Thursday 23 March 2017

Benitez downbeat about top-four prospects

Robin Scott-Elliott

RAFA BENITEZ'S glass appears to finally to be half-empty. As Liverpool return to domestic duty tomorrow not even their rousing dispatch of Benfica on Thursday night has raised the manager's hopes that their pursuit of fourth place in the Premier League will prove a successful chase.

His squad, he fears, can not live up to what is expected at Anfield.

Their success in reaching the last four of the Europa League holds out the promise of ending an underwhelming campaign with silverware, but it would offer scant consolation for missing out on a place in next season's Champions League and the accompanying financial hit that would bring.

Liverpool lie sixth this morning, four points behind Manchester City, who hold the coveted spot. City have a game in hand and Benitez admits it is a gap that his side will struggle to close with just five matches left.

"If it is a question of 11 v 11 we can be as good as anyone when everyone is fit," he said. "But normally the problem is the squad and in our case the expectation. As soon as you cannot be so close to the top, people are disappointed and you do not have the same energy, but in a normal game, we can beat anyone.

"The question this year has been consistency. It is very clear you need a good, big squad and then you can manage. After one international break, we had (Glen) Johnson, (Sotirios) Kyrgiakos, (Fernando) Torres and (Steven) Gerrard injured, (Fabio) Aurelio at the beginning too. When you have too many problems with starting players you need a bigger squad.

"The other day you could see (Chelsea's Nicolas) Anelka played and his substitute was (Didier) Drogba, so that is a massive difference, and (on Wednesday, for Manchester United, Wayne) Rooney played and (Dimitar) Berbatov, a £32m player, came on. The length of the squad is important, especially in the league."

As Benitez has been in charge at Anfield for six years, the squad is absolutely the Spaniard's creation. His concerns are valid, but they could also be said to be of his own making. It was he who spent £20m on Alberto Aquilani and £2m on Kyrgiakos in August and a combined £20m on Andrea Dossena, Albert Riera, Diego Cavalieri and David Ngog -- and the same again on Robbie Keane -- the summer before. His dissatisfaction with his lot will not be eased unless the club attract new investment before the summer. The July deadline to find £100m to reduce their level of debt hangs heavily over Liverpool. If they do not finish fourth, will Benitez even be there by then?

Liverpool may need to win five out of five, starting against visitors Fulham tomorrow, but their home form is formidable, with nine straight Anfield wins since losing to Reading.

Torres' clinical double against Benfica took his tally to eight goals in the last four home games.

Another of the Spanish contingent yesterday gave Benitez a fillip when goalkeeper Pepe Reina agreed a new six-year contract. (© Independent News Service)

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