Rafa Benitez's grasp of the facts is admired at Anfield and mocked in Manchester.
It's now or never for Benitez
Rafa Benitez's grasp of the facts is admired at Anfield and mocked in Manchester. There are, however, some statistics that are guaranteed to gratify Sir Alex Ferguson more than the Liverpool manager. These, for instance: Manchester United have won 11 championships in the Premier League's 17-year existence and Liverpool none. United, who once trailed their rivals 18-7 in terms of titles, have drawn level in the table of all-time exploits; one more - which would be a fourth successive title, something Liverpool have never achieved - and Ferguson could content himself with the knowledge that an historic supremacy had been achieved.
Yet there are reasons to believe a 19-year wait for the elusive 19th title may be ended this season, and that Ferguson may be given a further target in that game of catch-up that is becoming a lifetime's work. It is a prediction that would be made rather more confidently were Xabi Alonso still at Anfield to orchestrate play, or if his replacement, Alberto Aquilani, were likely to figure in the first two months of the campaign.
But whereas United's most reliable and remarkable match-winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, has exchanged Manchester for Madrid, Liverpool possess a pair who should prove the envy of the rest of the league. The dynamic partnership of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres means they assume an immense importance. When Liverpool's No 8 and No 9 are in harness, defences can be stylishly scythed apart by a blend of pace and penetration, opponents brutalised by brilliance.
Among their teammates, the final weeks of last season also revealed a sense of adventure that was long disguised. Benitez's squad discovered a sense of purpose and unity that was lacking for too long. That may be mirrored off the field. Benitez, in his sixth season at the helm, has finally ousted the chief executive Rick Parry and gained control of transfer policy. While Alonso's exit is a seismic blow, he has signed two of the players - Aquilani, from AS Roma and Glen Johnson from Portsmouth - who were his first choice in their respective positions.
Moreover, just as a first title in a quarter of century became a holy grail to Manchester United in 1993, it has attained a similar status at Anfield. For men of the resolve of Jamie Carragher and Gerrard, for a manager of the calibre and obsessiveness of Benitez, it is the one significant absence on their respective CVs. It is not a failsafe theory. Yes, the squad is still short of high-class alternatives to the first XI and yes, Gerrard and Torres are vital.
Yes, Liverpool need to convert draws into victories at home more often and yes, they may require Manchester United to slip back into the pack. But they are a team nearing their peak at a time when the spending of Real Madrid and Manchester City has added an element of uncertainty to the equation. After first Chelsea and then United's relentless domination, this year presents a rare window of opportunity.
Chelsea have assembled a squad of enviable power, but they have appointed, in Carlo Ancelotti, a manager who is untried in England. In any event, the suspicion is that the Champions League will prove his major priority. In contrast, everything else is a secondary consideration at Anfield. Manchester United may be in transition now, but Ferguson could spend the proceeds from Ronaldo's sale next summer.
The likelihood, too, is that Manchester City will be better placed to challenge in 12 months' time while a further year's experience should make Arsenal's youthful collective stronger in the 2010-11 season. For Liverpool, this is their best chance in two decades. For Benitez, it is now or never. @Email:email@example.com