10 December 2007


By Jon West, PA Sport

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has backed his players to produce a cup final performance in Marseille and avoid a humiliating early exit from the Champions League.
Liverpool know they must taste victory on the south of France on Tuesday night if they are to remain among the European elite after Christmas and Saturday evening's 3-1 defeat at Reading was hardly the ideal start to a week that ends on Sunday with the visit of Manchester United.
But Benitez was confident nonetheless. He said: "We have experience of finals so we will do the same thing we were doing before. It is an important game but the players have experience of those.
"Since I have been here we have been in seven finals. We have won four so we have enough experience and quality in the squad to win."
Indeed, the Spaniard insisted he was personally relishing the pressure he finds himself under and likened it to his most successful seven days as a manager, in 2004.
He said: "We played one Saturday for Valencia to win the league and then on the Thursday to win the UEFA Cup. We won both so I like to be in this sort of situation because it means you are playing for something. We have confidence that we can do it."
Reading deservedly ended Liverpool's unbeaten start to the Barclays Premier League season with a 3-1 success at the Madejski Stadium.
Stephen Hunt gave the home side the lead from the penalty spot after Brynjar Gunnarsson had been brought down by Jamie Carragher, although the initial contact had been outside the box.
Steven Gerrard produced an equaliser and then hit the bar before Kevin Doyle glanced home Nicky Shorey's free-kick on the hour mark and James Harper's well-taken solo effort meant there was no way back for Liverpool, who had earlier seen referee Andre Marriner turn down strong penalty appeals for fouls by Ibrahima Sonko on Fernando Torres either side of the break.
As soon as Liverpool went 3-1 down Benitez took off Torres and then Gerrard with the sole intention of making sure they were fit for Tuesday night. Sami Hyypia came on late on but had not started for the same reason, with 19-year-old Jack Hobbs handed a first league start.
To many Liverpool fans this was tantamount to surrender but Benitez insisted he had his priorities right.
He said: "The players are not happy because we have lost but they know I have to make these decisions and they understand why.
"What was clear was that they were tired. We knew that. But we couldn't change 11 players so we were trying to protect players who were at risk.
"If we are fit then maybe in the last 10 minutes we will score the winning goal in Marseille."
Benitez's initial choice of formation was also a talking point afterwards, with Hunt and fellow winger Bobby Convey having made Liverpool suffer down the flanks.
Reading manager Steve Coppell said: "We were talking the day before the game about Gerrard maybe coming from a wider area, which obviously makes them a sort of 'thin' team, if you know what I mean.
"They were thin and we tried to play with width. That was the contrast and the way we set up against teams who bulk up the middle. Obviously with players who are being asked to play wide they are not comfortable there. They are forever keep making the pitch thin and we just tried to turn that round by attacking down the flanks as much as possible."
But Benitez argued the formation had worked in the past. He said: "Sometimes it is easy to talk about this after the game but at Newcastle we played the same system and everyone was saying what a fantastic team we were.
"Against Everton in the first half and hour it was the same - we were much better than them - so sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't."

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