Benitez targets crucial victory as game in hand finally arrives

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez will be hoping that his team can concentrate on the crucial task of securing fourth place in the Premier League tonight.

Victory over West Ham at Anfield will have to be achieved with Liverpool once again distracted by another potential takeover – with Dubai International Capital keen to take control of the club. Benitez, who has lived with this turmoil at the club for months, knows Liverpool must win their long-awaited game in hand if they are to gain the boost of a return to fourth place in the table.

Although West Ham are one of only three sides to beat Liverpool in the league this season, they have not won a league game at Anfield for 44 years.

However, captain Steven Gerrard is concerned that West Ham, beaten 4-0 at home by 10-man Chelsea on Saturday, will want to hit back.

He explained: "As footballers, when you are on the end of a battering you hurt and you want to put it right straight away. They will come to Anfield hoping to get a good result, and a good result for them would be a draw – but a draw is no good for us."

Liverpool have waited the entire season for their game in hand to arrive – and Gerrard is desperate to pick up three points now it has finally arrived.

But he warned: "West Ham have bought some good players after a disappointing time for them last season. They have got good players and a good manager, so we have a lot of respect [for them].

"We are desperate for the points though, and we are at Anfield. We have been waiting for this game for a long time, now we must make it count."

Sunday's 3-1 victory at Bolton made it three successive wins for Benitez's side, a welcome run after a season blighted by draws.

They have had to settle for a point 11 times this season – six of those at Anfield – and Gerrard added: "I am confident we can now go on a winning run. Some of the draws have been very disappointing because we have been really good at home in the last few seasons. Normally we struggle away from home but it is vice versa this season.

"It was disappointing to lose to that late penalty at Upton Park. We didn't really feel under any pressure during the game and we didn't feel like we were going to lose the game. I think we deserved more."

Benitez will be without the injured Steve Finnan, and concedes that now the race for fourth is between his own side, Everton and Aston Villa.

He said: "I watched some of Everton's game on Sunday after ours. It does look now as if both Merseyside clubs will be battling for fourth spot. Aston Villa also have a lot of confidence and Blackburn won away from home. You never know, but maybe you can say that Liverpool, Everton and Aston Villa will be close."

Tonight's fixture was initially postponed from the first week of the season because of Liverpool's involvement in the Champions League qualifying round.

Benitez said: "Our game in hand is really important for us. That fourth spot is always important and if we win this game we are there, and from then on everything will depend on us and what we do."

Benitez believes that striker Peter Crouch will soon sign a new long-term contract, and that veteran defender Sami Hyypia will also agree a one-year extension to his current deal.

There has been speculation that both could leave in the summer, but Hyypia wants to complete 10 years at Anfield and Crouch – Benitez insists – has told the club he wants to stay.

The Spaniard explained: "I have talked to both at different times. You never know, but I think they could be done soon."

Crouch's future has been the most in doubt, with him frequently used as a substitute and targeted by Manchester City and Portsmouth. But Benitez continued: "Rick Parry [the Liverpool chief executive] told me Peter's agent wanted to talk to him about a new contract. This was one month ago or more.

"So I talked with Peter and explained my ideas, because he's aware that top sides sometimes change players. But now he is happy and Rick is talking with the agent.

"Every top side needs good players. Crouch is a different kind of striker to Fernando Torres, Andrei Voronin and Dirk Kuyt. It is really important for us to have other options."

Hyypia, 35 later this year, has figured in more games this season than many expected as Liverpool suffered with injury problems. "I showed Sami our interest," Benitez said. "He is a very, very good professional."

Liverpool (probable, 4-4-2): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Riise; Crouch, Kuyt.

West Ham (probable, 4-4-2): Green; Neill, Upson, Ferdinand, McCartney; Solano, Noble, Mullins, Ljungberg; Cole, Ashton.

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