Liverpool need to be on the money

The fight for fourth place intensifies tomorrow at Eastlands – and Benitez knows the stakes are highest for the visitors.
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The Independent Online

The contrast is stark and simple. In the blue corner, Manchester City with their blank cheques, new stadium and happily inflated ambitions. In the red, Liverpool with none of the above but sustained, it would seem, by an abiding sense of who they are. "I will say one thing: you can buy stars but you cannot buy history," asserts Javier Mascherano, seemingly auditioning for a Merseyside version of Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

And he repeats himself, as if saying is believing. "At Liverpool we play with the history of the club. We don't have the money that they have, but we are proud to play for Liverpool. You can buy stars but you cannot buy history."

City can claim as rich and varied a history as any, but right now most in blue would no doubt follow the Henry Ford line and not give a "tinker's dam" about what has gone before. Tomorrow afternoon at Eastlands they entertain Liverpool as the struggle for the fourth position that will do so much to determine the immediate future of these two intensifies. Aston Villa and Tottenham will also lay claim to fourth, the last spot that entitles the holder to a Champions League place.

"It is clear that if we get into the top four, then City, Tottenham and Villa will have more problems," said Rafa Benitez. But the ramifications of failure for City and Liverpool, in particular, are much the greater. There is an expectation and, more pressingly, a desperate need in each camp.

When this season is settled, Liverpool's owners have to reduce the level of debt at Anfield by £100m. With the search for extra investment still to bear fruit, should they have to do so without the financial comfort blanket that is the Champions League, the future will seem frostier than ever. Under the terms of their last refinancing deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the co-owners, have been set a July deadline. Failure to reach the Champions League will have stern revenue implications and influence the ability to meet debt repayments.

The doomsday scenario goes like this; as Hicks and Gillett scrabble behind the sofa for every stray dollar, Liverpool's stellar names, or rather most valuable assets – Torres, Gerrard, Mascherano – are on show in South Africa, each goal, run and tackle adding value to the for-sale signs on their backs.

Benitez has previously "guaranteed" a top-four finish for Liverpool and his chances of delivering that are favoured by the fixture list and, in his belief, knowledge of the struggle that lies ahead. "We have managed the pressure well," he said. "But now Tottenham, Villa, City and ourselves are in a position where we have to keep going until the end. Maybe one game can be a big difference, so it's important to manage the pressure and maybe our experience can help. Our experience of having been there already could be important. In the last four or five years we have done well in various competitions, so this can hopefully help us."

Of the quartet contesting fourth, Villa and Liverpool have the more straightforward-looking run-ins. Martin O'Neill's side face two of the title and fellow Champions League-chasing contenders, although they have to balance that with involvement in two cup competitions. Liverpool have three, including tomorrow's game; City have six of their remaining 13 fixtures against the top seven, with Chelsea and Tottenham (who have four to meet) lying in wait on each of the next two weekends.

"After those three games we have another 10," said Roberto Mancini as he enters the first sustained test of his time at Eastlands (on and off the pitch, seemingly). "If we lost the three games it could be difficult to finish fourth." His counter-part tomorrow appreciates the particular pressure victory would apply to the loser. "If we succeed, they will have problems," said Benitez of the prospect of a Liverpool win. "If it's the opposite, then it will be different. It's very important if we win, they will need to win more games and it will be more difficult for them. They will be under more pressure if we win, that's for sure."

Since City managed a 2-2 draw at Anfield in November, Liverpool have notably tightened up in the league. Only Arsenal have been able to score more than once against them and in their last eight games the defence has been breached just twice.

City's issues at the back are well documented and seem, as yet, unimproved under Mancini. With no Fernando Torres, no Carlos Tevez, who remains in Argentina on compassionate leave after his wife gave birth prematurely, and probably no Craig Bellamy, although for fitness rather disciplinary reasons, it threatens to be a cagey encounter, but then history says that is rarely the City way. Manchester City are to caginess what Bellamy is to dressing-room unity.

History also points out that it is five years since City last beat Liverpool – not one player from that win will feature in sky blue tomorrow. A repeat of that result would put City four points and a game in hand ahead of Liverpool; potentially clear blue water.

"We will fight until the end," promises Mascherano, perhaps borrowing now from Churchill, the man who liked to point out that, when all is said and done, history is written by the winners.

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