Benitez pulls plug on expectations to recharge batteries

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The Independent Online

Rarely have the benefits of a 2-1 win over Manchester United been so immediate and so profound. Not only have Liverpool extinguished, for a few months at least, images of a triumphant Gary Neville pumping his fist at the Kop but they find themselves propelled into Marseilles' Stade Vélodrome tonight in a collective state of mind that could hardly contrast more with their last visit here nine months ago.

Back in December, Rafael Benitez was experiencing some of his darkest days as Liverpool's manager – the legendary sulk over transfer policy was as fresh in the mind as the 3-1 defeat at Reading. Tonight's adventure would have had a similar feel to it had United held their early lead three days ago but instead Benitez finds himself talking down inflated expectations. He has expressly told his players to put the win out of their minds and, assuming a habit that has maddened his captain, Steven Gerrard, at times in the past, he dwelt on the down side of Saturday's win yesterday.

"The risk is maybe greater, because to play Marseilles straight after United will be really tough and Marseilles are a better team than last season," benitez said.

But there is no mistaking the spring in Liverpool's step. The Marseilles coach, Eric Gerets, who began his tenure at the club with the 1-0 group stage win at Anfield last season, captured it when he said that "with the Liverpool players you get the impression that they are like the Duracell bunnies. You wind them up and they go". Benitez countered: "I know the advert. That must be [Javier] Mascherano."

The Liverpool manager is hopeful that Saturday's exertions will not deprive him of the Argentine, who locked a knee, though Fabio Aurelio took a kick on the calf at Anfield and has not travelled. "Maybe some players can recover quickly in two days," Benitez added. "But others need three or four days, so we need to check on each one. We don't have time to train. They can improve, but physically they won't be at the level you want."

Gerrard, who came through his 22 minutes unscathed on Saturday looks a strong contender to start, though Fernando Torres is likely to be on the bench, and for Benitez the incentive is to avoid a repeat of the tortuous early stages of last season's group, which made their eventual qualification for the knockout stages a near miracle.

"[We have learnt] that it is important to start winning straight away," Benitez said. "It is always important to win the first game because then you maybe can use different players. Last season, because of our bad results in the beginning we needed to use our key players every time, which is a problem."

The American ownership problems still rumble on. The investment arm of the Dubai government, Dubai International Capital, raised eyebrows yesterday with a statement disassociating itself from suggestions that it or "any other Dubai-based party" is aware of a bid to buy the club. It is still thought Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum would like to buy Liverpool, but a Dubai offer of £500m-plus is still unacceptable to them.

There is also uncertainty about precisely what potential Benitez's side have. But Albert Riera, who left Anfield to a standing ovation on Saturday after building a performance of pace and precision passing from an unpromising start against Wes Brown, might be the answer to the left-flank conundrum at last and against United Robbie Keane showed more promise without Torres in attendance than he has with him there.

Benitez was right about Marseilles' improvement on last season. Their draw against Laurent Blanc's Bordeaux side on Saturday knocked them off the top but Gerets' side remain unbeaten. The defence has been tightened since the 4-4 season opener at Rennes and Bakari Kone, the Ivorian striker, is in good form.

Unlike Liverpool, Gerets has dwelt on the United win. "If you'd asked me five days ago, I would have been relieved [if Torres or Gerrard didn't start]," he said. "But after seeing what they are capable of against Manchester without them, I tell you it's going to be really hard."

Marseilles (probable, 4-2-3-1) Mandanda; Bonnart, Zubar, Hilton, Taiwo; Cana, Cheyrou; Ben Arfa, Valbuena, Kone; Niang.

Liverpool (probable, 4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Dossena; Babel, Gerrard, Mascherano, Riera; Kuyt, Keane.

Marseilles' player to watch

*Bakary Kone The Marseilles striker from the Ivory Coast has scored three goals in five games this season, including the equaliser against Bordeaux in their 1-1 draw at the weekend. At only 5ft 4in, Kone relies on his blistering pace to beat players and create goalscoring chances afp/getty images

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