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Liverpool facing test of strength

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Phil McNulty | 10:07 GMT, Friday, 24 October 2008

Liverpool fans have seen vital signs that this could actually be the season when a serious Premier League title challenge materialises out of Anfield.

Rafael Benitez has what is widely accepted to be the strongest squad he has assembled since arriving at Anfield from Valencia in 2004.

This increased strength is augmented by the presence of two genuine world-class match winners in Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

And, perhaps more importantly, Liverpool are demonstrating a grinding resilience that is enabling them to get wins from games they may have drawn - or even lost - in previous seasons.

Middlesbrough. Manchester United. Marseille. Manchester City. Wigan Athletic. All teams beaten despite taking the lead.

So far so good. But if there is a game that will enable us to deliver a more defining verdict on the seriousness of Liverpool's title aspirations, it comes at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

If Liverpool can go to Chelsea and match a side playing wonderfully fluent attacking football, married to their time-honoured defensive steel, then they might really start to believe they will last the course.

The Liverpool camp is buoyant and understandably so. Former manager Roy Evans has joined midfield man Xabi Alonso in exuding an air of confidence about a trip to a ground which has brought little other than disappointment for Benitez.

And it would provide an almost incalculable level of confidence if Liverpool actually ended Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten sequence at home in the Premier League.

Easier said than done though - and more difficult if, as expected, the talismanic Torres' is missing from the starting line-up.

I said in a previous blog that I had doubts about whether Liverpool's all-round squad strength was good enough to match Manchester United's or Chelsea's.

This judgement still stands, but we will have a better idea after Sunday and it must be said that Liverpool have done almost everything asked of them so far this season.

They outplayed Manchester United at Anfield, cruised past Everton at Goodison Park and recovered spectacularly to beat Manchester City at Eastlands.

The optimists will suggests this shows the new resilience - the cynics will suggest their luck will run out sooner or later.

Liverpool will need to show more to convince me they can win the title, but this season has shown more promise than others, even last term when they made another good start.

They have yet to really hit top form and keep winning - a good title indicator - while Benitez has seemingly accepted he needs Torres and Gerrard playing in every game to win the title.

Liverpool may have got by without them in the starting team against Manchester United, but they will not win the title if either is sidelined for a serious period of time.

Chelsea, on the other hand, will see this as an opportunity to puncture the growing and justified optimism inside Anfield.

Jose Mourinho's work at Chelsea (and I make no apologies for being a huge fan of The Special One) was a masterclass in coaching. He is sorely missed in the Premier League.


But under Luiz Felipe Scolari they have discovered an extra dimension that has made them easy on the eye as well as serial winners.

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill was glowing in his praise for Chelsea after they were beaten at Stamford Bridge.

And an allegedly under-strength Chelsea could have racked up double figures in the 5-0 win at Middlesbrough.

Deco has added fluency to their play and the passing and movement fostered under Scolari has been spectacular to watch at times - and just in case we forget the Champions League win against Roma showed they can still be hard-nosed when required.

And Scolari's charisma is winning friends for a club that lost a few thanks to Mourinho's own particular brand of gunboat diplomacy - although I never had a problem with the added excitement he provided.

The Brazilian has walked into Chelsea's dressing room and commanded instant respect. He has grasped the language and it was refreshing to hear him regard an apparent injury crisis as a test of his abilities as a coach rather than a cue for excuses.

It is unlikely we will discover anything we did not already know about Chelsea on Sunday, but it is an opportunity for Liverpool to prove much about how strong they can be this season.

Liverpool's confidence levels are high. And they will need to be if they are to come through their most thorough examination of the season so far.

If they emerge unscathed from Stamford Bridge on Sunday, then there is every reason for Liverpool fans to feel their excellent start this season is not simply another false dawn.


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