Liverpool players arrived back at Melwood last month to find a small hill in the midst of their training base, a novel idea from Rafael Benitez designed to improve the strength of his squad over the course of his third season at Anfield. It is the removal of the mountain that once stood between the club and Chelsea's title, however, that best illustrates the success of the Spaniard's rebuilding.
If it is early August then it must be time for two traditional features in the football calendar: the Community Shield, in which Benitez confronts Jose Mourinho's Chelsea for the 11th time in 22 months tomorrow, and pre-season claims from Liverpool that this will be the season when a 19th League championship arrives at Anfield. During 16 fruitless years such proclamations have sounded more like tired refrains than natural bursts of summer enthusiasm but, under Benitez's stewardship, there is a confidence and a substance to Liverpool's domestic ambition once more.
For the third summer in succession the former Valencia coach, who won La Liga in his first and third seasons at the Mestalla, has continued the subtle evolution of a squad that many cite as the best equipped to challenge Chelsea's dominance this season. He has eased out many of the disappointments he inherited from his predecessor, Gérard Houllier. Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao, two players who were supposed to turn Liverpool into title contenders after they finished second in 2002, have now gone along with their exorbitant salaries while the club's record signing, £14m Djibril Cissé, has been dispatched on loan to Marseilles with a broken leg.
With a minimum of fuss Benitez has again addressed the major weaknesses in his squad through his obvious advantages in the Spanish transfer market and astute deals, notably the release clause in Craig Bellamy's Blackburn contract that allowed him to join a Champions' League club for £6m.
In his first summer he identified the need for flair and a partner for Steven Gerrard, 12 months ago it was a commanding goalkeeper and the target man Liverpool lacked on their travels, and now the absence of natural wide men plus a quicker, prolific attack have been resolved in Bellamy, Jermaine Pennant and Mark Gonzalez. Should Feyenoord accept a £10m offer for Dirk Kuyt before the transfer deadline, his forward line will be complete.
This summer has also witnessed a shift in the manager's confidence ahead of the new campaign. Only 12 months ago, having finished 33 points behind Chelsea in his debut season, Benitez would instantly dismiss any questions about a title challenge. Now, having closed the gap to nine points last season, he is prepared to elaborate on the prospect of taking them to the wire.
"We have a better squad than last season, but if they have a better squad also we will have to see if we can reduce the gap," he said yesterday. "All I can say is that I'm happy with the new players and the squad is stronger because we have more balance. I don't just think about Chelsea though, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham also have very good teams.
"This season I would like to see the League much closer at the top, with two or three teams competing. That would be good for the League, not one team 10 points higher than all the rest. That is not a good situation for the League, for the supporters, for anyone. It would be much better if it was United second, Chelsea third, Arsenal fourth and Liverpool first."
Despite an outlay of almost £20m since the end of last season Liverpool continue to lack the wealth of their rivals due to the ongoing failure to attract or accept new investment in the club. They do, however, also lack the internecine politics that has hindered all attempts by Real Madrid to lure Benitez away from Anfield and which could one day come to the surface at Stamford Bridge.
Mourinho has commenced his attack on Liverpool without a ball being kicked this season, although his criticism of their "defensive" style has been embraced as a back-handed compliment at Anfield after so long out of the title conversations. "I know him and I know how he likes to play these kind of games, but I like the games you play for 90 minutes, not the games before and after," responded Benitez.
The Liverpool manager has proved an irritant to Mourinho by his placid nature and by defeating Chelsea en route to success in both the Champions' League and FA Cup. It is a myth that the Benitez holds an Indian sign over his Iberian counterpart, however. Though he has triumphed in the most critical contests against Mourinho, last season's FA Cup semi-final and the second leg of the European Cup semi in 2005 are his only two victories over Chelsea in 10 attempts. Portugal's leading light on these shores has won five, including every Premiership encounter.
"The Community Shield is another trophy but it is not our priority," insisted Benitez. There are no prizes for guessing what is.Reuse content