The World Cup is over. The transfer window has, to use a particular cliché, slammed shut. Now it’s time for the actual thing – the real football. For nine months across the length and breadth of England (and a little bit of Wales), 20 teams to fight it out for one prize. Before a ball has been kicked in the season, Liverpool are seen as closer to that prize than they have been for quite a long time. But that counts for nothing if performances on the pitch flatter to deceive.
The 38-game ride begins on Sunday, with the visit of West Ham United to Anfield. Manuel Pellegrini is the new man at the helm for the Hammers, and with their summer signings, they have put together a squad capable of much bigger things than the mediocre finishes of the last couple of seasons. Jack Wilshere, Andriy Yarmolenko, Issa Diop, Lukasz Fabianski and club record signing Felipe Anderson have all come in to bolster the side, in Pellegrini’s return to the Premier League for the first time since leaving Manchester City at the end of the 2015-16 season.
For the Reds, Fabinho is an injury doubt, after feeling muscle tightness in training on Thursday. But Naby Keita and Alisson Becker are expected to make their competitive debuts for the club. Dejan Lovren, who returned to training only last week after his exertions with Croatia in the World Cup, looks all set to miss this game.
Here are the key individual battles that could decide the outcome of the game.
Mohamed Salah v Aaron Cresswell
How do you top a 44-goal season? Maybe by repeating it over and over again? That should be the plan for Mo Salah as the King of Egypt looks to get back to doing what he does best, after a sour ending to a memorable campaign last season, with the events of the Champions League final, and Egypt’s rocky World Cup.
He has looked sharp in pre-season, notching up a goal within 52 seconds of coming on in his first game against Manchester City in New Jersey. The front three of Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have already gotten some minutes together, and despite being a little too sloppy, they looked threatening every time either of them had the ball at their feet during the friendly against Torino on Tuesday.
Cresswell is likely to be given the nod at left-back for West Ham ahead of Arthur Masuaku, who is a more adventurous full-back. West Ham need discipline and defensive nous from their left-back, and Cresswell provides that for Pellegrini, along with possessing a wand of a left foot that could threaten Liverpool at the other end of the field as well.
Salah is likely to be the man, once again, at the forefront of most good things that Liverpool do, in an offensive sense. With the new man Alisson in goal for the Reds, West Ham will also have to be wary of the early release from the goalkeeper to find the pace of Salah running in behind the defenders.
And there is always the threat of the quick, slick passing between the front three. In all, one would not want to be Aaron Cresswell at Anfield on Sunday.
Sadio Mane v Ryan Fredericks
Out of the front three, it is fair to say that Mane has looked the sharpest and most threatening during pre-season. The Reds’ new no.10 will be itching to get back on the field, and there could be few tougher starts to life in the Premier League for Fredericks than to be up against Mane.
The Senegalese struck up a good partnership with Andy Robertson towards the end of last season, and with the Scot expected to start at left-back, that is an obvious area for the Reds to exploit, especially if Felipe Anderson on West Ham’s right-wing fails to do his defensive duties as he is expected to.
Against Torino on Tuesday, Mane was beating defenders with ease, although his final ball was a little bit slack. But with Firmino building up fitness, having joined the squad late, it is understandable, that he wasn’t in positions to attack Mane’s balls into the box.
Throughout pre-season, there was more of a tendency from Mane to beat his man on the outside and reach the byline, which provides defenders with more headaches, apart from just showing him on to his left foot, given his prowess on his stronger right foot. If Mane can provide consistent threats through his left foot as well, he becomes a bigger nightmare for defenders to deal with. As with Cresswell against Salah, Fredericks is also going to have to be aware of the early ball over the top to utilise Mane’s piece.
Naby Keita v Jack Wilshere
Finally, after a year of waiting, Reds’ fans can see Naby Keita in competitive action for the club. Throughout pre-season, he has shown glimpses of the class that he possesses. The drive and skill that he brings from central midfield is something the Reds lacked in the absence of Philippe Coutinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain last season, and the Guinean is just the man to fill that role.
Wilshere ended his long stint with Arsenal in the summer, in search of newer pastures, and is expected to be the rock around which the West Ham midfield revolves. He is also expected to be the man entrusted with ensuring Keita does not have the time and space he needs to provide threatening passes to the Front 3.
Keita’s eye for a pass, and his tendency to look for through balls behind the defense suits Salah and Mane to the T. With Firmino being his usual self, dropping off and coming into midfield, it also provides the space for both Salah and Mane to make runs through the middle, and there are few better at finding those intricate passes than Keita is.
It should be an interesting debut for Keita in an opening game that sees an upbeat opposition, given the transfer window that they’ve had.
But it is the perfect opportunity for the little Guinean to lay down the marker and get the rest of the league to already sit up and take notice of just how unique he really is.