Liverpool's renewed confidence holds sway

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The Independent Football

Organised chaos reigned at Lisbon Airport yesterday as Liverpool supporters besieged Rafael Benitez with requests for a photograph while he waited to reclaim his baggage at carousel No 6.

An orderly queue of admirers ventured forward only when the Liverpool manager had been informed of the draw for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and then, to a man (plus two women), they bade their farewells with an identical refrain. "Thanks for Saturday," came the recurring theme, as though the season's highlight had been achieved in the fifth-round defeat of Manchester United. As cameras and mobiles clicked, however, Benitez's thoughts would have been on the bigger picture.

If the Spaniard took extra delight in his first victory over Sir Alex Ferguson then he has not shown it, spending most of Saturday wishing a swift recovery to Alan Smith and yesterday considering the implications of Peter Crouch's header on a squad that will continue its Champions' League defence with renewed confidence against Benfica tonight.

From the opening days of this extended campaign for Liverpool, their manager has consistently argued his team are better prepared and better equipped to surpass the achievements of last season, and did not alter his stance even when recent defeats at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge brought underlying concerns about fatigue and lamentable finishing to the fore. "If we beat Benfica then people will start to believe in our team more," Benitez admitted. "But we have been happy with our own situation anyway."

What Ferguson would give for Liverpool's situation, and their midfield, as Benitez enters the stadium where his own Champions' League aspirations died in December.

Three successive 1-0 victories have provided a convincing response to their recent lapses. They have also strengthened the suspicion that, once again, Benitez's policy of careful rotation and patience has placed Liverpool in fine stead for the "business end" of the season. While many favourites for the Champions' League commence the task of cutting each other's throats, tonight Liverpool arrive at the Estadio da Luz in superior mental and physical condition to when they overcame Bayer Leverkusen at the same stage of last season's competition. They also have the omen of having reached a European Cup final every time they have faced Benfica in the competition, and an appetite that has been increased, not satisfied, by events at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul last May.

"We could have lived off the back of Istanbul for a while and milked what was a tremendous achievement," said the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, yesterday. "But the players are not like that and the manager wouldn't stand for that. Any complacency, any big-headedness, and he would come down on you. He hasn't needed to, though, because the players are desperate for more. We won't let being European champions go without a fight, I can promise the supporters that now.

"We know what it feels like to win it and we want to win it again this year. People aren't talking about Liverpool, which suits us fine. We will just go about our game as normal but we are desperate to succeed again."

Benfica have lost three of their last four games and the pressure will mount on their manager, Ronald Koeman, if they stumble tonight and against league leaders Porto this weekend. However, defensive solidity remains a priority for the visitors. As such, Dietmar Hamann is expected to bring his assured control to midfield, possibly alongside the fit-again Xabi Alonso, having earned an extended stay at Anfield following his impressive contribution against United.

The German international's 22nd appearance of the season triggered an automatic 12-month extension to his existing contract and, though his opportunities have been limited by the arrival of Mohamed Sissoko, "The Kaiser", as he is known to his Liverpool colleagues, continues to influence those around him.

Gerrard explained: "It is important having him around and, personally speaking, I have learnt an awful lot from him. The midfield we have at the club is quite young and having someone of Didi's experience, well, there isn't anyone here who cannot learn something from him. He keeps things ticking over and was my man of the match against United. I would keep him here for as long as possible. He is not just a great player but a great person to have around the squad."

Benfica (probable, 4-2-3-1): Moretto; Alcides, Anderson, Luisao, Leo; Petit, Beto; Robert, Karagounis, Simao; Nuno Gomes.

Liverpool (probable, 4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Hamann, Alonso, Kewell; Garcia; Crouch.

Referee: K Plautz (Austria).

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