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Aug 16, 2009

Thin resources could ruin Liverpool's ambitions

If strength in depth is the key to winning the Premier League title, then Liverpool may be destined to spend yet another season as nearly men. After falling just four points short of ending their painful 19-year wait for a domestic championship last May, this was the summer when Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez had his chance to apply the finishing touches to a squad that may only be a couple of players away from being hailed as the very best in the country. In fact, if Benitez could name his first-choice eleven for the 37 games that followed this opening fixture at White Hart Lane, he may feel Liverpool have what it takes to be crowned champions when this long season reaches its distant conclusion. However, such injury-free scenarios only occur on fantasy football games and after an off-season when Benitez failed to bulk up a squad relying far too heavily on a handful of star men, he arrived in North London playing a hand that will hardly strike fear into his rivals. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel were among those struggling with injuries ahead of this game, yet the Liverpool bench confirmed this is not a squad that can afford to give players who are less than 100% fit an afternoon of rest. On an afternoon when Tottenham had internationals Peter Crouch, David Bentley, Roman Pavlychenko and Alan Hutton waiting in reserve, along with injured defenders Michael Dawson and Jonathan Woodgate sitting in their civvies a few feet away from the watching press pack, Benitez was kept company by Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Daniel Sanchez Ayala. They may be kids with real potential, but such novices hardly represent the sort of battle hardened professionals who can be relied upon to win you the title when the going gets tough on a wet, cold afternoon against Stoke in January. Andrey Voronin, Albert Riera, Yossi Benayoun and new signing Alberto Aquilani will have a role to play, but they all fall into the category of "unproven" in many eyes. Liverpool legend John Aldridge is one who believes his former club are lacking the numbers required to win the title, with his assessment of the Spanish manager"s forward planning less than complimentary. "Benitez had a chance to get rid of the dead wood in his squad and get in three or four quality players," was Aldridge"s view in the press-room before kick-off. "As it is, we lost Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa and brought in two replacements, so the squad is not any stronger as a result. We all know they will be exposed if Carragher, Gerrard or Fernando Torres are out for a long period." Benitez looks especially short in the forward positions, so the sight of Torres rolling around in agony after a first-half clash must have sent a shiver down his spine, while a clash of heads between Carragher and Skrtel also left the Liverpool bench looking less than comfortable. However, Benitez's chief concern in a one-sided opening 45 minutes at White Hart Lane will not have been his wafer-thin squad as the first XI he sent into battle could easily have been blown away if Anfield reject Robbie Keane had packed his shooting boots. After reclaiming the Tottenham No.10 shirt following Darren Bent's move to Sunderland, Spurs skipper Keane should have plunged a dagger into the heart of old nemesis Benitez as he wasted a glorious chance 30 minutes into the game. Pepe Reina did well to save, but the Ireland striker should not have given the chance to keep his clean sheet intact. On a day when Keane could have extracted some belated revenge on the manager who made his life a misery during his brief stay at Liverpool last season, he then missed two more presentable chances and was thankful to be bailed out by a stunning opening goal from Tottenham full-back Benoit Assou Ekotto. Ekotto is not known for his scoring ability, but the quality of his strike rendered Liverpool keeper Reina helpless and the roar emanating from the always atmospheric White Hart Lane arena must have been heard three miles up the road at the home of local rivals Arsenal. An agitated Aldridge was not alone in bemoaning Liverpool's poor showing as the media pack gathered for their half-time refreshments, but his assessment of Brazilian midfielder Lucas and Dutch winger Ryan Babel were especially withering. The truth was, however, that Benitez has limited options at his disposal to make changes. Lacking pace and drive in the midfield and with Torres isolated up front, a second Tottenham goal seemed more likely than a Liverpool leveller until the always unpredictable Heurelho Gomes altered the course of the game with an idiotic rush of blood. The days of Gomes being viewed as a figure of fun may have passed, yet the enthusiastic lunge which hauled down Glen Johnson in the penalty box was a poor example of decision making. Gerrard coolly converted the penalty after 56 minutes. Refusing to be downhearted, Spurs struck back instantly as they reclaimed the lead with a towering header from debutant Sebastien Bassong and at the moment Benitez required a "game changer" to throw into the fray, Voronin was the final card he could play. Yossi Benayoun proved to be Liverpool's most effective substitute, but the equaliser they craved would not come and Benitez was left to grumble about a debatable penalty claim which contributed to his assistant Sammy Lee being banished from the bench after persistent baiting of the fourth official and linesman. "It was clear that we should have had a second penalty, everybody could see that," moaned Benitez of a late challenge by Ekotto on Voronin. "That decision was disappointing, but we have to accept our performance was not good enough, especially in the first half. We have to improve." When asked about his squad strength, Benitez neatly side-stepped the question. "We have Riera, Voronin, Aquilani, David N'Gog and many more to come in," he quickly interjected, clearly riled by this thorny subject. "We have a lot of quality." Unsurprisingly, Harry Redknapp was a little more upbeat, with his jovial press briefing feeling a little like a gathering in a pub between old friends. "What a fantastic way to start the season," said the beaming Spurs boss. "We could have had the game won at half-time, but Robbie (Keane) missed some chances and it gave them hope. "Liverpool gave us a good going over here last year, even though we ended up beating them with a crazy late winner, so hopefully it can set a good tone for us this season. One win doesn"t make a season, but this is a great start." Liverpool lost only two league games last season and still finished up as Manchester United's bridesmaids, so having a defeat on their record so early this time is bound to undermine their title ambitions. If Benitez has the finances at his disposal, and that is a subject of some debate, he needs to use what is left of the transfer window to give his squad the gloss of champions.


STAR TURN: Luka Modric Liverpool talisman Steven Gerrard is rarely outshone in the midfield battle, but Croatian Modric showed more invention than his celebrated opponent. PLUS POINT: Glen Johnson made an impressive Liverpool debut and looks set to give Benitez's side some much needed thrust down the right flank. BABEL'S BOBBLES: Liverpool winger Ryan Babel became one of Europe's most sought after performers a couple of years ago, but he is struggling to fulfil his potential at Liverpool. He turned in another poor display at White Hart Lane. LIVERPOOL VERDICT: This was a below par performance from a side with title ambitions. It is way too early to right them off, but the signs they gave off did not bode well. TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Belief is always a key ingredient when the rest take on the established top four, so the comfortable nature of this victory will serve Tottenham well. It could be argued that Redknapp may even have a stronger squad to work with than Benitez.

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