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Stuttering start not an option in catch-up game

Stuttering start not an option in catch-up game

Aug 10 2007

by David Prentice, Liverpool Echo

Rafael Benitez (left) and David Moyes

RAFA BENITEZ must change the habits of his Anfield lifetime – if Liverpool's 17-year title dream is to prove more substantial than this year's summer sunshine.

The Liverpool boss kicks off his fourth season in charge of the Reds at tea time tomorrow.

In each of the previous three, Liverpool have been effectively out of the title race by September.

But this time they could be out of it by the end of August.

Aston Villa offers a tricky opening day test, Chelsea is even tougher the week after – while in between the Reds must negotiate the unwanted but crucial distraction of a trip to Toulouse, just while Manchester United and Chelsea are probably piling three more points to their Premier League tally.

That leaves the unpalatable possibility of Liverpool having to play catch-up while the season is still in its infancy, and neither United nor Chelsea have proved themselves to be the kind of sides who are good at getting caught.

In other words a flying start is imperative.

Fernando will be a name on many Kopites' lips this season.

But Liverpool started last term like the Formula One version, idling in a Hungarian pit-stop, that is.

While United accelerated away in a squeal of tyres, Liverpool stuttered like a fully-laden Lada.

Distracted by Maccabi Haifa, they drew at Sheffield United. They successfully scraped past West Ham, then were routed by Everton and beaten at Chelsea and Bolton.

A home draw with Blackburn and another defeat at Manchester United meant any faint title dreams were rudely dashed before the leaves had turned brown.

The margins for failure for title winning teams is now unbearably tight.

There was a time when the opening match of the season could be dismissed as an insignificant opportunity to shake off summer lethargy – the footballing equivalent of a fast bowler's loosener before the pace-balls and the yorkers come fizzing down.

Everton could lose 4-1 at home to Tottenham and 2-1 at West Bromwich Albion – and still go on to celebrate the greatest season in the club's history.

United could collapse at Villa Park and be told they'd never win anything with kids, then go on to win the double.

Liverpool's last title-winning season saw a home defeat by Coventry, a 4-1 hiding at Southampton, draws at Villa Park, Luton and at home to Norwich and even a defeat at QPR - all in the first dozen matches - and still won the league with nine points to spare.

But the mega-monied league within the league which the Champions League has created has changed all that.

Chelsea lost just three matches when they won their first title under Jose Mourinho, the season after Arsenal did it without losing once.

Chelsea lost only three times again last season . . . and finished second.

The lesson is simple. Liverpool can't afford a bad start.

Across the park (how much longer before that phrase becomes redundant?) David Moyes must also break bad habits.

The custom he must change, however, is the metronomic practice of following one good season with bad.

Last season The Toffees flew out of the traps so quickly it would have taken a collapse of Barings Bank proportions to let a UEFA Cup place slip.

They didn't, but this time they have a probable UEFA Cup campaign to absorb and the disappearance of Joseph Yobo, Stephen Pienaar and Victor Anichebe to the African Nations Cup in January.

So again, a flying start is not just preferred, but a prerequisite - both to keep the harbingers of doom at bay and give Moyes the breathing space to add the bodies his squad so desperately needs.

Rafa Benitez, of course, has already added significantly to his squad.

Fernando Torres is a class act, Yossi Benayoun looks set to inherit Luis Garcia's mantle as a goal-creating maverick and Ryan Babel is an unknown, but intriguing quantity.

But it's still hard to shake the feeling that the best chance of success for both clubs lies in the cup competitions.

Liverpool have a squad which means the accidents of Arsenal, Burnley and Benfica in recent seasons can be avoided.

Everton will actually come into the Carling Cup this season at a later stage than they have exited it in recent years.

But that's all for the future.

For now Everton and Liverpool are concentrating on one thing only, getting the 2007/08 season off to a flying start.

Anything less could prove fatal to their season's prospects.

Milligan deal warning note

TWO words should be muttered to David Moyes if this week's bids for Yakubu and Manuel Fernandes hint at last minute panic buying. Mike Milligan. Everton negotiated, counter-negotiated and bartered with Oldham all through the summer of 1990 for the Latics spiky little midfielder. Then they finally relented and paid £1.1m the day before the season started. Milligan was rushed through a medical, hastily handed a squad number and tossed straight into a baptism of fire against Leeds. Everton lost, the crowd bayed, Neville Southall sat against a goalpost – and Milligan never recovered. His Everton career lasted a sum total of 24 matches. Bought as a replacement for Peter Reid, he carried all the effectiveness of Beryl Reid – and quickly returned to Oldham. The transfer window is open for another three weeks. Moyes still has plenty of time.

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