After lifeless post-Luis Suarez year, green shoots showing for Liverpool

Greg Lea writes that after a trying term at Anfield, the summer and first two weeks of this new Premier League season have revived optimism around Liverpool.

Christian Benteke celebrates scoring against Bournemouth in Liverpool's Premier League win on Monday night. Clint Hughes / AP / August 17, 2015
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Premier League football fans look for several things when their team's fixtures for the new season are released.

The final game of the season always draws attention, as does the traditional Boxing Day encounter on December 26. Clashes with local rivals are also earmarked, as well as meetings with teams who share similar aspirations to their own club.

The first thing most supporters search out is their side’s first match of the campaign, the event that marks the return of club football after the summer break.

When Liverpool fans saw that they had been drawn away to Stoke City on the opening day, they probably feared the worst.

Memories of their nightmare-inducing 6-1 defeat at the Britannia Stadium in their 38th fixture of 2014/15 would have been brought to mind.

More than just a normal game, then, an early visit to Stoke City would act as a measure of whether Liverpool had improved during the close season.

It was far from a great performance, but Brendan Rodgers’s outfit did enough to secure a 1-0 win that went some way towards erasing recollections of that capitulation in May.

Liverpool followed up with another 1-0 victory, over Bournemouth, at Anfield on Monday, leaving them with two wins and two clean sheets ahead of a first big test of the season against Arsenal next Monday.

Liverpool tailed off badly towards the end of last term, winning just twice in their final nine matches to slump to a sixth-place finish.

Following their runners-up performance 12 months previously, it was not the sort of year that the club’s followers had ­expected.

There were mitigating circumstances, though. For instance, the sale of Luis Suarez lost Liverpool arguably their only world-class talent.

Daniel Sturridge’s continuing injury problems were keenly felt, too, the former Chelsea man limited to just seven starts in the league.

The absence of the pair who had netted 52 goals between them in 2013/14 cannot be ­underestimated.

Regardless of those factors, such an underwhelming end to the campaign left Rodgers under pressure.

Improvement this time around is therefore a must.

Even if Liverpool were to miss out on their target of a return to the top four, they need to put in a stronger and more sustained challenge than last year.

Monday’s trip to Arsenal represents the perfect opportunity to make an early statement.

Raheem Sterling may have departed, but there have been positive signs from many of Liverpool’s new recruits, particularly Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner and Christian Benteke.

With Philippe Coutinho developing a knack for scoring marvellous goals at important moments, Simon Mignolet much improved in goal and Jordan Henderson continuing to evolve into an all-round midfielder, there is much to be optimistic about.

Notable question marks remain, though and the state of their defence is No 1.

It is a mystery that Dejan Lovren continues to start ahead of Mamadou Sakho in the heart of the back line.

The balance in midfield is askew; Henderson, Milner and Emre Can are the club’s best midfielders yet none are natural holding players.

Overall, though, Liverpool look in far better shape at the start of this campaign than they did at the end of the last one.

Losing at the Emirates Stadium rarely constitutes a season-defining setback for any team, but a convincing Liverpool performance would consolidate their solid start to the new term and show that they are continuing to progress after the disappointments of last season.

Weekend’s Player to Watch

It has been a mixed week for Manchester United. Buoyed by a second consecutive Premier League victory, against Aston Villa last Friday, Louis van Gaal's side proceeded to take a step towards the group stages of the Uefa Champions League by beating Club Brugge 3-1 at Old Trafford on Tuesday, an encounter lit up by new summer signing Memphis Depay.

Things have not gone quite so well off the pitch in the past few days, though, with long-time transfer targets Nicolas Otamendi and Pedro rejecting United’s advances and opting to join Manchester City and Chelsea, respectively.

Missing out on two excellent players is clearly a blow, but the recent form of Chris Smalling at least partly soothes the sense of annoyance felt at failing to land Otamendi from Valencia.

Smalling has been superb in all three of his appearances this season. Quick, strong and with an increasingly better positional sense and reading of the game, the England international has been his team’s most impressive performer in United’s defence.

While Otamendi is a terrific addition to the City squad, Smalling, now 25, has shown that United’s need for a new centre-back is perhaps not as urgent as first thought.

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