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Feb 12, 2010

Jovanovic deal a sign of the times

Milan looms large in Liverpool's recent past. There was the unforgettable, immortal triumph against AC in Istanbul in 2005 and the rather less fondly remembered rematch in Athens two years later. In 2008, a typically clinical display of high-class finishing from Fernando Torres defeated Internazionale in the San Siro.

Now Milan will play a part in the future: not in the Champions League, given Liverpool's early elimination, nor indeed with any connection to Italy. But Milan Jovanovic will join from Standard Liege in the summer. Trading one Milan for another can feel like downsizing: the Serbian striker has said he is moving to one of the world's top ten clubs; Liverpool could only face one of the other nine - Juventus, Rafa Benitez's supposed suitors - in the Europa League.

But it is a sign of the times. Jovanovic's appeal may lie in his excellent scoring record in Belgium, but his availability on a free transfer when his contract expires at Standard is probably the determining factor. He may not be the new David Silva or David Villa, but he comes rather cheaper than many of Benitez's previous targets.

The search for a snip is not confined to Anfield, as the widespread pursuit of Bordeaux forward Marouane Chamakh, also on a Bosman, seems to indicate. It is, however, particularly relevant for Benitez. Jovanovic will join Maxi Rodriguez, recruited last month at a similar lack of cost, on Merseyside. Selling Andriy Voronin, Andrea Dossena and Nikolay Mihaylov brought the club a January profit of over £7 million; last year's, courtesy of Robbie Keane, was £12 million while the Liverpool manager broke even in the summer. It is tempting to ask, once again, where the money has gone, but the new realities have required Benitez to adapt.

Having to make do is a constant theme. Jovanovic and Rodriguez come with a pedigree as regulars for Serbia and Argentina respectively; few with better CVs can be acquired without a hefty investment but that does not necessarily make either the ideal addition. The latter is already 29, the former will be by the time he arrives; they are not long-term solutions as much as the men who were on offer.

The same description applies to the last signing to command a fee. Sotirios Kyrgiakos was the stop-gap centre back, brought in because Benitez could not afford his preferred alternatives. Despite his derby dismissal against Everton, his last five appearances have provided the Greek with an unexpected renaissance in his Liverpool career.

At the heart of a defence that only conceded one goal in that time - as many as Kyrgiakos scored on his own - a man who had appeared a liability against Fulham and Lyon came to have sufficient impact that he was preferred to Martin Skrtel against Everton. Short of pace and seemingly clumsy, there is no pretence that the ungainly 30-year-old possesses the class of Daniel Agger or the longevity of Jamie Carragher, but he proved a doughty battler, especially against physical opponents. In short, he has served a purpose.

His reappearance was a reminder that needs must, which could be Liverpool's unofficial motto nowadays. It may also indicate a change of approach from Benitez. The Spaniard has been criticised for effectively exiling players he did not want. That is not an option now. Ryan Babel, who attracted bids in January, is back in the reckoning and almost equalised against Arsenal. Philipp Degen, another who appeared surplus to requirements, surprised with his effectiveness against Tottenham. He was another signed on a free transfer.

There is proof of the perils of delving into football's bargain basement at Anfield. In a summer when they spent £50 million, Voronin was another Bosman and his abject displays suggested Liverpool still didn't get value for money. But beggars can't be choosers and as long as Tom Hicks and George Gillett remain in situ and without additional investment, Benitez is in a form of penury.

So signing Jovanovic, like Rodriguez before him, makes sense. Remembering Kyrgiakos and Degen does, too. Targets have been downgraded, in the transfer market as they were on the pitch. Top four, not the title, is the aim; the champagne football has to give way to a diet fit for a more workmanlike team. Minus Fernando Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson, albeit temporarily, and minus the world-class reinforcements that a bigger budget could have brought, the style of play has had to be customised to suit the players available.

Aspirations to being the most enterprising attacking side in the land, as Liverpool were for the final two or three months of last season, have been suspended, to win any way they can, aided by defensive frugality, a high work ethic and Dirk Kuyt's invaluable services as a scrapper. Making do is becoming the done thing at Anfield now.

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