Jose wails as the long-ball gibe is given short shrift

Benitez claims the higher ground in his rivalry with Mourinho and credits giant striker Crouch with a welcome rise in Anfield's options
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The Independent Football

It is four decades since Bill Shankly and Tommy Docherty fashioned the thrilling sides who contested the FA Cup semi-final of 1965, Reds and Blues reflecting the spirit of the times in the Mersey sound and the King's Road look. Liverpool won through to Wembley that day, enabling the transplanted Kop to add "Ee-aye-addio, we're going to see the Queen!" to one of their favourites, "London Bridge is falling down, poor old Chelsea". But it was one of only two seasons in three dozen (1963 to 1998) during which the Londoners could look down on the Scousers from a superior League position, a brief period in which the teams competed on the equal terms that a proper rivalry demands.

Now Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez have emerged from the Iberian peninsula to invigorate their respective clubs, reigniting old passions and a particular loathing on Merseyside for the cocky Cockneys (sic) swaggering into town with their Russian roubles and Giro gibes.

Offered two meetings between the sides in a five-day period, the local media are doing their bit too. Ahead of Wednesday's Champions' League match, the Liverpool Echo accused Jose Mourinho of sour grapes, giving pride of place on its front page to pictures of the offending fruit and the offensive manager, who had been guilty of stating what the Devonian hotel proprietor Mr Basil Fawlty would have called "the bleedin' obvious" - namely, that Liverpool were not the best team in Europe last season, any more than Porto were the previous year.

"Stop whining, Jose" was the following day's verdict after his mention of the word "basketball", suggesting that with the 6ft 7in Peter Crouch in the side, Liverpool tend to opt for direct play. Jamie Carragher railed that against Bayern Munich last season, Chelsea launched more long balls than he could remember in any game for 20 years; statistics in a neutral national newspaper on Friday revealed, however, that Liverpool, followed by Sunderland and Everton, play the highest percentage of long passes (defined as 25 yards or more) in the Premiership and Chelsea, followed by Arsenal, play the lowest.

It is all good knockabout stuff, albeit obscuring the cerebral approach of the two managers. "You could say I am a student of the game," Benitez says in an interview for the latest Uefa coaches' newsletter. "In my parents' house alone I had 1,500 videos with three matches on each, and I used to analyse the details of the games. I think you can play both styles of play, short and long. To know what to do in each situation is the key. I am very pragmatic in my coaching work."

At the Melwood training centre, where the videos and DVDs are now housed on shelf upon shelf, he enlarged on that pragmatism in between Wednesday's goalless draw and today's Premiership meeting, offering an insight into his recruitment of the £7m Crouch and how best Liverpool can use him. "When I decided to sign Crouch I was thinking about the English style. But I don't like only a target man, or [someone] just good in the air or strong, I like players that can play football, and Crouch is a player that can win in the air and play on the ground.

"Crouch gives us more possibilities. Last season when we play away and use a long ball, we lose the ball. This season he can keep the ball and we can go to support him. We need to adjust the timing, but now we can play in a different way if we need to."

With different strikers too, Mourinho added, especially once the underachieving Fernando Morientes is fit, though having named Crouch as his man of last Wednesday's match, it would be perverse to leave him out of this afternoon's second instalment. The most important thing is for Steven Gerrard and whichever players are the supporting attackers to come to the aid of the giant party more closely and more quickly.

Having no other reason to be dissatisfied with his formation ("I thought we won in defence and midfield and attack"), Benitez need only consider the personnel. A keen devotee of rotation at Valencia while Claudio Ranieri (ironically his successor there) was giving it a bad name in west London, the Liverpool manager must decide whether Djibril Cissé, out of position on the right wing, and Luis Garcia, out of sorts on the left, deserve to retain their places. When the latter made a startling impact at Anfield a year ago, he was variously described as either the new Beardsley or the new Dalglish. The more pessimistic Liverpudlians are now wondering if he might not be the new Jimmy Carter. In the absence of natural wide players - Benfica's Simao Sabrosa, with his performance against Manchester United the previous night, underlined Liverpool's frustration at failing to capture him last month - it would certainly make sense to bring back John Arne Riise at the expense of Djimi Traore.

Pushing Gerrard forward ahead of the defensive wall formed by Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann enabled the home side to get the better of Chelsea's much- vaunted midfield, which is something Mourinho will have devoted much attention to these past three days. The Liverpool captain modestly played down his own contribution, while emphasising how much self-belief his side will take into today's game after three games against Chelsea without conceding a goal: "The way they play, they get a lot of men behind the ball. It was difficult to find space in there with [Claude] Makelele one of the best in the world at man-marking. I just had to try to find space and link up with Peter [Crouch]. I was happy with my form going into the game but would have liked to play better. But we're going into Sunday confident as a team. For us to keep moving up the League, we need to start winning and we need three points on Sunday."

The Premiership table tells an odd story, with Liverpool in the bottom half and 14 points behind Chelsea before September was over, inevitably bringing to mind last season's 37-point chasm. Two games in hand make it an unfair reflection, though one win and four draws so far is not the sort of form to bridge the gap. Benitez, the eternal student, may point to draws against Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Manchester United in fixtures that were lost last season, but he needs a victory, more than Mourinho. The rest of us would settle for having some goals recorded on today's DVD.

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