Liverpool have the team to lift the crown

Chelsea dominated the summer but their opponents this weekend are the real title contenders - if Houllier can abandon caution
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The Independent Football

All eyes will be on Anfield this weekend but they will be watching the wrong team. In the wake of Roman Abramovich's arrival at Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea have dominated the summer but, when the football starts, it should be Gérard Houllier's Liverpool under examination.

The Frenchman is embarking on his sixth season at Liverpool and he will never have a better chance of winning the pennant. It is now 13 years since the championship last came to Merseyside, a wait unimaginable back in 1990 when they had just lifted their 10th title in 15 seasons. Another failure and surely even the most patient board in the Premiership will consider a change of leadership.

It might seem that Houllier starts from an unpromising position. Although Liverpool came only fifth last season he has recruited just two senior players at a cost of £8.5m. However, that fifth place should be a blessing: it means Liverpool, unlike their four rivals, will not be diverted by the Champions' League. And at reasonable cost Houllier has bought, in Harry Kewell and Steve Finnan, the final pieces in the jigsaw.

Managers will always say they are just two players short but Liverpool really did lack only an attacking right-back and a wide attacker. Houllier's £105.6m investment over the past five seasons may have resulted in several dud signings, but it also built a solid defence and well-stocked midfield. Add the finishing genius of Michael Owen and Liverpool now have the tools. One doubt remains: Does Houllier have the courage to utilise them? The previous weakness in Liverpool's game was not just due to a lack of width, it was down to a lack of will. Houllier has proved a brave man off the field but a cautious one on it. There appears an innate defensiveness about him, or so it would seem from his teams and, frequently, his response to media doubt.

The modern game, especially in the Premiership, rewards adventure. Manchester United and Arsenal, the dominant sides for six seasons, are fundamentally attacking. Newcastle and Chelsea, who also finished above Liverpool last year, are similarly inclined.

Under Houllier, Liverpool have scored plenty of goals but rarely fired the spirit. Counter-attacking by nature, they have struggled to break down lesser teams at home and been outmanouvered by better ones. Houllier did encourage a more expansive game at the start of last season and the team made the early running. But the failure to kill matches off prompted a run of poor results as Houllier lost his nerve and his youngish team their confidence. Will it be different this year? If Kewell, unlike Vladimir Smicer, Jari Litmanen and El Hadji Diouf, is allowed to play it can be.

Chelsea, meanwhile, can be guaranteed to play some sublime football. They played some of the most attractive last season and while Gianfranco Zola will be missed, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff and Géremi are fair compensation for the Bridge regulars. They could rue the failure to sign Christian Vieri though, especially as the difficulty in integrating so many players will leave them to play catch-up in the spring. There is an unsettling sense, too, that Abramovich is more interested in the Champions' League than the Premiership, and in Sven Goran Eriksson than Ranieri.

Roy Keane is one of several players to state publicly that Manchester United's priority is the Champions' League. They do look to have a strong chance in Europe, though Bayern Munich, Milan and you-know-who's Real Madrid are formidable opponents. United have invested widely, and in Kleberson wisely, but they may also come to regret failing to land Ronaldinho. In the wake of David Beckham and Veron's departure there is a vacancy for a free-kick specialist. Unless the insatiable Ruud van Nistelrooy can do that as well.

Arsenal's expenditure has been limited to the goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann. With the surging costs of the proposed move to Ashburton Grove hemming him in, Arsène Wenger's best work was retaining Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. They will be thereaboutsè, but unless Wenger finally puts his faith in youth, and the likes of Jeremie Aliadière, Jermaine Pennant and Phillippe Senderos repay him, they may lack the depth to sustain a title campaign.

Newcastle are the other contenders. The concern is that this young and vigorous team is a little too lively socially. The experience of Shay Given, Gary Speed and Alan Shearer will be crucial, on and off the pitch. It could be the cups will provide their best opportunity for silverware. After 34 years without a major honour the Toon Army may not care which one arrives.

The rest are, in reality, scrabbling to avoid the catastrophe of relegation. Blackburn, Everton, Southampton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Middlesbrough will talk of reaching Europe but all have flirted recently enough with the drop to know the priority.

While that sextet ought to have enough to survive comfortably the remaining nine clubs have genuine reason to be concerned. Charlton's success in signing Scott Parker and others to new contracts, and bringing in Matt Holland and Paolo Di Canio, augurs well but, like most managers, Alan Curbishley knows his club need a good start and short injury list.

Portsmouth and Wolverhampton Wanderers, two famous names making their Premiership bow, are welcome additions. The step up is a considerable one and at least one of the promoted clubs will repeat West Bromwich Albion's failures. The model to follow, for Harry Redknapp, David Jones and Micky Adams, is Sam Allardyce's Bolton conjuring act.

Two seasons ago Fulham were the wide-eyed debutants but the innocence has been stripped from the club and with it some of the enthusiasm. Chris Coleman will provide an injection of both but the continued uncertainty over ownership and home may make the challenge overwhelming.

Peter Reid also faces a difficult season as Leeds may not be over the worst while at Villa Park David O'Leary's relationship with Doug Ellis is sure to be interesting. That, though, goes for events at most clubs.

The Premiership is far from perfect but it is compelling. Welcome back.



1. Liverpool
2. Manchester United
3. Arsenal


18. Leicester
19. Fulham
20. Wolves

FA Cup: Newcastle

League Cup: Everton

European Cup: Bayern Munich