Benitez call to arms lost in pit of despair

Liverpool manager tries, and fails, to be positive in time for visit of Sunderland
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The Independent Football

No title once again and, with the new fight for second spot with Chelsea apparently beginning tonight, no Fernando Torres. Little wonder Rafael Benitez looked glum yesterday lunchtime; so glum, in fact, that you wondered how he would muster the energy to rally his players for the arrival of Sunderland.

Yes, Benitez insisted, he did have an appetite for a fifth season seeking the domestic crown for his club, starting next August, by which time Manchester United should have equalled Liverpool's 18 championships. "We can break the cycle." But he didn't offer much conviction and his analysis of what needs to change between now and then will depress those Liverpool fans who are wondering whether he will ever bring that most elusive piece of silverware to Anfield Road.

"We have to do things sooner rather than later," Benitez said. "In the future we have to approach players very quickly or we will not sign them. In a top side like [ours] it will be very important." This was a reprise of Benitez's well-worn critique of the ponderous performance, as he sees it, of outgoing chief executive Rick Parry in the transfer market.

Given the contribution this season of individuals who Benitez demanded and got last summer – Andrea Dossena has delivered even less than Robbie Keane did, while Phillip Degen has never rarely been off the treatment table – the prognosis was painfully one-eyed.

Liverpool have quite simply lacked a strike force, as Saturday's defeat on Teesside painfully showed, and given that Ryan Babel, David Ngog and Nabil El Zhar are so far off the pace, it is currently hard to resist the conviction that Benitez should have persisted with Keane and risked the financial hit of selling him next summer. Whose fault was it that none of those players he wanted have performed? Not the chief executive's.

Liverpool's challenge is to establish momentum where prospective summer purchases are concerned, despite the handover from Parry to a successor for whom the search has barely started. Benitez believes the promise of challenging for "important trophies" can entice players who "if they went to other teams wouldn't have chances. We have a lot of information. We need to know when we can do it."

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of renewing battle this summer will be Benitez's knowledge that he has climbed one mountain, only to slither down another. Beating top-four sides was always Liverpool's problem but defeating Manchester United and Chelsea at Anfield has been undermined by a failure to put lower sides, like Sunderland, out of sight. Six teams have left Anfield with draws before tonight, with Liverpool's late win at the Stadium of Light in August, courtesy of Torres, a premonition of what was to come.

All season Benitez has dismissed the unmistakable – that Liverpool are a side painfully over-reliant on Torres and Steven Gerrard, though even he admitted yesterday that the Spaniard playing only 11 league games had played a part in Liverpool's falling seven points behind Manchester United – the champions having one game in hand. "Maybe if Torres had not been injured so much things would be different. He has been our main striker and scored a lot of goals for us last season. But we cannot change the situation now," Benitez said. Only Gerrard's league tally, of nine, exceeds Torres' eight, despite his limited availability.

Benitez, who is also without Alvaro Arbeloa tonight, provided no sense that his contractual negotiations are any nearer completion, despite Parry's departure which has followed a tilt in the balance of power from the chief executive's office to Benitez. Bafflingly, he talked first in terms of days, then weeks. The misery was palpable. "When we are in a position where we are so close and [then] there is defeat, the mood [is] not the best," he concluded. "We will look at the defeat, we will have have five minutes and then we will start again."