When the draw for the Champions' League knockout stage was made back in December, the consensus was that Liverpool had received the shortest of the Premiership's four straws. In being paired with their successors as European champions, Barcelona, all they had to clutch at was a reputation forged in triumph two years ago for coming through against apparently superior opposition, plus Rafael Benitez's local know-ledge. In the subsequent two months, however, cracks have developed in Catalonia, while Liverpool have emerged from delicate financial negotiations dollar-rich and newly confident. The odds have shifted slightly, without yet lumbering Benitez's Anglo-Spaniards with the burden of favouritism.
At the time of the draw they expected to be facing the new world champions, yet two days later Barça lost the World Club Championship final 1-0 to Inter-nacional of Brazil. Wearied by that tournament in Japan, they have subsequently dropped 11 points in eight matches and have still not won away since mid-November; a run causing some concern in view of the second leg at Anfield. With games against all the other Spanish League contenders coming up, they can hardly afford to lose the first of them this evening, away to fourth-placed Valencia.
Benitez will be cheering his old club with enthusiasm and can afford to watch in a relaxed frame of mind, for rarely does it happen that an English club are allowed an easier build-up to a Champions' League game than Continental opponents. While Barça's attention has been concentrated on playing down the embarrassing spat involving Samuel Eto'o and then playing today's vital game, Liverpool have been preparing with some warm-weather training and golf in Portugal. Their manager, a great believer in "the small detail", has for once had plenty of time to investigate every angle.
One well-informed Spaniard, Paco Herrera, who worked under Benitez at Anfield until joining Barcelona's neighbours Espanyol, believes Liverpool have the qualities to hurt the holders; namely aerial power and good set-pieces. He also feels that even the worldly-wise Barça will find the Mersey sound intimidating in the second leg, like Juventus and Chelsea two years ago. If the holders have not built a solid lead from their home game, that will apply even more.
The significant thing about both those Liverpool triumphs, in the quarter- and semi-finals, was the comfortable manner in which a goalless draw was achieved in the away leg. Earlier this decade, under Gérard Houllier, they twice came away from the Nou Camp with no new friends but a dull 0-0 draw, and Benitez would be delighted with a similar result. Only in Arsenal's two visits to Anfield last month has the defence looked rocky, and Newcastle's two goals in the rain last weekend to inflict a first Premiership defeat of 2007 spoilt a remarkable run of 12 clean sheets in 14 games.
Furthermore, Benitez, as a native of Madrid, has always enjoyed taking on Barça, and can point to some impressive results against them. The Catalans may have spoilt his first match as a coach in La Liga a dozen years ago, beating his Valladolid side, but working with a better class of player at Valencia he enjoyed three good wins against them, including one spectacular 4-2 success at the Nou Camp.
Although hardly in the class of the Premiership's other big three managers for mind games, the quiet man has also begun some subtle psychological undermining of the opposition aimed at opening up the divisions that appeared when Barça's coach, Frank Rijkaard, unwisely made it public knowledge that Eto'o had refused to go on as a substitute against Real Santander. In the media hothouse that is Barcelona, interventions were required from the club president, Joan Laporta, and sporting dir-ector, Txiki Begiristain, before peace could be restored, though the coach's contention that "this will have a positive effect on the team" takes some believing.
"Nothing's changed in the dressing room," insisted the defender Juliano Belletti, claiming of Eto'o: "If he plays and scores again, it'll all be forgotten." That will not happen in Valencia today after Eto'o opted to stay behind to "improve his fitness". Will Rijkaard risk him on Wed-nesday? Only a convincing performance from the little magician Lionel Messi, also only just returning after injury, will persuade Rijkaard he should start. If not there may be opportunities for Ludovic Giuly and Eidur Gudjohnsen, whom Liverpool have not forgiven for the dive at Stamford Bridge two years ago that caused Xabi Alonso to miss the semi-final second leg.
Not that Benitez will need to spend much time pondering the opposition's formation. The usual 4-3-3 is a given, home or away, probably with Edmilson as defensive guard behind some envied combination of Xavi, Deco and Andres Iniesta. Ronaldinho, fresh from a hug with Eto'o especially for the photographers, will be on the left, giving Steve Finnan every chance over 180 minutes or more to prove his credentials to an unpersuaded Benitez.
Whatever the result of two legs, however, there will be no let-up in Spanish imports now that Liverpool have become the latest beneficiaries of English football's special relationship with the dollar. Promised a transfer budget of some £25 million a season by the new owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, Benitez has already targeted at least a couple more countrymen in the Tenerife winger Iriome Gonzalez and Barcelona's frustrated young reserve midfielder Giovanni dos Santos.
As Ian Rush put it: "We now have to rely on the manager's talent, with the knowledge that the money will be available." He added a significant warning to some of the squad, who have remained frustratingly inconsistent in their attempts to match Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal domestically: "It is not just about an open chequebook. It is just as important to get players out as it is to get players in. That is the art of management."
It can be a black art too. According to some reports, Benitez has Eto'o himself on a provisional wish-list. Whether he gives any credence to that suggestion before the Barcelona tie is resolved in a fortnight's time will clarify whether the mild-mannered Madrileño wants to join the big league of mischief-making managers.
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