Benitez needs European nights to keep Gerrard

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The Independent Football

Curiously for a coach who came within tantalising reach of the semi-finals with Valencia, Rafael Benitez characterised the opening fixture of a fresh Champions' League campaign as just another game yesterday.

Curiously for a coach who came within tantalising reach of the semi-finals with Valencia, Rafael Benitez characterised the opening fixture of a fresh Champions' League campaign as just another game yesterday. No sooner had the new Liverpool manager done so, however, than he conceded that success in the competition, starting against Monaco at Anfield tonight, may help in keeping Steven Gerrard at the club.

Before committing himself to Liverpool in the summer, Gerrard was a target for Chelsea. Jose Mourinho is expected to return for the midfielder during the January transfer window or next summer. In the meantime, Benitez hopes that progress in Europe's premier club tournament will persuade Liverpool's outstanding players to stay.

"The Champions' League is important for us because of our history," Benitez said, responding to a query about Gerrard's future with a nod to the glittering era a quarter of a century ago in which Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan brought four European Cups to Liverpool.

"It is also important in terms of money, so we must try to win as many matches as possible. But if we go far in this competition it won't be necessary to start thinking what the future may mean. It's better to do our job properly now. Then it will be easy to keep our best players."

The Spaniard was in charge of the opposition when Anfield last staged a game in the competition proper, two years ago next month, Valencia winning 2-0. They were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Internazionale on the away-goals' rule, and the fact that he was still ruefully recalling how statistics showed they had put in 35 shots against Inter somewhat undermined his attempt to pass off Monaco's arrival as "another game to try to improve our level".

Benitez argued that the media on the continent view the competition as more prestigious than a domestic championship, going on to venture that fans of English clubs would be "split 50-50" between the two. Liverpool's followers, desperate for a Premiership title, have become accustomed to regarding fourth place as an achievement. Yet the players, past and present, drool about the "special atmosphere" of big European occasions, so this Group A game should provide a reminder of why Gérard Houllier was so anxious to claim that "also-ran" berth.

Whether Didier Deschamps' Monaco will prove "special" remains to be seen. Just three of the 14 players who appeared in the final defeat by Mourinho's Porto (after beating Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea) in May are likely to appear. Six have left, including Fernando Morientes, Jérôme Rothen and Dado Prso and at least four are injured. Deschamps has also discovered that Javier Saviola has an extra match suspension to serve after last season's red card for Barcelona against Celtic.

Monaco tend to advance on the strength of results in Monte Carlo - they have won only three out of 19 away in the Champions' League - although they are unbeaten in four trips to England in the past eight years. Something may have to give, for Liverpool had won six out of six against French visitors until Marseille drew in the Uefa Cup last spring.

That said, Liverpool are also in transition, with Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Danny Murphy no longer on the team-sheet. "We're starting to build a new side," Benitez said, his choice of words helping to explain the inconsistency that has so far typified his tenure.

Liverpool (4-4-2; probable): Dudek; Josemi, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Finnan, Gerrard, Hamman, Kewell; Cissé, Luis Garcia.

Monaco (3-1-4-2; probable): Roma; Rodriguez, Squillaci, Givet; Zikos; Maicon, Perez, Farnerud, Evra; Kallon, Adebayor.

Referee: T Hauge (Norway).

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