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Aug 8, 2008

The title will have to wait

Caught up in the euphoria of winning Euro 2008, Spanish international Fernando Torres said that upon his return to Liverpool he would help them win the Premier League. As a European Champion and a Premier League record breaker - Torres scored 24 goals to become the most prolific foreign goalscorer in a debut season, beating Ruud van Nistelrooy's 23 - his opinion is certainly worth consideration. So is it possible for the Reds to end their eighteen-year title drought this season?

Well the same was said about Liverpool's chances last season and despite predictions that a weakened Arsenal would not be able to mount a challenge and Chelsea's dumbfounding managerial problems Rafa Benitez's side still limped home in fourth place, seven points behind third place Arsenal.

In fact, if we take Benitez's debut season of 2004/05 out of the equation, when Liverpool finished fifth in the Premier League but won the European Cup, the club have actually gone backwards in terms of a title challenge: two third place finishes has been followed by a fourth place finish.

During the summer Chelsea have been augmented by the arrival of World Cup winning manager Phil Scolari, along with additions to the playing staff, Manchester United have been boosted by the news that World Player of the Year in waiting Cristiano Ronaldo is staying at Old Trafford and Arsene Wenger has bought yet more Arsenal starlets so Liverpool's task appears to have got even harder.

But Benitez has also been busy in the transfer market and the purchase of Robbie Keane from Tottenham Hotspur will add some much needed quality to the Reds' attack, having shipped out Peter Crouch to Portsmouth and shifted Dirk Kuyt out to the wing.

At £20.3million (including add-ons) the 28-year-old Republic of Ireland international is certainly over-priced but the relish with which he plays the role of supporting striker, as seen during his prolific partnership with Dimitar Berbatov at Tottenham, will certainly take some of the burden off Torres. After watching Spain romp to victory at Euro 2008 perhaps Benitez is hopeful his new combination can emulate that of La Roja, with Keane playing the role of David Villa, who was also reported to be a transfer target for Liverpool.

Keane's integration to the Liverpool attack will be key to their success this season as Benitez has very limited options should the former Inter Milan striker struggle. But pressure is nothing new to the Ireland captain, who has netted 20+ goals for the last two seasons and was the top scoring player in the league in 2007, and he will be expected to flourish in his first year.

Benitez has left his midfield relatively untouched. The departure of Harry Kewell for Galatasary is hardly a big blow, he was only ever fit for the Champions League final anyway, but it does leave Liverpool with one less winger when Benitez's options are already limited.

With Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and either Xabi Alonso or Gareth Barry (depending how the transfer saga ends) the centre of the midfield has strength in depth but on the flanks Benitez has struggled to sign the right player and has been left plugging round holes with square pegs.

Dirk Kuyt, purchased as a prolific striker from Feyenoord, has been shunted out to the right-wing where Jermain Pennant has failed to impress and Ryan Babel has been filling in on the left. Babel is a terrific young talent but he secured his move to Liverpool after impressing in the Dutch Under-21 team as a forward. Benitez has often attempted to sign decent wingers - Ricardo Quaresma, David Bentley, Shaun Wright-Phillips, David Silva, Simao - but the Spaniard has never stumped up the full asking price and instead has often purchased a raft of mediocre players: Mark Gonzalez, Boudewijn Zenden, Antonio Nunez, Josemi... the list goes on.

And it is this addiction to signing squad players rather than star performers that will once again thwart Liverpool's ambitions.

If Benitez signed fewer fringe players and splashed the cash on one marquee player each year, as he did for Torres, Liverpool could well be challenging for the tile but as it is, third or fourth place will have to do.

Since taking over at Liverpool in 2004/05 Benitez has spent £178.7million in the transfer market and if we analyse which of his purchases might make it into one of the other top four sides probably only Jose Reina, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres would make the grade.

When the margins of separation are so close at the top of the table competitiveness against your rivals is paramount and Benitez's record against his peers is very poor. In Premier League fixtures Rafa's Reds have never beaten Manchester United, scoring only a single goal against them in four seasons, and have beaten Chelsea only once. No wonder then that those two teams have shared the title between them for the past four seasons.

With the addition of Keane, to compliment Torres, Liverpool looks to have constructed a potent attack but there needs to be a few more quality arrivals before the Reds are to be considered serious title contenders.


  • Any comments? Email Dominic Raynor

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