United are not ‘invincible’, insists a defiant Benitez

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Rafael Benitez dismissed Arsène Wenger’s talk of Manchester United being “untouchable” yesterday, suggesting that any sides who might be affected by the aura currently surrounding the champions should remember the relatively recent period when they were not playing well.

“They were not playing very well and winning, but after two or three 1-0 results they [started] scoring three or four goals so people were talking about the whole season,” Benitez said. “But I’m sure you can see a lot of games where they were not playing very well and not scoring too many goals. They will win more games than other teams but to say you cannot beat them, I don’t think so.”

Benitez, one of only two Premier League managers who can say they have beaten Sir Alex Ferguson this season, can also draw on his time at Valencia, in the shadow of the so-called “untouchables” of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Though he may enter tomorrow’s home match with Manchester City eight points behind United, his Valencia side trailed Real Madrid by a similar margin in January 2002 but still went on to capture La Liga by a margin of seven points. Benitez has spoken already this season of the value of quietly falling into line and allowing the pacesetters to take the pressure, as Valencia did that year.

Though he did not answer directly when it was suggested that a 10-point margin by 14 March, when Liverpool travel to Old Trafford, would be difficult to overcome, the Spaniard conceded that the next 10-day period, in which Liverpool also face Middlesbrough away and Sunderland at home could define their season. “This is a crucial time that can make a massive difference to whether we will be fighting for trophies at the end of the season,” said Benitez, who would certainly be helped by more first-half goals to alleviate the pressure. Liverpool have scored only seven of those in 14 games and only led twice at half-time at Anfield.

Steven Gerrard has not recovered quickly enough from a hamstring injury to figure against Mark Hughes’ side and a decision will be taken as early as Monday by club doctors on whether Gerrard can lead the side in the Bernabeu, in the Champions League on Wednesday.

The fact that Benitez will make such a decision 48 hours before the match suggests Gerrard is a doubt already, despite the Spaniard insisting his key midfielder “is positive about playing in Madrid”.