Benitez balances honouring the past with pursuit of new Liverpool future

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The Independent Online

Rafael Benitez, a journeyman player in Spain's Second Division when the carnage of Heysel took place, strove for a balance between honouring the dead and the pursuit of honours yesterday as Liverpool and Juventus geared up for their first meeting since the 1985 tragedy.

Rafael Benitez, a journeyman player in Spain's Second Division when the carnage of Heysel took place, strove for a balance between honouring the dead and the pursuit of honours yesterday as Liverpool and Juventus geared up for their first meeting since the 1985 tragedy.

Shortly before the Italians arrived on Merseyside for the first leg of tonight's Champions' League quarter-final, Benitez acknowledged the need for sensitivity. He also looked forward to Liverpool producing one of their special European nights, saying firmly: "We can do it."

Benitez, who revealed that he had experienced a sudden, unexpected bereavement himself when his brother-in-law died in an air crash, recalled his sense of shock as he watched the Brussels final on television. Now, he felt the best thing he could do to ensure that the future held no such horrors was to return the focus to football.

"When you have a terrible event like that, you need to give respect to the families that were involved," the Liverpool manager said. "We give them our good wishes, and we hope for good relations. But it's also very important that we talk about the present; about the game itself."

The word "friendship", in English and Italian, will be printed on armbands in Liverpool red and the black and white of Juventus that will be handed to the Turin club's fans. The names of the 39 Juventus followers who died will also feature on a memorial banner that will be paraded by Kopites before the match.

Benitez, meanwhile, will be looking to his own relationship with the Juventus coach, Fabio Capello, as a positive starting point. When he was seeking to break into coaching, the Spaniard approached Capello, then in charge of Milan, asking whether he could observe his methods. Benitez spent three days with him as part of a mini-tour of leading Serie A clubs.

From their time together he learned that the man in the opposite technical area tonight is "a winner". The combination of Capello's European pedigree and Juventus' roster of stellar talents make it likely he will hold that status once the two legs are completed, yet Liverpool can draw hope from recent history.

In 2002, Capello was in charge of Roma when they came to Anfield still confident of reaching the last eight despite a goalless draw in the Olympic Stadium. Liverpool won 2-0, and Capello's assessment of Benitez's team suggests that they are "just as physically strong and well organised" as Gérard Houllier's three years ago.

On that occasion, Liverpool went out in the following round to Bayer Leverkusen. This time they qualified for their first meeting with Juventus in the 20 years since Heysel by trouncing the Bundesliga outfit - the kind of performance which gives Benitez hope of springing a surprise.

"People talk about our inconsistency, particularly our defeats at Birmingham and Southampton," he said. "But we can also look at how well we've played in important fixtures, like when we beat Arsenal in the Premiership and Leverkusen and Olympiakos in Europe. We must ask: 'Why not against Juventus?' We can do it."

Benitez almost went on to answer his own question, citing the world-class players in every department of Capello's line-up and noting that Gianluigi Buffon has conceded just two goals in this season's competition. When he threw in the fact that Liverpool's opponents would be rested, Saturday's match at Fiorentina having been postponed because of the death of the Pope, it seemed he was talking down their prospects.

However, he has seen enough of Anfield on such nights to assert that "we can balance the situation through our supporters". Not to mention Steven Gerrard's capacity to rise to the occasion. The England midfielder will relish the opportunity to prove he is equipped to share the stage with Juventus' creative force, Pavel Nedved. The Czech is fit after suffering concussion in a recent match, but David Trezeguet, who is working his way back from an ankle injury, is likely to start on the bench.

Liverpool are short of strikers, but not necessarily of potential match-winners, with Gerrard, Luis Garcia and John Arne Riise all capable of scoring. Yet with Juventus possessing such a parsimonious defence, the onus will be on Milan Baros to fare better than he did against Everton when given two one-on-one opportunities. Benitez will also trust that the player's temperament does not betray him as it did in the derby, even if the subsequent domestic suspension has left him feeling fresher.

Benitez, pressed about the need for a sporting example from the pitch, remarked that it was "difficult sometimes if the pulse rate was 180". True, but if fences are to be mended, where once they were trampled by rampaging fans, Liverpool's aggression must be controlled.

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