Benitez must turn disaster into triumph

Hard on the heels of defeat in Europe, Liverpool's manager faces a vital League test against Arsenal. Ian Herbert finds growing pressure at Anfield
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The Independent Football

The statistics tell us it is a meeting of football's invincibles; the last two unbeaten sides in the Premier League going head-to-head in this season's first real test of the elite. What wouldn't Rafael Benitez have given to be told, when spending his club's new-found American wealth last summer, that his Liverpool side would be a part of that contest?

But the football has turned up a different story. While Arsène Wenger's Arsenal side will arrive in Liverpool tomorrow fresh from Theo Walcott's feats of European greatness in midweek, Benitez yesterday found himself responding to that most unenviable of football concepts – a chairman's vote of support in troubled times. Unbeaten Liverpool might be, but their midweek calamity in Istanbul, preceded by controversy at Goodison and a chaotic point at home to Tottenham suggest that for all the calmness Benitez exudes and that fat zero in the defeats column, he is some distance from Wenger's current air of serenity.

Benitez, whose reluctance to admit that his team lacked anything but luck against Besiktas on Wednesday was almost as eye-catching as the result, did acknowledge yesterday that he was under pressure and that the chairman, Tom Hicks, had been right when he said on Thursday that Liverpool should be challenging for the title. "When I was at Valencia we won the title," Benitez said. "[But] two years later I was under pressure and we won two titles, [La] Liga and Uefa Cup, in 2004. Maybe this season could be the season."

Benitez certainly has a history of fashioning triumph from disaster. To Liverpool's Istanbul adventure of 2005 can be added the freezing Barcelona night in 2001 when, facing the sack if defeated by the local side Espanyol and 2-0 down at half-time, Benitez saw his Valencia team win 3-2 in a game which changed the season – and his entire managerial destiny.

The Spaniard, however, can also feel Hicks and his co-investor at Anfield, George Gillett, breathing down his neck. They are in email contact with Benitez every two or three days, and news of the £150m increase in the projected cost of Liverpool's new stadium in Stanley Park – to £400m – is sure to have been one of the subjects under discussion. A conversation with them was imminent for Benitez as he discussed the Arsenal game yesterday.

Benitez has certainly been thinking deeply about why his Liverpool side have found winning so difficult of late. One of the more contorted theories he expounded was that his strikers' failure to contribute was related to his defence's mistakes. "The defence gives the strikers confidence. It's a vicious circle," he said.

Perhaps he should adopt the strategy which some think is more appropriate for his team: relax and stop trying so hard. One of the characteristics of the Liverpool midfield's play on Wednesday was the propensity for firing off 40-yard passes when something more straightforward might have done and the man who might just deliver simplicity tomorrow is Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard did not make it off the bench on Wednesday and Benitez hinted yesterday that he might not quite be match fit to start on Sunday, but even half an hour's play might provides the second's inspiration which would serve Liverpool every bit as well as 90 minutes' perspiration. "Xabi's pace with the ball is important," his manager explained. "He doesn't let the defenders get organised."

Alonso himself acknowledged yesterday that this kind of creativity has been the hallmark of Arsenal's scintillating form. "They have a lot of mobility and a lot of players who are comfortable with the ball," he said. "They understand each other very well and that creates good football."

Benitez's troubles were compounded by the news that his winger Jermaine Pennant will have surgery this weekend on a stress fracture of his right tibia and faces 10 weeks on the sidelines. The manager must also wait until this morning to discover when two other crucial members of his squad – the "90 per cent fit" striker Fernando Torres and Alvaro Arbeloa, a creative force he places in the same bracket as Alonso – will be back after missing the Istanbul trip.

It was a rather different scene at London Colney, where a relaxed Wenger exuded the air of a man 12 straight wins to the good, his side two points clear at the top of the Premier League table with a game in hand.

He still has Robin van Persie missing – which means the goalscoring burden will again fall on Emmanuel Adebayor – but it is the question of who to leave out which is exercising him. "Walcott? We will have to wait and see," he said.

Though Arsenal limped out of Anfield on the receiving end of a justifiable 4-1 drubbing last season, Wenger obviously relishes the test of his side's capacity to overcome a major obstacle – "the last question mark," as he calls it – which Liverpool represent. It is his side's ability to find solutions to the problems in games, which is pleasing him most. "We've had no perfect game until now, but we've always found the resources to find a solution to the problem," he said.

Wenger was as robust about Tottenham's treatment of Martin Jol as he was of Bolton's towards Sammy Lee a week ago. "The pressure is getting greater, " Wenger said. "It is a concern. Somebody asked me if I think I'm one of the safest managers in the league and I replied no one has found a machine yet to measure how safe you are. I'm second in the league behind Ferguson for longevity and no one will ever beat his record."

So does Benitez looks like a manager on the edge? "I rate him highly," Wenger said. I don't know if he's under pressure but it doesn't look [so] to me." Since defeat would open up a nine-point gap between these two sides, there is certainly a lot more at stake for the Spaniard tomorrow. "A game against Arsenal is like a derby – anything can happen," Benitez said. But after the trials of the past eight days, it is hard to believe he could face anything as heart-stopping as last Saturday at Goodison.

Anfield dreams: Memorable post-war Liverpool v Arsenal games

* Liverpool 1 Arsenal 5

15 November 1952. Arsenal recorded their biggest-ever league victory at Anfield on the way to the First Division title. The Merseysiders eventually avoided relegation by a single point.

* Liverpool 5 Arsenal 0

18 April 1964. The first of Bill Shankly's titles was clinched with this demolition. Ian St John and Roger Hunt starred in the Red's biggest league win.

* Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

26 May 1989. Michael Thomas's injury-time goal allowed Arsenal to wrench the First Division title from Liverpool on goals scored in an astonishing climax to the season.

* Liverpool 3 Arsenal 0

28 August 1994. Anfield's teenage sensation Robbie Fowler beat David Seaman three times in 4 minutes 33 seconds to record the Premier League's fastest hat-trick.

* Liverpool 4 Arsenal 1

31 March 2007. A Peter Crouch treble exacted revenge for a 6-3 humbling by Arsenal's youngsters in the League Cup earlier that season.

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