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Aug 9, 2010

Red Army target return to the top four

Exiled from the Champions League for the first time in seven years, Liverpool have been forced to accept that their sporting stock has fallen after a disastrous campaign under Rafael Benitez last season. But the club remains an attractive commodity, so much so that Fernando Torres has decided to continue investing his hopes in the Reds and the Chinese government is reportedly fighting numerous suitors to purchase the club from the hated Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

Never has the collective term 'Red Army' been more applicable to Liverpool fans; at the time of writing, the China Investment Corporation is yet to deny reports that it is financing Kenny Huang's takeover attempt. Pepe Reina cannot start referring to his set-piece defence as the Great Wall just yet though, as there are plenty of rival parties looking to conclude a takeover prior to the close of the transfer window. Off-the-field uncertainty has been a troublesome characteristic of the club in recent seasons, but while both clarity and brevity are desired, the prospect of the two American owners riding off into the sunset is an alluring one for Liverpool fans.

It is fair to say that the club are currently in a state of flux, making precise predictions for their season a dangerous enterprise. Put those fortune cookies away. However, The Times reported last week that as much as £150 million could be available to spend on players should Huang's bid be successful, meaning that the culture of prudence seen in the dying months and years of the Hicks/Gillett reign could be finally cast aside, and before the transfer window closes. That is the best-case scenario; the worst, explored by The Guardian last week, is that the club could become effectively owned by the taxpayer if a sale is not concluded by October 6.

Having welcomed the American pair with open arms, you suspect Liverpool supporters might be a bit more circumspect about what a takeover may herald this time around. However, Huang's group are making encouraging noises about wiping clean the club's £350 million debt, making funds available for new signings and accelerating progress on the construction of a new stadium - a infrastructure leap that is essential if Liverpool are to return to the pinnacle of the English game.

One thing is certain: under new manager Roy Hodgson, and whomever may be seated in the Anfield halls of power, Liverpool can hardly stoop any lower than the depths that Benitez took them to last season.

A 2009-10 campaign that begun with real hope of beating Manchester United to a record 19th league title instead ended in crushing disappointment. Benitez oversaw 19 defeats in all competitions as Liverpool limped into seventh place. It was a humbling experience indeed, and one that ensured Benitez could not continue. His curious reward was a move to Treble-winning Inter Milan, while the Reds turned to Hodgson after his success in leading Fulham to the Europa League final. It was an appointment that favoured expediency over excitement.

But perhaps a steady hand is just what Liverpool require at the moment, particularly given boardroom affairs. A first league title since 1990 looks somewhat unlikely - despite the recent surge of optimism on Merseyside, engendered by the prospect of a sale - and the priority must be to restore Champions League football, otherwise the club's claim to a place in the 'Big Four' may start to become somewhat tenuous, particularly given the quality of players recruited by Manchester City.

While City continue to p*** money up the wall in a manner that puts Wayne Rooney to shame, Liverpool's essential piece of transfer business has clearly been keeping Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at Anfield. Speculation surrounded Liverpool's star striker over the summer but, like his captain, he will remain at the club. With 56 goals in his 79 Premier League appearances, it is clear that much will hinge on Torres, and whether he can enjoy a campaign free of the fitness problems that afflicted him last season, and at the World Cup.

Another indication that stasis is the prevailing feature of the playing squad comes with the bizarre fact that having released Fabio Aurelio on a free transfer and agreed the sale of Emiliano Insua to Fiorentina, both players are now back at Melwood. What was becoming a problem position - with Paul Konchesky and Luke Young mooted as underwhelming replacements at left back - has been solved, albeit unexpectedly.

Some change has been afoot though, with Benitez's arch critics Albert Riera and Yossi Benayoun following the Spaniard in departing the club, leaving the Reds light on the wings. Surely it is now make or break time for the perenially underperforming Dutchman Ryan Babel. Javier Mascherano may also leave the club, having confirmed the worst-kept secret in football when telling Hodgson he wants a new challenge. The loss of the Argentina captain - to Inter, in all likelihood - would leave a gaping hole in the Liverpool midfield that must be filled.

Milan Jovanic looks an astute capture on a free transfer, though he must still escape the looming shadow of that former Bosman arrival Andriy Voronin, while convincing Joe Cole to shun Arsenal and Tottenham and move his family north to Merseyside was quite a coup, immediately bolstering Hodgson's reputation amongst Reds fans. How the two will fit into a side containing Gerrard and Torres remains to be seen, although Jovanic has functioned out wide in early games and Cole is expected to float behind a lone striker, ensuring a more fluid shape than that imposed by Benitez.

Hodgson is famed for his policy of consistency in team selection - in that he is a world apart from his predecessor - and can call upon an excellent spine. Pepe Reina is probably the best goalkeeper in England, while Gerrard and Torres are leading figures in the European game. Liverpool are somewhat rough around the edges but undoubtedly possess the quality to do far better than last season's awful seventh place.

Pessimism engendered by the final months of Benitez's reign has certainly given way to optimism in recent weeks thanks to Cole's arrival, Torres and Gerrard's declarations of commitment and the prospect of an imminent change of ownership. One of Sun Tzu's key lessons in his essential Art of War was that "you have to believe in yourself", and the arrival of his fellow Chinese on the scene could ensure Liverpool, and their fans, do just that this season. Hope is resurgent on Merseyside, and a return to the Champions League should not be ruled out, but only if the club is finally wrestled away from Hicks and Gillett.

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