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Liverpool may fall short in title tilt

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Phil McNulty | 11:24 GMT, Thursday, 14 August 2008

Liverpool fans are indulging in a familiar August pastime - namely pondering all the permutations to work out whether they will finally win the title for the first time since 1990.

Earlier in the summer I made a written promise to Liverpool fans who accused me of forever running down their chances of winning the Premier League.

I said I would return to the subject on the eve of the new campaign, study the summer's events and assess whether this season would be any different from the last 18 years in title terms.

Liverpool's summer has been decidedly mixed. Robbie Keane will prove to be an outstanding capture from Spurs, albeit at the truly exorbitant price of £20m.

But Rafael Benitez's pursuit of Gareth Barry has been embarrassing in its execution and acrimonious in the extreme as Aston Villa stood firm on their £18m price tag.

The fall-out has even scratched at the surface of the uneasy truce between Benitez and Liverpool's owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who clearly do not share their manager's view of Barry's worth.

There are two sides to this argument and both have a certain merit.

Barry is worth nowhere near £18m, but it drives at the heart of the manager's judgement to deprive him of his major transfer target.

It is clear the failure to land Barry has irked Benitez, a manager with a history of being easily irked by his own club's power-brokers.

Benitez has been active elsewhere, bringing in Italian defender Andrea Dossena and Switzerland international Philipp Degen.

So with his business done, Barry notwithstanding, will Benitez finally fulfil Liverpool's dream and bring the title back to Anfield?

Benitez's reign has been built on progress in cup competitions, but he has yet to put together any serious sustained title challenge.

Liverpool will undoubtedly be contenders. They may finish higher than last season's fourth place, but I have my doubts about whether they will push Manchester United and Chelsea for the title.

Robbie Keane

This is a crucial campaign for Benitez. The Spaniard is tactically astute, but Liverpool's early momentum last term was killed off by his tendency to meddle needlessly, inexplicably leaving Fernando Torres out of eminently winnable games at home to Birmingham and away to Portsmouth.

He also needs to remember he is a coach not a politician. Benitez has had enough money to spend over recent seasons for Liverpool's hierarchy to demand he delivers a serious title challenge this time around. No excuses.

Liverpool pulled off a genuine coup in landing Keane from Spurs to pair with the brilliant Torres. This is a partnership potentially filled with goals and a spearhead to compare with any in the Premier League.

The only question mark surrounds how Liverpool will accommodate Keane in their formation. He will presumably play just behind Torres, but Steven Gerrard filled that role in outstanding fashion in the second half of last season.

Keane's arrival probably means Gerrard's burgeoning partnership with Torres will be placed on the back-burner and the Liverpool captain will figure in a more orthodox central midfield role.

They have a reliable keeper in Pepe Reina and the return of Daniel Agger in central defence after a season wrecked by injury is a welcome strengthening on those resources, which were boosted by the addition of Martin Skrtel in January.

Liverpool are well-blessed in central midfield when Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva return from the Olympics to team up with Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, who appears to have survived the cut and with it effectively killed off Benitez's hopes of landing Barry.

They are not so strong down the flanks, and Benitez will need big contributions from his new full-backs as well as Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun to provide crucial balance.

Jermaine Pennant is also on the margins of the squad, but in reality he is not a player who will win Liverpool a title - indeed he has barely won them a match since his arrival from Birmingham two seasons ago.

It is a strong squad with world-class talent in the shape of Torres and Gerrard - but it does not, in my opinion, match the all-round strength of Manchester United and Chelsea.

Liverpool have also failed to match that pair's consistency, so this will be another part of the equation Benitez must solve.

Keane's arrival will give Liverpool an extra dimension, but it is one I believe makes them more likely winners of a cup competition than the Premier League. They may rise to third place, but I do not see them as champions.

Manchester United and Chelsea will regard them as dangerous league rivals, but not the team to derail their title challenge.

Of course I know there will be plenty of Liverpool fans out there ready to argue with me. Some may even agree. Let's hear from you.

Third place and a cup - but another year without the title for Liverpool.

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