Benitez pushes Keane closer to exit

'The club spent £20m, not me' says Rafa as Scolari tips Drogba to be best in world, starting at Anfield today
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Before the second leg oflast season's Champions' League semi-final at Stamford Bridge, Rafa Benitez – believing, no doubt, that he was dealing in "facts", not mind games – cast Didier Drogba as a diver who would need careful surveillance by the Italian referee. Drogba stuck a picture of the Liverpool manager above his dressing-room peg and went out to give a superb performance, ensuring he stayed on his feet long enough to score the two goals that carried Chelsea to the final.

On their most recent visit to the ground, however, back in October, the celebrations were Liverpool's as they became the first away team to win a League game there in three-and-a-half years. No crowing from Benitez ahead of this afternoon's critical return match at Anfield; some would say he has little to crow about after seven draws in 10 games enabled Manchester United to overturn what was briefly a 10-point deficit at the top of the table. Instead, at Liverpool's training centre on Friday, the manager barely mentioned Chelsea, let alone Drogba, preferring this time to concentrate on emphasising the positives that he believes the season has so far brought.

"The fans know we are in a fantastic position," he said. "We're eight points better than this time last season and we're in the title race, much better than the last 10 or 15 years, but because the expectations were so high, people think we have to win every game. We were so good in the last four months that everyone was thinking this is our year because we were doing a lot of good things."

Opposing supporters who delight in the new chant "Rafa's cracking up" will also find him harbouring no doubts about either his worth or his sanity: "I have been working for 22 years and I have some experience of winning trophies. It's a fact, so if we are in this position and the team and the squad is better each year, we are doing things right. Now we are in the top sides in Europe and we're at the top of the table, so the situation is very positive. We were ahead of schedule and now we want to continue, but that depends on this year. If we can win trophies again, I think that will not be bad."

These are familiar Benitez mantras. More interesting was his careful correction when it was put to him that he had spent £20 million on Robbie Keane, a player he is hardly using to the full: "The club spent £20m on him." He would not be drawn further, though the implication about who controls the purse strings and makes the value judgements was clear.

Meanwhile, back in London – or leafy Surrey, at least – it was Luiz Felipe Scolari who was appealing to officialdom with a largely fatuous protest about penalties ("For us it's one thing, for the others another thing"). The average number awarded to Premier League teams this season is 2.5; Liverpool have had two, Chelsea and United one each. And which is the only team not to have a penalty given against them? Chelsea.

Scolari was on firmer ground discussing Drogba, who two days earlierhad enlivened Chelsea when appearing as a half-time substitute against a defensively obsessed Middlesbrough. The change meant pushing the Premier League's leading scorer, Nicolas Anelka, out wide, where he is not as effective, but that sacrifice was justified. Drogba ran at the opposition with some of the power of old and caused sufficient panic in the penalty area at set-pieces to allow Salomon Kalou to score from two.

That raw power once prompted Scolari, when national team managers were invited to pick their three best players in the world, to have the Chelsea man at No 1. Given the chance to work with him this season, he was forced to be patient after a discouraging return from injury – Drogba missed the home game with Liverpool among many others – but now Scolari says: "I put him out of the team because he was not in good condition. He was not in the same level as I know Drogba. Then he started to build again, training more, improve more, and now he's 85 per cent of two or three years ago. He had many injuries, and when you come back from injury you need time for adaptation."

Some will feel that time has come. Given Anelka's scoring record, and motivation against a former club this afternoon, it may be that Drogba is left pawing the ground as a substitute. But Scolari appears to believe that for all the player's previous talk of disenchantment with the club, he can regain his previous status in the football firmament and do so with Chelsea: "I can get him to be the best player in the world again if he continues his training and his progress, because he has different qualities and different style to other players.This is important for me and for every coach, when you have a different style and a man that is strong, has very good control, and can score from one or two chances."

Unlike his Liverpool counterpart, Scolari was prepared to talk about the opposition. "Maybe there's more pressure on Liverpool because they've drawn three or four games now, but the pressure is normal for me or Benitez or other coaches. We need to win the competition." The Spaniard more than the Brazilian, however, at this particular juncture.

Today's games

Newcastle United v Sunderland (1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)

For once, a North-eastern derby of much more than parochial interest, given the parlous state of following the football clubs in that region. Newcastle's manager Joe Kinnear will at least be able to blame a setback on persistent injuries, which his opposite number Ricky Sbragia will not.

Liverpool v Chelsea (4pm, Sky Sports 1)

A game to decide who finishes as Premier League runners-up, so Manchester United would like to believe. Completing a double over Chelsea would put Liverpool back on track and continue Rafa Benitez's improvement on a poor record against other members of the Big Four.

Steve Tongue

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