Fulham 0 Liverpool 2: Benitez focused on Chelsea after Cottage breeze

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The Independent Online

Having despatched one west London club to the brink of the Championship, Rafael Benitez turned his attention to knocking another out of Europe.

Saturday's comfortable defeat of Fulham was the perfect warm-up for tomorrow's Champions League semi-final, first leg, with Chelsea at Anfield. Despite resting the bulk of his first team, Benitez was able to all but secure a qualification place in next season's Champions League, leaving him free to focus on the ongoing campaign.

"Anfield is amazing, and is the key for us," he said of tomorrow's match. "It has been in the past and can be again. If we can score goals and keep a clean sheet, it will be fantastic. If we cannot, the second leg at Stamford Bridge will be really difficult. But we're a top side, with experience, so we can manage."

Benitez has twice put Chelsea out of the competition at this stage and, while Avram Grant has replaced Jose Mourinho, he insisted nothing had changed. "I was watching the game at Everton on Thursday and they were playing more or less the same. The key to Chelsea is [Roman] Abramovich. He built a fantastic team. The only change is in the press conferences."

Does he miss Mourinho? "The press do, but not me. I have enough things to do in Liverpool now." This was a veiled reference to the unprecedented turmoil in the Liverpool boardroom. Benitez, though, looked relaxed enough and he added: "When we have some problems and am under pressure, I always think about people who are in a worse position than us [in other walks of life]. So I try to enjoy my profession."

It helps that the team are winning. Eleven wins and two draws in 14 matches insulates any manager. In general players only begin to worry about who owns the club when there is a danger, as at Bournemouth and Rotherham, of their not getting paid, or even having a job. That is not an issue at Anfield. Peter Crouch admitted: "It's not something we really care about. We talked about it a bit when it first started, but although we read things in the papers, to be honest it's not something that's been discussed among the players.

"We're not told anything about what's going on and don't really expect to be. You can tell by our results it's not something that's affected our form."

The instability at Fulham has come in the dugout and the club look like paying for it with the loss of their elite status. Roy Hodgson is the third manager in 13 months and his team is a patchwork of players signed by himself, Lawrie Sanchez and Chris Coleman.

A year ago a fortuitous victory over a depleted Liverpool earned Sanchez a "permanent" job. Fulham probably played better this time, but Liverpool's squad is stronger and "weakened team" is a relative term. Benitez still deployed 14 internationals. While Fulham began brightly, Lucas and Javier Mascherano ran the game much as they pleased after Kasey Keller waved Jermaine Pennant's shot past him after 17 minutes.

"I don't think Kasey will be happy today," admitted Hodgson, who had opted to retain the American ahead of the fit-again Antti Niemi. The keeper should also have done better with the second, scored by Crouch, though a sloppy pass by Danny Murphy, and poor marking from Aaron Hughes, were equally responsible. Similarly, Pennant made Brede Hangeland look very ponderous as he ran on to Lucas's pass for the first.

Thoughts turned to how Fulham may do in the Championship. "People regard spirit as players flying around the field smashing into others and knocking them over," said Hodgson. "We aren't that kind of team. We don't have any midfield players who can do that." Nor is Hodgson that kind of manager, but while West Bromwich Albion have managed to prosper without such a player they are something of an exception.

Goals: Pennant (17) 0-1; Crouch (70) 0-2.

Fulham (4-4-2): Keller; Stalteri, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Davies, Bullard, Murphy (Andreasen, 78), Dempsey; Healy (Nevland, 76), McBride (Kamara, 81). Substitutes not used: Warner (gk), Bocanegra.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Skrtel, Hyypia (Carragher, h-t), Riise; Pennant, Lucas, Mascherano (Alonso, 72), Benayoun; Voronin (Aurelio, 82); Crouch. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Torres.

Referee: M Atkinson (W Yorkshire). Booked: Fulham Healy.

Man of the match: Lucas.

Attendance: 25,311.

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