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 By Steven Kelly
Aug 13, 2014

Premier League Preview: Liverpool

ESPN FC's Stuart Holden, Paul Mariner and Alexi Lalas preview the upcoming season for the Reds and debate whether they can be title contenders.

Lessons from last season

A 19th title for Liverpool would have been nice, putting it mildly, if only to silence the incessant badgering from outsiders about going so long without winning it. Last season was a thrilling ride with a couple of fatal spills near the very end, yet it came from absolutely nowhere.

The lesson? It can't always be this way. Eighty-four points was brilliant, 101 goals colossal, the standard of attacking football as good as I've seen in the past 25 years. It would be a shame to focus on what wasn't achieved at the very end.

History strongly suggests it can't be repeated, but when was football logical? The beauty of the sport is that it consistently confounds expectations, and that's what Liverpool fans will cling to during the coming months. 2013-14 was a major, delightful surprise. Who am I or some triviality like history to suggest it can't happen again?

Predicted starting lineup

Brendan Rodgers may keep a lot of last season's team intact at first, for the sake of experience and their familiarity with each other's play, gradually introducing the newcomers. He has to wait for Adam Lallana anyway.

But there will be a lot of rotation compared to last season, when Liverpool mostly only played one game a week.

Liverpool will have to overcome the absence of departed striker Luis Suarez from their starting XI.

What's new?

Luis Suarez has gone. You may have read something about it in the papers. Coming at a time of increased expectation, it has created a curious atmosphere at Anfield -- one almost resembling a transitional state, which is odd for a team that came close to the title.

Rodgers has used the Suarez bounty to strengthen the squad's depth and multiply his options for what will be a busier season than last. It may look like a completely new team at times. It's to be hoped that more coaching will have been done on the defensive side, especially on their concentration and protection from the midfield.

The manager only really opted for one striker when either Suarez or Daniel Sturridge was unavailable for selection, so expect to see more of that. Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling often operate as borderline forwards anyway, so there will hopefully be as much excitement as last season.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

Strengths

Clearly, it's going forward. There's a lot of pressure on Sturridge to keep his remarkable Liverpool average going, remembering that when Suarez was banned at the start of last season, Sturridge stepped up to the plate manfully so that the Uruguayan's absence was barely noticed.

Sterling has had an eye-catching preseason already, and his development will be intriguing. He is one of several players with extreme pace, and this has to be the fastest side I've seen at Anfield in over 35 years of attendance.

Few opponents will risk being caught short of personnel at the back because this team will just cut them to ribbons. If other teams try to keep it tight, Coutinho and Lallana could have the sure touch necessary to unlock the meanest defences.

Weaknesses

Obviously things will need to improve at the back. With the loan of Javier Manquillo secured, the days of Glen Johnson could be counting down, and now that Alberto Moreno has been locked in for the left side of defence, the manager cannot complain of being short of defenders. How he uses them and how they gel will be the key.

It will be interesting to see whether Rodgers opts for Emre Can to occasionally step in for Steven Gerrard, who submitted to the advancing years by finally opting out of international duty. In fact, the fitness of the whole squad will be tested, as far more football will be played this season. In his two years at the helm, Rodgers' teams have gotten stronger in the second half of the season, but this is his biggest test to date.

Manager Brendan Rodgers will be forced to balance a European campaign along with domestic duties in 2014-15.

Manager - ESPN FC profile

Despite clear improvements in Liverpool's points tallies under Rodgers, there is still a measure of uncertainty as to whether the man is the real deal. With most neutrals regarding last season as a freak occurrence and a world-beater like Suarez no longer there to camouflage any gaps, the spotlight will be on how the manager stands up to the pressure of increased expectations and mounting difficulties.

English football is littered with one-off seasons by managers who challenged one year and faded the next. The Northern Irishman has never been short of confidence and clearly has a vision of how the game should be played. More opposition managers will be trying the Jose Mourinho tactic of a stonewall defence and opportunistic breakaway, particularly in Europe, so it will be fascinating to watch the chess matches as Rodgers tries to counter the countermeasures set against him.

ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN Stats & Information

Key player

That looks on the surface to be Sturridge, as Liverpool's so-called "other" major goal scorer from last season may have to fly solo. This probably means that in actual fact Sterling will end up as the real player to watch.

Fans will initially be reluctant to place a large burden on such young shoulders, but he seems to have dealt with just about everything thrown at him so far. Opposition defenders will certainly be more prepared for him next time around, perhaps even going a little beyond the rules to keep him quiet. It's the test that Liverpool's previous youth-level prodigies like Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Gerrard passed with flying colours, and Sterling has to face it, too.

His predecessors did have the occasional stumble, though, so it's important that supporters recognise the fragility of such a situation and give him all the support his incredible promise deserves.

Predicted finish: Fourth

I wrote a few weeks ago about the pressing weight of history that is against Liverpool repeating last season's excellence. I don't see any reason to change that view, but it would still be massively disappointing if there were a significant stall in the team's progress.

With a fixture pile-up in the autumn thanks to Europe, I'd predict a struggle during the first half of the season and then a pickup in results after Christmas, something that happened in Rodgers' other seasons in charge.

He has stated he would like to win a trophy this season. Always easier said than done, of course, but expect to see a decent run in one of the cups, hopefully just a small drop in league points and a fourth-place finish in the league -- despite mounting intensity in the competition for those Champions League qualifying places.

This could be the preparatory season for Liverpool to mount another serious title campaign in 2015, when all the new players have bedded in. Patience will hopefully be a virtue that is ultimately rewarded.

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