Benitez aims barb at rivals but admits to own problems

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Rafael Benitez yesterday launched the first minor offensive in what may be a long psych-ops war waged from opposite ends of the M62. "You can always talk about the top four, but Manchester City are doing a very good job and have bought some excellent players. I can understand why Mr Ferguson at Manchester United is a little bit worried," the Liverpool manager said.

Benitez's club did what they could to conjure a little feel-good factor – arranging the formal signing of Fernando Torres' new six-year deal, which took his salary from £70,000 to £110,000 a week, for the eve of the new campaign. But the Spaniard has plenty of grounds for anxiety of his own, heading into tomorrow's opening match at Tottenham.

Benitez admitted that a pre-season which had seen Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano tilting their skirts at Spanish clubs and the former consummating the relationship had been "difficult" – the same word Sir Alex Ferguson used to describe the task of replacing Cristiano Ronaldo. Benitez also conceded that Mascherano, more critical than ever in the early months with Alonso gone to Real Madrid and new signing Alberto Aquilani nursing an ankle injury, was unhappy to have found himself back at Anfield. "He was a bit disappointed as it was a fantastic opportunity with a big club. But he is happy here, and as a player and a person you can trust him 100 per cent," Benitez said.

The Liverpool manager blames the daily telephone calls from Mascherano's compatriot Lionel Messi, imploring him to come to Barcelona, for the player's yearning to leave and it is a situation which, taken with the failure so far to sign the goalscoring reinforcement Liverpool so patently need, leaves Benitez struggling with the question of whether he is more optimistic this August than last. "It's difficult," he said. "Especially after pre-season."

Benitez, who is hopeful of having Martin Skrtel fit to partner Jamie Carragher in central defence at White Hart Lane but is less sure of Steven Gerrard's recovery from a groin strain, said: "If you talk about the title, everybody says 'you have to win'. I don't think so. I think we have to be realistic, be in the top four and to be contenders.

"It's not easy to manage expectations when you have finished with 86 points and you are so close. Everybody will talk about 19 years, 20 years and all these things. We know that is the situation now but we have to manage these expectations."

Hardly the deafening clang of self-belief. A little worried Ferguson might be – but Benitez, who named Lucas Leiva, David Ngog and Ryan Babel as players he sees emerging as forces this season, has plenty to preoccupy him as he joins battle with an obdurate foe.