Benitez praises Garcia despite barren spell

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The Independent Online

There is suddenly an air of calm around Liverpool once more. Talk of another season of unfulfilled promise in the Premiership after two damaging away defeats has been stymied by the two clean sheets, five goals and six points that a welcome return home provided against Newcastle United and Tottenham while, most revealing of all, the thorny subject of their unpredictability is now being discussed in the positive.

Barring an uncharacteristic bout of conservatism whenever he lifts a pen to a team sheet the manager Rafael Benitez will tonight field a different starting XI for the 94th game in succession when the former Belgium captain Erik Gerets brings his Galatasaray side to Anfield. For a man whose rotational policy has helped to deliver the European Cup and FA Cup in his two seasons at Liverpool, plus two La Liga titles and the Uefa Cup to Valencia before that, Benitez has unsurprisingly been loath to justify his selection process throughout the fluctuating start to this campaign. But victory over the Turkish champions will be required to ensure the omission of Steven Gerrard for 72 minutes against PSV Eindhoven does not damage his prospects in Group C from the outset. "We are looking for what we call in Spain 'The English Average'," he said yesterday. "That is, four points from two games. With one point away and three at home you will normally have a chance to win trophies."

It may be several months before fresher legs bring further reward for Benitez's studious approach but, in the meantime, Liverpool can give credit to another source of Spanish inconsistency for their recent up-turn in form and results, Luis Garcia. The 28-year-old has combined carelessness with excellence in equal measure since his £6m arrival from Barcelona in 2004 and has reflected his club's performance in their two Champions' League campaigns under Benitez; faultless as they stunned Europe two years' ago when Garcia scored against Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea, and way below expectation in failing to advance beyond the first knock-out stage last term.

Garcia has not scored in the Champions' League since a group game against Anderlecht on 1 November last year although, in fairness, neither have Liverpool. Benitez's team have failed to find the target in their past five games in the European Cup, a sequence that includes Real Betis, Chelsea, Benfica twice and PSV but excludes the qualifying rounds. Yet they have recently witnessed in their diminutive Spanish midfielder the creativity their forward line will require as they seek to redress that statistic against a Galatasaray team who are expected to sit back and rely on the counter-attack.

"Luis is capable of the best and he is also capable of the worst," said Benitez. "But he is a special player who can change games and has scored a lot of important goals in Europe. Sometimes he gives the ball away too easily but you have to remember that he usually scores between 10 and 15 goals a season. At Tenerife he scored 16 goals for me one season as a left winger, at Barcelona he was a centre-forward in the youth team and I have used him as a right winger and as a second striker. This is a positive rather than a negative."

Eleven days after Anderlecht came Garcia's finest moment for his country, when a hat-trick against Slovakia effectively secured Spain's progress in a play-off for the World Cup, but his contribution for Liverpool was in marked contrast thereafter amid accusations that his focus had wavered.

With Dirk Kuyt in form, and teed up by Garcia for his goal against Spurs on Saturday, Peter Crouch and Craig Bellamy are vying for the second striker's role tonight. As Galatasaray lost 3-1 at Trabzonspor on Saturday, Crouch is favourite to start for the first time in five games.

Liverpool (probable) (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Garcia; Kuyt, Crouch.

Galatasaray (probable) (4-2-3-1): Mondragon; Cihan Haspolatli, Song, Tomas, Orhan Ak; Ayhan, Topal; Sabri, Hasan Sas, Arda; Sukur.

Referee: L Medina (Spain).

Goal-shy Reds

1 Nov 2005 Liverpool 3 Anderlecht 0

23 Nov 2005 Liverpool 0 Real Betis 0

6 Dec 2005 Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

21 Feb 2006 Benfica 1 Liverpool 0

8 Mar 2006 Liverpool 0 Benfica 2

12 Sep 2006 PSV Eindhoven 0 L'pool 0

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