David Maddock 19/12/2007
Rafa Benitez is ready to take a massive gamble on his Liverpool side tonight despite a difficult week of heavy criticism.
The Spaniard knows that if he picks a weakened team and they crash out of the Carling Cup at Chelsea, then he will leave himself open to even more sniping. But that is exactly what he will do at Stamford Bridge, as he offers his players a rest ahead of what he believes is a crucial Premier League clash with Portsmouth at the weekend.
Benitez will rest his star names Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Javier Mascherano, and will even consider leaving stand-in skipper Jamie Carragher out of the starting line-up.
Gerrard will not even travel to London after complaining of a stomach bug yesterday, and Torres will not be risked after a heavy programme in recent weeks.
Many people consider the Carling Cup as Liverpool's most likely route to winning a trophy now, after the home League defeat by Manchester United at the weekend.
But it is clear that Benitez doesn't see the competition as important enough to field his strongest side, and instead will rest players with Saturday's game in mind.
The coach is well known for gambling on team selection, most notably this season when he picked a weakened team against Marseille in the Champions League and surprisingly lost at Anfield.
Last night he said: "Clearly this cup tie is important, but know we are going into a crucial stage of the season, so we have to find a balance with our selection.
"It is not possible for players to play every game and we have to recognise we have an important game against Portsmouth at the weekend.
Chelsea will rest some players and so will we. We have a lot of games in a short space of time so we have to keep the players with the same mentality and look to play as well as we can."
Benitez has been under intense pressure from the club's American owners, and many people expected him to pick a strong side in an attempt to lift a trophy this season.
But he still feels that Liverpool are not out of the title race, and therefore sees the visit to Anfield of Portsmouth as being of more importance. "We have one game in hand so the situation can improve and we're about to play four league games in a short time over Christmas. That means it is too early to say we are out of it.
"We have to think about winning games, keeping the confidence of the players high and see what the situation is at the end of the next month."
Benitez will, at least, finally have Xabi Alonso back tonight.
The Spaniard has been absent for the best part of three months with a broken foot.
He is likely to partner Momo Sissoko and Lucas Leiva in midfield, with Andrei Voronin returning to play alongside Peter Crouch up front, and Ryan Babel is also due a start.
FOUR CONTROVERSIAL BENITEZ SELECTIONS:
AT EVERTON, OCT 20 With 15 minutes to go and drawing against 10-man rivals, he controversially took skipper Steven Gerrard off, only for his decision to be vindicated with a goal created by his replacement Lucas Leiva.
v MARSEILLE, OCT 3 Gave starts to Sebastian Leto and Momo Sissoko in a new-look lineup that faltered badly, and was criticised heavily for a 1-0 defeat that was the worst performance of Benitez's reign.
v BIRMINGHAM, SEPT 22 Was criticised heavily for leaving Fernando Torres out of a game in which Liverpool created many chances, but couldn't score. Dropped points in draws have been the side's weakness this season.
AT BURNLEY, JAN 18, 2005 His most controversial selection of all, when every big-name player was rested for this FA Cup tie, and Djimi Traore scored a comical own goal to concede defeat to the Championship side. Benitez has never lived it down.