You can’t accuse the fixture computer of not having a sense of humour as it follows up successive opening weekend away encounters at Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United with a visit to Anfield for the new look Hammers. Whether the performance will mirror the stunning victory witnessed at The Emirates in August 2015, or the tame surrender seen at Old Trafford twelve months ago is, the challenge faced by Manuel Pellegrini as he prepares his troops for battle.
In a side that could show as few as four survivors from that which started the last league game against Everton at the London Stadium three months ago, it will require an instant ‘gelling’ in the squad if they are to come away from this traditional unhappy hunting ground clutching any of the points on offer.
It was a few weeks after that Arsenal victory in 2015 that West Ham recorded their only victory away to Liverpool in the past sixty-five years; and they would go on the beat the Reds three times during the course of that season. Normal service has since resumed, however, with the Hammers conceding four goals in each of the last three encounters between the two sides.
The 3-0 win at Anfield in August 2015 was one of the events that led up to Jurgen Klopp replacing Brendan Rodgers as Liverpool manager. Liverpool finished just under the hammers in his first season in charge, and has followed this up with two fourth place finishes – plus a European Champion’s League Final appearance. Many pundits believe Liverpool to be the main threat to a Manchester City procession in this season’s title race.
For many West Ham fans, the title that Liverpool are always front runners for is that of most hated rival club. Personally, I don’t get that and feel that you have to greatly admire what Klopp has done in moulding them into serious contenders. On the other hand, the ongoing media obsession with the Scousers would make it a nightmare should they ever finally succeed in picking up a Premier League title. Only a Tottenham title win would prove a greater incentive for leaving the country for a few weeks next May.
Early season matches can be difficult to predict but that has not stopped both Lawro at the BBC and Merson at Sky opting for comfortable 2-0 home wins in today’s contest. With players returning late from world cup duty and integrating new players it may prove difficult for teams to find early season rhythm – something that could affect both of today’s teams.
With Liverpool’s strength based on collective work ethic and cohesion in pressing the opposition (and with several likely injury concerns) my clutched straw is that the Hammers can catch the opposition cold today and pull of something of a surprise. For this to happen would require all of new boys to hit the ground running and show a level of discipline that frequently eludes West Ham sides. Can Jack Wilshere become one of the better Arsenal imports? Will Felipe Anderson and Andriy Yarmolenko adapt quickly enough to the pace of English football? Is there a resolute defensive formula somewhere within the squad that can resist the Salah, Mane, Firmino triumvirate?
It will be interesting to see Pellegrini’s chosen lineup and I have attempted to second guess him below. The questions for the defence are who gets the nod between Issa Diop and Fabian Balbuena as Angelo Ogbonna’s central defensive partner and who plays left back. I am thinking Diop, who might just have that extra bit of pace required, and Arthur Masuaku, based solely on having had greater pre-season preparation.
In central midfield, defensive responsibilities will fall to Mark Noble with support from either Pedro Obiang or Declan Rice and I would see Obiang’s greater experience swinging the selection. I am ruling out any place for Sanchez in the immediate future.
The rest of the side picks itself unless Yarmolenko is not fit to play, in which case I see Michail Antonio stepping in. Another frustrating start of day on the bench for Little Pea.
Regardless of what happens in this tough opener I am convinced it is going to be a very positive season for West Ham once they have a few games under their belt. Ever the optimist, I will be keeping everything crossed but the best I am seeing today is a 1-1 draw.
Today’s referee is Anthony Taylor who makes the short trip from Manchester.