Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, is confident that his team will close the gap on Premier League champions Manchester United next season. The Spaniard, who feels he finally has the control he needs at the club after signing a new contract in March, believes that the foundations for a new era at Anfield were laid last season.
Liverpool came closer than they had ever done to ending their 19-year championship drought last season, losing just twice and finishing with 86 points – which was four behind United and their best Premier League return.
Benitez, who celebrates five years in charge at Liverpool today, finally broke his United hoodoo with two league victories and senses a change in fortunes. "If you analyse the number of points you see it's a record for the club in the Premier League," he said yesterday. "We are going forward, we are progressing. For the future this is good news and, hopefully, this is the beginning of something important. In terms of the consistency of the team, we've been really good. The squad is better, the mentality is very good and the players are competing for their positions."
What is key for Benitez over the summer is to find the reinforcements to make his squad strong enough to challenge United over an entire season. He has already seen two integral components of his team, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona but has stressed they will not be sold. Provided he hangs on to the pair, Benitez has to bring in new players, on a budget much smaller than the sums available to his top-four rivals, to secure a depth of talent in the squad closer to that of United's.
The Liverpool manager believes that was the only difference between the two sides last season. "We won against them twice this year. We've shown we can beat anyone. Clearly, we have enough quality in the team," he said. "The squad is good but against us United had Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Dimitar Berbatov on the bench. Each year is different but we are closer, we have more confidence, and the experience of this year will be good for next season. You never know but it seems like we are reducing the gap."
Breaking United's dominance is a huge motivating factor for the striker Fernando Torres, who was surprisingly linked with a move to Old Trafford at the weekend. The Spain international, who scored an 11-minute hat-trick against New Zealand in the Confederations Cup on Sunday, signed an improved contract at the end of last month after scoring 50 goals in 84 matches for the Reds.
He also believes Liverpool are closer than ever to winning their first championship since 1990. "They say foreign players don't care as much as the home-grown, but we are very much aware that Liverpool haven't won the Premier League for 19 years and understand the supporters are desperate for us to put that right," he said. "The rivalry with Manchester United is intense and the roof will come off at Anfield if we beat them to next year's title. Obviously, the Champions League means a lot to Liverpool, but the English title is the one everyone wants in our dressing room.
"Liverpool is a phenomenon, with millions of fans who totally identify with everything the club stands for. They are at one with the players and that's why we get the backing we get at Anfield. This club has it all: the history, the prestige, the fans, the organisation. It's a big responsibility to give the fans here the success they desire, but the challenge is always exhilarating and this is why I was delighted to sign a new contract. Now we need to win the big trophies and we can trust Rafa Benitez to keep the momentum going."