"I think the best thing for my club is to talk about football," the manager said on Friday after another week of turmoil, bad publicity and speculation about his future. It might just as easily have been Chelsea's Avram Grant speaking, though this time it was Liverpool's Rafa Benitez. If the sentiment was understandable, the undeniable fact is that the football – specifically the two legs of the Champions' League semi-final over the next 11 days – is about to bring more grief to one or other of them.
In the recent past, Jose Mourinho suffered by twice losing at this stage to Liverpool, with last season's defeat on penalties negating the chance of a triumph that would have made him unsackable in September. Grant, for all the criticism aimed at him, would also be in a position of great strength if he were to deliver the club's first European Cup in four weeks' time. Similarly, Benitez ought to be rendered fireproof just by reaching a third European final in four years.
They cannot both do it, however, so in the meantime two serious football men will go into another round of media interviews tomorrow pleading to be allowed to talk tactics, not politics. Admittedly, when Grant had the opportunity to do so to a Merseyside audience last Thursday night after an encouraging victory at Everton, he made an embarrassing mess of it, effectively declining to talk about anything at all in response to some withering criticism of the loss of two crucial points at home to Wigan. Later, however, he was happy to answer questions from Sunday newspaper representatives about the forthcomingtie, his opposite number and his admiration forLiverpool's captain.
On Benitez: "I think the results show what a good coach he is in Europe. He beat Chelsea two times when he was 20 points behind in the League, and one time in the semi-final of the FA Cup. He knows how to play against big teams. I like him as a person and as a manager, but we will give him a battle this time."
On the task ahead: "We know the qualities of Liverpool, they know the qualities of us. I don't think there will be surprises but I have a good feeling about it, I'm always positive. First we need to score one goal away, that is the target at this level. The last games [between Chelsea and Liverpool] were too tactical. Football needs to be tactical, but not too tactical. You need the freedom to play. So I am trying with my team to give them the freedom to think with responsibility."
On Gerrard: "A great player and a great person, for me the player of the year in England and maybe in Europe because of the influence he has on the team. He is a nice guy, a positive guy and he is an example for many people. Unfor-tunately he plays against me not with me, but he is still my favourite player.
"I'm not surprised about him playing up with [Fernando] Torres. In that pos-ition he probably feels more free. He has the quality to play in any position. Buthe is not my player. If you can bring him to me, I will be happy!"
Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, has already tried that one and, if anything, Gerrard has subsequently become even more important to Liverpool; all the more so now that Benitez has finally developed a settled side and formation. After making changes at Fulham yesterday, he will surely revert to what works best, with Gerrard just behind the admirable Torres. Their Chelsea equivalents, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, who have both been missing recently,will be needed to improve the chances of some goals, although Grant will allow Lampard to decide whether he is ready to play after his mother's illness.
The four previous Champions' League meetings between the sides have provided only three goals, one of which, as Mourinho never tired of pointing out, did not conclusively cross the line. Jamie Carragher, like Gerrard a fan in boots, says: "Both teams normallykeep it quite solid at the back. It's always been that way in the semi-finals with them, and I wouldn't expect it to be any different." We have been warned.
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