The Manchester City turf has been an inauspicious place for Liverpool's Martin Skrtel. He was carried from it on a stretcher, three years ago, clutching an oxygen mask as he contended with the agony of posterior cruciate ligament damage in his right knee. The damage inflicted on him by Sergio Aguero as his side fell to a 3-0 Premier League defeat on the same ground last Tuesday was briefer but no less brutal.
Still, Skrtel has good reason to breeze into the stadium tonight for a Carling Cup semi-final first leg Liverpool are desperate to win, seven years after last lifting silverware and 17 years since their last Wembley appearance in a victorious League Cup final against Bolton Wanderers. The timing of last week's dismantling by Aguero was especially unwelcome, when Jamie Carragher covets taking his central defensive jersey back. But it is four years tomorrow since Skrtel arrived at Melwood as a gauche 23-year-old promising that his English would improve, and no one around Anfield challenges the assertion that the best period of form in his career has been integral to the one part of Kenny Dalglish's Liverpool which really is working.
He didn't enjoy the best of starts, though. A mere 31 minutes of his full debut had elapsed when he played a full and active part in the brief moment of fame enjoyed by Havant & Waterlooville's Alfie Potter. If deflecting Potter's shot over Pepe Reina was not bad enough, it gave the non-league side the lead at Anfield for a second time. "Ignominy" does not begin to describe it.
"After that game I just wanted to try and show that I was good enough to play for Liverpool," he reflects now. "I went back to my hotel and I knew it was not my best game. I knew I had to go away and work hard in training. I knew the people were talking about me. That I wasn't good enough for Liverpool and that the club had paid a lot of money for me. It was important Rafa said to me, 'don't worry about this game. Look ahead to the next game, I'll give you a chance and you have to show you are a better player'."
Skrtel's response reflected well on Benitez's decision to pay Zenit St Petersburg £6.5m – a record Liverpool outlay on a defender. One errant pass to Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Champions League win over Internazionale at San Siro was the only glitch against grander opponents than Potter in the months to follow.
This season, his form has seemed to take him to a different level. "Yes maybe I can say this is the best period in my career," he says.
This is, in part, down to the work of first-team coach Steve Clarke. "We work a lot in training on defending with Steve and that has probably helped not only me but all the guys who play at the back," he says. "Since Kenny [Dalglish] and Steve have come in the atmosphere changed around the team. Everything is much better now. If I feel the confidence from the manager, that is important for me and maybe that is the reason."