Defeat is never a laughing matter for the perfectionist who is Rafa Benitez, so it was a surprise that his dry humour should surface on the occasion of Olympique Marseille's 1-0 win at Anfield in the Champions' League. Asked by a local reporter, clutching at straws, if there were any positives to be taken from the evening, he replied: "Only that it is finished."
On Tuesday, it all begins again in the hotbed of the Stade Vlodrome, where Liverpool must win the return game to guarantee progressing to the knockout stage of the competition. Not to do so, with all the financial as well as footballing implications, seemed unthinkable for last season's runners-up when the draw was made, but taking only one point from the opening three matches effectively necessitatedwinning the last three. Besiktas, by a record score of 8-0, and Porto (4-1) have duly been brushed aside, but now it is necessary to win in France.
"We put ourselves under pressure because of the game against Marseille at home," Benitez admitted. "We were in a very bad position and people were saying, 'It's a disaster,' but now they are saying, 'OK, maybe they can do it'. We have won a lot of important games in the Champions' League before, like Olympiakos and the semi-finals against Chelsea. It's one game you need confidence in yourself."
Liverpool's manager has that on a personal level, as he showed in making public a recent spat with the club's American owners but being knocked out of the Champions' League would seriously weaken his position when he meets them after next Sunday's game with Manchester United to argue for new recruits in the transfer window, especially since the defeat at Reading yesterday has left their challenge for the Premier League facing a stiff test.
Like Toulouse, whom Liverpool beat twice in the qualifying round, Marseille have found it impossible to live up to last season's standards, both the French sides spending the whole of this campaign in the bottom six of La Ligue. By the time Marseille arrived at Anfield they had already sacked their coach, Albert Emon, replacing him with the much-travelled former Belgium full-back Eric Gerets. They were much the better side that night, fully deserving the victoryearned when Momo Sissokolost possession and the striker Mathieu Valbuena scored.
"That was a very important game for them, with a new manager," Benitez said. "They were training and preparing just for the game for 10 days. When you change the manager, everybody wants to show something. Everything was wrong [for us] because we were leaving too much space between the lines, playing too wide, giving the ball away."
Valbuena's partner, Mamadou Niang from Senegal, has emerged as one of the French league's leading scorers, replacing the flamboyant Liverpool old boy Djibril Ciss, who may yet have a part to play on Tuesday. Grard Houllier's parting gift to Benitez, at a cost to Liverpool of 14m, Ciss failed to live up to a reputation gained with Auxerre as the brightest young thing in French football, where he was twice winner of the country's Golden Boot and finished with 70 goals in 128 games.
A more likely starter is Bolo Zenden, now 31 and with his sixth club but having never quite lived up to the potential first spotted at PSV Eindhoven more than 10 years ago. In the game at Anfield, he was wide on the left, where he always seemed better suited than in the central role Benitez often allocated him.
The Marseille captain, Lorik Cana, an Albanian international,will sit inside Zenden as one of two holding midfielders, reminding his team-mates of their obligations to a fanatical crowd likely to fill the Vlodrome to its 60,000 capacity. "We are Marseille, we have a name to defend and we can't lose this match," Cana said. "Everything is still open, our fate remains in our own hands."
So does Liverpool's, which should make for a compelling night's football.
This week's matches
Marseille v Liverpool
In the tightest of all eight groups, any team could finish top and all except Porto (8pts), who are at home to Besiktas (6), could be bottom. A draw will only suit Liverpool (7) if Besiktas spring a surprise win; otherwise they must beat Marseille (7).
Chelsea v Valencia
A 2-1 win in Valencia was Avram Grant's first impressive result and one that put Chelsea's Group B campaign back on track. Now assured of finishing top, they can relax while Valencia (4pts) chase a Uefa Cup place with Schalke (5).
Rangers v Lyon
To be going into the final game at Ibrox needing only a draw to progress was all Rangers (7pts) could have asked for in a tough group also involving Barcelona (11) and Stuttgart (3). Having won 3-0 in Lyon (7) gives them a head-to-head advantage now.
Arsenal v Steaua Bucharest
An unusual miscalculation by Arsne Wenger, fielding a weakened side who lost to Seville (12pts), will cost Arsenal (10) top place unless Seville fail to win at Slavia Prague (5). Wenger's men must look to complete the double after a Robin van Persie winner in Bucharest.
Roma v Manchester Utd
All four positions are already sorted in Group F, so United (15pts) will rest players against Roma (10). Of greater concern than the match will be the safety of their supporters, who suffered badly at the hands of local "ultras" and riot police in last season's quarter-final.
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