Benitez feels at home with Benfica challenge

Liverpool upbeat as tie with Portuguese giants adds glamour to Europa League
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The Independent Online

It is not the Champions League, a fact Liverpool will discover when they study the prize money on offer, but it is beginning to feel like it.

After the slogs to some of European football's less glamourous outposts, Liverpool will sample a bit of stardust in the Stadium of Light tonight. Benfica may not be Barcelona but they are a long way from Unirea Urziceni, the first team they came across after tumbling into the Europa League.

Unsurprisingly, given the coolness of his relations with David Moyes, Rafael Benitez did not ask Everton for any videos of their two games with the Portuguese league leaders which were lost by an aggregate scoreline of 7-0. "I watched some clips," the Liverpool manager said.

"At the beginning of the Europa League, you can really see the difference with the Champions League but, once you get to the quarter-finals and see the names who are left, they are all top teams," Benitez added. "This will be one of the toughest games we have faced all season."

This, he concedes, is a better Benfica side than the one that knocked Liverpool out of the Champions League four years ago. They are a stronger team than Porto, whom Arsenal swept aside in the last 16 of the Champions League last month, having dropped just two points at home in the league this season, and their destruction of an admittedly patched-up, under-strength Everton was a clinical piece of football.

"To win a trophy is the main thing, it is an opportunity for everybody," Benitez said. "All the players see it as a way of changing their season. But it will be difficult. First, we have to beat Benfica and then either Atletico Madrid or Valencia." Nobody in the room quite believed him when he said the thought of returning to the Mestalla for a semi-final against his former club has never crossed his mind.

He will see Pablo Aimar tonight in the Stadium of Light, a wonderfully talented player that some said he was reluctant to use at Valencia. As on Merseyside, the accusation was that Benitez could be suffocated by caution. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that when Liverpool discarded Lucas Leiva against Sunderland on Sunday, they produced one of their finest displays of this strange, uneven season.

"People can criticise but it depends on who is doing the talking," Benitez said. "All I can say is that at Valencia we scored 119 goals and won two league titles with Aimar as the second striker. Against Stoke we played with [Javier] Mascherano and Lucas in the middle and we won 4-0. Against Tottenham we played with Mascherano and Lucas and won 2-0. We did the same against Manchester United at Anfield and we won 2-0. The difference at the weekend for me was Maxi Rodriguez. He gave us possession and good movement that helped Torres and Gerrard. Having Torres up front makes a massive difference."

Fernando Torres is on a yellow card and it might not be beyond Benfica's wit to rile him into a second that would see him miss the return at Anfield. Benitez thinks it unlikely, first because Benfica are not that kind of club and secondly because Torres is growing up fast. "He knows what to do," said Benitez. "The main difference against Sunderland was that he was on fire from the first minute and you could see he was really enjoying his football. I am not worried about him picking up a booking. He has experience and he is confident." Liverpool's midfielder Alberto Aquilani will be unavailable after he picked up an ankle injury in training.

Benfica (probable, 4-3-3): Quim; Pereira, Luisao, Luiz, Amorim; Ramires, Garcia, Di Maria; Aimar, Cardozo, Saviola.

Liverpool (probable, 4-4-1-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Kuyt, Mascherano, Lucas, Babel; Gerrard; Torres.

Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).