Benitez eyes Chelsea's league crown after Cup glory
CARDIFF, May 14: Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has set his sights on Chelsea's Premier League crown after their thrilling FA Cup triumph over West Ham United.
Liverpool needed a stunning stoppage time equaliser by captain Steven Gerrard to avoid a 3-2 defeat in yesterday's heart-thumping final and went on to win a penalty shootout 3-1 after three saves by Spanish keeper Jose Reina.
The twists and turns of a game which underdogs West Ham had led 2-0 ensured it will live long in the memory of the 71,140 fans who sang for nearly three hours at the Millennium Stadium.
The 125th FA Cup final also gripped a television audience of countless millions around the world and could not have given a better advertisement for the passion and excitement of the English game.
For Benitez, though, Liverpool's second consecutive cup triumph on penalties -- after last year's even more dramatic Champions League victory over AC Milan -- could have bigger implications than earning a seventh FA Cup.
Pleased with a league season in which his side won 50 per cent more games than in 2004-05, the Spaniard believes the never-say-die attitude which Liverpool needed in Istanbul and Cardiff will be vital in improving on their third place finish.
''I was really happy with the progression of the team, we reduced the gap on the top sides and the ideal would be to be (title) contenders,'' he said.
''At the final, you could see the character of the players. That can be a key factor for the future, when we have difficult games -- to know that we can win them.'' With the two-goal Gerrard driving Liverpool's midfield, backed by the support of Spaniard Xabi Alonso, Liverpool showed a good blend of resilience and creative skills in the middle, even without the suspended Luis Garcia.
Jamie Carragher, the unlucky scorer of an own goal, and Sami Hyypia are a solid central defensive pair and Reina's heroics in the shootout were closer to his true form over the past season than the blunders which cost two goals in the first half.
However, yesterday's final also showed Liverpool will need to find a top-grade striker if they are to fulfil their lofty ambitions in 2007.
LACKING FINISHING Peter Crouch and Spaniard Fernando Morientes both caused trouble for West Ham's defence but lacked the finishing to pose a real threat. French forward Djibril Cisse, who made it 2-1, scored only nine league goals last term.
If Benitez has some reason to be upbeat about what his team might achieve next season after yesterday's performance, the same is also true for West Ham manager Alan Pardew.
His men, who have secured a UEFA Cup berth, left Cardiff with their heads held high after coming within minutes of seizing the trophy.
''It was a fantastic spectacle for English football,'' Pardew told reporters. ''Both teams deserved to win.
''In terms of plaudits, although we're not going home with the trophy, we've won as well.'' Yesterday's gutsy display, along with some stylish performances on their return to the top flight after a two-year absence, has convinced Pardew that something good is happening at Upton Park.
''If I build well in the summer and recruit well - there's the basis of a very, very good team with Nigel Reo-Coker, Dean Ashton, Danny Gabbidon and Anton Ferdinand.
''That's the backbone of our side and that bodes well for next year.'' Ashton, who had a hand in West Ham's first goal and scored their second, is clearly blossoming into a potent, old-style English centre-forward -- one who his manager believes is ready for the very top level.
''On that performance, he's very unfortunate not to be going to the World Cup,'' Pardew said.