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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Aug 24, 2009

Benitez expects title race to be closer than ever

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez does not expect the Premier League's big four to have things all their own way this season.

Benitez, who could give a debut to new Greek defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos against Aston Villa at Anfield, anticipates plenty of teams taking points off the Reds, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

He said: "This will be a different sort of title race. Already we have lost, and so have Manchester United.

"There are other teams who can make an impact - Spurs, Manchester City, Villa - and I believe it will be a lot harder this season for the top four teams to win every game.

"Villa will be difficult for us. They have pace, experience and ability. They do very well in away games because of that and are an extremely dangerous side.''

Liverpool suffered a bad defeat at Tottenham on the opening weekend, but bounced back with a resounding 4-0 victory over Stoke on Wednesday.

And Reds skipper Steven Gerrard said: "The opening games have shown this season it will be very difficult to win. We are going to have to be even better than last season.

"It looks like it is going to be a very competitive league. You can tell that after the opening round of games. The points total we amassed last season would have been good enough to win the title in the last three or four seasons, but it was only good enough to be second.

"Every season it gets tougher to win the title, but that is still our ambition. A setback on the opening day was not fatal. But it has been a long time since Liverpool won the title, and it does not get any easier.''

Benitez will make a late decision on whether defender Martin Skrtel can be risked with a broken jaw against Villa.

If he does not make the Villa game, Benitez hinted that he may well stick with teenager Daniel Ayala, with his new £2m Greek defender short of match practice.

Benitez, though, is confident that would not be a risk. He said: "Dani did very well against Stoke after a nervous start and it may be difficult to bring Kyrgiakos straight in.

"Against Stoke the players wanted to prove they are good enough to win the title after that opening defeat at Spurs.

"It was very important for them to win at home in midweek in front of their own fans, and they will feel the same on Monday against a very good Villa side.

"We scored four against Stoke, did not concede, and won well. But they know that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

"When you lose a game you are so determined to prove something in the next game. We have done that and aim to do the same again on Monday.

"Villa have ability and pace, it will be a tough game. They have lost Gareth Barry but they are still a very good team.''

Benitez believes Kyrgiakos will eventually bring steel to a defence that has already been boosted by the attacking flair of new full-back Glen Johnson, who scored on his home debut on Wednesday.

Benitez has Johnson flying down the right, while another youngster, Emiliano Insua, is having an impact on the left flank.

Benitez said: "Glen can score goals for us. We knew he was very good going forward but he accepts that he must work on his defensive side.

"When I first spoke to him he was aware of that, and he wants to learn. He has already shown what he can do. I believe he can score between five and 10 goals for the team.

"That will be a major boost for us because we have not had a defender, certainly one playing wide, who can give that to the team.

"At the moment we have Glen down the right and Insua on the left. Both are adventurous players and we hope they can give us something extra offensively on the lines.

"Glen can make mistakes just like anyone, but at the end of the season I believe we will be looking at a very good defender who has been keen to learn, and also an attacking player who will have contributed a lot to the team.''

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