Carragher's red alert: top three may still be out of reach

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The Independent Football

But uprisings in the Premiership, even those plotted in Russia and West London, demand patience; and as Steven Gerrard, still high on his fine hat-trick against Total Network Solutions, was talking last Wednesday night of a Premiership challenge, his great friend and fellow Scouser Jamie Carragher was at the other end of the room warning bluntly that even the top three places are still out of reach.

Of 37 players named on the back of the programme for the final Champions' League home game last season, the epic semi-final against Chelsea, almost a dozen had been chopped by the time last week's uncommonly early start to the defence of the trophy came round. They included Vladimir Smicer - later to be a heroic scorer in the final - Mauricio Pellegrino, Chris Kirkland and Igor Biscan. Prepare too to delete names like Jerzy Dudek and Jose Antonio Nunez, both of whom were sitting disconsolately in the stand on Wednesday; and what of Milan Baros, who found Fernando Morientes, Djibril Cissé and even the ineffective Anthony Le Tallec picked ahead of him?

It would be sensible to leave the apparently unwanted Czech jogging up and down the touchline again for the second leg in Wales this week, increasing his value to potential buyers (not falling over themselves at the moment) as he would remain eligible for European football.

Meanwhile, please welcome five newcomers, with the promise of a central defender, midfielder and striker to come if Real Zaragoza, Real Madrid and Southampton can be persuaded to release Gabriel Milito, Luis Figo and Peter Crouch respectively. The alternative in attack is the possible return of an oldcomer, though Benitez, who worked with Michael Owen for six weeks last summer, then sold him, prefers the aerial option offered by Crouch.

Anfield has already been introduced to Jose Reina, the goalkeeper from Villarreal, whose No 25 jersey cannot disguise the fact that he has replaced Dudek as No 1, and Bolo Zenden, who should be a useful acquisition if he can dovetail with John Arne Riise down the left rather than occupying the space that the rampaging Norwegian likes.

Next in, though not quite early enough for a grateful TNS, was Mohamed Lamine Sissoko, another player well known to Benitez, who took him from Guy Roux's production line at Auxerre to Valencia, where he was prominent even as a teenager in the League title and Uefa Cup double two years ago.

Born in France to Mali parents, he looks surprisingly slight, but is renowned as something of a terrier, who insists he will not be put off by the demands of the Premiership: "I'm well aware of the English game, I've watched many matches involving Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea. Yes, there are different styles but I'm not frightened of it. The big difference is that in England players give 200 per cent all the time. I'm a strong player and my playing style is that I run my socks off for the shirt I'm playing in. A lot of people have confidence in me and I'm ambitious to prove them right. When I signed for Liverpool, people were ecstatic back in Mali."

Unlike Patrick Vieira, born in neighbouring Senegal, he has chosen to play for his parents' country ahead of France, a decision that might or might not dampen down talk of "the new Vieira", though such comparisons do not bother him. "I'm not annoyed, I'm flattered," he says.

There is annoyance in abundance across Stanley Park at Everton, where manager David Moyes hoped to woo him with a guaranteed first-team place, only to have the deal hijacked by his greatest rivals and face accusations of dithering as yet another summer target was missed.

Instead Sissoko is prepared to play the patient game and wait for opportunities under a manager he knows, who says of him: "He's a very good worker, who runs for 90 minutes and can regain the ball many, many times. He's young and needs to learn alongside Didi Hamann, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso. We have the quality in midfield with good passers, and now with Didi and Momo we have two more defensive midfielders and more options."

Admitted interest in another winger and striker notwithstanding, a centre-half remains the greatest priority, illustrated during the 4-3 victory at Wrexham last weekend, when League Two forwards embarrassed the second-string central defenders Josemi and Zak Whitbread in the second half. Carragher, his place under less threat than the slowing Sami Hyypia's, would welcome back-up, as he made clear last Wednesday: "I'm sure the manager wants to make the squad a lot bigger than last year, looking for two players for every position. Then we can mix and change that so nobody will be playing 60 games. Fifty will do for me!"

Gerrard has already hinted that that would be more than enough for him too in a World Cup year. Where the two local lads disagree, at least publicly, is in their estimation of how close Liverpool can come to bridging last season's huge gap behind the champions Chelsea. "I don't want to sound defeatist," Carragher stressed, "but it's difficult even to break into the top three this season. It's still only the manager's second season and we haven't got the resources of Chelsea or Manchester United. We want to win the League, of course, but it's a big jump to make up 37 points."

Red revolution or not, that appears a realistically sober assessment.

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