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Football: Liverpool long for the good old days

The Premiership begins today and, with Europe distracting the favourites, a famous outsider is hoping to sneak home in front
LOOKING FOR championship alternatives to Manchester United has been a fruitless exercise in five of the past seven seasons, but at least we know who the contenders are. Or do we? It would take a brave man to look beyond United, Arsenal or Chelsea, but such are the demands of the Champions' League this season that it is just possible that English football's classic competition could this season be won by a decent handicapper who is not short on pedigree. Surely, Liverpool are the dark horses.

At a time when everyone is craving a return to old values, who better than the old champions to remind us of a time when the talk was of breaking records rather than contracts and fans could recite their team's line- up without having first to check the airports to see who had flown the nest and then work out whose turn it was on the squad rotation system.

Given a level playing field it would be impossible to put Liverpool ahead of their rivals, given that the long overdue clear-out this summer means that as a team they will be virtually starting from scratch. But Gerard Houllier has made some interesting signings and weeded out suspect individuals that his predecessor, Roy Evans, should have done long ago.

The Frenchman deserves more than a season to get it right, but such is the pressure on managers nowadays he will be expected to deliver straight off, particularly after spending pounds 25m. The European Cup, with which their name was synonymous for so many years, could come to Liverpool's aid if it manages to mesmerise United, Arsenal and Chelsea for long enough. All three teams are good enough to enjoy lengthy campaigns and the latter, who have to pre-qualify, would have to play 19 games in the Champions' League alone if they went the distance.

The pressure will be on Houllier from the start, even if they are away from home today. Their opponents, Sheffield Wednesday, are many people's idea of relegation fodder, and on last season's form at Hillsborough they are unlikely to pose Liverpool's new defence - which could hold the key to their season - much of a threat. Robbie Fowler has completed his first proper pre-season in years and once Michael Owen returns from his hamstring injury, their attacking menace, aided by Dietmar Hamann and Vladimir Smicer, could be a daunting experience for any defence.

An early elimination from Europe for Chelsea would see them emerge as Premiership favourites, providing their record signing, Chris Sutton, can replicate his championship-winning performance in his first season at Blackburn Rovers. First, he has to play and that has been something of a problem for this brittle striker in recent years. After Rovers won the title in 1994-95 he averaged just 21 starts in his next four seasons.

Unlike their close rivals, Chelsea have not lost anyone they did not want to lose while gaining, most significantly, Didier Deschamps, their third musketeer from the French World Cup-winning side. Gianluca Vialli, the old charmer, has even managed to persuade the displaced Tore Andre Flo to sign a new five-year contract. This old-fashioned display of loyalty may yet have its reward.

Certainly winning the title will be a lot more difficult for them than it was last time, 45 seasons ago, when Ted Drake's side managed to emerge four points clear despite losing 10 games and managing to win less than half their fixtures. Last season Chelsea lost three games and still finished third.

Despite last week's excellent form in the Charity Shield, it must be a concern to Arsene Wenger that his Arsenal side go into their opening league game against Leicester at Highbury without two of the mainstay of their legendary defence, Tony Adams, who is recovering from a double hernia operation, and David Seaman, who has a calf injury. Wenger, though, had clearly anticipated changes to that department, while in attack what they have lost in pace with the defection of sourpuss Nicolas Anelka they may have gained in spirit and savvy with Thierry Henry and Davor Suker. It is hard to believe that Arsenal will not win something this season.

Sir Alex Ferguson could have done with that pounds 40,000 Russian bung to put towards his transfer kitty even if their second XI ought to be good enough to deal with Everton at Goodison tomorrow. The United manager said last season that the best time to buy big is when you are on top and he will be envious of the money, and not least the speed, with which Vialli and Wenger have plundered the transfer market.

Still, should Martin Edwards manage to persuade Roy Keane to put pen to contract it should indeed be like having a new signing when their captain returns from injury. Then, perhaps, the champions can concentrate on breaking still more records - just like the good old days.