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50-50 Challenge: Merseyside derby

Liverpool vs. Everton 5 days ago
Read
 Posted by Dave Usher
Aug 13, 2014

Anfield's biggest preseason concerns

ESPN FC's Stuart Holden, Paul Mariner and Alexi Lalas preview the upcoming season for the Reds and debate whether they can be title contenders.

With Liverpool's season kicking off against Southampton on Sunday, ESPN FC blogger, David Usher, takes a look at five of the biggest questions that loom large over Anfield.

What is Liverpool's best back four?

Defensively, Liverpool were not good enough last season, conceding 50 goals from 38 Premier League fixtures. Ideally, Brendan Rodgers will be hoping to shave at least 15 goals off that total and has invested heavily in defensive reinforcements in an effort to do so.

Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno have not come cheap and both will be expected to contribute straight away. All of last year's regular defenders are still on board and the ranks have been swelled further by the return to fitness of left back Jose Enrique, who missed almost all of last season with a serious knee problem.

Young Spanish right-back Javier Manquillo has also arrived and caught the eye at Anfield last week in the 4-0 win over Borussia Dortmund, so competition for places at the back is as fierce as it has ever been at Anfield. Rodgers needs to avoid falling into the trap of chopping and changing too much and must quickly settle on his best four if any kind of defensive stability is to be achieved.

Lovren is expected to be paired with Martin Skrtel -- leaving Mamadou Sakho, Daniel Agger and Kolo Toure on the sidelines -- but the full-back positions appear to be up for grabs. Glen Johnson's form has not been great in 2014 and his place will come under threat from young pretenders Manquillo and Jon Flanagan.

On the opposite flank, Enrique still seems a little short of full fitness, so Johnson may line up there until Moreno has settled in and has some training sessions under his belt. There's certainly plenty for Rodgers to think about moving forward.

Brendan Rodgers' new recruits will place Glen Johnson under pressure to keep his starting place in the team.

Can others step up to compensate for the absence of Luis Suarez?

Whatever way you try to dress it up, the fact remains that the Reds have lost their best player, and those 31 goals won't be easy to replace.

Often when you have one man playing to such an incredible level, teammates will often defer to him and settle into supporting roles, but in fairness that never happened too much with Liverpool last season. The 70 goals that were not scored by Luis Suarez are proof of that.

Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling, in particular, stepped up to the plate to ensure the Reds were far from being a one-man attack, but with Suarez gone the load is going to have to be shared. Everyone will need to raise their game to make up for the loss of the talismanic Uruguayan, and Liverpool will certainly need a big year from the likes of Philippe Coutinho as well as new boys Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana.

Can Steven Gerrard's body handle the extra fixture load?

Last year, Rodgers rarely had to concern himself with having to rest his skipper, as the absence of European football and the lack of any meaningful domestic cup run meant the Reds were usually playing just one game a week.

That is no longer the case, and Gerrard's playing time will have to be managed carefully this year. At 34, he simply cannot play two games a week on a regular basis, as he will inevitably break down. Last year he picked up a hamstring injury after playing twice in the space of a few days coming off the back of playing a full game for England.

Gerrard's retirement from international football helps Rodgers massively; not just because he misses the England games, but also because he can now have his fitness staff implement a personalised training program for his captain without it being interrupted by the frequent international breaks.

The temptation will be there to play Gerrard as much as possible, as he is so integral to how Liverpool play. But to get the best out of him, Rodgers will occasionally have to insist that the club legend put his feet up from time to time, even if he doesn't want to.

Liverpool's talisman won't be able to play every game. His match time will need to be strictly managed.

Can Liverpool's squad cope with competing on four fronts?

Despite the impressive job done by Rodgers in his two years at Anfield, the fact remains he has yet to win a trophy. Last season's league campaign went a long way toward winning over the Anfield supporters who doubted him, but he will surely be wanting to put some silverware in the cabinet as soon as possible.

His record in the domestic cups has been poor. He fielded weakened sides in his first season at the club and paid the price with disappointing defeats to Swansea City and Oldham Athletic. Last year he took both cup competitions seriously but was unfortunate to be drawn away to Manchester United and Arsenal.

Liverpool won't want to give up on any competition though this year brings the added burden of the Champions League. Rodgers has strengthened his squad significantly and there is depth in most areas. He'll need that depth if he is to win any of the four trophies on his radar.

Will Liverpool's swashbuckling style translate to the Champions League?

As Liverpool were demolishing the likes of Arsenal, Spurs and Everton among others at Anfield last season, it was difficult not to wonder how Europe's elite would fare against Rodgers' rampant Reds. This year we'll find out.

Suarez may no longer be there, but last weekend's destruction of Dortmund showed that Liverpool still pose that same threat at home, particularly in the early stages of games when they play at a tempo few can live with. It was only a friendly, of course, but it was a timely reminder of what this team is capable of on home soil.

As threatening as Liverpool are in front of the Kop, they have often been vulnerable on their travels due to an inability to keep clean sheets. It's difficult to imagine them going to some of Europe's more difficult venues and being able to "shut up shop" as the great Liverpool sides of the past were able to do.

Liverpool's European Cup successes came off the back of keeping it tight away from home and taking advantage of the Anfield atmosphere. Ties were often settled by aggregate scores of 1-0 or 2-1. With this side, you could be seeing scores of 10-7 over two-legged ties!

Dave Usher

Dave Usher is one of ESPN's Liverpool bloggers and is the founder/editor of the popular LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. He has written three books on the Reds, the latest of which, "We Go Again," tells the story of the 2013-14 season. You can follow him on Twitter @theliverpoolway.

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