Frank Malley: Benitez facing greatest challenge

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez is spitting blood.

You can see it in the body language of the Liverpool manager on the touchline. You can sense it in his responses when asked about the possibility of any signings before the transfer window closes next week.

"I don't want to talk about money," has been Benitez's mantra so far this season.

There is good reason for that. It does not look as if he is getting any.

If that is the case then Liverpool could be kissing goodbye to the league title for yet another season.

Not just because they have lost two of their first three Premier League matches, although that is as many as they lost in total last season.

But because they have failed to follow the Anfield philosophy of old. They have not reinforced from a position of strength.

Last season was their best for years in the Premier League. They finished second and pushed Manchester United all the way, scoring 77 goals in the process.

It was time to reinvest, seamlessly and ruthlessly, to take that extra step. The way Shankly and Paisley did when the club was the dominant force in Europe.

Yet what has happened? They have lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid in a move which has deprived them of precision passing and creativity.

They have failed to sign the central defender desperately needed with the departure of Sami Hyypia.

They have failed to address the fact the club are so reliant on the partnership of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

Most of all, Benitez appears still to be at odds with the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. And that could prove to be the most debilitating aspect of all.

It is thought Benitez was promised £20m for transfers when he signed his new contract last season, plus whatever he raised in the transfer market. A not unreasonable arrangement, you might think, for one of the Premier League's Big Four clubs.

The £20m has gone on full-back Glen Johnson from Portsmouth and Italian Alberto Aquilani, who has not yet played because of injury, from Roma.

Which should have left around £40m from the sales of Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa, Sebastien Leto, Paul Anderson, Jack Hobbs and Adam Hammill.

There is a belief, however, that this money has been earmarked to reduce the club's debt to appease the banks ahead of a refinancing package surrounding the loans taken out to buy the club.

Not for the first time, debt stands in the way of progress.

It is not, of course, the whole story. There is still the zonal marking policy which Benitez continues to employ and which continues to leak goals at set-pieces, as demonstrated by Curtis Davies' header in Aston Villa's 3-1 win at Anfield.

There is still Benitez's insistence that Lucas Leiva and Andriy Voronin are "fantastic" players when all the evidence suggests they fall some way short of the quality a squad requires to win a league title.

There is still a serious shortage of class to pick up the slack when Gerrard and Torres are not firing.

Benitez, of course, is defiant. "This squad is virtually the same as last season," he says. "I believe it is good enough to mount a title challenge."

And perhaps it will. But even at this early stage the signs are worrying for supporters coming up to 20 years without a league title.