11 March 2008

Liverpool can make Champions League quartet

By Henry Winter in Milan
Last Updated: 1:38am GMT 11/03/2008

Liverpool continue to live through interesting times, with their players facing a test of nerve here tonight, with negotiations over the club's future deadlocked and with Xabi Alonso deciding to stay at home to be with his heavily pregnant girlfriend. Rarely has the pre-match mantra of "time to deliver" rung so loud and so true.
Going backwards in the boardroom, Liverpool are at least going forward in Europe. For all the uncertainty over Tom Hicks' stand-off with DIC, which Rafa Benitez insisted would not affect the "concentration" of his players against the Italian champions, Liverpool should make it a full house of four Premier League representatives to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Continuing from where they left off at Anfield three weeks ago,
where Liverpool struck twice in the final five minutes, Benitez's side know that an away goal here will leave Inter needing to breach a backline including Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina four times, surely a mission impossible.
Inter's hopes of keeping Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at bay have been thrown into chaos by problems in central defence. Marco Materazzi is suspended, following his injudicious hounding of Torres at Anfield. Walter Samuel and Ivan Cordoba are injured. Torres and Gerrard will sense a rare vulnerability in the Italians' defence.
During last night's fine-tuning at San Siro, during a quick-passing, jumpers-for-goalposts training game on the pitch, the link-up play between Torres and Gerrard was outstanding. "We know Torres is on fire," reflected Benitez. "Torres is a great player, who wants to improve. We know the understanding with Gerrard is good. Gerrard is a fantastic player. We are confident."
Benitez's plans have been complicated by Alonso's absence. Liverpool's manager was understandably frustrated because the long-passing midfielder could complement the ball-winning Javier Mascherano while Gerrard raided upfield in support of Torres.
Alonso's capacity for picking out a distant colleague with a long forward pass would be useful in catching Inter on the break. Now Benitez must consider accommodating Lucas Leiva in his 4-2-3-1 formation or switching to 4-4-2 and unleashing Jermaine Pennant.
Benitez tried to be diplomatic when discussing Alonso's situation but his demeanour told a different story. "We were talking, but he had a clear idea," said Benitez before training at San Siro last night. "Xabi wanted to come, but only if everything was OK. We could not wait to hear the information. I couldn't wait, wait, wait for one player. When you can't do anything more, the most important thing is to think about what you do with the other players."
Not the sentimental type, Benitez famously remained with Liverpool at the World Club Championship in Tokyo in 2005 rather than leap on the first flight to Spain on hearing his father had passed away. The team, the mission means everything to Benitez to the exclusion of all else. Bill Shankly would have approved.
"I am really proud to be Liverpool manager," continued Benitez. "It doesn't matter whether I am in the Carling Cup, the Premier League, the FA Cup of Champions League, all I think about is winning every game." And yet Benitez has proved most effective in Europe, where the tactical demands bring out the best in this detail-obsessed Spaniard.
He is fortunate that Liverpool boast a strong spine of players, from Reina, through Carragher, Mascherano and Gerrard to the prolific Torres. Carragher, though, may celebrate his 100th appearance for Liverpool in Europe at right-back with the improving Martin Skrtel partnering Sami Hyypia in the centre.
Asked about Carragher's century of games, Benitez replied: "When you talk about the number that shows how important he is to us. Carra has a very good mentality, his commitment is fantastic. He is a key player for us now and in the future."
As well as their precious two-goal advantage, Liverpool take comfort from Arsenal's terrific display here last week against Inter's neighbours, AC Milan. "That was a great result for Arsenal and hopefully we can repeat it," said Pennant of his former club's 2-0 victory.
"This is a very important game for us, a chance to get into the quarter-finals, and we know it is going to be a tough task. Inter are a quality team. But there could be four English teams in the quarter-finals, which just shows the quality of the Premier League which is so strong because of the quality of the players."
Another former Arsenal player, Patrick Vieira, may feature for Inter this evening, lending an extra edge to central midfield. Liverpool must beware Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is unlikely to be as anaemic as he was in front of the Kop. Javier Zanetti's surges upfield must also be watched, but Liverpool possess enough of a threat to gain the away goal that will end this match as a contest, so delivering them into Friday's draw.

No comments:



The GOLDEN Team of Kenny Daglish

The GOLDEN Team of Kenny Daglish
If we have them now, say farewell to Arsenal, Man.U and Chelsea... if...