No comfort zone for Crouch, warns Benitez

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The Independent Online

As he danced robotically before the future King of England and 70,000 people on the eve of the World Cup the suspicion lingered that Peter Crouch would be in for a stern word from Rafael Benitez upon his return to Liverpool this summer.

So it has proved, with the man who turned Crouch from a figure of fun into an established international yesterday warning the £7m striker against complacency as he attempts to avoid "difficult second-season syndrome" at Anfield.

Crouch was named among the substitutes as Liverpool began their competitive season against Maccabi Haifa in the fraught Champions' League qualifier on Wednesday, the same day that Anfield officials made a renewed £10m approach for the Feyenoord striker Dirk Kuyt.

Though he replaced another new striker, goalscorer Craig Bellamy, in the 65th minute and helped distract the Haifa defence as debutant Mark Gonzalez ghosted in to secure a late and slender victory, the England international faces a greater challenge to command a regular first-team place this season if Benitez's attack takes shape as anticipated.

And the Liverpool manager has warned: "I think Peter is more mature this year but he needs to understand what it means to be a Liverpool player. He needs to improve in some areas and also continue what he does well - you cannot stop improving at a club like this and I think he is heading in the right way."

Benitez added: "This time last year people were saying he wasn't good enough for Liverpool, now he is in the national team. People know how good he is now but he cannot think he has made it; he needs to keep improving because he has a lot of potential."

Feyenoord are currently considering Liverpool's improved offer for their prolific 26-year-old marksman, with a decision expected by the Premiership club early next week.

Liverpool will discover today where their second leg tie with Haifa will be played on 22 or 23 August, with Cyprus favoured above Kiev, with match-winner Gonzalez adamant that the contest is far from settled. The Chilean winger scored within three minutes of replacing Steven Gerrard on Wednesday night, an instant reward for a player whose £4.5m transfer from Albacete last summer was delayed by 12 months by work permit problems.

Gonzalez said: "It was a dream for me to score on my debut but it is only the beginning for me. We are Liverpool, we have to be in the Champions' League, but we are not there yet. Maccabi are a dangerous team on the counter-attack and it is going to be difficult."

Benitez will not be dragged into a war of words with Jose Mourinho ahead of the Community Shield on Sunday. Mourinho, while on Chelsea's tour of the US recently, claimed Arsenal and Manchester United had bought better in the summer and worried him more than Liverpool. And he again branded Liverpool as defensive and boring.

But Benitez has met the claims with a dead bat,saying, "I do not comment on other managers but concentrate on my own team. I prefer not to waste my time with such things."

He added: "We are better equipped than last season, despite the pre-season results. We lost a few friendlies, but they were no more than training games while we have been working twice a day on the players' fitness at our training camp. They have worked hard and sometimes at the end of friendly matches they have been tired. That is understandable.

"We have had injuries, and players not back with us after the World Cup. We were trying different systems and that is why the results have not looked good. But we have more quality for the coming season and I believe the squad is good."