Expectation is not matched by delivery on opening day
Monday 16 August 2010
So the team stuck in the past was finally cancelled out by the one that always seems stuck in the future. And the fans of neither could be especially surprised should their entire seasons prove to be compacted into 90 minutes of passion and frustration. For their common cravings must already feel as though they are beginning to reach, not across years, but geological epochs.
To the visitors, the Invincibles doubtless seem immured for ever in the abandoned stadium at Highbury; in the Kop, however, the title was last celebrated early in the Cretaceous period. Relative to the paroxysms of ambition breaking the crust at Manchester City, these two mighty clubs must somehow shift a tectonic weight of expectation. By the time Arsenal bundled in an equaliser, an almost comical rejoinder to the alarming lack of penetration in everything they had previously contrived, it already seemed optimistic to expect seismic progress from either during the months ahead.
But these clubs also share the supervision of men seasoned in the addictive illusions of a new campaign. Arsène Wenger's pen hovers over a contract that should keep him at Arsenal to the end of his career, whereas this was Roy Hodgson's very first league game with Liverpool. Both, however, will have sensed pristine satisfaction in sending out 11 young athletes into the summer sunshine with their hopes as unblemished as the glossy Anfield turf.
One of these sages, however, reserves his obstinacy for matters of vision; the other prefers to make it the defining characteristic of his players. Hence Hodgson's pragmatic deployment of Daniel Agger as full-back, to stem a notoriously porous left flank. Hence his perseverance with the unsettled Javier Mascherano, and the studied caution of his team's build-up, with Joe Cole often forced to drop deep to get involved.
So much, anyhow, for fresh starts. Cole's scissoring tackle on Laurent Koscielny succeeded, however tangentially to his intentions, in reiterating the fragilities that abide in both clubs. Cole and Koscielny were both making their league debuts in these colours. The arrival of the former had persuaded the twin totems of Anfield, Steve Gerrard and Fernando Torres, that Hodgson was no mere firefighter; while the latter had left Arsenal fans to wonder, yet again, whether Wenger had sufficiently fortified the heart of the defence, their perennial anxieties freshly compounded by the departure of William Gallas. As a torpid first half suddenly ignited in its final seconds, however, both men left the pitch in circumstances that might have instantly contaminated the optimism of both teams for months of attrition ahead: Koscielny on a stretcher, preceded by the banished Cole.
The image evoked the grisly loss, in successive seasons, of Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey. But Koscielny trotted out for the second half unharmed; while Cole, of course, could scarcely be further removed from the brutish destroyers who ostensibly set out to smother Arsenal's bright, delicate candles. So it was that a sense of corporate indignation instead inflamed the home team, who took the lead within two minutes of the resumption.
It was odd to see the goal finished with such élan by David Ngog, whose first half had been so clumsy that much its biggest cheer was prompted by Torres warming up. But the gusto with which the whole team rallied to the crisis implied that it had offered Hodgson precisely the impetus his men would otherwise seek in vain.
For we have seen enough of Hodgson over the years to know that there are some here who are already a bespoke fit for the disciplined, courageous cut of his footballing cloth. Never mind Gerrard, whose presence automatically alleviated a numerical deficit. How about Dirk Kuyt, whose lungs will with any luck have been discovered by the groundstaff as they replaced divots after the game? Little wonder if Rafael Benitez would like to take Kuyt along to San Siro. However cherished by his predecessor, the Dutchman is himself more than the sum of his own parts – a template for the way Hodgson will endeavour to restore stability to a club racked by bitterness off the field.
The random favours of the fixtures computer skewed the opening round in favour of Chelsea and Manchester United, with home fixtures against promoted clubs. Liverpool and Arsenal had instead been made to watch Manchester City and Tottenham square off on Saturday, before essaying a statement of intent on behalf of the old order. But they came up with something pretty equivocal – a goal apiece from isolated strikers who each had to redeem his previous anonymity, Ngog over 45 minutes and Marouane Chamakh over 90. And when Koscielny picked up two late bookings, a player off apiece as well. One step forward, in other words, and one step back.
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