Benitez buoyed by Liverpool's first-leg superiority

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Most managers would need to take a deep breath and down a stiff whisky before tuning into footage of the kind of Champions League encounter Liverpool had with Chelsea at Anfield last week, especially the horrifying 94th-minute plot twist. But it was typical of Rafael Benitez that he was tucked up with the remote at his Wirral home within an hour of the final whistle.

"Sometimes you watch it on fast forward," said the Liverpool manager, recalling the moment yesterday before heading to London for tonight's semi-final second leg. Needless to say, John Arne Riise's contribution was not skipped over and his own goal was an aspect of the game Benitez did not spare his players from when they viewed the match. "We were talking about this because we let them cross and after the decision wasn't the best," he said. "We analysed this because in the future the same situation could happen, so we need to improve."

Benitez the strategist will always want to analyse but his determination to confront Tuesday last week – warts and all – contributes to a gung-ho approach to his side's visit to Stamford Bridge, a ground where they have won only once since 1989 and, as he was reminded, even used to lose when Liverpool were the best in the land and Chelsea rather less than that.

With a solitary defeat in 16 games and freed from the domestic tension which still bedevils Chelsea by Liverpool's guaranteed fourth place in the Premier League, Benitez said that when he looked his players in the eye at training on Monday he saw only confidence. His video analysis has enhanced his own belief about tonight, too. "After the game, I was so disappointed because we conceded the late goal, and the feeling was bad," he said. "But watching it, you can see we were better than them, so we must take confidence from that. We were clearly better than them."

This is the same kind of self-belief which Benitez has a reputation for producing in his players at times like this. His captain, Steven Gerrard, recalled in his autobiography a similar mood in the manager before the 2-1 win at Barcelona in the Champions League first knockout stage last season. "All Rafa thought about was the Nou Camp," Gerrard wrote. "He was really confident we could get a win, not a draw there and I admired his self-belief."

Riise's own goal might have handed Chelsea a slight edge but Benitez, motivated by what he considers their best performance in a Champions League semi-final against the Londoners, placed the pressure on the home side. "It is a massive game for them because on three occasions they have been in the semi-finals and now they will want to reach the final, so they will be under some pressure," he said.

This is hardly the kind of psych-ops battle he would enter into with Jose Mourinho in the past. Avram Grant was, Benitez said, "a normal person in every press conference and every confrontation, so it's easier to talk about football." But it was enough to turn the screw.

The nearest he got to abrasion was a demand that Chelsea and Manchester United be penalised for events on and off the pitch during their game on Saturday, as Javier Mascherano was for his sending-off at Old Trafford last month.

The belief created by Benitez's two previous wins over Chelsea at this stage of the competition is of untold value tonight. He has, at every turn, a player who can draw on that experience. Penalties also clearly hold no fears for the Spaniard, considering goalkeeper Pepe Reina's heroics against the same opposition at the same stage last year. "If we draw, we know that Pepe is good on penalties," he said. "If we score two goals and they score two goals, then we are through. We don't need to win, we need to progress."

At Benitez's disposal is a group of players who, as he put it, "know what it means" to get to a final. "For those who were in Istanbul [in 2005] and Athens [in 2007], the challenge is even more important."

Comments