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Rafa takes Torres gamble

Liverpool's goal this season should be simple - win the Premier League.

During Rafa Benitez's successful three-years in charge the Reds have won the European Cup and scooped the FA Cup but have failed to challenge for the league - a title that was once the club's meat and drink, but has now proved elusive for the past 17-years.

And having spent £43million this summer - bringing Liverpool's total outlay during Benitez's three term reign to £122.75million - it seems reasonable to suggest that this could be the year for the Reds. But does even the most partisan Red-nose really expect to see their team sitting atop the Premier League next May?

The bookies make the Reds clear favourites to win the league 'without Manchester United and Chelsea' as well as mounting another assault on the Champions League, having reached two out of three finals under Benitez, so Liverpool will literally have to upset the odds to lift the famous cup.

In his first year Benitez's Reds finished a lowly fifth and following a season of progression in 2005/06 when they finished third, nine points behind champions Chelsea, Liverpool have actually gone backwards in their challenge for the title. Last season, despite again finishing in third place, Benitez's team limped home a vast 21 points behind champions Manchester United.

Part of the reason for this gulf is Benitez's almost obsessive focus on the Champions League, where his record is exemplary and his team is better suited. But after losing the 2007 Athens final to Italian side AC Milan Liverpool ended the season trophyless.

If Benitez is to wrestle the Premier League title away from the established duopoly of United and Chelsea he must refocus his resources and cease the relentless squad rotation policy that saw Liverpool drop needless points during the last campaign, or at least play his best team in league competition.

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Last term the Spaniard came under increased criticism for the sweeping changes of his rotation policy, which the former Valencia boss argued kept his players fit for the vital end of the season run-in, but after 99 matches without fielding the same team in two successive matches Benitez kept the same team for what would have been his landmark 100th.

The decision to stick with the same starting eleven was either a huge coincidence a two-fingered gesture to his detractors, who had committed an increasing amount of column inches to Rafa's rotation and its apparent correlation with Liverpool's failure in the Premier League.

In the end it was not the run-in that proved important for Liverpool last season, but their dire start to the campaign and a comparative lack of goals with their peers - the Reds had the lowest tally of the top four rivals.

To combat this problem for the 2007/08 season Benitez brought in Andriy Voronin on a free transfer from Bayer Leverkusen, Under-21 European Championship winner Ryan Babel from Ajax for £11.5million and broke the club's transfer record with the £26.5million capture of Atletico Madrid golden-boy Fernando Torres.

The Torres deal in particular is something of a departure for Benitez who has previously chosen to sign players who will improve his squad (Craig Bellamy, Jermain Pennant, Bolo Zenden, Mark Gonzalez, Josemi etc...) and increase his options rather than star names that may hugely improve his first-eleven.

Torres is something of a flagship signing, a signal of intent and possibly something of a gamble.

Despite the Spanish international being one of the most talked about and coveted forwards in the game he is accused of needing too many chances to score a goal by critics in his homeland.

He has not proved to be a 20-goal a season striker in his six-years in La Liga, his best tally being 19 in 2003/04, but he regularly hits double figures and his physical stature and pace should suit the Premier League.

Prolific at youth level he may take a few years to hit those heights in the senior game but at only 23-years-old, and nicknamed 'El Nino', he has time on his side.

But as important as his impact on his debut season in England may be, the signal that Torres' transfer sends out to the rest of the players, and fans is of equal significance. His arrival is statement of Liverpool's desire to be back challenging for the title, rather than be happy finishing in a Champions League qualifying place.

Unfortunately for the club's new American owners George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks, who have bankrolled the squad's improvement this summer, a Champions League qualifying place is probably the best Liverpool can realistically expect again this season.

Some silverware, either domestically or in Europe, is expected but the Premiership title may well prove to be a few more flagship signings away yet.

  • Any comments? Email Dominic Raynor