Benitez: what a difference this game can make

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The Independent Football

Rafa Benitez will today change his Liverpool team for the 97th game in succession while insisting that his priorities remain as constant as ever: work hard and improve, week by week, year by year. But doubts about his ability to achieve that aim will resurface if defeat ensues in the needle match away to Manchester United, increasing the gap between the sides to 11 points after almost a quarter of the Premiership programme.

There has been a time of crisis for the amiable Spaniard in each of his two previous seasons at Anfield, both redeemed in spectacular fashion with a trophy. In January 2004, six months into the job, an FA Cup defeat at Burnley after he picked a weakened team was followed by an equally feeble loss at Southampton; but finishing in fifth place, 37 points behind the champions Chelsea, was forgiven after what will forever be known as the Miracle of Istanbul.

Exactly 12 months ago came two more demoralising League and Cup defeats, at Fulham and Crystal Palace, after which Liverpool occupied 13th place in the table. Benitez questioned the players' attitude, critics questioned some of his signings and his motivational ability. Yet by Christmas they were third, and winning the last 12 matches of the season not only secured the FA Cup but prompted many to suggest they would be the team to push Chelsea hardest this time.

Instead, the start to the new campaign has had uncomfortable echoes of the last one: extra European qualifying games; poor away form; and little chance for newcomers to settle into a constantly changing team. If there is a small plus going to Old Trafford today, in 11th place and already eight points behind United, it came from victory and a rare clean sheet against a moderate Bordeaux side in the Champions' League in midweek.

"I still have confidence in my players," Benitez insists. "If we are in the same position in two months, OK, maybe I'm wrong. We have a better squad than last season. We need to improve as a team, some of the players are not 100 per cent fit and I understand that. But in this moment I think we have better players, and I have belief in myself and what I am doing here. Sometimes I'll make mistakes, that's normal, but with the experience I have I can keep going."

It is an important part of his managerial philosophy to look at the bigger picture, while recognising that the devil is often to be found in the small detail: "Last year we played at Manchester United and had chances to win. Then we didn't block someone and they scored in the last minute, and that was a difference of two points. They finished above us by one point. That game was the difference."

It was also further evidence of Liverpool's inability to win League games against other members of the Premiership's big four. Benitez's record against United, Chelsea and Arsenal now reads 10 defeats in 13 games. "The first thing is to be consistent," is his response. "If you can beat the small clubs then the next step is to beat the top sides. At the moment we know we are not the best away from home.

"I say to the players we have home games against all the big teams [to come] and then a lot of games against smaller teams. If we can win those, who knows what can happen?"

What will certainly not happen today is an unchanged team. Benitez became convinced of the value of rotation when his regularly freshened-up Valencia side raced from eight points behind a tiring Real Madrid to win the 2004 Spanish League at a canter, effectively earning him the Liverpool job.

He called that team "a good long-distance runner", and Liverpool's stamina in the run-in last season further strengthened his beliefs. "I say to the players, 'If you want to play every game, go to a small club. You will play one game a week and you will always be in the starting line-up'. But if you want to play 65, at this level you cannot. You need to see the big picture."

Ah, that big picture. At the end of each season so far it has shown Steven Gerrard holding up a trophy as Rafa smiles his gentle smile in the background. No prizes will be won at Old Trafford today, but a huge one could be lost for Liverpool.