So Liverpool's season technically started yesterday, and actually got off to a decent start. As usual we were performing awfully for the pre-season friendlies, but crucially won 2-0 in the game we actually needed to win.
The fact that we did win comfortably in Macedonia highlights something of a difference under Hodgson. Sure, we've only had one game, it'd be ridiculous for me to suggest that he's a better manager for Liverpool than Rafa off of the back of a single match (and I'd say I'm fairly unlikely to even start to think that way until we've won something), but that sort of fixture was one that Benitez has typically had a lot of trouble with in the past. The standard result for a game like that under Benitez would be that we'd draw 0-0, meaning there'd be more pressure on us at Anfield and we'd have to bring the likes of Gerrard and Torres into the fray earlier than would otherwise be needed. Instead we've got a win that, while not insurmountable, has basically seen us through the tie and means that the game next week should hopefully just be a formality and we'll be qualified, with our best players having stayed rested.
I think if anything it stands to highlight that maybe Hodgson can get better results from the lesser players in the squad. I'd also say that he made sure we had the right mixture of experience and quality where it mattered, but also giving the youth players a shot and not putting out an overly strong team. He made sure we had a solid defence, and because of that it meant we were never looking likely to concede, and that the younger players had a solid back line that they could build confidence to attack from.
Plus Ngog scored two goals, and if he could keep up form like that, it'd be really helpful next season. Sure, both goals were against a pretty low-grade defence compared to Premiership teams, but they were both good finishes, which isn't something often seen by Ngog. Usually he just sort of bundles them in inelegantly and from close range, but for the two goals he scored yesterday evening he actually properly finished them. One was a smart piece of opportunism to force a mistake from their defence, and then flick it past the goalkeeper, and the other was a pretty good volley across his body into the roof of the net - not an easy finish at all. I'm not going to start claiming he could be scoring twenty or thirty goals next season, but if he plays like he did yesterday for even half the games this season then he could be a pretty good partner for Torres.
Obviously the major talking point so far this summer would be the signing of Joe Cole. Something I welcomed, but I'm also slightly sceptical about it, mostly because I feel if he was actually a seriously good player then I don't think Chelsea would have let him go for free. I find it odd that there are Liverpool fans out there saying that now we've signed Joe Cole, we can be a title-winning side again, given that last year's title-winners are the ones who didn't deem it worth their time (or wage budget) to renew his contract.
Most of the other signings are fairly solid, but nothing really to shout about too much. Just a bit of youth and some strengthening of the squad. However we have kept Gerrard, and if press conferences are to be believed we've also kept Torres. I won't believe it 100% that he wants to stay next season until he says it himself, but I also don't see why Hodgson would lie and claim he's told him he wants to stay, given a few days earlier he'd admitted that he didn't know if he'd be able to keep him, and had done all he could. Either way, Torres and Gerrard staying should be a massive boost, and their departure was my main fear for the summer transfer window, and it seems to have been settled.
It hasn't for Mascherano, but he's been saying he wants to leave for a while, as his family are unsettled. I'll be a bit sad if he leaves, given he's a quality player, and he's always at least appeared to care massively for the team on the pitch (often a little too much), so I have a lot of respect for him. If he wants to go, so long as we get a decent price for him, then good luck to him, wherever he ends up (almost certainly Inter Milan).
I'm confident so far at least that Liverpool can have a good season over the next 12 months. I don't quite buy some of the over-excited claims that we could be challenging for the title though. I mean, I think the side we have might be able to if we can have Torres, Gerrard, Cole and Aquilani fit for the entire season, but that isn't ever going to happen, so 3rd or probably 4th would be a lot more realistic. And I think that's the sort of thing we're aiming for anyway - to get back into the Champions League and then see where we can go from there.
So roll on the new season in two weeks' time, because now that there isn't any decent football on it really can't come quick enough.