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Benitez looks to Spanish stars as title race gathers pace

SoccerNews in English Premier League 22 Nov 2008

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Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez expects the feelgood factor from his Spanish contingent's international adventure will help keep the pressure on Premier League leaders Chelsea.

Benitez breathed a sigh of relief as his players returned in one piece after friendly matches with their countries in midweek and he was especially pleased that Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera, Pepe Reina and Alvaro Arbeloa all starred in Spain's 3-0 win over Chile in Villarreal.

With their morale sky-high after impressing for Spain, Benitez is confident the quintet will be determined to claim a crucial win over Fulham at Anfield on Saturday to ensure they stay level on points with Chelsea, who are at home to struggling Newcastle.

“It was good to see so many of our players involved because it shows how important Liverpool are,” he said. “I was especially pleased for Arbeloa and Riera because they are getting their reward for working hard and doing a good job for a good club.

“Hopefully now the players will all come back to us and they be fit and ready for the game against Fulham because that is the most important thing for us now.”

Chelsea will be without suspended star Didier Drogba against Newcastle but Nicolas Anelka has proved more than capable of deputising for the Ivory Coast forward.

Anelka took his goal tally for the season to 13 in last weekend's win at West Brom and he should get plenty of chances to add to that total against one of the Premier League's leakiest defences.

Newcastle's best form of defence could be attack and interim boss Joe Kinnear hopes the return of Michael Owen for his first start since early October will unsettle Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.

“You look at what Chelsea did to Sunderland it was frightening,” Kinnear said. “But I've never been one to back away from a challenge and this isn't about damage limitation.

“Michael's getting sharper and sharper. I'd say he is close to 100 percent now.”

Manchester United return to one of their happiest hunting grounds as Sir Alex Ferguson's team aim to stay in touch with Chelsea and Liverpool.

United have won 11 of their last 12 visits to Aston Villa and the hosts, who would move into the top four with a victory, are desperate to improve that dismal record.

“There is no bigger game on the Villa Park calendar than Manchester United,” Villa midfielder Gareth Barry said. “We must be aware of their tremendous record here at Villa Park.

“I have the distinction, if that's how you put it, of being one of two Villa scorers here on home soil against United in the past six seasons – and that was in an FA Cup game that we lost.

“That's not good enough and we must try to improve on that record on Saturday.”

While the top three show few signs of stumbling, Arsenal are lurching from one crisis to another and Arsene Wenger's side travel to Manchester City apparently on the verge of imploding.

As if losing Theo Walcott for three months after surgery on a dislocated shoulder and then hearing that Kolo Toure is also injured wasn't bad enough, Wenger has to deal with a major rift in the dressing room after an extraordinary outburst from William Gallas.

The Arsenal captain this week went public on the simmering discontent that has led to rows between several of his team-mates this season and accused the younger players of lacking the stomach to fight for the title.

After last weekend's defeat to Villa, Arsenal lie nine points off the top and their title hopes would be completely shattered by a loss at Eastlands.

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