Liverpool playing catch-up as clock ticks for Benitez

United travel to face their great rivals but it's far from the only important meeting at Anfield. By Nick Townsend
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On his arrival at Old Trafford in 1986, Sir Alex Ferguson was consumed by one ambition; that Manchester United should destroy Liverpool's domestic dominance. And just for a moment on Friday, football's history man almost sounded wistful when he recalled the old days when the Anfield club were a power within this land, as well as one who instilled fear throughout Europe.

"When we started to develop the club, Arsenal beat Liverpool in 1989 and that changed it a little bit. Liverpool were an old team. We were starting to grow over the seasons," Ferguson reminisced. "Giggs was starting to come through, the younger ones were starting to emerge and we brought in players like Schmeichel, Parker and Kanchelskis. We brought some speed and power into the club. We were developing all the time because we had to." He pauses, and remarks drily of the power shift. "I didn't expect it to be so long..."

So, presumably, he was asked mischievously, part of him would relish seeing Liverpool claim the title again, so that the intriguing old rivalry can be resumed?

"You must be joking," he retorted. "I'm not a sadist! How does relegation sound?" Even the Scot's attempt at humour has a chill about it. Better that his team are vanquished in the race to the title by one of the London clubs than Liverpool. That would hurt, profoundly.

Not much chance of that, though. Once again, the Merseyside club find themselves in catch-up mode. It is primarily their home form four draws in seven games that has conspired against them. Victory by United today at Anfield would leave Liverpool nine points adrift of Ferguson's team and bring the radio phone-ins to overloadagain in condemnation of Rafa Benitez, regardless of that midweek demolition of Marseille which propelled Liverpool spectacularly into the knockout stage of the Champions' League. The satisfaction of local pride remains paramount.

Yet, for the Liverpool man-ager, there are rarely minuses in his equations. "Before we lost against Reading [last Saturday] everybody was talking about us doing well in the League," he maintained. "Arsenal lost as well so we are almost in the same position as we were before the weekend. We have one game in hand, and if we can beat United we will be really, really close. We will have eight more points than [this time] last season. We are scoring more goals and we don't concede too many. That's the big picture. You must be quiet and calm and try to do the right things again. If we can beat Manchester United they [his critics] will all be saying, 'Fantastic'."

Though there is logic to that pronouncement, the Spaniard is acutely conscious of the importance of avoiding defeat today. He is aware that it could have implications far beyond the disapproval of supporters who would then be contemplating another title disappearing down the M62, or down south.

It says everything about Benitez's current fragile position that the meeting that will ensue between him, Liverpool's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and the chief executive, Rick Parry, creates arguably as much fascination as that between his team and Ferguson's. It also reveals much about the state of that union that his only contact with the Americans since the Liverpool manager's transfer-policy comments provoked tensions between him and the owners last month has been through Gillett's son, Foster.

Despite Tuesday night's success, Benitez's tenure remains anything but secure in the longer term, and that despite some public exhibitions of support for him. He was asked directly if he had considered resignation.

"I was analysing the situation, but after thinking a lot I said to myself, 'OK, the best way to find a solution is keep trying to win every game and afterwards talk to them [the Americans] about the misunderstanding'," he said. "For me it's very simple. If you want to win and are trying to do the best things for your club... and if they want the same it will be easy. The question for me is trying to do the right things for my club."

Asked if he would seek reassurances about his own position, Benitez responded: "I'm thinking about the game. I am not analysing what I'm going to say in the meeting. I will go to the meeting with a clear mind that I am trying to do the best for the club. I will try to understand [them]. The key for me is why, because I can't understand why. I still don't know [why this happened]. I said before that I was thinking about the best for my club. Not anything else. Now I try to be focused on the pitch."

He was reminded that Liverpool have not won the League since 1990. "But that's not my fault," Benitez insisted. "Look at the money Chelsea have spent in the last four or five years and the money United have spent in the last 10 years and [compare it with] with the money we have spent. People say we have spent big money, but we signed the number of players we needed to improve the squad. The value of the squad is much higher. Now there is a big difference.

"Everything is so positive in the last three or four years. You know that you are going in the right direction but you cannot guarantee the title." No, and particularly not this season, when it is as competitive as ever between the Big Four and with even Portsmouth and Manchester City spicing the mix. But it is his handling of Liverpool's domestic challenge that will dictate how Benitez comes to be regarded by the fans, and ultimately by the good ol' boys from Stateside, not a long march to Moscow and another Champions' League final.