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Page last updated at 13:48 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 14:48 UK

Alan Hansen's column

Alan Hansen
By Alan Hansen
BBC Sport football expert

Chelsea's Frank Lampard, Liverpool's Rafael Benitez and Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas

Manchester United's third successive Premier League triumph has left their closest rivals once again pondering a familiar question - how do we break the Old Trafford stranglehold on the title?

Sir Alex Ferguson's side have once again proved worthy champions and you can be sure he is already laying plans to counter a renewed, and potentially stronger, threat from Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal next season.

We had an old saying when I played at Liverpool and it was: "First is first and second is nowhere." It still holds true, but there was always the proviso that if you cannot finish first finish second, and also show signs of serious progress.

And I believe there has been a remarkable progression at Liverpool this season, particularly in the last two months. Liverpool have not exactly thrown caution to the wind, but they now look to be more aggressive against opponents and the results and rewards are there for all to see.

For a long time against lesser teams this was not the case, hence 14 points lost at Anfield this season. It was the old Liverpool way to look to hem teams in and batter them, and manager Rafael Benitez has certainly moved towards that approach, especially since the 4-0 win at home to Real Madrid in the Champions League.

Liverpool's development has been such that I think they can have genuine optimism about having a real go at bringing the title back to Anfield next season.

Liverpool have again been linked with Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, but he should not arrive at the expense of Xabi Alonso

In recent seasons they have started with hope as opposed to expectation when it comes to the title - next term they can start with genuine expectation on the evidence of what we have seen.

This expectation may bring problems of its own at a club as huge as Liverpool, but they have shown enough this season to suggest they can cope with it.

Benitez has been very bullish about his team's prospects and he will no doubt be moving on the transfer targets he feels will bridge the gap between Liverpool and Manchester United over the coming weeks.

I think if you take Liverpool's best team one to 11, they can compete with Manchester United, but the champions have the edge from numbers 12 to 20.

United's recent game against Middlesbrough was a perfect example of this. They made seven changes from their Champions League team and still ran out comfortable winners.

It was a real show of strength because it was a demonstration that they could make these changes and bring in proven players who will not only never let you down, but also have the ability to add something extra.

There is not quite the same sense of certainty and confidence about the players Liverpool bring in, even though they are very good professionals.

The stand-out performer has again been Steven Gerrard. Every week he produces an outstanding level of performance with pace, energy, enthusiasm, goals and just undoubted world-class talent.

AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti
There is speculation Ancelotti could take over at Chelsea

It would be very interesting if you gave managers around the world the choice of signing Gerrard or Barcelona's Lionel Messi - it is a testimony to Gerrard's talent that I bet plenty would think long and hard about which one to take.

I think Benitez will be looking to get four or five players in who will strengthen the squad, but also be challenging for a place in Liverpool's best 11 and make a substantial difference when he decides to rest players.

In my opinion, Liverpool will be looking to strengthen in all the wide areas. Until the Champions League game against Chelsea, Liverpool's full-backs Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio had been having a great time, but since then they have been struggling.

Benitez likes Dirk Kuyt, and Albert Riera has done all right, so the manager's priority will be to add quality and strength in depth.

Liverpool have again been linked with Aston Villa's Gareth Barry, but he should not arrive at the expense of Xabi Alonso. If he is a target, Liverpool should aim to have both because Alonso is a quality operator and Barry can play on the left flank or in a variety of positions.

Barry is also English, knows the Premier League and rarely misses games.

So for Liverpool, of course there is always disappointment when they finish a season empty-handed, but they have made real progress, evolved as a team and they can approach next season with serious hopes of winning the Premier League.

Every season Arsenal's kids score six against someone in the League Cup and we hear that they are the future of the club, but how many come through?

Chelsea have had a strange season because they were plenty of people's tips to clean up after the appointment of Luiz Felipe Scolari. It did not work out and they were on their knees when Guus Hiddink came in, having just been completely outplayed at Old Trafford and Anfield.

