Benitez clings to hope of 'miracle'

Manager insists Liverpool must keep place among Europe's elite on night of nerves when survival depends on result in Lyons game
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The Independent Online

In an arena which is a paean to the architect of one of English football's greatest humiliations, Liverpool will seek to avoid one of their own tonight. It will not be an easy task, given that they are not in control of their already half-lost pursuit of Champions League football, but at least Rafael Benitez is surrounded by reminders of the standards towards which he strives.

The vast old Communist stadium where his side will play takes the name of Ferenc Puskas, captain of Hungary when the Magic Magyars taught England such a lesson at Wembley in 1953. Puskas knew a bit about the European Cup, having scored seven times in two of the tournament's finals. Images of the distance runner Sandor Iharos, a world record holder across three disciplines, line the walls of the room in which Benitez sat down yesterday to discuss his side's continental future. It wasn't the time nor the place to ask Benitez whether his club, one which considers itself a part of the continent's elite, would be satisfied with Europa League football this season. Benitez was circumspect about the evening ahead, refusing even to indulge in the suggestion that qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League would be his greatest escape act yet. "But it would be amazing," he conceded.

The most salient reminder of how bitter a blow elimination would be for him was to be found among the details of his interview with the Uefa magazine Champions. Benitez's interviewer describes the glass cabinet at Melwood containing a replica European Cup beneath a plaque with a quote from Benitez. "To me, being a part of Europe's elite is central to this club's ethos," it reads. The manager said of his task last night: "I think it will be difficult. I've said before it could be a miracle but it depends on other teams. We have to win and after we will see what happens."

Here was a glaring contrast with the sentiments of Jamie Carragher, a player who insisted that he would not be listening out for the score from Fiorentina's match with Lyons at the interval – "who knows what the second half will bring? To be honest, I don't want to know" – and who frankly appeared to have more concerns about building some self-belief before the league assignment at Goodison Park on Sunday. "We need to get confidence to get the team playing well again," Carragher said. "We've got a big game at the weekend against Everton. If [we don't qualify] we move on."

Carragher's father, it seems, has articulated the cold truth of Liverpool's season. "I've spoken to my dad and he said we've had five years of winning big trophies, getting to another Champions League final, going close in the league and that this might just be a difficult season," Carragher said.

Elimination from the Champions League at the group stages for the first time in Benitez's tenure would also be a heavy commercial blow to a club currently seeking to promote themselves as an elite footballing force to the prospective new equity partners on whom their financial future depends.

Liverpool, though, could actually earn as much money by failing to qualify as by progressing to the quarter finals of the Champions League. Werder Bremen's income last season from winning the Champions League's "ugly kid brother," as Steven Gerrard describes the Europa League, was greater than Bayern Munich's two-match sojourn in the knockout stage of Europe's premier competition.

As Carragher said yesterday, there are attractive sides ahead if the pursuit of a place in the Europa League final in Hamburg's Volksparkstadion on 12 May is to be Liverpool's destiny. Bayern Munich, CSKA Moscow, Marseilles, Atletico Madrid and even Barcelona might fall out of the Champions League too, while Benfica, Sporting Lisbon – and of course Everton – are among the Europa League group stage sides likely to progress.

Yet where there is life, there is hope for Benitez. We will soon know whether Lyons are prepared to make a fist of the game in Stadio Artemio Franchi that Fiorentina must win to qualify at Liverpool's expense. Le Figaro was one of several newspapers pointing out yesterday that, for Lyons, winning Group E, which they will do by at least drawing in Florence, makes more sense than losing simply to eliminate such formidable knockout performers as Liverpool and thus prevent having to face them again. Second place in the group stage for the past two seasons has seen Lyons draw Manchester United and Barcelona – and lose. Benitez insisted the French would put topping the group first.

Carragher likened the desperate recent run of one win match in 10 to the 2002-03 season when, having almost set a Premier League record of going 13 games unbeaten at the start of the season, they then went 11 games without a win. "That experience puts things into perspective," said Carragher, who always saw the summer signings of El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao as symptoms of that poor season. Everyone thinks all we have at Liverpool is great times, but there are ups and downs. You get through it by facing up to it."

That season also saw Liverpool eliminated from the Uefa Cup by a 2-0 defeat to Celtic at Anfield, and finish fifth in the league. Only the Carling Cup win over Manchester United enabled Gérard Houllier to hold on to his job for one more season. Not the kind of return that bears thinking about, for Benitez.

...and one reason for them to be cheerful

They've been here before: Twice in five years Liverpool have entered final group games with qualification hopes in the balance – and twice they have made it through. In 2004-05 a win over Olympiakos set them on the way to the trophy, while in 2007-08 Steven Gerrard inspired them to win their last three games to progress.

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