Benitez: 'Our season begins now'

Liverpool put European disappointment behind them as they prepare to host Arsenal.

    Benayoun and Torres take a breather as Liverpool lose to Fiorentina [GALLO/GETTY] 
    Pre-season predictions for the English Premier League were of a battle between the top five teams.

    It was billed as a contest between the defending champions Manchester United, Ancelotti's Chelsea, a Liverpool side who finished second last season, Arsenal and the big-spenders Manchester City.

    How times have changed.

    City's squad have still not gelled despite their big names, drawing half of their league matches, Liverpool have struggled to win games and have fallen out of the Champions League to become an unseeded team in the Europa League, and Arsenal find themselves eight points off London rivals Chelsea.

    As Chelsea and Manchester United battle for the top spot, a different fight emerges this Sunday when Arsenal visit a Liverpool side aiming to protect their 'big four' status.

    Woeful form

    Reds manager Rafa Benitez could not have had a worse first half to the season.

    His side has already lost three league games more than last season and he has missed out on European glory.

    Worse still, for a manager under the weight of expectations of fans chasing an elusive domestic title, his captain Steven Gerrard admitted recently that the EPL title was all but out of sight.

    Sunday's visit of Arsenal could be just the game the Spaniard needs.

    Arsenal will be looking for a first league win at Anfield since 2003, which would keep them in touch with Chelsea and above north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

    Defeat for Arsene Wenger's side, however, would move seventh-placed Liverpool within a point of them having played a game more.

    Both sides have endured striker problems in recent months and the return to fitness of Liverpool frontman Fernando Torres could make the difference as Arsenal remain without injured trio Robin van Persie, Nicklas Bendtner and Eduardo da Silva.

    Aquilani return

    Liverpool also have playmaker Alberto Aquilani finally return to form, impressing with his performance at Wednesday night's disappointing 2-1 Champions League loss to Group E winner Fiorentina.

    Alberto Aquilani makes a welcome return to form for Liverpool [AFP]
    The $32.67 million midfielder showed enough good form to suggest he can at least partially fill the shoes of Xabi Alonso.

    Skipper Gerrard praised Aquilani's play-making qualities.

    "He did well,'' said Gerrard.

    "It's going to take him some time to get up to speed in terms of match fitness but the boy's a player, there's no doubt about that.

    "He can see a pass, he's on the same wavelength and he will turn into a fantastic player for this club.''

    The return to fitness for Torres was also a boost for Benitez who knows the potential the young Spaniard can add to his squad.

    "To see Aquilani, to see Torres, those were the real positive things for the next match and the rest of our season,” said Benitez.

    "Aquilani showed his quality, his touch was good. His vision and passing were good but obviously he will have to work on his match fitness. Everyone is available for Sunday, if he trains well he could well be involved against Arsenal.

    Benitez remained positive about the Sunday clash.

    "We are still trying to see the positives, we are playing better and we must now take that into a very important game.

    "It is the beginning of a new season for us now, I hope.''

    Winless streak

    Results & fixtures

    Saturday December 12

    Birmingham v West Ham
     Bolton v Man City
     Burnley v Fulham
     Chelsea v Everton
     Hull v Blackburn
     Man Utd v Aston Villa
     Stoke v Wigan
     Sunderland v Portsmouth
     Tottenham v Wolves

    Sunday December 13

     Liverpool v Arsenal

    Chelsea face Liverpool neighbours Everton on Saturday, hoping to break a three-match winless streak in all competitions.

    Everton are struggling in 15th place, and Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel remained positive about victory at Stamford Bridge.

    "It is good that we are now playing two games at home. We owe the manager because he is really mad and we have to make sure we win these next two games," he told the club website.

    Second-placed United, who trail Chelsea by two points having both played 15 games, host Martin O'Neill's fifth-placed Aston Villa with a lengthy injury list.

    Returning centre back Nemanja Vidic will slot into an unfamiliar United back four that includes midfielders Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick as Alex Ferguson copes with a host of defensive absentees.

    "We have a very difficult game on Saturday against Villa, they are always very hard to play against, but our form is good and you want that going into any game. Hopefully we can keep it going," Ferguson said.

    Man City visit Bolton Wanderers and fourth-placed Spurs host struggling Wolves.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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