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Saturday 3 December 2016

Ronnie Whelan: Brendan Rodgers must stoke the fires of good start

Tonic win after ordinary performance gives Liverpool some room to breathe

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and his team have hit the ground running despite an unimpressive performance
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and his team have hit the ground running despite an unimpressive performance
The same old problems still haunt Arsene Wenger

If a good start is half the battle, Brendan Rodgers was a huge winner on the opening weekend of the Premier League season and Arsene Wenger the big loser.

Wenger wasn't just left with egg on his face. It was a full-sized omelette.

He spent the week telling everyone that this time, this group of players and this version of Arsenal would be right up there fighting for the title but within a very short time, all the old problems reasserted themselves and the Gunners' defence came up short.

Philippe Coutinho's last-gasp winner at Stoke was a huge goal for Rodgers and Liverpool. Not just because it helped wipe out a blot on the record created on the last day of last season but for the surge of relief which it generated.

It would have been too much to be plunged straight into another round of agonising about the players Rodgers retained and the new ones he brought in and just 90 minutes on the clock.

That goal gave Liverpool an away three points and they did it by scoring late. During the run at the title two seasons back, away wins and late wins were big features of the campaign.

This one came despite a fairly ordinary performance and it would not be accurate to say that Liverpool have hit the ground running.

But I was more than happy to see five or six good players sitting on the bench who had something contribute, something to add to the team.

Satisfying

And it was very satisfying to take the full deck of points, given events three months ago and great to see Coutinho, at least, has his scoring boots on.

He didn't do much else in the game well, although he was trying hard. Like Rodgers, I thought he had to be substituted and it was a stroke of luck that the manager didn't move earlier to do just that.

Next, a game at Anfield and Liverpool need to establish home territory as a fortress straight away. Bournemouth will provide the perfect opposition to build confidence and it's a chance which cannot be fluffed. No hesitation. Blow them away like they did with teams two seasons ago

I have no doubt that Slaven Bilic's wily coaching of West Ham was a big factor in the shock of the weekend at Upton Park. He's a very capable man and he could be the one to watch on the management front for the next nine months.

But Wenger can have no complaints because the weakness in his team is obvious to everyone. For several years now there has been a chorus of well-educated football voices saying that his defence is not good enough.

Petr Cech was supposed to help solve the problem and now he is in the firing line for both West Ham goals but that's far too simplistic a view.

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny together does not represent a title-winning centre-back partnership and Wenger has three weeks to go out and find a new centre-back.

Priority

He needs a striker or two as well but while all the focus has been on whether he will make a bid for players like Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain, an equally important priority must be someone to help out at the back.

That said, of all the team's this weekend, Arsenal looked like they knew how to pass the ball properly.

Manchester United were poor enough and I thought Chelsea were a shadow of the team which won the title last May.

Jose Mourinho started as he means to continue but this time with a twist. It was his medical team in the firing line and as excuses go, this was a new one on me.

What he was trying to hide was his anger at a terrible start, and although he didn't have a go at the decision to send Thibaut Courtois off by referee Michael Oliver, it was very obvious what he thought about it.

After the game, he refused to speak about the referee but put everyone on notice that he has not decommissioned his dark side. I really hope we can at least get through a few months without having to write about Mourinho's verbal rampages but I'm not confident.

One man not prone to speaking much about anything is Manuel Pellegrini and he will show us the work he has been doing this summer tonight against West Brom. With his rivals looking shaky, he has a chance to make a statement about the months ahead.

I'm surprised they have given him a new deal and with Pep Guardiola making coy noises about another year at Bayern Munich, it might not matter to Pellegrini how well Manchester City do this season.

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