple of pages devoted to the old First Division. Now it is seven or eight at least and there are phone-ins and constant television coverage. Your manager might tell you that it is early days and there is little deep down to worry you. But if you are told on television, radio and in the press that you are part of a struggling team, it would be very difficult to ignore.

And for once, on the opening day Liverpool had some luck. Aston Villa did not play particularly well but they did not deserve to concede the free-kick that Steven Gerrard converted unbelievably well to win the match. At Old Trafford yesterday, Manchester United were awarded a similarly fortuitous free-kick in injury time but this time they missed it. And that is how thin success and failure is measured.

Roy Keane, Sam Allardyce and Sven-Goran Eriksson know that however remarkable their opening day in the Premiership has been, the bigger tests lie ahead. They would know, too, that however good or bad your pre-season, it tells you nothing. Spurs won all seven of their pre-season games but it was to no avail at the Stadium of Light.

But Keane and the managers of the two other promoted clubs know it is only a matter of time before they are given a rougher welcome to the Premiership.


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