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Rafael Benitez splashed out £40m on a new young strike force but will they deliver in the Premier League?

 

Jonathan Northcroft

 

It would be unkind to picture Michael Owen sitting all summer in front of his television, flicking from At The Races back to Sky Sports News on the off chance that the “Breaking News” info-bar would say that Liverpool had bid for him.

 

Owen says he is “excited” about the season ahead at Newcastle United and we should believe him. It is just hard to avoid the impression that this homebody type, who never really wanted to leave in the first place, would jump at a return to Anfield. Yet Owen is like the dumped boyfriend waiting by the telephone for the call that never comes. Rafael Benitez has spent all summer buying forwards - a Fernando, a Yossi, a Ryan, an Andriy and still no Michael. Liverpool’s co-owner, Tom Hicks, revealed Benitez has one more signing left, but that is likely to be Manchester United’s Argentine defender Gabriel Heinze.

 

After last week’s £21.5m purchase of Fernando Torres had the ingenious songsmiths on the Kop practising reworkings of Abba’s Fernando, the refrain this weekend has got to be “I Got You, Babel”. Chelsea and Arsenal had monitored 20-year-old Ajax forward Ryan Babel, but Liverpool, with an £11.5m offer plus add-ons, enticed a player billed by Marco van Basten as “the next Thierry Henry” to English football.

 

Tall and lithe, quick and clever, a graceful dribbler, Babel has many of the qualities of Henry, though the big question is whether he can develop into a scorer even remotely in the Frenchman’s class. In Holland’s Eredivisie - which is hardly defensively rigorous - his strike rate was just one goal every five games.

 

“I am not a killer in the box like Marco van Basten or Patrick Kluivert when Ajax won the European Cup, but I am trying hard to be one and I think I have the selfish streak you need,” Babel says. His penetrative play at the European under21 championships, where he was man-of-the-match and a scorer in the final, suggests the potential to be a star. In full internationals and in the Champions League he has already shown more class at a rarefied level than Djibril Cisse who, all pace, power and no finesse, turned out to be a flat-track bully. And that is the point. With four in and four out, Benitez has not increased Liverpool’s number of forwards, but he appears to have improved their quality.

 

It has cost him a net £20m to bring in Babel, Torres, Andriy Voronin and Yossi Benayoun and ship out Cisse, Craig Bellamy, Robbie Fowler and Luis Garcia. Having also replaced Bolo Zenden with Lucas Leiva, the young “Brazilian Steven Gerrard” known for his ability to drive forward from the centre of midfield, Liverpool now look more potent in a variety of positions. They also have more young swagger. Fowler, Zenden and Garcia were in the evenings of their careers. Leiva and Benayoun are young. Torres is “El Nino”, The Kid. Babel, already sufficiently cheeky to label Benitez “the ideal father-in-law”, has made a hip-hop record with Lange Frans and Baas B, two popular Dutch rappers.

 

Younger, greater variety, more attacking. In going for Heinze, Benitez is not afraid to buy from Manchester United. In the revamp of his squad he has shown that nor is he afraid to borrow from them. The spark and the scoring power possessed by United has been clearly lacking at Anfield during Benitez’s reign and while the Spaniard is unlikely to ditch his methodical traits for recklessness, he seems ready for Liverpool to loosen up. Perhaps it explains his sudden goatee beard. Making up the goal difference between themselves and Manchester United and Chelsea is essential if Liverpool are to win the Premier League. Returning the English title to Anfield for the first time since 1990 is Benitez’s ultimate mandate and, for all that cageyness has brought its reward in Europe, he knows his team have to change.

 

Sir Alex Ferguson noted proudly last week that United scored their way to the title last season. The correlation between points and goals has never seemed more straightforward. Manchester United scored 26 more league goals than Liverpool in 2006-07 and gained 21 more points. In two previous seasons under Benitez, Liverpool finished with 15 and 20 fewer goals than Chelsea, then the champion team.

 

The importance of firepower has been demonstrated, painfully, in one-off games. Last season Manchester United came to Anfield and were outmuscled, out-thought, outmanoeuvred - and won 1-0 with a stoppage-time goal. The same happened at Old Trafford the previous season. Chelsea, in similar fashion, have mugged Liverpool in domestic matches during Benitez’s reign. And scoring problems even caught up with the Spaniard in the Champions League, eventually. In last season’s final Liverpool dominated AC Milan for 44 minutes, failed to take the lead, conceded just before half-time and never recovered.

 

Babel has been told by Benitez he will be one of seven players competing for four attacking slots in a new-look Liverpool team. Like Torres, Voronin and Benayoun, he is a flexible footballer who can play in different positions across the forward line, in his case striker and left wing - his likeliest station next season.

 

Again, Manchester United are being mirrored. Adaptability is the key feature common to Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Nani, Anderson and - should he end up at Old Trafford - Carlos Tevez. Only Peter Crouch in Liverpool’s new array of attackers seems lacking in dimensions. And even then, as the cliche about him goes, he is good in the air and, for a big man, on the ground.

 

Forwards seem the way forward, across the Premier League. Chelsea have responded to United by increasing their own attacking options with the £13.5m purchase of Florent Malouda. Harry Redknapp has never needed much of an excuse to sign a striker but even then it was surprising to see Portsmouth, having already snapped up Sulley Muntari, buy two more this week, John Utaka from Rennes for £7m and David Nugent from Preston for £6m. West Ham bought Bellamy.

 

Sunderland spent £5m on a striker, Michael Chopra, and look set to sign a left-winger, Manchester United’s Kieran Richardson, who has also been courted by Everton and Manchester City. Speaking of City, Rolando Bianchi, at £8.8m, became Sven-Göran Eriksson’s first signing. When he took over Eriksson said something which, agonisingly for a household in Hawarden, Cheshire, could have come straight from the lips of Benitez: “He is a good player but I don’t want to read that I am trying to sign Michael Owen.”

 

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/foo...icle2076432.ece

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