Rafa's finished article?

August 14, 2006
By Phil Holland
(Archive)

It is a promising time to be a Liverpool fan.

Under the management of Rafa Benitez Liverpool have won silverware in two successive seasons and last year's performance in the Premier League hinted tantalisingly at yet more to come.

GettyImagesRafa Benitez has built a team capable of challenging for the Premiership title.

Liverpool have made steady progress in the Premiership during Benitez's time at Anfield, with the club finishing 5th in the 2004/05 season, his first at the helm, and 3rd last term.

Such was Liverpool's impressive improvement last year that they finished with 82 points, a Premiership record for a third-place finish and a tally that would have been enough to beat Manchester United to the title in 2000/01 when Ferguson's men amassed a haul of 80 points.

Perhaps for a club with more modest past achievements than Liverpool winning the European Cup and the FA Cup in the last two years would do very nicely thank you very much and allow Benitez a little respite.

But Liverpool are a different proposition altogether.

This is a club with an unparalleled history, one marked out by success on the biggest stages, and for the purist Liverpool fan the league title is the pinnacle of achievement; and with an English record of 18 such triumphs you can understand why.

For Liverpool, and for that matter Arsenal and Manchester United, the single biggest bar to domestic success in the coming season is the billionaire-funded spectre of Chelsea.

While none can compete with Chelsea's financial wherewithal off the pitch, on the pitch it is a different matter and crucially Liverpool start the new season having proved in their last meeting with Mourinho's men that they are not unbeatable; a point Benitez would be wise to stress to his players as he tries to instil the belief that they are capable of usurping the Stamford Bridge outfit.

Despite league defeat both home and away to Chelsea last season Liverpool's 2-1 victory over the Blues in the FA Cup semi-final proved they have the know-how to play and beat Chelsea - Get at them and, if possible, score early.

And while one match can be dismissed as a mere one-off, what cannot is that season-on-season Liverpool are catching Chelsea. Two season's ago a yawing 37-point chasm separated the two clubs, last season that had been pared back to just nine.

Looking at the team most regard to be Liverpool's starting 11 it becomes evident that this is a club on the verge of mounting a serious title challenge.

While some may scoff at the occasional errors of the Reds' keeper Pepe Reina the Spaniard is one of the best shot-stoppers in the league and last season was the last line in a defence that strung together an amazing run of 22 clean sheets.

In front of him stand last season's second-meanest Premiership back-four. The defence of Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia and John Arne Riise was breached just 25 times, with only Chelsea more miserly conceding as they did a meagre 22 goals.

In Xabi Alonso, Momo Sissoko, Luis Garcia and Steven Gerrard Liverpool boast one of the best midfield's in Europe. The powerful Sissoko is a wonderfully destructive and indefatigable midfield holding player and has proven to be the perfect foil to the more stylish and creative attacking axis of Alonso, Garcia and the imperious Gerrard.

Unfortunately the good news stops there for Liverpool, or at least it did last season, because up front the line-up is nowhere near as impressive.

Liverpool have lacked a quality goal-scorer since the heyday of Robbie Fowler and Michael, and try as they might Peter Crouch, Djibril Cisse, Fernando Morientes and latterly an older, wiser, rounder Fowler were unable to provide the necessary firepower.

(During the height of Liverpool's goal drought such was Steven Gerrard's confidence at the lack of clinical striking on offer from his colleagues that he was pictured in a UK tabloid on a training ground goal-line with his bare backside a target for Liverpool's misfiring forwards.)

Last season the Reds scored just 57 goals compared to the 72 plundered by both Chelsea and Manchester United, and 10 of those came from midfield dynamo Gerrard.

Benitez's solution to this critical problem has proved somewhat controversial. Out have gone the disappointing Morientes and Cisse and in has come Craig Bellamy, an archetypal Premiership enfant terrible.

The phrase 'fiery Welshman' has been a prefix associated with Bellamy for much of his career, a career which has included four transfers for a combined £23.5m and no few goals.

GettyImagesCraig Bellamy: Risky addition?

While it is impossible to call into question his lightening pace and finishing acumen the nagging problem with Bellamy remains the 27-year-old's temperament, be it on the pitch, in the dressing room or away from football entirely.

But Benitez's decision to bring in Bellamy, who former manager Bobby Robson once referred to as 'the only man I know who could start an argument with himself', is a shrewd move, even if it does represent something of a calculated risk.

In an age of mercenary players earning more in a year than on offer in a lotto rollover it is refreshing that such was Bellamy's desire to join the club he supported as boy that that he readily accepted a cut in wages to do so.

Crucially Bellamy wants to play for Liverpool and despite his considerable flaws and despite his numerous mistakes, he is surely not beyond footballing redemption and with desire married to ability it becomes clear why Benitez was willing to take a chance on the striker.

If Bellamy is to prove to be the answer to Liverpool's goal-scoring conundrum and provide the firepower they need to mount a genuine title challenge Bellamy will need to strike up a successful rapport with Peter Crouch, grab at least 20 goals and keep in check the temper he clearly thrives on.

With each passing year since their last title win in 1990/91 Liverpool's proud heritage becomes evermore tarnished.

Keenly aware of Liverpool's former glories and finest traditions Benitez will be determined to mount a serious challenge on Premiership glory.


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