"Martin O’Neill’s first season in charge was a demonstration of how to be dogged and awkward without ever having the flair to climb into the mix for a European place."
Big spending Liverpool continue their 17-year quest for a top-flight title, beginning their 2007/08 Premiership campaign with a trip to Aston Villa.
The Reds away form was nothing short of abysmal last term, and was the principal reason why they could not sustain a viable challenge to Manchester United and Chelsea. Trailing in a distant third, the Merseyside club won just six games on the road and were winless away from home in the league until December. A faster start is essential if Rafa Benitez’s side are going to sustain their challenge this time around.
Standing in their way will be the resolute if unspectacular Aston Villa. Martin O’Neill’s first season in charge was a demonstration of how to be dogged and awkward without ever having the flair to climb into the mix for a European place. Yet unlike last term the former Celtic boss has had the entire season to strengthen his squad, and with the millions of owner Randy Lerner now readily available, an improvement on last season’s mid-table effort will be expected.
Ashley Young and John Carew arrived in January to bolster the attack, since when O’Neill has added the pacy but inconsistent Marlon Harewood, aswell as his former West Ham United team-mate Nigel Reo-Coker. Coveted by the top four a season ago, Reo-Coker endured a miserable season with the Hammers in 2006/07, and will hope that the move to Villa Park will help him rediscover the form which made him so sought after in 2005/06. Then, Reo-Coker captained a newly-promoted West Ham outfit to a respectable mid-table finish and an appearance in an FA Cup final.
Liverpool have had a busy summer also, with the majority of their outlay going on mulleted superstar Fernando Torres. The Spanish international arrived at Anfield for upwards of £20million, and will immediately shoulder much of the goalscoring burden. The Reds managed just 57 goals in the league last term, and the former Atletico Madrid star has been brought in to try to solve a long-standing Liverpool problem.
Joining him on debut could be another former West Ham United man, Yossi Benayoun. The Israeli international finally secured a £4million move to Anfield after a rather protracted transfer saga, and offers Benitez more creative options out wide. With no injury problems to consider, Benitez must decide which of Benayoun, Jermaine Pennant, and Harry Kewell will make the starting 11 in the wide midfield roles.
Scott Carson completed his loan switch to Villa Park yesterday (August 10), but is unavailable under the terms of the deal with the Anfield club. That leaves Stuart Taylor clear to make a rare start in goal for the Villains, with Danish international Thomas Sorensen sidelined with a hamstring problem.
Historically this is one of the top flight’s older battles, with the teams having met on 164 previous occasions in the league. Liverpool have the edge with 77 wins to Aston Villa’s 51, while a further 36 games have been drawn. At Villa Park, it is Villa who lead the way with 37 wins to Liverpool’s 35, with another 20 games ending level.
Liverpool’s poor away record last term was arguably down to tactical failure rather than the abilities of the players, so it falls on Benitez to engineer an improvement. Whether his summer tinkering will provide that immediately is open to question, and it is difficult to see Liverpool winning at what is one of the more difficult places to visit in the Premiership given the dogged nature of O’Neill’s side. With that in mind, the smart money seems to be on another stalemate, though it will hopefully not be as turgid as the goalless draw between the sides there in March.
Verdict; Aston Villa 1 Liverpool 1
By Stephen Orford
11 August 2007