Benitez bullish in Liverpool's week of history

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The Independent Football

Though a howling gale sent great white-capped waves crashing into the Kennedy Corniche on Marseilles' seafront yesterday, the skies were clear, except for the metaphorical storm clouds hanging over the head of Rafael Benitez.

The Liverpool manager is embarking on a week which one former Anfield great, Alan Hansen, described as "the most important in the history of the club". This is quite a claim considering in the space of four days in 1977 Liverpool played an FA Cup final against Manchester United which had they won would have given them their first Double and their first European Cup final.

This time it is a triple-header. Tonight they must defeat Marseilles to be certain of maintaining an interest in the Champions League. On Sunday they host Manchester United in the Premier League. Next week they travel to Stamford Bridge for a Carling Cup tie.

Should results go badly awry Benitez may be left trying to convince the owners, who cross the Atlantic to visit Anfield this weekend, that the FA Cup is as big as the Superbowl.

A glance at Le Championnat might suggest the first leg is the easiest. Had Marseilles lost at the weekend they would be in the relegation zone. But, in the result which more than any other precipitated Liverpool's on-off crisis, they won at Anfield earlier this season. However, as one veteran French observer noted yesterday, the result depends on Liverpool. If Liverpool play as well as they can they should sweep Marseilles away but by the same logic they should also have dispensed with Reading on Saturday. But with Xabi Alonso and Daniel Agger out they have looked less assured and over-dependent on the form of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

Both are expected to start tonight as last season's runners-up seek to complete an unlikely escape from Group A. Liverpool must win to progress to the knock-out stages, unless Besiktas win at Porto tonight. A point would then be enough as the Turks would head the group with Liverpool qualifying by virtue of a better head-to-head in matches between themselves, Marseilles and Porto.

Peter Crouch, who despite his goalscoring habit may have to settle for a place on the bench again tonight, said: "All of us are looking at it as a game that we have to win to progress. It's a massive, massive game. We've had a fantastic record in the Champions League over the last two seasons and we want to continue that."

Referring to the weekend defeat he added: "We are not used to losing but we have had many a setback in our time and we've recovered well from them. We have got enough characters in the dressing room to bounce back."

With Samir Nasri short of fitness Eric Gerets is expected to field the same XI which shocked Anfield. "Nasri is a good player, but we had big problems at Anfield with [Mathieu] Valbuena in his position," responded Benitez.

The match has been billed as high-risk by Uefa, mainly because the French authorities remember the problems at Manchester United's tie with Lille in Lens last season. That was as much a result of poor policing and facilities as fan behaviour but there was also trouble when Chelsea came here in 2000. Liverpool's 2,800 fans will not enjoy being fenced into a far corner of this atmospheric, but dated ground.

The result will be uppermost on their minds however, even if a survey on reported a clear majority of fans would prefer a victory in Sunday's M62 derby to success tonight. Benitez was taking one game at a time.

"The important thing is to win this game," he said. "We then have four days to rest." Returning to a theme he has made much of in recent days Benitez said: "We know how to play under pressure. To win trophies you must play finals. Tomorrow for us is a final and we have played seven finals since I came."

In a pointed jibe at the claim that this is an important week he added: "Maybe in three months time we will be playing more important games, and be talking about the most important week again."

Benitez concluded: "I am happy to have these kind of games. If you are fighting for trophies, to be under pressure is normal. Am I under extra pressure? No."

He might feel under more pressure if he remembered that, of those seven finals (and Benitez includes the European Super Cup, the World Club Championship and the Community Shield) Liverpool have only won one in normal time, the 2005 European Super Cup. There can be no escape in a penalty shoot-out tonight. Barring a collapse by Porto Liverpool will have to win in regulation. They have the ability to do so, they must show they also have the nerve.

Marseilles (probable) (4-2-3-1): Mandanda; Bonnart, Rodriguez, Givet, Taiwo; Cana, Cheyrou; Ziani, Valbuena, Zenden; Niang.

Liverpool (probable) (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Kewell; Kuyt, Torres.

Referee: T Hauge (Norway).