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Benitez plays down Liverpool's title chances

Benitez plays down Liverpool's title chances

Aston Villa (0) 1 Liverpool (1) 2

Liverpool may have spent approaching £40 million on players to stiffen their squad, with the promise of more to come, but Rafa Benitez still doesn't think it is enough to seriously inconvenience the two-horse race for the title between Manchester United and Chelsea.

To illustrate his point, Benitez stabbed his hands one above the other to suggest a bar being moved higher and higher. "We spent more money so have improved, but they have spent money so they have improved, too," he said. "Can we get closer? We would have to do everything almost perfect, and we will try to do that.

Benitez plays down Liverpool's title chances
Captain's example: Steven Gerrard's late free-kick won it

"We know we will be under pressure because we have a better team, but they also have better teams than they did before. For me, winning or losing one game doesn't make that much difference; we need to analyse the next two months."

Liverpool have been notoriously slow starters in recent seasons, so the victory at Villa Park got them off to a comparative flier. Yet they achieved it with just one of the new recruits in the starting XI, in Fernando Torres. It was almost a throw-back to the Shankly days when players would linger in the reserves while they learnt the Anfield way.

"The idea was to start the season with players who had experience of the Premier League," Benitez explained. "If you bring in a lot of new players and start playing with them you don't know if they will settle in. I wanted players with experience to approach this game with the character that was needed."

Certainly Torres formed a promising partnership with Dirk Kuyt, and Ryan Babel stretched tired Villa legs late on. However, it was one of the home-grown players who again rose to the challenge: you can't keep Steven Gerrard down, and his decisive free-kick was Beckham-esque in its execution, timing and significance.

Villa protested strongly about the bodycheck by the woeful Stiliyan Petrov on Gerrard 25 yards out. There was no argument about the kick that curled over the wall and beat Stuart Taylor's leap to nestle in the top righthand corner, however.

Once Martin O'Neill, the Villa manager, had overcome his disappointment, he said: "Steven Gerrard remains the heartbeat of that team, without question; he looks as if he is even improving."

Gerrard's moment came three minutes from time, two minutes after Gareth Barry's penalty had equalised Martin Laursen's own goal, which came midway through the opening half.

That Villa should come so close highlighted Liverpool's profligacy, and Taylor's response to the loan signing of Scott Carson the day before.

Villa, however, looked not so much a team in transition as one in need of wholesale transfusion.

O'Neill has two and a half weeks until the transfer window closes in which to enlarge his small squad; he requires three or four players who can go straight into the team. First, though, he needs to throw off his puritanical approach to spending and think big. He should ask Benitez for advice.

Match details

Aston Villa: Taylor, Gardner, Mellberg, Laursen (Cahill 46), Bouma (Moore 71), Petrov, Reo-Coker, Barry, Agbonlahor, Carew, Young. Subs: Harewood, Osbourne, Maloney. Booked: Mellberg, Bouma, Barry, Petrov. Goals: Barry 85 pen. Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa, Pennant (Babel 74), Gerrard, Alonso, Riise, Torres (Voronin 79), Kuyt (Sissoko 90). Subs: Itandje, Hyypia. Booked: Pennant, Reina. Goals: Laursen 31 og, Gerrard 87. Referee: Mike Riley (England).

Man of the Match: Steven Gerrard


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