Benitez bullish despite Torres absence

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The Independent Football

Liverpool face the toughest test of their season so far at Chelsea on Sunday with manager Rafael Benitez believing they can win without Fernando Torres.

It is testimony to Liverpool's improvement this term that the Spaniard can approach a daunting game at Stamford Bridge with such confidence.

It is a clash between the only two Premier League clubs still unbeaten this term, and already seen as a critical showdown in the race for the Premier League title as Liverpool go in search of their first top-flight crown since 1990.

In that time Liverpool have also only won once at Stamford Bridge, such has been their consistent fall from the lofty heights of 18 league title crowns in an illustrious past.

To get anywhere near ending their long run without domestic glory, Liverpool know they must start beating Chelsea, and the rest of the big four.

And Benitez is not even daunted by Chelsea's four-year, 86-match unbeaten home league record.

With Torres ruled out with a hamstring injury, the Anfield boss said: "Everyone knows Torres is a key player for us, he scores and we win games. But we have won plenty of games without him, and we have enough confidence in our squad to do so again.

"Without him it will be a different style of play, but we know we can manage.

"But we will have to step up a gear. If you want to have a chance in the future of achieving, if you want to keep players at this level (of performance), we need to beat this sort of team.

"We have the mentality to win this one, maybe after so long unbeaten at home for Chelsea in the league, it is time."

He added: "We are at the top of the table with Chelsea having not played our best yet. We are playing well but we can improve.

"And we do not have Torres, but I believe we have the firepower to beat Chelsea. We have been playing well and have good confidence.

"We have enough quality in the squad. We may have been more worried without Torres in the past, but we have improved, we have new players with a very good mentality.

"We have enough to beat a very good team, and that is Chelsea. It is too early to talk of titles, but we have the confidence to beat anyone.

"If we win it will be perfect and if we do not lose that too will be positive.

"Our idea is to stay unbeaten. But we are intent on winning. Every season we are improving, though. We could go top, which would be a good problem for me then having to keep expectations down.

"The key is to be ready. To have the team focused. Before the game to talk a lot is not good, afterwards maybe we will have to keep our people calm!

"Everyone is talking about us as a title challenger. Of course, Chelsea too.

"But we know there is a long way to go. The right message is to be humble and careful."

Benitez has declared skipper Steven Gerrard and midfielder Xabi Alonso both fit after minor injuries that forced their substitutions in the Champions League draw against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday.

There is a little more uncertainty about striker Robbie Keane, with a groin strain, and Benitez will make a late decision on the Irishman.

And he goes to Stamford Bridge without the added pressures caused by the now infamous war of words with former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho.

The Portuguese coach dominated Benitez in league matches, while Liverpool achieved notable victories in the FA Cup and Champions League.

Now, it seems, Benitez senses a more cordial welcome in west London. He would not go as far as to say Chelsea were better under Luiz Felipe Scolari, but he got very close.

He said: "With Avram Grant the team was at the same level as with (Jose) Mourinho, but maybe more offensive.

"And that is now the same with Scolari. He is improving the team and the squad, so it will be just as difficult. But we are playing against the team, not the manager.

"But maybe Chelsea are now more offensive. That just makes it more difficult because they have such good players.

"Chelsea are a very good team. I would not want to say better than under Mourinho because I do not want to start any war of words, but it is clear that they are more offensive.

"They have a more offensive mentality, a very good team with a good attacking policy.

"This game may be more open than previous ones between the clubs. Clearly they have a stronger attacking mentality. They will go forward, they score goals, and we will have a much more attacking match.

"They have quality all around. They have full-backs who go forward, good wide men and attacking players, they are a very good side. They do not have too many weaknesses, but if we can win it will be a real boost."