Seizing on the gradual development of Arsène Wenger's Arsenal side as a model, Rafael Benitez offered the most bullish defence yet of his Anfield record yesterday as he prepared for tonight's moment of reckoning against Internazionale in the Champions League.
Benitez, contending with fresh speculation about the prospect of Jose Mourinho or Martin O'Neill taking his job this summer, fell back on the only solid ground he has – his Champions League record – when asked if his job was dependent on success in Moscow, three months from now. "How many managers have won the Champions League one time?" he said. "Tell me. How many have got to the final twice in three years or won it twice? Think about the top managers in the Premier League and their record."
To which Sir Alex Ferguson and Wenger might reasonably refer him to their domestic records – but Benitez said he believed that the emergence of Wenger's youthful side provided a vision for Liverpool's future and a need for patience just now.
"We have the reserve team at the top of the league and we have young players here like Lucas Leiva, Ryan Babel, so I think we have more quality but you need more experience," he said. "I am sure that I can win more titles for this club." Liverpool's current financial plight – predicated as it now is on a dire need for the £15m which Champions League qualification brings – does not provide Benitez with quite the luxuries of time which Wenger has enjoyed and while failure to attain fourth place could be far more significant financially than defeat over two legs to Serie A's runaway leaders, failure to progress towards Moscow would remove the Spaniard's last line of defence against those bewildered by his persistent rotation of an apparently sub-standard team.
Benitez spent yesterday morning mopping up more of the aftermath of Saturday's defeat to Barnsley in the FA Cup. Among those knocking on his door was Jamie Carragher, attempting to explain that his comments about team's current form representing not "just a bad spell [but something] much longer than that", were not intended to be a personal affront. Benitez was "surprised" by Carragher but accepted his explanation.
For his own part, Benitez does not seem to have any more profound explanation of his side's indifferent form, which has left so much resting on tonight's match, than his oft-repeated mantra about their failure to take their chances, and he stoutly defended his players with the same, familiar language yesterday. "If you analyse the games we have drawn, how many of the games couldn't we [have won?]. Just one, perhaps, [against Manchester United," he said. "We had chances to win all of them."
Given Saturday's feckless performance, it was tame stuff from a manager who, during a Valencia press conference on the eve of his last Champions League encounter with Inter, six years ago, launched a spectacular attack on his side. "There are players who work but the problem is that they only do so now and then," he said back then. That outburst motivated his side, including Alvaro Arbeloa, to heroics in a 1-1 draw against Inter – not enough to send them through.
The Inter side who run out tonight are a more formidable proposition than the one Benitez encountered at the Mestalla in 2002, despite the fact that they have not won this tournament since 1965 – overcoming a 3-1 away leg defeat to beat Bill Shankly's Liverpool on the way - and will feel some pressure to put the record right in their centenary season. The Nerazzuri are unbeaten in their domestic league, 11 points clear at the top of Serie A, and judging by Liverpool's record in Italy – just one victory in six visits – a win tonight seems essential to any hope of progression for the Benitez.
Benitez rejects suggestions that Liverpool have failed domestically because they have too few matchwinners. But England manager Fabio Capello is clear on why the side's success has been far greater in Europe. "Liverpool play with a different level of concentration and determination [in Europe] from what they produce in the Premier League," he said. "[They] play very much on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. They study their opponents in detail, and we can expect a very tactical game at Anfield."
Benitez is expected to restore Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Jose Reina, Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio – all rested against Barnsley. For his part, Gerrard said he believes his side will need to "turn in maybe the best 90 minutes of the season" if they are to prevail.
While victory over two legs will doubtless ease the latest Anfield crisis, late March is emerging as another critical point in the club's stuttering development. Sources suggest that the concerted efforts of Dubai International Capital (DIC) to take over the club might be concluded – one way or the other – by then and the publication of the club's accounts at roughly the same time will demonstrate precisely how limited Benitez is by the American owners' new debt repayments.
Though last month's refinancing of the club's debt seemed to place the club into the hands of its American owners, the levels of debt at Anfield may persuade the Americans' bankers that a bid should be accepted from DIC, especially if European qualification is looking unlikely – with all the financial pressures that would bring.
Tonight's probable teams
Referee: F de Bleeckere (Bel), TV: 7.30pm, ITV 1Reuse content