Benitez's vision the driving force behind Anfield's velvet revolution

Even victory at Old Trafford tomorrow in the bitter battle for bragging rights in the North-West will not satisfy the Liverpool manager who has set his sights on a title challenge. Andy Hunter reports
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One of the first congratulatory letters that arrived on Rafael Benitez's desk following the miracle of Istanbul last year bore a Manchester post-mark and a United crest. It was, as the evidence suggests, from Sir Alex Ferguson, who had penned a salute to the Spaniard's remarkable triumph in the Champions' League and, in particular, his decision to stem the flow of destructive passes that emanated from Milan's Andrea Pirlo with the half-time introduction of Dietmar Hamann.

Aside from the bitter rivalry of their respective clubs, Ferguson's magnanimous gesture was all the more remarkable given how Manchester United's greatest foe had intensified the pain of a rare trophy-less season at Old Trafford with victory in the competition Ferguson prizes above all others. It would not have been lost on Ferguson that the team he vowed to replace as the dominant force in English football upon his arrival from Aberdeen in 1986 had returned to pre-eminence in the twilight of his Old Trafford career. For all of this poignancy he has Benitez to thank, although generosity of spirit will not extend that far when they meet in person tomorrow.

United, Liverpool and Arsenal have been in a transitional state since Jose Mourinho arrived at Stamford Bridge and delivered Chelsea's first League championship in half a century. Liverpool may have been in flux the longest, but in the 18 months since Benitez took charge of his first Premiership game at White Hart Lane they have advanced further than either Ferguson or Arsène Wenger has with their redevelopment programmes and now appear best equipped to take advantage of any Chelsea slip, when or wherever that might be.

"I believe we can look forward to the day when we win the title," Jamie Carragher said this week, and though Liverpool have never been slow to believe the hype and issue hasty title promises in the 16 years since they last reigned in England, there is finally substance to Anfield confidence.

Tomorrow's contest represents a defining moment for both Liverpool and United. For the home side, three points would have more bearing on the one realistic target that remains in the Premiership - second place - than victory over Chelsea on 6 November had on their title aspirations, while Liverpool's credentials will be laid bare following 12 League games undefeated.

The difference, however, is that the visitors did not expect to be in this exalted position this quickly.

Transforming Carragher from a versatile full-back into an outstanding centre-half was one of Benitez's first acts as Liverpool manager and his reign is peppered with such modest yet significant details. From breaking the dressing-room cliques that flourished under Gérard Houllier by rotating room-mates on away trips, to replacing photographs of the rich and famous at the manager's office at the club's Melwood training ground with thousands of videos on opponents and potential recruits, Benitez's humble changes have promoted the idea of a velvet revolution when in reality he has altered the entire mindset of the club.

But for the unique circumstances behind Chelsea's emergence the Spaniard would now be on course to replicate his rapid transformation of Valencia into a championship unit with Liverpool. With the unflustered approach he takes, he insists it is merely a matter of time before they are. Instead of bemoaning Mourinho's advantage and the demanding expectations of a club where desperation for the title is at breaking point, Benitez has encouraged the philosophy that hard work, application and tactical discipline will be rewarded. With the European Cup now in permanent residence at Anfield, he has the silverware to support his theory.

Benitez won the title in his first season at the Mestalla Stadium and whereas his inaugural Premiership campaign was a disappointment, it was evidently a necessary learning curve for a coach whose previous assignments abroad were to study the training sessions of Ferguson, Claudio Ranieri and Marcello Lippi. He learns fast, readily admits to mistakes but rarely repeats them, as the varying strength of the teams he fielded at Burnley and Luton in his two FA Cup third-round ties would suggest.

Eleven away defeats last season highlighted a failure to win and retain possession in attack, hence the arrival of Peter Crouch, while £6m was spent on Villarreal's Jose Reina to address the lack of authority and pace behind Carragher and Sami Hyypia. As Reina said: "We have the Spanish mentality here and I don't get a lot of work to do because we are so strong defensively. At Barcelona and Villarreal I played in similar teams that don't concede goals and restrict the opposition."

Initial concerns that, like Houllier before him, Benitez was blinded by loyalty to his homeland have proven misguided. Liverpool conducted their transfer business almost exclusively in Spain during the manager's first summer at the club, understandable given his knowledge of the respective markets and ability to therefore prise Xabi Alonso from Real Sociedad for £10.7m, but he has been merciless in dispensing with La Liga imports who added nothing to the team and has indulged an Australian, Harry Kewell, to a greater degree than any compatriot.

Despite his genial persona, Benitez prefers to maintain a traditional employer-employee relationship with his players but his involvement in every training session and his tactical acumen ensure he receives a healthy respect. In the transfer market he has been considered and patient, though some would argue too patient with Michael Owen. Liverpool are still an outstanding left-back, right midfielder and goalscorer short of their manager's vision for the club but tomorrow they will face United in their finest shape for more than a decade.

Houllier's last four visits to Old Trafford yielded three 1-0 victories, all secured by Danny Murphy, and on each occasion Liverpool celebrated as though they had won the League. Benitez, who is yet to record a victory over United, will not be content until they do.