Reds ready to seal new Rafa deal and roll on with title charge

LIVERPOOL manager Rafael Benitez is determined his team will still be top of the Premier League when they return to Champions League action in February.

Benitez is likely to agree a new contract soon, maybe even by the end of the week after Reds chief executive Rick Parry met with his representatives in Madrid on Tuesday, it was encouraging that many of his tactical and selection decisions were vindicated in the convincing 3-1 win against PSV Eindhoven.

It was a night in Holland which saw Liverpool win their Champions League group and justify Benitez’s faith in his supporting cast, who were on cruise control at the end against a deflated PSV who failed even to qualify for the UEFA Cup.

Benitez is believed to be happy with an offer from the American owners of three more years to add to the 18 months he has remaining on his current contract, keeping him in control until 2013.

But for the moment the Spaniard will be looking forward to two-and-a-half months of Premier League action which could make or break their bid to win the title for the first time in 18 years.

With no European matches to worry about before the last-16 phase begins, and only the FA Cup as a distraction, Benitez and his squad can focus on their main aim – the title race.

Liverpool have 10 league games in that time, starting at home to Hull on Saturday, and the former Valencia manager has every intention of seeing his side still top before European football comes around again.

He said: “We now have almost three months to concentrate on the Premier League, and the FA Cup. We would want to go back into Europe next year still top of the table.

“We have qualified for the next stage in Europe, we are top of the Premier League, and now we concentrate on domestic considerations. We do not want to give up top spot, if we are still there when we start up again in Europe, the chances of a really good season will be obvious.”

Benitez was delighted to see youngsters Lucas and David Ngog produce telling performances, along with the misfiring Robbie Keane.

Having had the club’s youth structure also thrust under the microscope, Benitez was more than happy to sing the praises, too, of local boys Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly who made their European debuts.

Kelly, a strapping central defender from Bolton, Spearing a busy midfielder from Wirral and Liverpudlian full-back Darby all stepped up to the plate.

As did Lucas, booed recently by the Anfield crowd, and striker Ngog. Keane, too, had a more than decent game.

Benitez said: “I was so pleased to be able to give three local lads their debuts in the Champions League, it is something I have been wanting to do because we have good young players coming through. Myself and the staff, as well as his team-mates, know that Lucas is a very good player.

“He showed that he has character and quality. With Ngog he has a very bright future at Liverpool. They have not played too many games for the club, but they showed with good performances that they have futures with Liverpool.

“In a few months you can see the progress they have made, and in a few months they will still be improving.

“Maybe Lucas has been spurred on by some of the criticism. But this week he has shown he is a good professional and his reaction to questions about his form and the reaction to him from some fans recently, has been very good.”

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