Torres backs manager but co-chairman flies in for do-or-die game, writes Andy Hunter in Marseille Tuesday December 11, 2007 The Guardian
If ever an occasion required Rafael Benítez to remain "focused on training and coaching my team", it is the Champions League reckoning that awaits Liverpool here tonight. So volatile are the sub-plots surrounding the club's final appearance in Group A, and their last in the tournament should results conspire against them at Stade Vélodrome and in Oporto, that the winds and stormy waters that met them in Marseille yesterday made for an appropriate welcome. Benítez must ensure the storm does not follow him home.
Confirmation that George Gillett plans to watch his asset in the flesh against Marseille underlined the magnitude of this fixture in Liverpool's season, if not quite the significance it may have on the manager's future.
The American co-chairman is in Europe for a scheduled business appointment and the luxury of a private jet means he can stop off in the south of France. He is not racing across the Atlantic in rage at Benítez's substitution policy in the defeat at Reading although that may crop up when Gillett plus Tom Hicks meet the Spaniard when they attend Manchester United's visit to Anfield on Sunday.
The countdown to Benítez's confrontation with his American employers for the first time since lambasting their transfer restrictions has inflated the importance of tonight's fixture, as if it were necessary.
"This is the most important match since I joined the club," said Fernando Torres, the Liverpool striker who has done most to answer the co-chairmen's suspicions of Benítez since their rift erupted - on the pitch and now off it. "It would be a huge mistake to think about changing the manager if we do not get the win we need," Torres said yesterday. "Rafa Benítez has done so much for this club and the staff, the fans and the players are behind him. We all need to be united to get a result in France. The match must be the only thing we think of at this time."
Liverpool did not lose sight of their objectives when Benítez responded with public contempt for his co-chairmen's refusal to sanction a £4m bid for the Milan defender Kakha Kaladze, two Bosman signings, the £17m permanent transfer of Javier Mascherano and the £10m sale of Scott Carson to Aston Villa. Newcastle, Porto and Bolton were all dispatched during the initial furore but the loss of an unbeaten Premier League record on Saturday has weakened the manager's hand at an inopportune moment.
Without a firm declaration of support from the club's owners Benítez remains one defeat shy of fresh interrogation. The admission that he withdrew the spine of his side while trailing at Reading with Marseille in mind - Torres moments after going 2-1 down, then Steven Gerrard and finally Jamie Carragher - encouraged the portrait of a Liverpool surrender and provided new rope for the manager's critics. Benítez could argue he had no choice but to concentrate on the minimum £12m shortfall facing the club if they do not progress in the Champions League. That is if he were in a position to speak his mind.
Irrespective of events at the Madejski Stadium Liverpool are equipped to repay their manager's gamble with the victory needed against Marseille to guarantee qualification for the knockout phase (a draw would suffice should Besiktas beat Porto at Estadio do Dragao).
Liverpool's capacity for turning a crisis into a triumph is well proven and Benítez will not show the same complacency in his selection against Eric Gerets' improving side as he did in the 1-0 defeat at Anfield, when Mathieu Valbuena scored the game's only goal after 77 minutes.
"Marseille changed their manager before the first game and didn't have a game for 10 days and had all that time to prepare for it. Everybody was saying it would be an easy game but we didn't think that," claimed Benítez disingenuously, given that he started with Sebastián Leto and Fabio Aurelio as a makeshift left flank with Mohamed Sissoko preferred to Mascherano in central midfield.
"It was clear Marseille played a fantastic game on the night. It's clear now that we are in a much better situation than in the first game against Marseille. We are playing much better and have more confidence, so things will be different. I don't think defeat to Reading will affect us. This is another competition now. We are still in a good moment."
It was at Stade Vélodrome where Gérard Houllier took charge of his last European tie as Liverpool manager, a Uefa Cup fourth-round defeat in 2004 when Igor Biscan was dismissed for a professional foul on Didier Drogba, El Hadji Diouf celebrated the defeat with the Marseille fans in expectation of a summer move to the club and the assistant manager, Phil Thompson, gestured that his hosts had bribed their way to victory.
Whatever Gillett and Hicks think of Benítez's Liverpool, they cannot deny the club have had it worse.
Key clashes that will shape the match
Sami Hyypia v Mamadou Niang
The veteran Finn's importance was underlined at Reading where he spent 82 minutes on the bench in readiness for Marseille. Benítez took no chances with Hyypia's problems in playing two matches in quick succession. His energy will be invaluable against the Senegal striker Niang, rejuvenated since being moved from the wings.
Fernando Torres v Gaël Givet
Torres has mirrored Liverpool's performance in the Champions League so far - anonymous to begin with, now destructive in front of goal. The striker has been in outstanding form and against the respected France international Givet, who emerged at Monaco before signing for Marseille in the summer, he faces an intriguing duel.
Steven Gerrard v Lorik Cana
The Liverpool captain has built his reputation on delivering when his club are in dire need and tonight is no exception. Should Gerrard be deployed in central midfield, he faces a similarly motivational leader. Cana injured an ankle at the weekend but Eric Gerets, his manager, said: "He would have to have a broken leg not to play."