We need to start winning right now, begs Benitez

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez knows his side must return to winning ways at home to Portsmouth today as they seek to maintain a credible challenge for the Barclays Premier League title.

Back-to-back defeats to Reading and Manchester United — along with the Reds’ midweek Carling Cup quarter-final exit to Chelsea — have dampened spirits at Anfield.

But with the Champions League not restarting until February against Serie A leaders Inter Milan, Liverpool’s only involvement aside from the league is the FA Cup, which begins with a third-round tie against Coca-Cola League One outfit Luton next month.

That means Benitez has plenty of breathing space to get his team back on track.

“The priority is the Premier League for us, but we know Portsmouth are a very difficult team to play against,” said the Spaniard.

“They are a physical side who play good football and have a good counter-attack. They also have a good record away and a manager with experience.

“But it is important we win against Portsmouth and then go to play against Derby (St Stephen’s Day) and Man City (December 30) with confidence.

“Our idea is to be as close as possible to the top of the table, so we need to start winning right now, to improve our performances at home. If we do, we will be closer to the top.”

Liverpool have not lost three successive league matches since October 2003, and it is 56 years since Portsmouth won at Anfield.

However, Pompey have the best away record in the top flight and only trail fifth-placed Liverpool on goal difference. Everton are also on 30 points, with Aston Villa on 28.

Benitez expects those teams with larger squads to prevail.

“There are a lot of clubs spending big — Newcastle, Aston Villa, West Ham, Portsmouth, Man City,” he said.

“But in a long competition like the Premier League, you will see the value of squads. The key is the last 10 games. The big four normally have more options, and I think we will have enough quality to be top four.”

Benitez had a disagreement over transfer-window plans with American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks last month, but that was cleared up after the defeat to Manchester United.

“We talked about how to go forward, but we did not talk about the need to sell before we could buy,” said the Liverpool boss.

On his future, Benitez admits he would like to extend his stay beyond the end of his contract, which is due to expire in 2010 — but he has not raised the issue with the Americans.

“I have two-and-a-half years left on my contract, and I will be really pleased if they offered me another. I would say yes — but I’m not expecting one.”

Captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres are due to return against Portsmouth, having missed the Carling Cup match with stomach upsets. Midfielder Xabi Alonso is back in contention after a 60-minute run at Stamford Bridge, having recovered from a broken foot, but England forward Peter Crouch is suspended after his sending off against the Blues.

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