Benitez ready to rise to Old Trafford challenge

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The Independent Online

The accents may be different, but for Rafael Benitez the passions will be very familiar at Old Trafford on Monday. He may just hope the referee is better.

The accents may be different, but for Rafael Benitez the passions will be very familiar at Old Trafford on Monday. He may just hope the referee is better.

Benitez may not have experienced the bitter intensity of a Liverpool-Manchester United derby before, but he expects the atmosphere to resemble the one which he encountered when taking Valencia to Real Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

"Everyone is telling me this is the biggest game so far," he said yesterday. "All I hope is that in the future people are saying the same about other matches because that will mean we are doing well and challenging for the title. But I do understand the importance of the game and what the atmosphere will be like. I have been to matches at Old Trafford, remember the atmosphere, and I am looking forward to it."

He added: "I enjoy the atmosphere at English grounds. The fans are excited, they shout at each other, but at the end they walk out together. It is not always like that in Spain. I expect this match will be like it was when Valencia played Real Madrid in recent years. The atmosphere around the game is wonderful, and sometimes the referee is the most important person on the pitch."

That final comment was telling. Last season Valencia were seconds from winning in Madrid when the referee awarded a highly controversial penalty for an alleged push on Raul. Valencia still won the championship, but a group of supporters and shareholders were so incensed they sued the referee for negligence. Yesterday, a Valencia court determined the case could go forward.

Benitez did not dwell on that yesterday. Instead he sought to relax his players. "We all know that this is a big stadium, Manchester United are a big, great club, and it is very, very important to our supporters.

"I know Sir Alex is a great manager and you talk of Ferguson and Manchester United in the same breath, as you do with Arsène Wenger and Arsenal. Maybe one day it will be Benitez and Liverpool in a similar way, I hope so. But it is important not to increase the pressure. The manager needs to be calm and prepare properly. All I want is three points. Whether it is in a big stadium against a big club, or a small ground with a small club, it is still the same points."

Liverpool, a point and three places ahead of United, had a good record at Old Trafford under Gérard Houllier, but their hosts expect to be buoyed by the return of Rio Ferdinand. "If he plays perhaps it will be good for them," said Benitez, "but I don't know exactly how he is now. As for their problems, a big club like Manchester United can maybe play badly for one or two games, but not consistently badly."

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