For several seasons under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool's Premier League challenge seemed to be over before it started. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can definitely judge a Liverpool season by its start. Last year under Roy Hodgson they picked up just five points from their first five games, part of their worst start to the season since 1953-54 (when they were relegated), and the club went on to record their joint lowest points total since 1998-99. They matched the 58 points that they scored in 2004-05, but without the excuse of a cup run or the considerable consolation of a Champions League trophy.
In order to have a realistic chance at a Champions League place, let alone a title challenge during the 2011-12 season, Kenny Dalglish's side will have to hit the ground running and be firmly in contention after the first month. In the last season where Liverpool seriously challenged (2008-09), they began the season by going 10 games unbeaten. In contrast, last season it wasn't until their 10th game that they won two games in a row.
Liverpool's first five fixtures are kinder this time around, but they will still represent a challenge, so here's a look at how the Reds will start their campaign.
Last season Liverpool played Sunderland at Anfield in their sixth fixture and were fortunate to walk away with a 2-2 draw. Dirk Kuyt snatched a slightly dubious goal, making some amends for the "beach ball" goal at the Stadium of Light the season before. At this point last season, Liverpool were defeated by Manchester United; a different class of opposition, although John O'Shea, who they faced in that game, could make his Sunderland début against them this time around. He's among many United connections to the Black Cats, which adds a little extra spice to the fixture—their manager Steve Bruce is the most notable, but he could name up to five former Red Devils in his starting XI for the Wearsiders.
In this game, the focus will no doubt fall on Jordan Henderson, Liverpool's £20 million summer signing from Sunderland. Whether Kenny Dalglish chooses to give the youngster his début against his former club remains to be seen, but the two time Sunderland Young Player of the Year will have a point to prove should he make an appearance. After a strong finish to the season in central midfield by Lucas and Jay Spearing, his large transfer fee alone shouldn't be enough to guarantee him a starting place.
A 1-0 win over the Mackems got the 2008-09 season off to a good start, and few could complain at a repeat of that season's exploits. This is a game that Liverpool must win; although they've beaten Sunderland in eight of their last 10 meetings, they've dropped points against them in the last two seasons, and this must not become a habit. The last thing Liverpool can afford against Sunderland is another "balls up."
The last time these two sides met, the latest of late penalties by Robin Van Persie (in the 98th minute) was somehow eclipsed by an even later one (102nd minute) by Dirk Kuyt in an epic (if not beautiful) game at the Emirates.
The two sides also drew their opening game of the 2010-11 season 1-1 at Anfield—indeed in their last 10 league meetings the sides have drawn six times. I suspect many would consider another draw a decent result for the Reds, but with the top four gatecrashed by Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City in successive seasons, if Liverpool are to regain a position in the Champions League they will have to oust someone and a win would be a big statement of intent to the latest incarnation of the league's "Big 4."
Overhauling Arsenal may be Liverpool's best chance. While Manchesters City and United have spent heavily, and Chelsea look likely to do the same, the dominant stories of Arsenal's summer have been of player exits. First Gael Clichy left for City, and now potentially Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas may move on. Though Arsenal have a good record of bringing through replacements, unless they do significant business in the next month it would be hard to argue that they'll start the season stronger than they finished 2010-11.
Gervinho has arrived to bolster the Gunners' attack—Arsene Wenger may choose to use him on the right wing as an alternative to Theo Walcott. Whichever player starts, Liverpool fans will be praying that the side's problems at left back have been resolved as facing either with our current options would seem to be a risk. With only one win over Arsenal in the last five years, substantial improvement would appear to be needed, but with Andy Carroll's arrival perhaps Liverpool can test Arsenal's defence in the air and at set pieces, two areas where they have struggled in recent years.
Liverpool made hard work of Bolton twice last season, needing goals in the last 10 minutes of both games to secure wins. It would be nice to think that this fixture would be less painful to watch, but Owen Coyle has created a good footballing side at the Reebok and there are no "gimmes" in the Premier League.
