Friday, August 14, 2009

EPL 2009/10 Week One: Tottenham vs. Liverpool Preview: Rafa to Earn His Spurs?

The opening weekend of Premiership football action for the 2009/10 season kicks off tomorrow. As always there are matches that jump out, but none more so than Liverpool's trip to Tottenham Hotspur.

For the first time in living memory, Spurs will start off the season without too many expectations on their inconsistent shoulders.

Manchester City's rise has dampened the expectation levels at White Hart Lane, and Harry Redknapp has also been quick to take some of the pressure off his team.

For the last three seasons, Spurs have started off slowly, to put it mildly. Last year, Juande Ramos paid the price for Tottenham's worst start to a league season since 1912, after they only took two points from the opening 24.

In comes 'Arry as his replacement. and Spurs immediately move up the league, taking 49 points from the next 30 games, which worked out as top five performance levels.

In the end, Spurs finished eighth after a very poor end-of-season performance that saw Liverpool hammer them 3-1 at Anfield.

This season, Harry Redknapp has tweaked more so than completely rebuilt as many had expected. In comes Peter Crouch, Sebastian Bassong, and Kyle Naughton, while only Didier Zokora and Darren Bent have left from the first-team squad.

On paper, Spurs have a strong team.

Heurelho Gomes turned out to be one of the Premiership's best keepers after Christmas, but it took four months of calamitous performances to get there. Sebastian Bassong's signing should strengthen the defence, although not in the way you would expect.

On their day, Spurs have as good a central defensive partnership as any team in the league. But that day comes all too infrequently. Ledley King and Johnathan Woodgate are both injury-prone, to such an extent that they rarely play together, so Harry had to act by bringing in a player of Bassong's quality.

Their midfield looks to be finally settling. Aaron Lennon has made the right-sided berth his own, while Wilson Palacios and Jermaine Jenas will slot into the middle.

Luka Modric eventually discovered the kind of form that had top sides from all over Europe chasing him, and when he plays well, Tottenham play well.

Despite this, Tottenham's left side is still a problem area that all the top teams have been able to exploit.

Modric drifts in, leaving huge gaps that marauding full backs easily move into, and Glen Johnson should capitalise on this come Sunday.

Up front, Spurs have more riches than probably any other team in the EPL. Peter Crouch, Jermaine Defoe, and Robbie Keane, are all up there in the top 10 of British-based top scorers in the last five years, and Roman Pavlyuchenko scored 14 goals in 36 games in his debut season.

Most expect Harry to go with the little and large combination that made Portsmouth such a potent threat last year, as Defoe, hot off two goals for England against Holland, partners Crouch up front.

Redknapp is a traditionalist 4-4-2 man, and with this formation in mind, the Spurs team picks itself, but Harry has always been known for throwing a spanner into the works for games such as these, so if he does change slightly, expect either Robbie Keane or Aaron Lennon to start in behind Crouch and Defoe.

The Keane/Defoe partnership looks unlikely, but they were very good together in pre season tournaments, so Harry has an option here too.

Liverpool come into this game as red hot favourites to win, despite Spurs being the only team to beat them twice last year.

The rule of the tape tells a different story, though. Spurs finished 35 points behind Liverpool last season, and much of the same is expected again this year.

Liverpool go into this game much weakened after the sale of Xabi Alonso, and the hole left by the Spanish conductor is now expected to be filled by (deep breath) Lucas.

The young Brazilian was one of the worst players at Anfield last year, and Liverpool's faithful even went as far as to boo the youngster when he put in a number of poor performances in a red shirt.

The Reds will start the season as one of the favourites to win the league, but pre-season has not gone as well as many would have expected.

Pepe Reina, one of the best 'keepers in England, enjoyed a torrid time against Espanyol, but his form over the last couple of years being of such a high level that this performance can only be looked upon as being a bad day at the office.

Glen Johnson has not slotted in as quickly as Rafa would have hoped, but he is still a massive improvement on any of last year's fullbacks.

In the centre, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel are carrying slight knocks but they should prove fully fit come Sunday, while Fabio Aurelio is definitely out, leaving the possibility of Argentinian youngster, Emiliano Insua coming in at left full.

As mentioned before, Lucas should fill in for Alonso, at least until October when Acquilani is expected to be fully fit. Mascherano will return in the hole in front of the back four, which will pour some more responsibility on the Brazilian's shoulders.

Dirk Kuyt should pick up where he left off after last season's excellent outings on the right, while Rafa will be hoping that Albert Riera takes that expected step up on the left.

Steven Gerrard is also carrying a knock, and was removed from the England squad as purely a precaution, but he should slot right back into the most formidable strike partnership in the Premiership with Fernando Torres.

For Spurs to win this game, Jermaine Jenas will have to take up the mantle in central midfield. He has been allowed to get away with "just enough" for his entire career, but this season will mark a turning point in his career.

Harry Redknapp has made it known to Jenas that he has been looking for competition for him all summer, and another poor year could see Jenas moving on.

Lennon should have the making of whoever Liverpool play at left full, so Riera will have to work back more than usual to give ample back up.

Out on the left, Luka Modric will come face to face with Glen Johnson. The ex-Portsmouth player will gladly pass him off to Lucas or Mascherano, and then exploit the gaps that the Croatian will leave.

Meaning that Benoit Assou-Ekotto will have to face both Johnson and Kuyt throughout the match. This will force Bassong and King to cover which will also leave more space for Gerrard and Torres, not something you want, if you want to keep a clean sheet.

Up front is probably where Spurs will gain most foothold in the game. Sami Hyypia's physical presence is gone, so Jamie Carragher will have to handle Crouch.

Carragher has a history of not being able to battle against physical players, and he suffered very badly against Roman Pavlyuchenko last season.

Pace is also something that the Liverpool defence do not have in spades, and Spurs will try to exploit this time and time again as Defoe and Lennon look to move onto Crouch's flicks and Modric's through balls.

For Spurs to win this game, everything will have to go their way. Liverpool will have to put in a below-par performance and Spurs will have to reach their potential.

Liverpool just have too much firepower when Gerrard and Torres play, so Harry Redknapp will have to go man-to-man, which is something that no team has been able to do over the last two seasons.

You might keep one of them quiet, keeping the two of the quiet is another matter entirely.

Verdict: Spurs will be better than last year, but Liverpool should have enough to claim a draw.

Follow Premier League Report on Twitter: twitter / PremLgeReport