Bernabeu return offers respite for Benitez's domestic strife

Liverpool manager revels in European challenge after Premier League struggles
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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez was playing deadpan last night, denying all suggestions that a return to the club which has defined him since his father first found him a way in as a 12-year-old, might hold some emotional significance. But actions speak louder than words. Benitez came alive at the Bernabeu, grinning as he translated his own answers into English and Spanish, and there is little doubt that an evening of Champions League football against Real Madrid tonight is one of huge personal significance.

It made a change from the frustrations he is feeling about the expectations of him in Britain, which Benitez reserved for an interview with the AS newspaper yesterday morning. "It is very important to those connected to the club for us to win the league. There are people who would give me the blame that we've not won the league for many years," he said.

The words of a man who knows the title is slipping beyond his grasp and one who will be left to field serious questions about his future should Liverpool follow up their stuttering league form with serious defeat in the first knock-out stage. Benitez seemed to be telling Liverpool's owners that they should persist with him when he was asked whether a positive result might have an impact on the protracted contract negotiations, which are still no closer to a resolution, more than three months after they started. "I don't think so. It's an important game for us as a club and you have to analyse and judge a manager for his career, not one or two games," Benitez said. "You have to think about each competition at a time. Afterwards we will think about the Premier League."

The pressure Benitez is under after two more dropped points at home to Manchester City on Sunday certainly take the shine off a return to a club where, after his father used a contact to get him a trial, he spent seven years in the youth and academy ranks and as many again as a coach, culminating in an 11-game spell assisting the then caretaker coach Vincente Del Bosque in 1993-94. Even while Benitez was building a reputation at Valencia, Real inquired about his availability and rumours persist about him taking up the manager's role at a club where, he admitted in a Spanish interview two weeks, he would like to end his career.

Juande Ramos might have something to say about that. Los Meringues have won nine games on the trot under him, with Raul – who played briefly under Benitez when he was coaching the Real second team – the prime force. The Real skipper, currently the all time Champions League scorer with 64 goals, has scored seven in seven games and it was he whom Jamie Carragher singled out yesterday as a threat.

"Like Liverpool, there's always criticism when things are not going that well and people keep writing him off but he keeps coming back," Carragher said. "He is like Steven Gerrard at Liverpool: when you think of Real Madrid you think of Raul."

Gerrard underwent more light training here last night and though Benitez said he will not decide until today whether he will start the match, he hinted that the effect on his fitness for the ongoing league campaign of starting with him tonight might have to be overlooked. "For us the important thing always is the next game. It's a massive one," Benitez said. Benitez will be hoping that the game's significance for other members of his Spanish contingent – Alvaro Arbeloa made two Liga appearances for Real before he was shipped out to Deportivo La Coruña, while Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina never managed wins at the Bernabeu with Atletico Madrid and Villarreal respectively – will also help.

"It's going to be a very even tie between two teams at nearly the same level," the Madrid coach Ramos said. "The little nuances could make the difference. It'll be decided right at the final whistle."

Ramos's club president is somewhat more confident. "In Madrid we're going to win 3-0, and at Anfield we'll also win 1-2 because they'll open up and we'll overrun them," the interim Madrid president, Vicente Boluda, said.