Benitez banks on experience for early 'play-off'

A week in which debate began about whether there should be play-offs for England's fourth Champions' League place ends today with what could effectively prove to be one. Manchester City, in fourth position with a game in hand, take on Liverpool, who are one point and one place behind them. Furthermore, whatever Aston Villa and Tottenham may claim – both could this afternoon move above the losers at Eastlands – City and Liverpool are the two most likely contenders for the fourth slot.

Neither Roberto Mancini nor Rafael Benitez is in favour of the play-off proposal, on the grounds that the back end of the season is already quite congested enough, with or without an early finish to facilitate a World Cup or European Championship.

Naturally, each is reluctant to accept that final positions in the table will depend on what happens in February, but Liverpool know that a ninth defeat of the campaign would be a serious setback. As Dirk Kuyt puts it: "If we can win this game we will be back in it, and if we lose it we have a big problem."

The industrious Dutchman scored in both meetings last season, his winning goal in the last minute at Eastlands illustrating how far City still were from catching Liverpool, let alone achieving the rest of their dreams. They had led 2-0 at half-time but collapsed thereafter; by Christmas they were in the bottom three, with Kuyt's team top of the table.

Now the table has been turned. A 2-2 draw between the sides at Anfield in November was a fair result, and if City can improve on that today they will stride with confident purpose into Wednesday's FA Cup replay at Stoke and Saturday's significant trip to Chelsea. Liverpool, meanwhile, have been eating humble Europa League pie and must do so again on Thursday with a long trip to Romania, having only narrowly avoided an embarrassing draw in the home leg against Unirea Urziceni.

"We would have preferred to be in a better position than this," Kuyt says, "but it is what it is and we have to try and win this game and try to finish in the top four. We think we have the quality to do that."

What the Anfield camp are trying to make capital of, like Manchester United in their struggle with Chelsea, is their weight of experience in similar situations. The nouveaux riches of Chelsea and City, the argument runs, have not felt the same pressure as often as the old aristocrats of Old Trafford and Anfield.

Kuyt adds: "We have the experience to come from this position and the most important thing is that apart from the Arsenal game [0-1] we are on a good run without conceding many goals. We are winning games and that is giving us confidence that we can do it, and on Sunday we will be ready."

Benitez echoed him. "It's always important, experience, and not just for one game. Also for the rest of the season, so I have to believe that the experience will be the key, because we have more than them. They have been improving in the last two years and everybody's expecting that they have to be there. So we know that they want to be there and it will be interesting for both to see what happens."

The Liverpool manager will be pleased at the unavailability for City of both Carlos Tevez and Patrick Vieira; the former possessing the ability to unhinge his defence, the latter physically to disrupt his midfield. What he hopes is that as City pour forward, the visitors will be able to counter- attack in a "totally different" game to Thursday's. But the same result would suit him perfectly.

TODAY'S GAMES

Aston Villa v Burnley (Sky Sports 1, 2.0)

Two cases of claret, but in Villa's case it is the start of a critical week, continuing with an FA Cup replay against Crystal Palace and then the Carling Cup final next Sunday. That's exactly a year after it all fell apart for Martin O'Neill in the FA Cup, Uefa Cup and the League.

Blackburn Rovers v Bolton Wanderers (ESPN, 12.0)

In the fixture that the home team hardly ever win (10 draws and eight away wins in the past 19 meetings), Blackburn hope to defy the statistics by consolidating in mid-table while leaving their unloved rivals marooned in the bottom three.

Fulham v Birmingham City (3.0)

Fulham's small squad is holding up remarkably well amid the club's longest-ever European run. On the weekend after the past three Europa League games they have beaten Manchester United, Sunderland and Liverpool. Birmingham, fresh and flying high, will still be a test.

Manchester City v Liverpool (3.0)

Welcome to the fourth-place play-off; the game most people would like to see on TV today but cannot. Liverpool fans must get used to such indignities if there are to be regular Thursday gigs in the Europa League. Defeat here and there will be even more of them next season.

Wigan Athletic v Tottenham Hotspur (Sky Sports 1, 4.15)

The return fixture from the 9-1 game earlier in the season, and any Spurs fans will probably think they are also entitled to a travel refund when they see the state of the rugby league pitch. It's a day to make up ground on either City or Liverpool.

Steve Tongue

Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(who aren't Arctic Monkeys)
News
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
science
Extras
indybest
News
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
people
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home