x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Liverpool start as they mean to go on in the Premier League

Traditionally slow out of the blocks, shrewd signings by manager Brendan Rodgers should give Liverpool fans cause for optimism, writes Richard Jolly.

Simon Mignolet, centre, is mobbed by Liverpool teammates after his penalty save on Satuday. Andrew Yates / AFP
Simon Mignolet, centre, is mobbed by Liverpool teammates after his penalty save on Satuday. Andrew Yates / AFP
Around a decade ago, a former colleague, underwhelmed by a game involving supposed title contenders, began his match report as follows: "Liverpool won't win the league this year."

Apart from failing to convey the events of the previous 90 minutes and being needlessly provocative, it also proved prescient. They did not.

Liverpool will not win the league this year, either. While both Arsene Wenger and Manuel Pellegrini described them - along with five others - as potential champions, a more accurate indication of their standing came after the final whistle blew in Saturday's 1-0 win over Stoke City, when a smiling Brendan Rodgers quipped: "Top of the league."

And, by dint of kicking off before 18 other Premier League teams, so they were, for two-and-a-quarter hours, before first Aston Villa and then Manchester United displaced them. For the first time since 2009, Liverpool were in their time-honoured position at the top.

But a relaxed Rodgers was talking with the air of a man with different expectations. A 24th consecutive year will conclude with someone else being champions. But as Liverpool's previous four seasons began under four different managers and each ended in underachievement, Saturday offered welcome hints that, belatedly, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The result was foremost among them. Liverpool have seen slow starts become annual events; they tend to be playing catch-up before the autumn leaves have fallen in England, and more often than not, have slipped further behind in winter.

Now the opening match of the current campaign has yielded more points than the first five did last year.

That result was largely due to a new recruit. Simon Mignolet's 88th-minute penalty stop from Jonathan Walters had significance that stretched beyond saving two points.

It amounted to a moment of vindication for a manager who had ousted a World Cup winner, in Pepe Reina, for a lesser name. At Liverpool, in particular, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of settling in quickly.

Many additions in recent years never have acclimatised, their price tag featuring in every damning judgment before they were sold at a substantial loss or loaned out.

Jordan Henderson, the sole survivor of 2011's £80 million (Dh460m) investment in British talent, needed a season-and-a-half before he began to look like a Liverpool player. The midfielder was influential against Stoke and now his initial £16m fee is mentioned rather less often.

Mignolet, the assured defender Kolo Toure and the energetic forward Iago Aspas began their careers better and hint at a change of policy. Liverpool have paid Uefa Champions League prices for Europa League players too many times.

The new trio, plus the unused substitute Luis Alberto, are cheaper - indeed, Liverpool boast a rare transfer-market profit so far this summer - and tellingly, Rodgers has not recruited players the established order were chasing.

The quest for a prominent signing continues with the targeting of Willian, Anzhi Makhachkala's £30m Brazilian midfielder. But if Liverpool are to bridge the gap to the top four, the majority of the improvement has to come from the collective, not from bolting on expensive individuals.

Having a manager with a coaching pedigree helps; so does time. Liverpool were slick and fluent on Saturday and there are indications that Rodgers's passing ethos is being understood and implemented.

As the summer departures of Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll show, he is also weeding out players who were not suited to his style of football.

The reality is that this was always a huge job. It has taken Rodgers three transfer windows to reshape his squad - January's period was especially important, producing Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. Eight of the 18 who kitted out Saturday were his signings.

Should Willian and left-back Aly Cissokho, lined up for a loan move from Valencia, arrive, that could become 10.

The wider world's focus all summer has been on the possible departure. The return of football belatedly put the Luis Suarez saga into perspective. Particularly with Sturridge scoring, Suarez is not the be all and end all. And while now it appears likelier that the Uruguayan will stay, it should not be a fatal blow if he goes.

Liverpool's task is to win the mini-league of the 17 clubs not named Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United.

One game is not enough to elevate them from outsiders, but for once, they have made the right start.


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