Liverpool has big task to climb

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src=' ' class='caption'> With its Champions League final triumph over AC Milan now history, Liverpool faces the reality that it still has a long way to go.

updated: February 25, 2007 10:54 IST
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Champion of Europe, but only the second-best team in Liverpool. With its Champions League final triumph over AC Milan now history, Liverpool faces the reality that it still has a long way to go to catch Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United in the Premier League race. Rafa Benitez's team even finished behind cross-city neighbor Everton in fifth place last season. "We need to start playing to see if we can fight for more than fourth place," Benitez said. "We could be fighting for second or third but we will try to fight for the title if possible." Liverpool, which holds a record 18 English league titles, hasn't won the domestic championship in 15 years. Last season, Liverpool lost 14 of its 38 league games to finish 37 points behind champion Chelsea, which was beaten just once. It was Chelsea's first league title in 50 years. During that time, Liverpool won the title 13 times. Liverpool's fans are only too aware that the Champions League triumph glossed over major problems at the club. Steven Gerrard was on the brink of leaving for either Chelsea or Real Madrid before he agreed to a new deal. Newcomers in the fray Benitez has signed six newcomers in a bid to strengthen the squad. Peter Crouch, a 6-foot-7 (2.01 m) striker whose performances for relegated Southampton earned him his first England appearance, is the latest to sign. He followed Mali midfielder Mohammed "Momo" Sissoko from Valencia, goalkeeper Jose Reina from Villarreal, right back Antonio Barragan from Seville, midfielder Boudewijn Zenden from Middlesbrough and forward Mark Gonzalez from Albacete on a season-long loan. Benitez was also interested in signing Luis Figo from Real Madrid but Liverpool didn't want to pay a big transfer fee for the veteran Portuguese winger. One player who won't be coming is former Liverpool striker Michael Owen, who is struggling to get playing time at Real Madrid. "We have a lot of strikers now who I am happy with," Benitez said. Benitez has a squad big enough to challenge the top four. But does it have the quality? Worries on defence Gerrard and Xabi Alonso are the stars of a well-organized midfield, although the fans aren't convinced about the value of injury-prone Australian winger Harry Kewell, whose performances weren't very impressive when he was fit. Luis Garcia provides talented support to strikers Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cisse, while the future of Milan Baros is in doubt, especially after the arrival of Crouch. Despite the emergence of Jamie Carragher as one of the best central defenders in England, there are weaknesses at the back. Although the defense held firm in European games with three shutouts leading up to the final, Liverpool lost to modest teams such as relegated Southampton and Crystal Palace and League Championship side Burnley. If Liverpool is to mount a realistic championship challenge this season, Benitez's team can't afford to drop points to the relegation candidates and mid-standings clubs. Pressure on Benitez Benitez guided Liverpool to Europe's most prestigious trophy in his first season at Anfield after leading Valencia to the Spanish league and UEFA Cup titles. Now he's under pressure to bring the club domestic honors. "The main thing now for all of us is to win the Premier League," Liverpool chairman David Moores said. "It's the one trophy I've never seen come to the club while I've been chairman and I know it's the one the players and supporters want." (AP)