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Liverpool warned title quest in balance

Liverpool have been warned that they must beat Chelsea this weekend or abandon their quest for the holy grail of a first English title since 1990.

sports Updated: Jan 31, 2009 05:31 IST

Liverpool have been warned that they must beat Chelsea this weekend or abandon their quest for the holy grail of a first English title since 1990.

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson up to his familiar psychological tricks?

No. It it was one of Liverpool's own, Yossi Benayoun, who issued that stark assessment of the position that Rafael Benitez's squad now find themselves in after stumbling to draws in their last three league matches.

Dropping six points against Stoke, Everton and Wigan has resulted in Liverpool slipping to third in the table, behind Chelsea on goal difference and two points adrift of leaders United, who have the additional cushion of a game in hand.

United face a tough clash with Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday and a dauntingly intense run of matches at a time when Ferguson's squad is being stretched by injuries.

But it is still hard to resist the conclusion that the title is now the champions to lose, and Benayoun does not entirely disagree.

"Chelsea is a very important game for us now," the Israeli playmaker admitted. "We have to start winning if we want to have a chance of winning the league.

"The games we've drawn recently we expected to win and that would have kept us top of the league. But we have made things more difficult for ourselves."

The subdued form of Fernando Torres since his comeback from the latest in a string of hamstring injuries has not helped Liverpool's cause.

Benitez desperately needs his star striker to rediscover the kind of form that saw him plunder 33 goals last season, his first in English football, although the manager would be quick to point out that Torres was absent when Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in October.

Chelsea travel north having failed to beat any of their main rivals this season and midfielder Michael Ballack admitted that a draw might be an acceptable outcome to Sunday afternoon's encounter.

"Both sides will be trying to win because United have a game in hand and it is clear we need to win," the Germany captain said.

"But a draw is not a bad result. Anfield is a difficult place to go. Liverpool can be very focused on these big games."

Aston Villa's form -- a 1-0 win at Portsmouth in midweek made it six away wins in a row for Martin O'Neill's side -- has piled the pressure on to Arsenal, who needed a stoppage time equaliser to draw at Everton and are now five points adrift of fourth-placed Villa.

Robin van Persie's late goal extended Arsenal's unbeaten run in the league to nine matches and, with West Ham due at the Emirates on Saturday, the Gunners remain confident of breaking back into the top four and ensuring Champions League football next season.

"We are not going to let up until the end of the season," midfielder Abou Diaby vowed.

"Villa have been fantastic and are in front of us, but we are really focused on our job and what is most important is what we are doing on the pitch."

Villa entertain a Wigan side that clearly missed the dynamism of Honduran midfielder Wilson Palacios in Wednesday's draw with Liverpool.

Sold to Tottenham for 14 million pounds, Palacios will make his Spurs debut at Bolton on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Hull will be desperate to end a run of six successive defeats when bottom side West Brom visit the KC Stadium.

Portsmouth, with just two league wins from 14 matches since Tony Adams took over from Harry Redknapp, also need to halt a downward slide and will hope to take something from their trip to Fulham.

Further down the table, Middlesbrough can leapfrog Blackburn and escape the relegation zone by beating Sam Allardyce's side at the Riverside while fellow strugglers Stoke entertain Manchester City in a lunchtime clash on Saturday.

Newcastle, who have been left reeling by the loss of both Michael Owen and Joey Barton to injury, entertain Sunderland on Sunday in a match neither of the north-east rivals can afford to lose.

Fixtures (1500 GMT unless stated)

Arsenal v West Ham, Aston Villa v Wigan, Bolton v Tottenham, Fulham v Portsmouth, Hull v West Brom, Man Utd v Everton (1730 GMT), Middlesbrough v Blackburn, Stoke City v Man City (1245 GMT)

Sunday

Liverpool v Chelsea (1600 GMT), Newcastle v Sunderland (1330 GMT)