D-Day in Marseille for Rafa.. win and Euro hopes take off, but defeat will go down like a lead balloon with owners Hicks & Gillett
by David Maddock 11/12/2007
As the clamour grows over his position and everyone around him seems to be losing their heads, Rafael Benitez is the calm at the centre of an Anfield storm.
The Liverpool manager knows he is entering nine days of destiny, with his side's season and his job on the line as they take on Marseille, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Defeat in all three would end Liverpool's interest in the Champions League, Premier League and Carling Cup, and clearly call time on the Spaniard's reign at Anfield.
While that may be a daunting prospect to many, especially coming into such a demanding run of games on the back of a defeat at Reading, Benitez has an unshakeable belief he will get it right, even as the doubts about his ability to do so rage on.
He knows defeat in France tonight will put the scent of blood in the nostrils of his detractors - and that the club's American owners are possibly among that contingent. Yet last night he remained defiant.
"Believe me, I don't think about losing, only winning," said Benitez. "Watching these players, seeing how happy and confident they are looking and how well they are playing, gives me only confidence we will win.
"We've always known we had to win our last three group games to get through, and we're on course to do that.
"The team's make up is right, the players are right, and I know we will go there and win the match, so nothing else matters.
"Ok, we put ourselves under too much pressure because we lost to Marseille and everyone was saying it's a disaster. But now everyone's saying, 'OK maybe Liverpool can do it' - and we can do it, we can beat Marseille and go through."
There is real sense that tonight's game is one of destiny for Benitez, and recent history may support that theory. Defeats in league and Worthington Cup in December 2003 followed by a UEFA Cup exit at the hands of Marseille signalled the end for Gerard Houllier, Benitez's predecessor.
Similar failures this time round may have the same result, with the suspicion lingering that George Gillett and Tom Hicks would not accept the financial blow to their plans a Champions League exit would bring.
Benitez though, in untroubled by the debate over money, suggesting he feels the owners have their priorities wrong as they look to turn a profit that will fund their purchase of the club and build an expensive new - revenue generating - stadium.
"The sporting achievement is more important than the money, even though that's important," added Benitez. "Liverpool must always think of winning - if you win trophies the money comes afterwards.
"I've never lost confidence that we will get through. Yes, it's going to be another of those occasions where the players have to dig deep. But we have enough experience in these kind of situations.
"We know the atmosphere will be difficult and hostile in Marseille, but again, our players have a lot of experience of this, and it is how the players, not the fans, perform."
Benitez is genuinely calm before his date with destiny, largely because he is confident he is right.
Whether that proves to be the case in Marseille is another matter. Houllier had a similar belief, and yet was paid with his job when Igor Biscan was dismissed and Sami Hyypia was destroyed by a certain Didier Drogba.
Benitez, though, faces a Marseille side which is a shadow of the team that beat Liverpool four years ago, although they won 1-0 at Anfield in October by capitalising on the Spaniard's complacency in selecting an under-strength side. "It's clear we're in a much better situation now than in the first game against Marseille," said Benitez.
"We're playing much better and have more confidence, so things will be different. "It's like a final but have experience in finals and they don't, so we just need to do the same things as we've done before. Since I've been here, we've played seven finals and won four of them. So we've enough experience in these kind of games."
Benitez is likely to restore Dirk Kuyt, Yossi Benayoun, Harry Kewell and Javier Mascherano to his starting line up, allowing him to use a formation his players are more comfortable with.