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The Toe Poke

Squad depth already an issue for Rafa

For the first time in a long time, it was the view of many before the start of the season that Liverpool might actually mount a decent title challenge this year. Then came the sale of Xabi Alonso. Then the defeat at Tottenham. A defensive crisis to follow. And they've not even played their second game of the season.

In spending £18m on strengthening the right-back area, Rafa Benitez was praised for recognising a long-known problem with the Liverpool defence. Glen Johnson should prove to be a valuable player for the Anfield side over the coming years, but it is a different kind of problem that the boss now faces if his side are not to slip out of contention already.

You can't win the Premier League title in the first few games, but you can certainly go a long way to losing it. The Reds lost two games all of last season and, after the 2-1 opening day defeat to Tottenham, really cannot afford many slip-ups before Christmas.

It appears the major barrier to their chances of success lies in the heart of defence. Benitez has struggled to find a partner for Jamie Carragher in the past, but what with Sami Hyypia now gone, Daniel Agger's persistent back injury and news of Martin Skrtel's broken jaw, the Spaniard will be forced to dip into the transfer market, or take a chance on youth in the shape of 18-year-old Daniel Sanchez Ayala.

Ayala is surely a stop-gap solution for the time being, but Benitez is hindered by more talk of money trouble at the club.

Having recouped around £40m with the sales of Xabi Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jack Hobbs, Paul Anderson and Sebastian Leto - plus a cool £12m from the sale of Robbie Keane last January - the club's only significant acquisitions have been Johnson and Alberto Aquilani, totalling to an expenditure of about £38m.

Reports are Benitez has been left with just £2m to find a defender, as a meeting with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett reportedly ended with him being told he would not be given any more funds with which to strengthen his side. His options are therefore limited and at a club like Liverpool, they really shouldn't be.

Linked with loan moves for Real Madrid's Ezequiel Garay and Sylvain Distin, Benitez would have noticed how defending champions Manchester United fared at the weekend without their star duo of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Unable to bring a player with the versatility of a Wes Brown or John O'Shea into his inflated, but untested, squad; how the Spaniard must wish he will have such options to call upon when the season really gets going.


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