Bolton have signed sensibly this summer but like Arsenal, they may start the season weaker. Elmander has left on a free transfer and Sturridge has returned to Chelsea after his loan, leaving them short of fire power, while Chung-Yong Lee and Stuart Holden are currently both out injured. Rumour has it that they may sign David N'gog from Liverpool, who has been made available, although Cameron Jerome is an alternative for the Trotters. Neither forward is renowned for striking fear into Premier League defences, but I would imagine Jamie Carragher would prefer not to get into a foot race with N'gog, especially if the Frenchman had a point to prove.
By this point we may know more about how Dalglish intends to set up his side. Will he favour passing the opposition into submission, with the trickery of players like Rodriguez and Suarez featuring heavily, or would this be a game for the more English approach that Downing and Carroll can offer? There may be a happy medium to be struck between the two, but with no clear picture emerging thus far from Liverpool's friendly fixtures, all eyes will be on these first few games as fans and opposition managers alike try and suss out Dalglish's tactics.
A 4-0 hammering of Stoke provided Liverpool's first win of the 2009-10 season, but the Reds have fared rather less well at the Britannia stadium. They've failed to beat Stoke their since their arrival in the Premier League. Last year a 2-0 defeat began a dire run of six defeats in nine games that spelled the end of Roy Hodgson's spell as manager.
The proverbial question asked of foreign superstars of the Lionel Messi mold is "...but could they do it on a cold/wet/windy night in Stoke?"
After joining in January, this may be Luis Suarez' chance to prove that he can indeed deliver in those difficult conditions. However it may not be the Uruguayan's technical skill that is put to the test in this game, but instead the theory that signing players with Premier League experience over the summer will win games like this one. Liverpool have avoided the risk of foreign players not settling in England or not adapting to the English game, but they've risked considerable sums that Downing, Adam and Henderson will be able to boss games against the more direct and physical sides in the league. It will be interesting to find out whether Dalglish goes entirely like-for-like or tries to counter the Potters' style with a little flair.
Liverpool haven't been alone in finding slim pickings on their travels to Stoke. Last season Arsenal were beaten there, while City and Chelsea were both held to draws. Two wins at Stoke for Manchester United demonstrate one of the differences between the champions and the chasing pack, and if Liverpool are to mount a genuine challenge, this difficult away fixture could prove as good a barometer as any. After last year, a point would represent progress.
After finishing narrowly behind Tottenham last season, this game is set to be another crucial indicator of Liverpool's trajectory in 2011-12. If the Arsenal game will demonstrate how Liverpool deal with the most fluent side in the league, and the Stoke game shows their approach to the most physical, then their fixture against Tottenham will illustrate how they deal with all out attack.
Love him or hate him (and the British press seem to be in the former camp), Harry Redknapp has revitalised Spurs since taking over and created a side which are entertaining to watch. After previously using his textbook big-small combination in the form of Defoe and Crouch, last season Redknapp sometimes switched to a more sophisticated system, perhaps befitting Tottenham's temporary position among Europe's elite in the Champions League. Rafael van der Vaart played as a number 10, orchestrating the game behind Peter Crouch and helping his side get past both Milanese teams on their way to the Champions League quarter finals.
Liverpool know what to expect from Crouch to an extent, but found dealing with van der Vaart and Luka Modric rather more difficult. Liverpool's defensive unit will no doubt have their hands full with this pairing again, but perhaps the Reds could learn something from Redknapp's "attack is the best form of defense" strategy.
In Suarez they have their own creative number 10, and they'll hope that Charlie Adam (or Alberto Aquilani, if he's still at the club) can approach Modric's skill in pulling the strings from midfield. With both sides having diced over Adam in the January transfer window, it would perhaps be appropriate if he was to deliver the points for Liverpool, but again I think a draw would represent progress after last season's defeats.
In 2008-09 Liverpool took 11 points from their first five games (their best start in any season under Benitez) and victory over Manchester United made it clear that they meant business. I've set that 11 point target again for 2011-12, and should they hit it, I think there'll be some justifiable excitement around Anfield.