THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

West Brom v Liverpool, Saturday, 3pm

icon wbasoton217 August ~ When Steve Clarke took over as West Bromwich Albion manager in June, it was almost inevitable that the release of the new season's fixture list a few days later would see his side paired with Liverpool on the opening day. This is not only because of the way football frequently throws up coincidences – Liverpool were the last club Clarke worked for prior to his appointment – it is also a continuation of Albion's recent trend of starting Premier League campaigns against "bigger" clubs, following visits to Arsenal (2008-09), Chelsea (2010-11) and a home clash with Manchester United this time last year.

Partly because of these tough starts, Albion's recent opening day record of one win since 1997-98 makes dismal reading. Yet Liverpool don't hold the fear they once did, following wins over them at The Hawthorns in April 2011, and at Anfield a year later.

Albion fans may feel a certain anxiety at facing a Brendan Rodgers side again, given that Liverpool's new manager inspired Swansea to a deserved double over Roy Hodgson's team last season. Even so, there is a sense that Rodgers' system is one that takes time to implement and that early season could be as good a time as any to come up against it.

Another reason to be optimistic about Albion's prospects, for this game and beyond, is that most of last season's key players are still with the club and, with pre-season results solid, appear to be in decent form.

These include players who form the spine of the team, notably goalkeeper Ben Foster, central-defender Jonas Olsson and midfielder Youssouf Mulumbu. Meanwhile, Romelu Lukaku, newly arrived on loan from Chelsea, adds to the already plentiful attacking options at Clarke's disposal, and the return of Zoltan Gera from a long-term injury feels like a new signing.

The departure of the reassuring Hodgson raises questions over how Albion will do. Yet Clarke, for all that this is his first managerial appointment, is an unlikely novice. There is something about him that suggests calmness and stability.

This may be his demeanour, or the knowledge that he has spent much of his career acting as trusted advisor to some of the more excitable figures in the game, notably Bobby Robson and José Mourinho, both of whom rated him very highly.

Albion will do well to improve on last season's tenth-place finish. But it would be a surprise if the side found itself battling to stave off relegation come next May. The work of sporting and technical director Dan Ashworth is widely respected, and trust in Jeremy Peace's stewardship of the club, including his managerial appointments, has grown over the years. None of this will be much affected by the result on Saturday, good though it would be to improve that opening day record. James Baxter

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