Rafael Benitez's Champions League tactics have seen him through some tricky situations but yesterday they were thrown into doubt by the impending arrival of a newborn baby. Xabi Alonso will not play in tonight's second-leg tie against Internazionale because the Liverpool manager refused his request to spend an extra day with his expectant wife.
In a last-minute change of heart before the team flew to Milan yesterday, Benitez said that he could no longer wait on the pregnancy of Nagora Alonso and turned down the Spanish midfielder's request to join up with the squad in Milan today. Benitez said that he could not afford to rely on the player – whose wife is due to give birth any minute – and left behind one of his most influential players.
Whether it will prove to be a bold decision will be defined tonight at San Siro when Benitez will be forced, in all likelihood, to pair the raw Brazilian Lucas Leiva with Javier Mascherano in front of the Liverpool defence in his new 4-2-3-1 formation. Up against the power of Patrick Vieira and Esteban Cambiasso in the centre of Inter's midfield this could be the making of Lucas or the undoing of Liverpool's season.
Benitez was, as ever, suitably vague on the circumstances that led to Alonso's exclusion. The Liverpool manager said that Alonso had wanted to come to Milan today but that he could not "wait" for the player. "At that moment we didn't have enough information [about whether Alonso would definitely be able to travel] and at that moment we had to decide," Benitez said.
It will be regarded as a typically hard-headed decision from the manager whose relationship with Alonso, for so long one of Benitez's favourites, has deteriorated this season. It was not clear whether Benitez believes that the 21st century man should be present at the birth of his children come what may but it was evident that in preparation for such a crucial game he was not prepared to tolerate any disruption to his team – even from one of the squad's biggest names.
However, Alonso's absence will be a considerable loss for Benitez who, for the first time all season, appears to have a settled first XI in his own mind even if he does not pick it every match. Defending a 2-0 lead from the first leg against the Italian champions, the new look Liverpool line-up, with Fernando Torres alone up front supported by Steven Gerrard, looked ideally calibrated to offer defensive cover and attacking menace.
Between them Torres and Gerrard have 44 goals this season for Liverpool and the Spanish striker has scored seven in his last four games. Compare that to an Inter strikeforce of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Julio Cruz who have scored 32 between them this season. But the problems for Inter are in the centre of defence where the inexperienced Colombian Rivas Lopez is expected to start. Marco Materazzi is suspended and Ivan Cordoba is injured.
Nevertheless, there will be some famous old names in the Inter midfield with Luis Figo and Vieira expected to start. If they are the old guard of European football then Gerrard left no one in any doubt who he thought was the future with a tribute to Torres yesterday that showed just how highly he regards the 23-year-old. "I wouldn't swap him for any other striker in the world," Gerrard said. "The lad who comes in for Materazzi won't be looking forward to his 90 minutes against Fernando."
Torres's form, and Benitez's confidence in him leading the line alone have also been good for Gerrard. "I think England suits him [Torres] better than Spain," Gerrard said. "He is suited to the constant flow, and rough and tumble, of the Premier League better than the stop-start technical La Liga. In footballing terms he is just a kid, and is going to get better and better. That is a frightening thought, not for us, but for the defences that are going to come up against him
"We will be looking to play on the counter-attack in Italy and Torres plays that game better than anyone. Not only can you stick the ball over the top and let him chase it, but look at Marseilles [where Liverpool won 4-0 in December] – he'll make things happen by himself too. He has made life tough for the foreign boys who come over to England. When you look at the impact he's made in seven months, it means no one can make excuses about taking time to settle."
Even Benitez was prepared to admit yesterday that Torres was "on fire" and this is a game, the Liverpool manager repeated yesterday, in which he feels that his team must score to be sure of going through to the quarter-finals. "Gerrard and also the team are playing well," Benitez said. "We have confidence but we know that we have to score and Torres can be the key player for us."
It seems inevitable that Benitez will also be forced to play Jamie Carragher at right-back with Steve Finnan also left behind in Liverpool with a hamstring problem. "They are going to fly at us from the first whistle, but we can defend all night if we have to," Gerrard said. "But we believe we will worry the hell out of them."
Tonight's San Siro probable teams
Referee: T Ovrebo (Nor)......... KO: 19.45. TV: Sky Sports 2
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