x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Hodgson hopes to conquer

Everything has to start somewhere but, with the notable exception of Alexander the Great's extraordinary exploits, few seem to begin in Macedonia.

Liverpool's England trio of Joe Cole, top, Steven Gerrard, centre, and Glen Johnson are put through their paces during a pre-season training workout.
Liverpool's England trio of Joe Cole, top, Steven Gerrard, centre, and Glen Johnson are put through their paces during a pre-season training workout.

Everything has to start somewhere but, with the notable exception of Alexander the Great's extraordinary exploits, few seem to begin in Macedonia. Roy Hodgson's Liverpool career is an anomaly, therefore, commencing in earnest in the former Yugoslavia. His first competitive game is the Europa League qualifier against Rabotnicki in the Philip II Arena. While named after the aforementioned Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon, it represents an inauspicious venue for a club that has conquered continents.

That tonight's first leg was switched from Anfield because of fixture congestion in Skopje next week is an indication of how the mighty have fallen; that Liverpool, technically, are only in the competition because Portsmouth's finances prohibited participation in Europe is another. As Juventus, other former European champions, take on Shamrock Rovers from Ireland, it is a stage of the season that provides an early opportunity for embarrassment. And, on the field, Hodgson's has not been a stunning start. His first fixture, a friendly against the Saudi side Al Hilal, was abandoned because of a waterlogged pitch. The other two, against Grasshopper Zurich and Kaiserslautern, ended in a stalemate and a 1-0 reverse respectively. Pre-season has not provided a goal, let alone a win, before the first meaningful match.

Their significance is limited, however: due to the World Cup, Hodgson has fielded glorified reserve teams. More encouragement is being derived from the decisions of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to stay and the signing of Joe Cole. Even Javier Mascherano's wish to leave is hardly an indictment of the new manager. The Argentine's wanderlust has long been an open secret. Not that any of that distinguished quartet will feature tonight. The most prominent names in the squad are those of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel, neither of whom has figured in pre-season to date.

Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Milan Jovanovic have and they complete a quartet of World Cup players. Jovanovic, whose signing from Standard Liege was secured by Rafa Benitez, debuted rather anonymously in the first half against Kaiserslautern. Macedonia should also witness what tends to be described as "a rare appearance by Alberto Aquilani". Anfield's expensive enigma actually scored in the last match Liverpool found the net, April's Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. More typically, he missed the defeat to Kaiserslautern with a knee injury.

However, from Diego Cavalieri in goal to David Ngog in attack, the stand-ins are charged with averting Liverpool's earliest ever European exit. It is, however, a swift return to the competition that helped Hodgson earn a chance at Anfield. He took Fulham to last season's Europa League final, the culmination of another campaign that began in July. This year already promises a test of endurance as well as one of adaptability.

With Fabio Aurelio gone and Emiliano Insua in talks with Fiorentina, Liverpool lack a left-back. Agger, who finished last season on the flank, is an option for Hodgson. In pre-season, the reserve right-back Stephen Darby has been deputising on the left. Instead, with a greatly weakened side in a distant country against a little-known team, Hodgson begins his reign in earnest. It is not the start too many Liverpool managers would envisage, but it is a start nonetheless. sports@thenational.ae

Replace Mascherano Javier Mascherano's eagerness to leave Anfield was confirmed this week. Finding a similarly combative, energetic and influential midfielder to replace the Argentine, above, is no simple task and should occupy much of the Liverpool manager's budget. If available, Lassana Diarra, of Real Madrid, could be the man. Get a left-back Fabio Aurelio has gone, Emiliano Insua is set to follow; Liverpool soon won't have a specialist left-back. The versatile Luke Young should prove a useful squad player but finding a specialist - Carlos Salcido, say, or Maynor Figueroa - is essential. Reduce the reliance on Torres The news that Fernando Torres is staying at Anfield is a welcome boost. Paradoxically, however, Hodgson must make the Spaniard less important by finding an alternative in attack so his injury-enforced absences become less costly to the club. Rebuild morale A black cloud has seemed to hang over the Merseysiders for the past year, with pessimism affecting everyone from players and staff to supporters. The cause is Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who remain in situ, but Hodgson has to restore an air of optimism. Start well Quite simply, there is no better endorsement of a manager's credentials. Many are quietly pleased about the choice of Hodgson and Liverpool fans historically support their managers to the hilt. But results offer the right sort of validation.