Time to deliver in Premier League for Benitez

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/images/thumbnail/ver1/l/liverpoollogo.jpg' class='caption'> Nineteen years after Liverpool's last English title triumph, manager Rafa Benitez knows it's time to deliver the Premier League trophy.

Updated: August 14, 2009 12:07 IST
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Nineteen years after Liverpool's last English title triumph, manager Rafa Benitez knows it's time to deliver the Premier League trophy which his side came so close to lifting last season.

Benitez's Anfield reign is entering its sixth season and although the Spaniard can point to winning the Champions League in 2005 after one of the competition's most dramatic comebacks and adding the FA Cup in 2006, some believe that return on investment is simply not good enough.

Though the penalty shootout victory over AC Milan after trailing 3-0 at halftime is a part of Liverpool folklore , Liverpool's fifth European Cup success is now such a distant memory that the Istanbul heroics were turned into a stage production this offseason to preserve them.

Last season should arguably have ended the Merseysiders' domestic drought rather allowing an inconsistent Manchester United side to match Liverpool's record haul of 18 titles - 11 since the northwest rival last finished top of the standings in 1990.

The Reds did signal their strength by completing rare league doubles over both United and Chelsea, but those successes were offset by home draws against weaker opponents that saw them finish second and miss out on the trophy by four points.

"The key for me is not to talk about winning the title but to talk about doing a good job so we can be close, so we can be contenders," Benitez said ahead of the season-opener against Tottenham on Aug. 15. "If we are close I think that we can win the title."

Keeping striker Fernando Torres and captain Steven Gerrard fit will be pivotal after their devastating partnership's playing time together was limited by injuries last year.

"They have the ability to tear defenses wide open in a second," defender Jamie Carragher said. "When you have that kind of ability in your team it gives you incredible belief."

Other challenges are likely to involve matters off the pitch, following two notable distractions last season.

The most entertaining was the Spaniard's decision to spell out long-held grievances against United manager Alex Ferguson, who seems ready to continue their spat ahead of the new campaign.

"Liverpool have just had probably their best season for 20 years, finished up with 86 points and still finished four adrift," Ferguson said. "It will be hard for them to match that, let alone improve. Other teams will read Liverpool better."

Another issue was the uncertainty over Benitez's own future as he battled with the club's American owners in public over a new contract, with a five-year deal finally being signed in March.

While Benitez did secure greater power over transfers, he does not have riches at his disposal. For a manager who wants to sign top players, his budget will be far removed from that enjoyed by big-spending Manchester City, who enticed Liverpool-target Gareth Barry from Aston Villa.

"The key is to sign the right players with the right mentality, a winning mentality," Benitez said. "Players who are desperate to come here to win something."

Since that statement in June, right back Glen Johnson has arrived from Portsmouth while Benitez has lost his inspirational playmaker Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid and brought in AS Roma's Alberto Aquilani as his replacement.

Benitez could also use Lucas Leiva, a player much-maligned by the fans - including some who gatecrashed a media conference last season _ but backed to prosper by his teammates.

"Lucas has had criticism and for me it's been unfair - he's a young lad learning his trade," Gerrard said. "He's certainly got a bright future. He does a lot of work that goes unnoticed in this team."

What Benitez still needs to do is relieve the pressure on Torres and Gerrard providing Liverpool's goals. Another quality forward such as long-standing target David Silva of Valencia has yet to be added to the squad, while Nabil El Zhar and David Ngog will be relied on as understudies up front.

Though the pressure may be on Benitez to deliver in the league, he can respond to his critics by pointing to his record after five years compared to Ferguson's after he took charge at Old Trafford in 1986.

At this stage in Ferguson's United career, the Scot had also only won a European trophy (the Cup Winners' Cup) and the FA Cup. It took Ferguson another two years to emerge victorious in the league in the 1992-93 season, producing United's first title in 26 years.

For his part, Benitez will be hoping he doesn't have to go through another season of near-misses.

"We have to fight, we have to do it," he said.

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