Benitez bullish about European prospects

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The Independent Online

Rafael Benitez believes his Liverpool team can beat anyone as they prepare for a Champions League showdown in Madrid later this month.

The Reds extended their unbeaten run this term to 11 matches with Wednesday night's convincing 3-1 Champions League success over PSV Eindhoven and will now face Atletico Madrid, the other side in the group with a 100 per cent record, on 22 October in the Spanish capital.

Benitez is in such confident mood after seeing the Dutch champions outclassed - in a match marked by Steven Gerrard's 100th goal for the club - that he said: "Stevie is young enough and good enough to go on now and score 200 goals for this club."

It was a special occasion for manager and players at Anfield.

Dirk Kuyt's opener on the night was Liverpool's 100th European goal scored under Benitez, with the Spaniard clocking up his 250th match in charge.

Then Robbie Keane scored his first for Liverpool on his 11th appearance for the Reds, before Gerrard brought the house down with a piledriver for his own century.

It is a far cry from this stage last term when Liverpool were in crisis with one point from their opening two group matches. Now they have won their first two pool games for the first time.

Benitez sees a more resilient, focused side going great guns in the Premier League and Europe.

He said: "Last season was a bad experience for us in the group right from the start.

"It was important to get six points this time straight away with our first two games. That makes things easier to manage, certainly than last season.

"When you are winning big games in succession, when you are playing well, the confidence grows - especially when those games you have won include victories against Manchester United and Everton."

He added: "The confidence is high and we aim to keep it that way. The wins over United and Everton have shown the team that they can beat anyone.

"Last season people were saying we could not beat the top three, but we deserved to beat United and it was the same against Everton. Those wins show how much we have improved.

"In such situations you do not need to say too much to the players, confidence is high and they know what they are capable of."

Now Liverpool face back-to-back clashes with Group D leaders Atletico, the first in Benitez's home city with the return at Anfield on 4 November.

The group winners will probably be decided on those two nights, and Benitez is well aware he will run into two former Liverpool players in Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Luis Garcia.

He said: "Atletico are a good team, they are on fire with a lot of confidence and they have players with quality.

"Sinama-Pongolle is playing well, while everyone is also talking of how well (Argentinian forward Sergio) Aguero is playing. They are a good side and they have outstanding fans who give them tremendous support.

"And we know all about Luis Garcia. We know it will be hard, but it will also be a really good experience for everyone to play them in Madrid.

"Both of us have six points, so the next game in Madrid will be the most important in the group. Then we have them at Anfield afterwards, but the next game is the most crucial. Win that and then get one more point and we are virtually qualified.

"We are both at the top of the group, but I also believe that Madrid deserve to be there ahead of us on goal difference, they are a fine team."

But Benitez knows, too, that he has Gerrard in his armoury.

He said: "Gerrard going forward is one of the best midfielders in the world, so 100 goals from a player in his position is amazing.

"He is a young player still, maybe he can go on to score 200. That is not beyond him."

Now Benitez wants qualification for the knock-out stage secured as quickly as possible.

He said: "Every season we hope to qualify quickly, and it does not always happen.

"But we have done better than ever at this stage and now we want to finish things off as quickly as possible.

"It means when the job is done early, you can change players and give opportunities to everyone in the final game, or two, in the group. We want it as soon as possible.

"For us now it is important to continue to do well in all the competitions, even the Carling Cup because we have got through to the next round in that competition too.

"We will try to maintain this momentum, and keep working hard. We aim to keep doing the right things, as we are doing now."

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