Yes, the penalty Howard Webb awarded Manchester United last Saturday really did sting Rafael Benitez. "The lucky penalty" was the way the Liverpool manager described it yesterday and there is little doubt that thoughts of Manchester United are whirring around at the front of that mechanical mind of his.
Benitez, whose run-in is to be boosted by an imminent new five-year deal for Danish central defender Daniel Agger, has identified precisely which of Manchester United's remaining fixtures are most likely to cause them trouble, with recent experience telling him Middlesbrough, this lunchtime, and Hull City are amongst them, as well as Arsenal and Manchester City at Old Trafford.
In fact, only Wigan Athletic – United's game in hand – was not on his list as he expounded on why United, whom Liverpool could trail by six points before Newcastle United arrive at Anfield tomorrow, will be a ghost at United's shoulder until the bitter end. "You never know in football what can happen but clearly if you want to pick some games you would say City and Arsenal are very difficult," he said. "Middlesbrough as we know is difficult for them. Hull away is not easy. So why not? It's important to keep winning our games and maybe you will have a chance. You have to do your job."
Sir Alex Ferguson said Benitez should stick to his own knitting when the Spaniard discussed United before their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Chelsea, so he will be irritated to know that Benitez was pointing out why Howard Webb should have realised the challenge by Tottenham Hotspur's Heurelho Gomes on Michael Carrick was legitimate, seven days ago. "When you are running in this way and the ball goes in this way it is because someone has touched it," he said.
But painful though last Saturday might have been, it taught Benitez – who contrary to some reports has not inquired after Marseilles captain Lorik Cana – that Hull City on the last day of the season is a difficult last game for United. "The conditions of the pitch and the other team – it's not easy to play at the same level [there]," he said. Benitez believes there was something of Ferguson's side in the way Liverpool still managed to win 3-1. "I don't know how many games United won 1-0 without playing at the same level? I think it was a lot," he said, his main adversaries still on his mind. "It's part of what you have to learn if you want to win titles."
Benitez's prospects against Newcastle are boosted by the return, after four weeks' absence with a groin strain, of Steven Gerrard – whose presence with Torres has a psychological effect on the opposition, the Spaniard believes. Benitez continues to provide the impression that he has a single big-name target on his mind for the summer and, intriguingly, he suggested yesterday that Gerrard may, if necessary, have to revert to a deeper midfield role to make way for any offensive midfielder – Valencia's David Silva is one he admires – who is signed to partner Torres. "Stevie can play also as a midfielder," Benitez said.
"It depends on the quality and the level of the players who can manage with different systems. With him you know he can play on the right, in the middle as a second striker or on the left. It's not a big difference because he is a clever player and has his quality. You have to use his quality, in whichever position." That is what Benitez said when Robbie Keane arrived, so it may be a difficult juggling act.
Benitez is hopeful of keeping his reserve keeper, Brazilian Diego Cavalieri, despite several bids. In the meantime, there is the prospect of Newcastle who, judging by Liverpool's 5-1 win at St James' in December, make this a less awkward weekend than United's.Reuse content