Benitez rails at questions over vexed tie's venue

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The Independent Football

With a kit bag slung over his left shoulder and clutching a file of notes on Maccabi Haifa in his right hand it was an exhausted Rafael Benitez who took the elevator to his room at the Radisson Hotel in Kiev last night. If the champions of Israel had not provided sufficient warning of the perils before Liverpool's passage to the group stages of the Champions' League with a fine display at Anfield a fortnight ago, then a testing day for the Spaniard and his players removed any possible threat of complacency yesterday.

Stranded for more than an hour on their chartered plane from John Lennon Airport in the morning Liverpool, who take a slender 2-1 lead into the second leg of tonight's third-round qualifier courtesy of an 88th-minute goal at Anfield from Mark Gonzalez, were then forced to wait 90 minutes to retrieve their luggage upon arrival in the Ukraine. It was, therefore, a tetchy Benitez who arrived late for the obligatory pre-match press conference, and his mood deteriorated when he was instantly besieged by Israel journalists who demanded, almost to the point of hysteria, a full explanation for his reluctance to play Haifa in Tel Aviv.

To all the neutrals in a crowded, chaotic room off the foyer at the Liverpool team hotel the answer appeared as clear as Uefa's ruling that no European ties should be played in Israel at this volatile time. Yet the issue had dominated Haifa's preparations for the first leg and now, having kept alive hopes of an astonishing upset at Anfield, the loss of home advantage resonates more than ever. Liverpool may have the advantage tonight, but emotions and a sense of grievance are running high around Haifa.

"Why do you keep asking these questions? Look, we have a lot of respect for Haifa, their manager and their players but I am not going to answer any more of your hypothetical questions," bristled a riled Benitez when asked for the fifth time if he was afraid of the Israeli champions and whether he would consider holidaying in the country now that the fighting, apparently, has stopped.

It is not only Benitez with cause for anxiety ahead of the second leg, however. Liverpool's financiers budgeted for Champions' League qualification long before they took the Spaniard's total spending to £89.9m with the £10m acquisition of Dirk Kuyt, the Dutch striker who is ineligible for this game, last week. An early exit, in the words of one Anfield official, would therefore be "catastrophic".

"We know how important it is for the club to be in the group stages. It is the most important competition you can play and it means a lot financially, too," Benitez admitted. "The money is important, but so is the confidence of the team, the club and the supporters."

Despite such a momentous prize, only a handful of supporters will be in attendance tonight, although a small crowd is the least of Liverpool's concerns. Ankle injuries to Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise have deprived Benitez of two of his most influential defenders while the Liverpool manager is also searching for the consistency that has so far eluded his team this term.

"It has not been easy to have all the team together and training at the same level because of the World Cup," he said. "Players are at different fitness levels and doing different training routines so the team is not 100 per cent. We do have a lot more quality this season but we know it won't be easy." Or comfortable.

Maccabi Haifa (4-2-3-1): Davidovitch; Harazi, Keinan, Olarra, Magrashvili; Dirceo, Anderson; Masudi, Boccoli, Katan; Colautti.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Agger, Hyypia, Aurelio; Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Gonzalez; Crouch, Bellamy.

Referee: Roberto Rosetti (Italy).