Liverpool's bright new world horizon

Rock-like defence the foundation for a future that is bristling with possibilities again
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The Independent Football

Even that cynically professional old pair, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, had to hold their hands up in surrender. Sitting in a BBC studio for the early shift on Thursday, they observed with admiration the 3-0 victory over Saprissa, of Costa Rica, in the Club World Championship semi-final with which Rafa Benitez's Liverpool broke their record from 18 years ago of 10 successive clean sheets. Hansen, captain at the time, admitted through teeth that did not appear clamped together: "In this day and age in the Premiership and Champions' League, against formidable opposition it's unbelievably good."

By lunchtime today Benitez may well have set another mark never reached at any time in the club's history: becoming world champions. São Paulo of Brazil stand in his way, with an outstanding right-back in the Brazilian Cicinho (soon to join Real Madrid) and the colourful free-scoring goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni (45 goals from free-kicks and penalties). As champions of South America they are useful, but can only be impressed by Liverpool's run, which began back in October and has brought 21 goals scored as well as none conceded.

In Lisbon, too, they will be tuning in with some apprehension, now that Benfica know they are heading for Anfield in a potentially thrilling knockout round of the Champions' League as Britain takes on the Iberian Peninsula. A superficial glance at the Premiership table might persuade the Portuguese club's coach, Ronald Koeman, that Liverpool can be no greater a threat than Manchester United, whom his side edged out in the qualifying group. Yet nobody would be able to convince him that Rio Ferdinand, Mikaël Silvestre and company had the potential to play for 16 and a half hours or anything remotely like it without conceding a goal.

Admittedly, to have suggested the same of Benitez's team after they stumbled out of the Carling Cup 2-1 at Crystal Palace two months ago would have invited similar derision. It was around that time, when they also lost at Fulham, that Benitez was diagnosing "an attitude problem" in a squad of supposed European champions sitting 13th in the Premiership.

The attitude ever since, most notably from the centre-backs Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher has been "they shall not pass"; and on the rare occasions they have done, Jose Reina behind them has proved one of the manager's most successful signings. So well have that trio done that Liverpool could today achieve the truly extraordinary feat of becoming champions of the world with Josemi and Djimi Traoré as full-backs.

For all the attention on the defence, the other factor demanding attention was the performance in tandem of two players regarded by some as a shocking waste of money. Djibril Cissé, at £14m from Auxerre, has often looked in the past 16 months less like Gérard Houllier's parting gift to Benitez than a poisoned pint pot; and Peter Crouch was the lanky non-scoring striker whose resemblance to a lamppost shed no light on why the Spaniard should have rushed to pay £7m for him. Yet here they were terrorising an admittedly ordinary Costa Rican defence and looking, above all, a partnership, playing close together and linking beautifully, offering a combination of pace (Cissé), aerial ability (Crouch) technique and touch (both of them).

There are further questions to be answered, most importantly whether that sort of standard can be maintained against a stronger side. Having seen Fernando Morientes, very much a confidence player, find some with two goals against Middlesbrough last weekend, Benitez has to determine who starts against São Paulo. He might even have decided, as Liverpool's best team slowly take shape, that Cissé deserves to stay at the club rather than be shipped back to France during the transfer window.

So Benfica cannot begin too much detailed planning for the two legs. What they may do is insist that Simao Sabrosa, the right-sided player coveted by Benitez, should stay. Funds from even one knock-out round will ease their financial position and while Sabrosa would not be eligible to play for Liverpool in the Champions' League, selling their best player to next spring's opponents would hardly send out the right signals.

The most obvious implication of that for Benitez, unless he has other irons in the fire, is that Steven Gerrard would stay as the nominal right-sided player; and who would complain about that (apart possibly from the player himself) when he is still striking such superb goals as Thursday morning's volley from John Arne Riise's cross?

Whether Liverpool go into the games as world champions or not, it is, as Benitez admitted in his understated manner, "not the worst draw that it could have been". Not by a long way.

To be meeting Barcelona is the worst, however, for Chelsea, whether they admit it or not, making nonsense of Jose Mourinho's contention that finishing second in the group to Liverpool was neither here nor there. As it transpires "here" is going to be the Nou Camp for a second leg and "there" would have been the Estadio da Luz for a first game. Spot the difference, Jose?

Knockout stage, knockout games

AJAX v INTERNAZIONALE

Comfortable winners of Rangers' group, Inter ought to have too much know-how and experience for a young Ajax. The Dutch may have held Arsenal to a goalless draw at Highbury but cannot be confident of doing the same against Adriano and co.

BAYERN MUNICH v MILAN

Bayern Munich tested themselves against strong Serie A opposition in Juventus in their group, winning 2-1 at home before losing by the same score in Turin and finishing runners-up in their group. They will need a good win to take to the second leg in Milan.

BENFICA v LIVERPOOL

Like Real Madrid, Benfica's history is more impressive than their current form. They surprised themselves by defeating Manchester United to reach this stage and Liverpool, if still defending as efficiently in February as at the moment, have every chance.

CHELSEA v BARCELONA

Few would have complained about this pairing as the final in Paris next May; the consolation should be two games high on drama and quality instead of one. Chelsea must hope Michael Essien, rightly suspended, is their only absentee.

PSV EINDHOVEN v LYON

"Exciting and interesting" said the former Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier of this tie, though he might have been describing his under-rated Lyon side. PSV should have beaten Milan in last season's semi-final and did so in the group stage this time.

RANGERS v VILLARREAL

A good draw for both sides seemed to be the verdict here. The reprieved Rangers manager Alex McLeish will hope his side are in better form domestically by spring, and that they have more luck than United in breaking down Villarreal in the first game.

REAL MADRID v ARSENAL

Remarkably, this will be the first competitive meeting between such famous names, brought about because Real failed to win their group, finishing a full six points behind Houllier's Lyon. At least their big names will be up for this one.

WERDER BREMEN v JUVENTUS

Bottom of their group at the halfway stage, Bremen rallied to win two games, including the crucial one against Udinese 4-3, scraping through as runners-up to Barcelona. Unlikely to trouble the joint favourites Juve.

Fixtures

FIRST LEGS

Tue 21 Feb: Real v Arsenal, Bayern v Milan, PSV v Lyon, Benfica v Liverpool. Wed 22 Feb: Werder Bremen v Juve, Ajax v Inter, Chelsea v Barcelona, Rangers v Villarreal.

SECOND LEGS

Tue 7 March: Juve v Werder Bremen, Barcelona v Chelsea, Villarreal v Rangers. Wed 8 March: Arsenal v Real, Milan v Bayern Munich, Lyon v PSV, Liverpool v Benfica. Tue 14 March: Inter v Ajax.

THE BETTING

5-1 Barcelona, Juve; 6-1 Chelsea; 8-1 Inter, Lyon; 9-1 Milan; 11-1 Liverpool; 12-1 Arsenal; 14-1 Bayern, Real Madrid, Villarreal (Hill's).

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