Liverpool v Internazionale: In-form Italians can land knockout punch on Rafa
There will be even more trouble ahead for Benitez if the runaway Serie A leaders beat his team on Tuesday
Analyse this. Liverpool's Rafa Benitez has always come across as a cerebral football manager rather than an up-and-at-'em motivator, and "analyse" has become a favourite word in his expanding English vocabulary. Any objective analysis of the two-leg Champions' League tie against Internazionale that begins at Anfield on Tuesday, however, leads to the conclusion that, after yesterday's shock defeat by Barnsley, there may be even more trouble ahead.
Failure to reach a third quarter-final in four seasons, coming after the FA Cup embarrassment yesterday, and while trailing so far behind in the Premier League, would also require anyone analysing Benitez's record to ask some hard questions about the return on spending that has passed £100m net.
Since a public spat, ill-judged on both sides, with Liverpool's American owners, he is forced to defend his record of achievement more and more often, which he did with vigour at the club's training ground last week. "If you analyse the last [four] years," he said, "there's four trophies, semi-finals, and tell me how many managers have done the same in their first three or four years? It's not easy, so I think that people can talk, but no one is winning trophies every year."
And the constant criticism? "It's a surprise, but you keep going. This week for example I was really pleased with the players because they were preparing perfectly for every training session and it was really good. Surprised, too, because if you analyse the recent history of the club, I am here because we needed to win. So we are winning but you cannot win everything. It's impossible."
What he has won is a European Cup and an FA Cup, both on penalties. His final League positions (fifth, third and third) average out exactly the same as his predecessor, Gérard Houllier, who won four cups but was sacked for not coming closer to a first League title since 1990.
Now the Spaniard is forced to admit that once again he is not going to match even Houllier's runners-up position of 2002. "In the League it will be really difficult to be in the top three, but we will fight now to be in the top four. It's clear that to win the title would be almost impossible. I don't want to say that 100 per cent. The Champions' League is the same as the Cup. You can play against a League One team and it will be a difficult game and the Champions' League is the same. All teams can beat each other."
Liverpool, he has to hope and believe, can beat a confident and impressive Internazionale, though he is especially wary of the strong Argentinian contingent, about whom Javier Masch-erano will be providing more information. "The mentality of Argentinian players is fantastic. They're very competitive. The passion, the physical approach and the mentality."
The task is daunting, all the more so since Benitez admits he prefers having second legs at Anfield. Had Liverpool not lost there dismally to Marseille in October – and been only second in their group – that would have been the case, and Tuesday's opposition would have been Schalke from Germany, not the best team in Italy.
This week's matches
LIVERPOOL v INTERNAZIONALE
Famed as a tactician in just this sort of game, Rafael Benitez has an awful lot at stake against an Inter side romping to the Serie A title almost as easily as they did last season.
OLYMPIAKOS v CHELSEA
With one away win in 32 ties, the Piraeus club will need a good win to travel to London with any hope. With John Terry back in the ranks, Chelsea should be too strong.
ROMA v REAL MADRID
Losing only 1-0 at Old Trafford in October as opposed to 7-1 last season suggests Roma, who are second in Serie A, are improving. Much will doubtless depend on the mood of Real's superstars.
SCHALKE v PORTO
Jose Mourinho's old club, who finished top of Liverpool's group, return to the scene of their 2004 Champions' League triumph, but will find Schalke tougher opposition than Monaco were that night.
ARSENAL V MILAN
Milan's names are formidable but their ages are against them. Kaka, almost 26, is virtually the baby of the team. Arsène Wenger will want his own babes to run the legs off 39-year-old Paolo Maldini and the rest.
CELTIC v BARCELONA
Along with Liverpool, Celtic drew the shortest but most glamorous straws. And their away record, although awful, is less bad in Barcelona than most places.
FENERBAHCE v SEVILLA
Juande Ramos's former club, winners of Arsenal's group, must be favourites to overcome a side including Roberto Carlos and Turkey's Colin Kazim-Richards (late of Sheffield United).
LYON v MANCHESTER UNITED
Four points behind Rangers at one stage, Lyon squeezed them out by winning 3-0 at Ibrox. On course for a seventh successive French title but they can disappoint in the knockout stages.
The latest betting: 100-30 Barcelona; 5-1 Manchester Utd; 13-2 Chelsea; 8-1 Inter; 9-1 Real Madrid; 10-1 Arsenal; 12-1 Milan; 14-1 Sevilla; 16-1 Liverpool; 25-1 Lyon; 28-1 Roma; 33-1 Porto; 66-1 Schalke; 100-1 Fenerbahce, Olympiakos; 150-1 Celtic (Odds supplied by William Hill).
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