The Nick Townsend column: Benitez keen to finally make it a red-letter season

Robbie and Barry can be final pieces in the Liverpool jigsaw as the mad, mad world of the Premier League kicks off again
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The Independent Online

Not long now. It'slike listening outfor the first cuckoo of spring. When Harry Redknapp starts to curse that he can't possibly contemplate Europe and the League with such slender resources and Alan Curbishley complains about injuries and – God help us – "burn-out" beforea ball is kicked in anger, you know the Premier League is nearly upon us. It is confirmed when the players, too, begin pledging undying allegiances, with the former Arsenal man David Bentley declaring, without apparent irony, that his heart is at Tottenham. Meanwhile Spurs fans will be relieved to know Robbie Keane still has a place in his for them, though he would much rather be at Anfield, where he has arrived to discover Rafa Benitez stating: "This is the best squad I've had since I arrived." The strikermay well discover that this is no false optimism.

In the mad mad, mad, mad world of the Premier League, no fewer than 73 players have already been conscripted by clubs this summer, for fees, on frees and on loan, and there remains nearly a month of trafficking yet before the window closes. There has been more trying on of new shirts than at a discount Gant outlet, more professing of faith (to a new club badge) than an evening spent at an evangelical church.

Who knows, Gareth Barry, a man who had set his heart on the Champions' League challenge offered by Liverpool and was virtually out the Villa door, may yet join the jubilant Keane, such is the nature of football brinkmanship. And, if so, of all the deals currently enriching players and their agents – but not necessarily clubs – there is just a suspicion that these two would be the most significant, and herald a change in the great order of things.

Benitez, just about to begin his fourth season at Anfield, has been talking up Liverpool's chances of claiming a first title since 1990, and for once it could be no idle boast. Taking it a stage further, it could be said that the Spaniard needs his team at least to make an authentic challenge for the title. Memories of Istanbul remain firm foundations for the reputation he created with Valenciabut yield little succour to the club's followers when Manchester United and also Chelsea begin to sprint away in the title race, as habitually they have done.

Yes, Keane, at 28, is almost certainly overpriced at £20 million. But there is a premium on strikers, at both ends of the table (on that same subject, is Andy Johnson really worth the £13m that Fulham have paid for him?).

Keane is a clever, intuitive player, and if the new No 7 can contribute what two of the previous occupants of that shirt have over the years at Liverpool it may just turn out to be an astute acquisition. Indeed, as Benitez put it: "If he can give us 80 per cent of what Dalglish and Keegan gave to the club he will be a fantastic player. I think he has enough experience and qual-ity and he will be OK. When you have qualities like he has, you have confidence."

Crucial will be the Irishman's partnership with Fernando Torres. "If you play 4-2-3-1, he can play in four positions," Benitez said of Keane's versatility. "If you play 4-4-2, it doesn't matter. He can play as a winger or as a striker. When he is on the pitch you always know he is someone who will work hard and will understand the game and will understand what the manager wants. So I think he is good and can fit into different styles during the games. He has a very good mentality, a winning mentality. I think all managers are looking for this with every signing."

Benitez revealed he had also sought, and been rewarded with, positive reports on Keane from Italy, where the Irish international moved as a 20-year-old to play for Internazionale.

If Keane achieves a harmony with Torres, it could be the most potent Premier League strikeforce, evoking Liverpool duos of old. "At Tottenham, playing with [Dimitar] Berbatov for a few seasons, our understanding was great and we understood each other on the pitch and the training pitch. Now hopefully I can carry on that with Torres," said Keane. "The way he plays, I'll play in the hole. He plays on the shoulder of the defender and I think that will suit me and that we'll complement each other. I don't think I'll have to change." The only question mark now lingers over Xabi Alonso. Benitez admits: "If we have a good price for Xabi, maybe we could do business. But also if Xabi does not go I will be really pleased, because Xabi is a good player and we don't have any problems." Not exactly a heartfelt declaration of intent by his manager. But then we all know thatXabi needs to move on, to help facilitate Barry's move.

At a time when a host of other managers get their mitigation in first by insisting there are "pieces of the jigsaw still missing" – not least at Spurs, who, never mind Bentley's signing, will see their striking options reduced even further if Berbatov heads to Old Trafford – the midfielder's signature appears all that remains of this annual puzzle for Benitez, who has also signed Philipp Degen and Andrea Dossena, from Borussia Dortmund and Udinese respectively. They are both attacking full-backs and will add width.

It enables Benitez to claim: "We know we need to work on new signings and we need to keep the balance, but I think we are very, very close now."

And that is tantamount to the voice of a satisfied manager. A rare event in recent years at Anfield. And certainly an unusual occurrence in thePremier League of 2008.

Less dirty secrets, more the BBC going over old ground

Google the words "racing" and "corruption" and you get about 2,030,000 results. The two have been synonymous virtually since wagers were first struck on the outcome of the Sport of Kings. Like dirty restaurants and cowboy tradesmen ripping off householders, the subject is a ready target for TV investigators. The nature of the sport means it would be surprising if lights shone in its murkier recesses did not illuminate unscrupulous, possibly illegal, dealings. With at least 12 races a day, seven days a week, often with large fields, and its participants possessing much so-called insider knowledge, the capacity for wrongdoing is limitless.

Perhaps that is why one expected something fresh from the Panorama special Racing's Dirty Secrets. Instead it was a return to familiar territory that formed the backdrop to last year's race-fixing Old Bailey trial, involving the six-times champion jockey Kieren Fallon, which ended when the judge directed the jury to find the defendants not guilty.

Of course there should be close scrutiny of racing and its participants, by the authorities, police, and the media. A sport's integrityis essential to its wellbeing. Yet the programme contained a curious remark from Commander Patrick Rice of the City of London police, who investigatedthe race-fixing allegations: "The public expect a level playing field when they go betting; that no one has an advantage above them, ie they don't have inside information about the form, about how good the horse is."

On the contrary. Most people would expect owners and trainers to have that knowledge. And, in many cases, use it. What the betting public do not expect is a horse being "stopped" by a jockey. However, despite the negative tone of the programme, the fact is the rules governing the passing of information by jockeys have never been more strict, races are analysed in minute detail and betting exchanges report irregular betting patterns. Racing is policed more rigorously than ever. Panorama didn't dwell on that. It would have spoilt the story.

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