Benitez: Liverpool must improve

Liverpool face Stoke City at Anfield on Wednesday with concern already arising about their chances of winning the Premier League this season.

That may sound absurd given that the new year is a mere 90 minutes old but Liverpool's loss to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday means they are already off the pace of the other favourites to win the league.

Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal all won at the weekend to register an early three points and Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has been at Anfield for long enough now to know that he cannot afford to let any club engineer an early breakaway. Liverpool know they need to get back on track against the Midlands club if they are to stop an issue from being transformed into a crisis.

The pessimism that has already cropped up in and around Anfield has not been aided by the transfer of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid last month. The £30 million Liverpool received for the player was a superb investment on the £10.7 million they paid Real Sociedad four years ago but there is no doubt Liverpool have lost one of their best players - as proven by the Spurs loss.

However, Benitez feels Liverpool can still prosper in his absence but admits an improvement is required for the Stoke fixture. "We had games without Alonso last season, and won a lot of games, so I think we have enough quality in the squad, and we have to prove this," he said.

"We knew that we had to play well, but it was not because of the pressure on us. We did not play well in the first half against Tottenham, but were much better in the second, when we pushed harder and had more options in the final third but clearly we have to improve if we want to win these types of games.

We have to improve in the middle, keeping the ball. The understanding has to be better,
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez.

"We have to improve in the middle, keeping the ball. The understanding has to be better. But it is too early, and we have another game on Wednesday when clearly we have to improve in the possession."

In this corresponding fixture last season, Stoke held Liverpool to a goalless draw as they managed to confound expectations by avoiding relegation. And they will again visit Anfield in buoyant mood after beating Owen Coyle's Burnley side at Britannia Stadium on the opening day of the season.

Stoke were one of only two sides to win at home in the first game - the other being Chelsea but manager Tony Pulis is refusing to become complacent about his side's position in the Premier League and knows that results have to keep on coming if they are to become an established and respected top-flight club.

"The statistics show the second year is the most difficult and I want to make absolutely sure that no one takes things for granted," he said. "I've already had other managers onto me saying our players and fans won't reach the same heights and intensity as they did last season. We have to prove those people wrong.

"It is absolutely vital to this football club that we stay in the Premiership for three years. If we can do that, we will be able to build rock solid foundations and then push on to be a force."