Sunday August 19, 2007
At around six o'clock this evening, having witnessed only 180 minutes of Premier League action, Liverpool fans should be a little clearer if the 17-year wait for the title is about to end. Even in the manically hyped world of football, eight days into a new season for that kind of call might seem premature. But the opposition at Anfield are Chelsea. Win, and Liverpool will have the same points as Jose Mourinho's team with a game in hand. More important, they will also receive a crucial psychological boost from beating one of the only three clubs to have won the championship since 1995. It will also mean Liverpool have the flying start to a campaign that has proved elusive since Rafael Benitez became manager in the summer of 2004.
Last January Liverpool thumped Chelsea 2-0, scoring both goals inside the first 20 minutes. But while the Spaniard's first league victory against Chelsea cheered the Anfield crowd, it came too late to affect their team's title chances.
Now, having had three seasons to bed in and with £43 million spent this summer, Benitez is conscious he has to deliver. 'For me the priority is to win the Premier League. But you know that will be really difficult. You need to beat Chelsea, United and Arsenal - that's the key. And you must be consistent, we need to improve our performances away, that is clear,' he says of a league record on the road that brought just six victories last year.
'The difference could be one point. One point is just one game. So we must take care of the small details,' he adds. This urgency to win their first title since 1990 is probably a major reason why Benitez is finally allowing Steven Gerrard to play in his favoured central midfield position. 'We knew he wanted to play and was effective there. I was pleased with him in the team playing on the right side but I knew it wasn't his position. I cannot say he is better in the middle. He is good in the middle, but for our team in recent years we have needed him on the right side.'
Benitez still believes the 27-year-old can improve. 'Especially his understanding of the game and tactics. With Gerrard it's not easy because he can do everything really well but there is more.'
How had he dealt with having to operate on the right? 'We had some conversations. He's the captain, and knew it was really important for the side because we didn't have the balance with a specific right winger. He knew he could still score goals from the right, and we were strong in the middle with Xabi Alonso and [Mohamed] Sissoko.
When I said to him, "Listen, I'm trying to sign wingers, don't worry," I knew he would be happier. Now we have wingers and, although it will still be sometimes better to use him on the right, it's not the same situation it was.'
If that seems to confirms a squad role for Jermaine Pennant, who was not deemed good enough to allow Gerrard to play consistently in the middle last season, it also suggests that new buys Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel -a striker who can play wide - will be asked to provide the width and delivery. A couple of seasons ago the analogy at Anfield was that the task of taking on today's opponents for the title was like a Mini attempting to beat a Ferrari. Not any more.
Andrei Voronin, another new addition this summer, scored a rocket of a winner against Toulouse in midweek to give Liverpool's attempt to reach a third Champions League final in four years the perfect start.
Add in Fernando Torres, whose job is to score, and Benitez understands he can have no arguments about the depth and quality available. Instead, he accepts that it is his management skills which are now crucial. 'We have a good car now. Formula One is just one type of car and they are all good, so it then depends on the ability of the driver.'
Torres, a £26.5m chunk of devastating pace, is certainly one player who comes with high-octane credentials. Benitez hopes he will be the prolific scorer the club has lacked since he became manager. His record at Atletico Madrid - 84 goals in 215 league appearances - was modest.
The 23-year-old has also yet to claim a first goal for Liverpool. Benitez's assessment of his progress so far apparently damns with faint praise. 'He has done OK. It's not easy for a player who was an icon at Atletico Madrid to come here and be one more player. OK, he's famous, a big name, but there are some other big name players here. Also he needs to improve his English. He can understand but can't speak fluently. It will be difficult but he is very focused and his team-mates have a lot of respect for him.'
Added to the January win, Benitez also has the twin Champions League semi-finals victories and an FA Cup semi-final triumph over Mourinho. Yet it is the Portuguese's record of five from six Premier League matches that tells the story of the clubs' fortunes since both arrived in English football at the same time. Chelsea's manager recently said that Benitez is now under real pressure. The Spaniard prefers to shrug that off as Mourinho's method of deflecting attention from himself. 'That's clear. I don't want to talk about him. I don't need to talk about him. I am focused on my team and I can't focus on what he said.'
Chelsea will probably play 4-3-3 this afternoon with Didier Drogba leading the attack. John Terry should be back for a first outing this season, but missing are Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho, with Tal Ben Haim continuing in the back four. The Israel defender believes his new club 'have the players to win every game. That is the mentality here.'
If Liverpool claim victory then, their fans can rightly feel that at last they have a very real chance of the title.