19 August 2007

Why beating the best is Benítez's biggest challenge

Liverpool's sorry league record against their title rivals must improve - starting with Chelsea's visit.
Kevin McCarra
August 18, 2007 12:24 AM

Some pieces of criticism are a relief. Prior to last Saturday's win at Villa Park there had been a focus on Liverpool's habitually torpid start to a Premier League campaign, but Rafael Benítez would have been happy to discuss that if it spared him a conversation about a more profound weakness. His team's inferiority has been excruciating against the sides with whom he is meant to vie for the title.
In that elite group, Liverpool have been concussed by the head-to-head encounters. Over Benítez's three seasons on Merseyside either Chelsea or Manchester United have emerged as champions. Liverpool's haul is four points out of a possible 36 from the 12 League matches against those opponents. A draconian critic could argue that they are flattered by even that paltry record.
When tomorrow's visitors, Chelsea, were last at Anfield in the Premier League, Ricardo Carvalho was taken ill on the eve of the match, so compounding the crisis caused by John Terry's injury. The visitors, ultimately beaten 2-0, were bamboozled within four minutes by Jamie Carragher's direct ball through the middle of the defence and Paulo Ferreira lay sprawled on the ground as Dirk Kuyt scored.
Liverpool have otherwise been also-rans when competing for points with the true contenders. It is a problem, none the less, that Benítez has inherited rather than caused. Over the span of a six-year tenure Gérard Houllier's results were scarcely any better and the club, for instance, has not defeated United in the Premier League since January 2002.
The glory of Benítez's time has so far lain in the knockout tournaments, where they have, for instance, twice ejected Chelsea from the Champions League and also expelled United from the FA Cup. Liverpool, therefore, have the ambiguous reputation of a club that makes the most of its last chance after failing in the previous tournaments.
It does not take long to come to a diagnosis of the Anfield ailment. Goals are scarce, with Liverpool recording 26 fewer than United last season in a league where they have been the fourth highest scorers in each year of Benítez's tenure. Apart from that there is consensus that the Spaniard has not had enough players of the right calibre to cope with the ordeals of the Champions League and the main domestic competitions.
Liverpool's owners have stumped up to remedy all that, thereby leaving the manager solely responsible for any lapses. While Benítez had been far from frugal in the past, he was in a position this summer to allocate huge sums to the acquisition of one or two individuals. Fernando Morientes flopped, but Fernando Torres is a different sort of striker, at a different stage of his career who belongs, at £26.5m, in a wholly different price bracket.
Mindful of a scoring record that never scrambled all that far above the respectable at Atlético Madrid, Benítez prudently opts to depict the 23-year-old as a member of a group of attackers. With Peter Crouch and Kuyt in place, Andriy Voronin was signed on a Bosman and Ajax had £11.5m pressed into their hands for Ryan Babel.
The fixture tomorrow (Sunday 11 pm Malaysian time) will start to show us exactly what impact Liverpool have bought themselves. The players themselves are conscious of the investment and the improvement that has to be demonstrated. More than ever before, the squad will be expected to cope even if that fractured toe should hobble Steven Gerrard's form against Chelsea. "We have at least two men for every position," said Kuyt with some justice.
In consequence, the Dutchman and many others have to steel themselves to tolerate days on the sidelines and he never got off the bench in the midweek win over Toulouse. While exclusion in France points to selection tomorrow, there is no absolute certainty about it. "It is difficult being left out as a player," Kuyt said, "because you always want to be involved in the big matches but, in the end, we will hopefully be playing more than 60 games in the season. We need a big squad."
Not every footballer who seems to perk up at the prospect of taking on Chelsea is genuinely optimistic, but the mention of these opponents floods Kuyt's mind with thoughts of the way he clinched the shoot-out victory over Jose Mourinho's side in the Champions League semi-final three months ago.
"I am desperate to play," the Dutch forward said. "My last touch of the ball against Chelsea was the winning penalty. We'll go on from there and hopefully beat them again."
Such a result would be taken as a sign that Liverpool will at last be contenders for the Premier League trophy they have never lifted. "If we do that," Kuyt confirmed, "it shows not only Chelsea that we are serious but also United and the rest of our rivals. We showed last season that we were close to them. As well as beating Chelsea we were very unlucky to lose to United at Anfield."
He knows that consistency is essential across all the fixtures that are less highly charged than the match against their visitors from Stamford Bridge tomorrow, but it is success in major games that could truly galvanise Liverpool. Do not ask Kuyt to drone that all Premier League games are of equal significance because they each offer three points. "First," he said, "we need to win against Chelsea."

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