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Aug 4, 2009

Rafa on the attack

Every pre-season Soccernet writes off the chances of Liverpool winning the Premier League and every year the e-mails flood in to tell us we don't know what we are talking about. Yet despite the annual protestations from their fans, the Reds have never won the Premier League; but this year it could be different.

Rafa Benitez's team were only four points off lifting the trophy last term and with arch-rivals and reigning champions Manchester United weakened by the departure of FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo that gap looks easily surmountable.

Liverpool's excellent record against their top four rivals last season was undermined by a string of disappointing home draws against the lesser lights of the league. Benitez has since decided the solution to this problem is to employ more attacking full-backs and has spent £17m recruiting England defender Glen Johnson in the transfer window.

The 24-year-old was something of a marquee player for former club Portsmouth and will certainly provide attacking impetus for Liverpool. He has been a regular in the England team under manager Fabio Capello and will add much needed width on the right side of a team that lacks a natural right winger.

At left-back, Benitez is likely to ask Argentina youngster Emilano Insua to provide the threat. The technically proficient defender has had a good run in the side in pre-season and is a much better option than Andrea Dossena.

But Liverpool's title aspirations don't rest on the overlapping runs of Johnson and Insua, they hinge on the fitness of star striker Fernando Torres. The Spaniard's injury problems following Euro 2008 meant he was in and out of the Liverpool side last season and he has endured another long summer after travelling to South Africa to take part in the Confederations Cup with Spain.

Despite the return of Andriy Voronin, who spent a productive year in the Bundesliga with Hertha Berlin, and Benitez's vocal support of David Ngog, the 25-year-old remains Liverpool's only real threat up front. As such, Benitez is likely to once again push talismanic captain Steven Gerrard up in support of Torres - a combination that proved hugely effective last season.

But with Gerrard advanced, Xabi Alonso lost to Real Madrid and his £20m replacement from Roma Alberto Aquilani out for eight weeks with an ankle injury, Liverpool could be left exposed in central midfield: a position where they were so strong last season. Brazilian youngster Lucas, who has yet to impress many fans at Anfield, would be called upon to partner Javier Mascherano, who has had his head turned by Barcelona, but the 22-year-old doesn't have the same aura about him as his predecessors.

Still, Benitez is confident that his team can kick on from last season's second-placed finish and it seems that the manager's focus has now shifted from his early successes in the UEFA Champions League to lifting a first Premier League title for Liverpool - especially after last term's run in with United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.

The duo have rarely seen eye to eye and their sparing leapt to a new level in January when Rafa delivered his pre-prepared rant of "facts" against Ferguson at a press conference, lambasting his rival for host of indiscretions he had listed on a sheet of A4 paper. Ferguson responded by calling the Spaniard "disturbed".

When Benitez delivered his diatribe, Liverpool were seven points clear of Manchester United and sitting atop the Premier League, but the very next day they drew 0-0 at Stoke and went on to win only once in the next five league games as their advantage was whittled away.

Although Benitez said at the time that his comments did not have an effect on his team's performance, it is clear that their dip in form coincided with the increased pressure he placed upon them and, having learned from what he must now privately admit was a mistake, is unlikely to do the same thing this campaign.

The Liverpool manager has so far refused to rise to Ferguson's pre-season taunts that Liverpool have no chance of winning the league and will do well to match last season's achievement.

If the Reds' attacking full-back approach can turn one or two of last season's home draws into victories, or Benitez can stop himself from mouthing off and frittering away a healthy lead, then the Reds have a good chance of finishing top of the pile this year. If Liverpool can do both together then they have a fantastic chance. And that, Mr Benitez, is a fact.

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