Hiddink has done remarkably well to revolutionise things, getting them to the FA Cup Final and only losing to Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final because of some refereeing decisions that almost beggared belief.

Chelsea have the double task of needing to carefully choose their new manager and then their signings in the summer - but whoever comes in they will be challenging next season because they have so many good players.

AC Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti has been linked with the post, and while it might be better to go British it seems nobody does these days. You need someone who knows the Premier League, knows how difficult it is and how to handle those difficulties - this is where I believe the problems arose with Scolari.

But Chelsea do not need to make wholesale changes. Some people pass comment on their players getting older, but I do not see that as affecting them because they are still performing at the highest level.

Joe Cole, who I rate very highly, will be back next season and Florent Malouda, who struggled for so long, has looked a real player in the last few weeks.

Chelsea have had a really good season and now it is a question of who they bring in, but I certainly do not expect wholesale changes and they will be challenging Manchester United once more next season.

Arsenal, however, have pressing concerns because I think a gap has opened up between Arsene Wenger's side and the top three. I do not see them dropping out of the top four, but there needs to be change if they are to get nearer to the top three.


People think I have something against Arsenal, but this is not the case and Wenger has done brilliant things at the club. I simply feel they need to add a winning mentality and experience to their squad otherwise they will struggle to close the gap. I think this is pretty obvious.

If you take Chelsea's performace in Barcelona, they went there and hardly got a kick, but they dug in, played in a way many regarded as negative and came away with a goalless draw.

They made sure they gave nothing away. Can you see Arsenal playing like that? I can't and they certainly didn't at Manchester United in the Champions League. It almost seems alien to them to play a game where they get men behind the ball and they could have lost 4-0 at Old Trafford.

Sometimes it is not a crime to take what others might see as a negative approach and Arsenal need to add that extra dimension. Sometimes you have to embrace the concept of winning ugly.

You cannot play well in every game, but it is important to have a side that can win when that happens. Manchester United have mastered that particular art and Liverpool are getting better at it.

Chelsea can do it, which leaves Arsenal as the only one in the top four that can't and it is a deficiency that needs addressing.

Wenger needs to get someone destructive in midfield, preferably someone with experience. A player in the mould of Claude Makelele would be perfect and of course they had Lassana Diarra at one point.

I stress the point about experience because you may recall some years ago I used the phrase "you never win anything with kids."

Every season Arsenal's kids score six against someone in the League Cup and we hear that they are the future of the club, but how many come through?

You need experience to operate at the top level of the Premier League and Champions League, and while I believed that phrase was relevant when I used it all those years ago, I am convinced it is even more relevant now.

Arsenal are up against a top three in United, Liverpool and Chelsea that are packed with experience, talent and quality. They need experience and a winning mentality to progress and challenge for the title again next season.

Alan Hansen was talking to BBC Sport's Phil McNulty.

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see also
Ferguson hungry for four in a row
16 May 09 |  Man Utd
Race for the title in photos
16 May 09 |  Premier League
Man Utd 0-0 Arsenal
15 May 09 |  Premier League
How the Premier League was won
16 May 09 |  Premier League
Man Utd dream team
16 May 09 |  Man Utd
Tevez affair sparks war of words
14 May 09 |  Man Utd
Ferguson rules out spending spree
09 May 09 |  Man Utd
Man Utd money the key - Benitez
16 May 09 |  Liverpool
Gerrard elated by writers' award
13 May 09 |  Liverpool
Hiddink braced for Blues farewell
15 May 09 |  Chelsea
Ancelotti plays down Chelsea link
11 May 09 |  Chelsea
Wenger pleads for fans' patience
15 May 09 |  Arsenal
Wenger will have money to invest
14 May 09 |  Arsenal
Wenger vows to strengthen squad
10 May 09 |  Arsenal

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