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Rafa in the Times


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Rafael Benítez believes elusive goal is in sight


James Ducker


Rafael Benítez would have laughed if someone had told him, 18 months ago, that he would be talking glowingly about Liverpool's future on his fifth anniversary as manager.


There were times during those dark days in late 2007 when Benítez's departure seemed only a matter of time as news of George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks's attempts to replace him with Jürgen Klinsmann leaked out, triggering a full-blown civil war.


It says something about the depths Liverpool had plumbed under the corrosive ownership of the Americans that, even when reporting this month an alarming loss of £42.6million for the year ended July 2008, the future - while still uncertain - seems a lot rosier at Anfield.


A lot of that has to do with Benítez. Liverpool fans seem to take some comfort from the belief that, in one way or another, the ownership issues will resolve themselves and the Hicks-Gillett regime will run its course, but they would probably be feeling a lot less reassured were it not that Benítez finally appears to be on the brink of fashioning a team capable of winning that elusive Barclays Premier League title.



Had he been told on his appointment as Liverpool manager, five years ago today, that he would still be waiting to get his hands on the league title, the Spaniard would have balked. However, a hitherto unseen conviction was unearthed in the final months of last season and they will start the new campaign believing, not hoping, that they can end the dominance of Manchester United.


Of course, there are always imponderables, but especially at Liverpool - will the financial predicament of the Americans again prove a destabilising factor, will Fernando Torres stay fit? - but Benítez knows there can be only so many excuses, particularly given that he has been far from blameless amid the acrimony and infighting.


Much will also rest on how successful Benítez is in the transfer market, as the manager appeared to concede yesterday when he spoke of United's squad as still being superior.


“We beat them twice last season and have shown we can beat anyone, so clearly we have enough quality in the team,” he said. “The squad is good but against us, United had [Ryan]Giggs, [Paul] Scholes and [Dimitar] Berbatov on the bench.”


After the early setback of losing out to Manchester City for Gareth Barry, there was better news for Liverpool last night when Portsmouth accepted an £18.5million bid for Glen Johnson. If the improving England right back does arrive at Anfield, at the very least, he should offer greater thrust going forward.


If Benítez can also keep hold of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, the midfield players, and persuade David Silva, the £20million-rated Valencia winger, to come to Anfield, Liverpool may just have enough in the long run. Fine-tuning is what Liverpool need, not wholesale changes.


“If you analyse the number of points [we got last season], 86, you see it's a record for the club in the Premier League,” Benítez said.


“We are going forward, we are progressing. For the future, this is good news and hopefully this is the beginning of something important. In terms of the consistency of the team, we've been really good. The squad is better, the mentality is very good and the players are all competing for their positions.


“Each year is different but we are closer, we have more confidence and the experience of this year will be good for next season. You never know, but it seems like we are reducing the gap.” Only now it must be bridged entirely.

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