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Benitez chases big names to keep pace with title contenders

Manager of Liverpool plans to sign new players to challenge Manchester United and Chelsea in the Premier League and contend for more Champions League trophies.

Beaten 2-1 by AC Milan in the Champions League final on Wednesday, the Reds didn't have top name players to turn the game around after the Italian club went ahead just before halftime. Benitez said new American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. must now back him in the transfer market.

"We must not waste this moment. We must move quickly to sign our No. 1 targets," Rafa Benitez said Thursday. "If we wait we will be chasing the players who are second and third on our list. We need to change the structure of the club on and off the pitch."

Benitez led Liverpool to a Champions League title two years ago, just one season after guiding Valencia to a Spanish league title and UEFA Cup victory. He has never publicly looked very far ahead and rarely criticizes his players.

But the Spaniard is aware of the frustration among Reds fans that the club hasn't won the English championship since 1990. Liverpool still holds the record of 18 league titles but, since that last success, Manchester United has won the league nine times, Arsenal four and Chelsea twice.

"We must spend big and spend now," Benitez said. "Our fans know what we need to do and so do I. We need to pay the price needed for each position. We have finished 21 points behind United and 15 behind Chelsea. They will both spend big money again and we will just be marking time. If we continue the way we are we will be fighting for fourth spot again at the end of the season, and we cannot have that all the time."

To make room for new signings, Benitez is likely to sell several of his current squad. A deal is in the works for Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez, and Bolo Zenden has been told he can talk to other clubs, Benitez said.

Then he has to target big stars, not just the middle-of-the-road players he has collected during his three-season spell at the helm. England striker Michael Owen, who was sidelined for almost all of last season after knee surgery, has a clause in his contract that he could leave Newcastle for 9 million pounds (US$17.8 million; Ђ13.1 million), which could open up for a return to Liverpool.

But Benitez now wants to think bigger. Manchester United is ready to pay Bayern Munich at least 20 million pounds (US$39.6 million; EUR29.2 million) for midfielder Owen Hargreaves. Chelsea, which a year ago brought Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko to London, is likely to look for more big names after losing the Premier League title to United and failing again to reach the Champions League final.

"I have been told by the new owners that they will back my plans," Benitez said. "But when you look at the champions Manchester United spending 20 million pounds on a midfield player, and we have been paying just 8 to 9 million for our strikers, you know what must be done."

Wednesday's loss means that Liverpool's number of titles in European soccer's most prestigious championship remains at five. While Steven Gerrard is the one big star in a squad of 24, the Reds had four of five standout players on smaller rosters when they won their first four titles between 1977-84.

Previous managers had the likes of Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish or Ian Rush in attack, Graeme Souness and Terry McDermott in midfield and Phil Neal, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson or Tommy Smith in defense, with either Ray Clemence or Bruce Grobbelaar in goal. Liverpool won seven league titles in nine seasons during that spell.

Since 1991, Liverpool has been runner-up only once and finished as low as seventh in 1999 when Manchester United swept the league, FA Cup and Champions League.

"Two seasons ago we got 82 points, a club record, and we could not get into the top two," Benitez said. "It is obvious we do not have enough players for nine months competing in four competitions."

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