Football: Liverpool aim to find forward gear

Phil Shaw looks for new beginnings in the weekend's Premiership programme
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The Independent Online
What a strange, staccato season it has been so far. Disrupted by internationals involving not a single Englishman, by Champions' League action featuring a club who last won the championship between the wars, and by a floodlight failure at a new hi-tech stadium, the stop-go start must make the British School of Motoring wish they were sponsoring the Premiership.

For the clubs who had slipped straight into the fast lane, particularly those like Blackburn, West Ham and Leicester who were expected merely to potter along, the snarl-up was as welcome as rush hour on the M6. To the teams spluttering in their wake, notably the Merseyside clubs and Aston Villa, the period theoretically offered a chance for much-needed retuning.

Not so, the Liverpool manager, Roy Evans, complained yesterday. Far from the break allowing them to regroup after gaining a solitary point from two games, it meant they were "left to stew for 10 days".

Evans' mood might have been better if he had been able to name Robbie Fowler for the first time this season at Blackburn. Fowler aggravated a knee injury in training on Thursday, thus ensuring that attention focuses on his fellow Spice Boy, Steve McManaman, after the farce of his on-off transfer to Barcelona.

Cautioning against panic, Evans said: "We have to be careful not to rip things apart after one bad game." Yet his readiness to sell McManaman could be interpreted as doing precisely that.

Blackburn have cruised to six points, a total they did not reach until November last season. "It doesn't make us champions," Roy Hodgson said, Rovers' new manager proving he has already mastered the Premier League points system. "Liverpool will be highly motivated. Proper teams prepare properly."

Hodgson admitted he had tried to persuade the player leading Liverpool today, Paul Ince, to follow him from Internazionale. "Signing him was a realistic possibility, though to some extent we were fooled by the possibility that he'd stay at Inter. When the move did come it happened very quickly. It would have been difficult for us to break it then."

It is also reunion time at Goodison Park, where Danny Williamson and David Unsworth are set to make their debuts for Everton and West Ham, each having started the season in the opposition camp. For a third player facing ex-colleagues, the Croatian centre-back Slaven Bilic, the Hammers that concern him most are sure to be John Hartson and Paul Kitson.

Harry Redknapp's attacking duo have transformed the prospects for West Ham, leaving Howard Kendall envious. "I just hope that whatever partnership we have, of Duncan Ferguson and A N Other, will gel just as well," the Everton manager said.

Although Everton have played only once - losing at home to promoted Crystal Palace - Kendall's problems in attracting top-class recruits have created a mood only victory can dispel.

Villa have used the hiatus to go "back to basics", as Brian Little put it, successive opening losses having forced him to revert to three at the back at Liverpool Old Boys, aka Newcastle. That, in turn, means Dwight Yorke and Stan Collymore will shed the third member of the strikeforce which was supposed to take the division by storm, Savo Milosevic.

Someone's 100 per cent records must go as Leicester collide with Manchester United. Martin O'Neill, having beaten two of last year's top five, will not sound plausible should a win over the champions be followed by his customary gratitude for "three more points towards survival".

Ian Wright needs only a single strike at Southampton to equal Cliff Bastin's record of 178 goals for Arsenal. Like Wright, Leeds, at home to Palace, hope to score for the third match running. After netting in only 17 of the 38 fixtures last season - compared with 19 by Wright alone - it would be like George Graham sporting a paisley bandana in the dug-out.

Meanwhile, a first-day defeat at Coventry for Chelsea's international all-stars, which followed similar surrenders at Leeds, Sunderland, Nottingham and Middlesbrough last winter, should encourage Barnsley to believe that they can beat the FA Cup holders and throw off their Premiership "L" plates at Oakwell tomorrow.

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