Rafa the redeemer prepares for an 'I was there' night

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The Independent Online

Not for nothing are ticket touts known in the United States as scalpers. On Merseyside this past week they have been taking the hair off the head and shirt off the back of any Liverpool supporter wanting two together for the big game - which did not mean Middlesbrough's visit yesterday.

Not for nothing are ticket touts known in the United States as scalpers. On Merseyside this past week they have been taking the hair off the head and shirt off the back of any Liverpool supporter wanting two together for the big game - which did not mean Middlesbrough's visit yesterday.

At Stamford Bridge last Wednesday, anyone foolish enough to cough up the four-figure asking rate on eBay saw three accurate attempts on goal at just over £333 each; unpleasant overcrowding in the visitors' section suggested that either forgeries abounded or that some had found alter-native methods of entry. But none of this appears to have deterred the desperate few from paying top dollar again.

On the contrary, the goalless stalemate has perversely increased levels of anticipation. The city is agog and convinced that Tuesday is destined to be one of those "I was there" nights, becoming part of Anfield folklore, in which the home crowd have a critical role to play in securing a famous victory.

According to one local scribe, the stadium will be "a cross between a bearpit, Hades and a Roman amphi-theatre". An amphitheatre sounds right to the home team's captain, Steven Gerrard, because he is "sure the roof's gonna come off" and believes Liverpool will be sending out "11 gladiators".

And for Vladimir Smicer, the little Czech midfielder hoping for more than his late cameo appearance in London, "there's something about Anfield. There's more noise. And that will give us, maybe, more confidence. The atmosphere lifts us, and we play like different players."

Jose Mourinho and his boys, the argument goes, will never have heard anything like it - presumably not even from a crowd of almost 44,000 there on New Year's Day - and in the face of such a din, Chelsea's experienced internationals will be staggering around in disorientation like elderly relatives at a rave while the locals are in (or on) ecstasy. Well, maybe. Maybe not.

Even Rafael Benitez, a manager keen to steep himself in Liverpool history and tradition, initially suggested at the club's training ground on Friday that the main difference between the two legs would be: "You will see a lot of red shirts in the stadium and people shouting for us."

Like his respected adversary Mourinho, the Spaniard has had a juggling job to do with his team selection, balancing the desire for a Premiership victory yesterday with fielding the strongest possible side on Tuesday. If Xabi Alonso's harsh suspension is a cruel blow, Dietmar Hamann can return as a solid, unspec-tacular replacement; Djibril Cissé's pace should be on tap to test William Gallas; and even the long-forgotten Harry Kewell is available to add a different dimension after four weeks of treatment in Spain by a leading fitness coach.

But whoever plays, and whatever anyone else is pretending, the cerebral Benitez knows there will be more to Tuesday night than the Kop huffing and puffing and blowing a goal in. "We know it will be a very difficult game," he admitted. "They have a good team and we know they play very well on the counter-attack. They have quick players with quality and we can't be thinking that we have an advantage even though we are confident.

"We need to win. It's simple. If they score one goal, we need to score two. But if you said to me before the start of the competition, 'Do you want to play at home with the possibility of reaching the final?' I'd have said yes: against Real Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, anyone.

"We can win 1-0. Why not? They beat us [1-0] in the League but it was close, and on Wednesday we had oppor-tunities to beat them. I am sure they are not so confident. They want to put the pressure on us, but they are the ones who are the most expensive team in the world. They need to win trophies."

So does Liverpool's new manager, though not quite yet, having already succeeded in winning friends in the streets and the boardroom. "You see the people in the city and you feel the atmosphere... and it's very happy. When you go in the car people recognise you - 'Hey, it's Rafa' - and you can see that people are enjoying the situation. I know that this game is important to our fans and that gives us a responsibility. My idea is always to win the next game, but this one against Chelsea is important to the club, me as a manager and the people."

"He made the people happy" is the inscription on Bill Shankly's statue outside Anfield. After the eventual disillusionment with Gérard Houllier, Benitez has gone some distance towards doing the same, remarkably so in the course of a season in which 13 League games have already been lost. Fortune granted him a run of early Premiership home games against undemanding opposition, and when the first four were won, with 10 goals knocked in, he was perceived to have changed the team's approach to something more positive.

In a city where the gulf between players' wages and those of supporters is even wider than most, he did the right thing in making his displeasure known at unacceptable performances, often seeming lost for words despite his improving English.

So, underestimating the importance of the FA Cup in his selection at Burnley and trailing in Everton's wake have been forgiven, and the last half-dozen European performances, from Olympiakos to Chelsea, with the two legs against Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus in between, have redeemed the season and made Rafa's reputation.

He still maintains, understandably, that it is too early to pass judgment on his first year's work: "Maybe in two or three weeks, I can say whether it's a successful season or if we could have done better."

Or maybe in two or three days, he will be in a position to say. One moment of luck or genius on Tuesday and in precisely three weeks' time, Liverpool football club will be preparing for their biggest game in 20 years.

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