Preston win heralds return of football and fancy

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Football is back. Or at the very least, the embryonic stage of preseason that masquerades as football. This is not football, not in its purest sense, but simply a necessary evil, an opportunity for players to familiarise themselves with teammates old and new, saturate their shirts with waterfalls of sweat and crawl toward match fitness.

Preseason football has plenty of detractors and is guarded by caveats aplenty, with one overriding sentiment prevailing: Friendlies, ultimately, mean nothing. Results and performances mean little. Avoiding injury is far more important than any hollow victory on a sun-scorched pitch against a lower-league side; selling shirts to foreign markets matters more than how the midfield axis works. It is an assessment harsh, cynical but ultimately fair.

- Rodgers revels in Aspas debut

Still, friendlies can matter in some small way. Maybe not to the extent television coverage dictates, maybe not enough to breed endless compilations of futility that chronicle every touch of a teenage debutant, but friendlies can matter nonetheless, particularly to the manager. It acts as a blank canvas, an opportunity to hurl a paint can and see what shapes form. It allows peripheral players to impress one final time, though they do so firmly in the shop window.

How vigorously Brendan Rodgers fired his paint can against Preston North End and how earnestly, obviously, he decorated the window with trinkets of all shapes and sizes. He played Luis Alberto, thought to be a wide player who likes to cut in on his right foot, in central midfield alongside Lucas Leiva. The stubby Jay Spearing and slim Oussama Assaidi trundled down the right-hand side -- and will continue to trundle through the Anfield exit door before September comes.

Rodgers will be pleased with the 4-0 away victory, regardless of the mantra of nothing really mattering. It was a good result and a good performance from both the first-half 11 and second-half 11, the level of fluency impressive given they have undergone just 10 days training together.

It was not 90 minutes to shape Liverpool’s season, nor will it be part of any integral dossier compiled against them. They displayed patience on the ball but also looked likely to engage in counterattacks; they looked to penetrate with guile through the centre but were equally content to search for overlapping fullbacks out wide. Now is the beginning of discovering what does and does not work, albeit against a League One side at a gentle pace.

Rodgers will also be content with how fit his side looked. Few were calling for fluids, oxygen or an extended holiday after their 45-minute spells. The Northern Irishman will be happy that Philippe Coutinho looked as if the stardust is yet to fall from his boots, that Jordan Ibe's physical development is not in detriment to his turn of foot and ability to strike the ball and that Raheem Sterling, no longer jaded and overplayed, possessed an end product better than last season.

Perhaps most importantly, Rodgers will look at his four summer signings and regard their debuts as successful -- the first hurdle jumped, no matter how small.

Simon Mignolet did little in goal but was solid when called upon, and Kolo Toure looked calm on the ball and strong in the air and occasionally strode boisterously to join the attack. The two Spanish arrivals, both brought on at halftime, will dominate most of the postmatch chatter. The aforementioned Alberto, inexplicably in central midfield, was commanding and smart in possession. Iago Aspas, meanwhile, deserved the goal and assist for his overall play, constantly pestering Preston's defence with subtle movement.

Yet it is only preseason, and the first game of preseason at that. The next month will provide countless recollections of players who impressed in July only to falter from August onward. It will provide reminiscences of matches that gave no reflection of the months to follow. Rodgers, and his players, will be aware a 4-0 win can be regarded only in isolation.

That is a little bit boring though, isn't it? Like a movie that fades to black, leaving the audience sitting through the credits waiting for the punch line that never comes. The conclusion -- that these friendly games are disposable, telling everything about everyone but only for 90 minutes -- is one that should be thought of only by those employed by football clubs. It is correct, but it also ignores the thousands who sprang from bed Saturday morning with football to look forward to.

Disregard the sports scientists and naysayers -- football is back for football supporters.

Preseason friendlies allow the supporters a shrapnel of what they missed over the summer, a gentle reminder of what awaits and why, come May, they will be relieved it's all over again. Like the first day back at school, it brings a chance to reacquaint with old faces -- to laugh at Sterling's beehive haircut, to stand agog at Martin Kelly's newly acquired exterior, to expect Daniel Pacheco to finally take this chance, his 450th chance, with both hands.

These games help construct an alternate reality, one where a victory over Preston is the first step toward a season of unutterable success. Toure was not just comfortable on the ball against Iain Hume but a colossus chiseled of stone; Ibe was not simply smart and disciplined on the left but a fitter, more agile John Barnes; Aspas, the Galician buzz saw, is the second coming, a player whose face is modeled on the Liver Birds that stand high above the city.

Those assessments will no doubt evaporate when the brutal realism of August, and Premier League football, emerges. But likewise, Rodgers will know not to get carried away with their 4-0 win and that fitness is paramount at this stage. But juggling that, along with satiating the fans who want to believe in their players, is a tough task.

Football is back, as is the pressure. It feels like they never left.

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