Liverpool begin their title defence tomorrow evening as they host newly promoted Leeds in their first Premier League game of the season.
Jurgen Klopp’s men, who ended the club’s 30 year wait for a Premier League crown take on Marcelo Bielsa’s Championship winners at Anfield in the tea time kick off, which is live on Sky Sports.
It is set to be an intriguing encounter, with Leeds gracing a Premier League pitch for the first time in 16 years after finally achieving promotion last term.
They couldn’t have asked for a tougher start on their return to the top flight. Liverpool have gone unbeaten at home in the past two campaigns and finished a mammoth 18 points clear of nearest challengers Man City after a truly spectacular season.
Klopp has established a juggernaut on Merseyside, with the Reds amassing a combined 197 points in the past two seasons, a truly staggering total. It certainly shows no signs of slowing down, and Liverpool will be desperate to become only the third team since 2009 to retain the Premier League trophy.
With Dejan Lovren the only major departure this summer, its been a quiet transfer window so far for the Reds, with left back Kostas Tsimikas arriving from Olympiakos as Liverpool try to come to terms with the financial impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Given Liverpool’s settled starting eleven however, major additions like those at Chelsea and neighbours Everton were never going to be needed, with Klopp preferring to work with a smaller squad and promote from the talented academy set up than bring in numerous signings and have an over inflated squad.
Leeds on the other hand, have had a very busy window, bringing in a number of plays to enable them to compete on their return to the Premier League.
They secured the services of winger Jack Harrison for another loan spell after his successful season at Elland Road last year. The Englishman was an integral member of Bielsa’s team, scoring six and assisting eight in 46 games as Leeds finished 10 points ahead of West Brom to clinch the Championship title.
They tied number one goalkeeper Illan Meslier down to a permanent deal along with winger Helder Costa.
The Yorkshire club sent out a huge statement of intent with the capture of Rodrigo from Valencia for a club record fee, rumoured to be in the region of £29 million.
The 29 year old, scored four and provided seven assists for a struggling Valencia side last year, missing a large chunk of the campaign through injury. He has 23 caps for Spain and on paper seems like an astute acquisition.
They also swooped to add German Robin Kolch to their ranks for an undisclosed fee from Bundesliga outfit Frieburg. After failing to lure Ben White back to Elland Road, Leeds acted swiftly to bring in a replacement in Kolch, a centre back who has impressed in the German league and has won 2 caps for his country to date.
Bielsa will be hoping all three hit the ground running in the Premier League and all are set to start at Anfield. Their only injury concern heading into the game is Adam Foreshaw who is still struggling with a hip injury. Foreshaw aside, they have a clean bill of health, which will be a huge relief to Bielsa given the task at hand.
It remains to be seen whether the Argentine deploys a back four and plays Leeds’ usual 4-1-4-1 formation, or switches to a back three and uses a 3-3-1-3 system to nullify Liverpool’s front three.
Taking the former as Leeds’ preferred system then Illan Meslier will start in goal with Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas occupying the full back positions and captain Cooper featuring at centre back alongside either Douglas or Kolch.
Kalvin Phillips, who recently won his first cap for England, will sit in front of them, tasked with stopping Liverpool from playing neat interchanges through the middle when the supply line to their full backs in unavailable.
Further forward, Harrison and Costa will play out wide with a midfield partnership of Kilch and Hernandez, and Rodrigo, or Bamford the lone striker upfront.
If Bielsa opts for a three at the back, Kolch and Douglas are likely to both feature with Kilch or Hernandez dropping out.
Liverpool have a few injury and fitness concerns ahead of the opener. Jordan Henderson has resumed training after a knee injury forced him to miss the end of last season, but this game like the Community Shield, has come too soon and the skipper is set to miss out.
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain is out with a similar problem suffered in pre season, whilst Shaqiri has a muscle issue and new signing Tsimikas continues his recovery from coronavirus.
Trent Alexander-Arnold featured in both games for England during the international break after his own injury lay off, so Klopp may decide he is fit enough to start here.
Klopp will set his men up in their usual 4-1-2-3 system and will be relieved that his South American and African internationals remained at the club during the international break. As undisputed number one, Alisson will start in goal.
A back four of Trent Alexander-Arnold (or welsh hero Neco Williams if Alexander-Arnold isn’t deemed fit enough) Joe Gomez, Virgil Van Dijk and Andy Robertson will be in place.
Brazilian enforcer Fabinho will play in front of them, accompanied by rumoured Barcelona target Wijnaldum and possibly Naby Keita, given his eye catching displays in pre season, and Liverpool’s need for a creative midfielder to break down a well drilled Leeds side.
The third midfield place is up for debate, with James Milner, a self confessed Leeds fan who made his debut for the club as a 16 year, itching to start. The likes of Curtis Jones and Takumi Minamino have also impressed in pre season and are likely to feature off the bench if they don’t start.
Minamino’s best position is yet to be found, although he has looked promising playing in behind Firmino and Klopp may choose to bring him on in that position if Liverpool are struggling to break down a stubborn Leeds defence.
There will be no surprises with the front three, who pick themselves at this stage with Salah on the right, Mané on the left and Firmino through the middle.
Salah will be hoping to become only the second player to score in a fourth successive opening day fixture in the Premier League.
Liverpool are clearly the favourites going into the game, (it would be naive to say otherwise) however, if the Community Shield is anything to go by, they struggle against teams who cut off their full backs are willing to let them have possession in the middle of the park before counter attacking and hitting them on the break.
Bielsa will have studied all the intricate details surrounding Klopp’s team, and has added some quality to his squad, which is largely the team which won the Championship.
We have seen at Sheffield United how minor additions to an already talented squad can be the blueprint to making the successful step up to the Premier League, but an opening day defeat to Liverpool (which let’s face it is a likely possibility) will never define their season.
Liverpool steamrolled Championship winners Norwich 4-0 on the opening day last year to set the marker for a remarkable campaign, but with no fans at Anfield, and such a condensed pre season it is unlikely that they will dismantle similar opposition this time round.
They should get the job done however, and I’m predicting a 3-1 victory for the Redmen as they begin their title defence in strange circumstances.