LONDON: New Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez (pic) knows the pressure is on to challenge Arsenal and Chelsea for the English Premiership title, or he too could hit the exit door.
Former boss Gerard Houllier cleared his desk after a disappointing fourth-place finish last season, enough to scrape into the Champions League qualifiers but so far off Arsenal's championship pace as to force the Anfield board into a rethink.
No-nonsense Benitez arrived in June, fresh from guiding Valencia to the UEFA Cup and a second Spanish championship, and promptly set himself a three-year target to win the Premiership and restore the Reds to their former glory.
The Spaniard has slowly begun shaping his squad, adding Spanish defender Josemi to the side he inherited, with exciting France forward Djibril Cisse already captured under Houllier.
But one-club man Michael Owen has fallen foul of Benitez's tough regime, the new coach reportedly fed up of the striker stalling on contract talks, his high wage demands and training ground clique of fellow England stars.
Czech hitman Milan Baros had an impressive Euro 2004, top-scoring with five goals. His run of form, plus the arrival of highly-rated Cisse, means Owen is no longer an instant first choice.
Real Madrid are stalking the 24-year-old and his relegation to the bench for the Champions League qualifier against AK Graz signalled the end of the Liverpool great's Anfield career.
Owen has scored 158 goals in 297 games for the club, including 22 in Europe to break Ian Rush's long-standing record, but is now training with the reserves, proving even legends are not safe should they cross the new regime.
Benitez's most important signing is Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's trophy-hungry home-grown captain, who was tempted to leave for Champions League-winning boss Jose Mourinho at moneybags Chelsea.
The England midfielder was unhappy with his medal prospects on Merseyside but Benitez persuaded him he could still fulfill his ambition of winning the Premiership as Liverpool skipper.
Australia's Harry Kewell is also feeling rejuvenated. The forward could not reproduce his Leeds form in his first season on Merseyside but is hoping the new manager's pass-and-move style will bring out the creative talents that helped his old club to the Champions League semi-finals.
Houllier lifted six trophies in 2001, but the momentum slipped away and those signed to transform the Reds into Champions League and Premiership challengers failed to deliver, like Senegal's Salif Diao and El Hadji Diouf, now without a squad number.
Many of Houllier's young French proteges signed as the future of Liverpool have been loaned out as Benitez turns his attention to Spanish talent, with a bid tabled for Spain midfielder Xabi Alonso from Real Sociedad.
Unwilling to work with the new coach, homesick Bruno Cheyrou has joined Marseille, beaten in the UEFA Cup final by Benitez's Valencia and teenager Anthony Le Tallec has gone to St Etienne.
Defender Gregory Vignal has joined Scottish giants Rangers for a season, while Carl Medjani, who joined the Reds in July, is now back in France at Lorient.
And Liverpool-born England midfielder Danny Murphy has gone to Charlton Athletic, bemoaning the way the English nucleus of the team is being replaced by a cosmopolitan set.
In defeating Manchester United 3-1 in the Community Shield, a youthful Arsenal showed the strength in depth that carried them to the title undefeated. And Chelsea's Mourinho has boasted of two internationals in each outfield position.
But as Benitez clears out the misfits, his back-up options are looking flimsy should injuries strike the first 11.
The Spaniard's teams are founded on solid defending, and while Josemi, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise should prove a stern back line, the reinforcements look lightweight, as is the case in midfield.
Benitez has begun to deconstruct the old side that stagnated under his predecessor. But after 15 years of waiting for the league title, Reds fans may lose patience quickly if the new-look side fails to deliver the silverware that distinguishes great teams from the also-rans. – AFP