Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez wants his team to win tonight and in turn take top spot in their Champions League group. In theory top place earns a better draw as first-placed teams will be drawn against second-placed teams in the next round. In reality though even the second-placed teams are strong, and could be even stronger by the time those last-16 matches are played: “I want to finish first but you never know what to expect. Teams could be poor now but then buy in January and be much better when the last 16 comes around in a few months. Their form, money and players can change so it is hard to predict, but we need to finish top for our own confidence.”
Liverpool’s assurance of being in the next phase means they’ve guaranteed themselves some more money, although if the much-speculated investment is forthcoming after meetings tomorrow that will be dwarfed. What the success does bring is recognition says Rafa: “The Champions League is important for two reasons. People recognise you all around the world if you play well in that competition. They see you as a great team and a big club and that is important, but also, it earns you a lot of money. And you know you can continue winning if you can bring in that money. That way you can be thinking about the future.” Rafa is no doubt hoping that investors can step in and give him the transfer budget he needs to buy his first-choice targets.
Only a win tonight can guarantee the Reds first place. A defeat hands it to PSV. If it ends all-square then the last games in the group make the difference, and for Liverpool that’s a trip to Turkey to face Galatasaray in an Ataturk stadium that will have a totally different atmosphere to 2005. Rafa’s hoping that Liverpool’s excellent home form continues tonight so that the trip to Turkey is just a formality: “In front of our supporters we win, we score plenty of goals and we are happier. We need to show confidence and show people we are good enough.”
One first-choice target Rafa was successful with was Spanish keeper Pepe Reina. Reina has had some stick this season, as all Liverpool goalkeepers do, some but not all of it deserved. He’s now feeling that he’s over his bad spell though and has publicly thanked the boss and his team-mates for sticking by him through it: “I know I did my job on Saturday in the same way I was doing it last season, I've been trying my best to reproduce this form, and I've always had confidence in myself. The boss and my team-mates have shown the same confidence in me which has been a big help.”
Reina also wanted to thank those fans who’ve stuck by him too: “The manager has stood by me, and so have the supporters. Despite what's been said about me this year, I've never felt under pressure and have been able to remain strong.”
A confident keeper is important to any side, and Saturday’s clean sheet meant Liverpool had at last a point to bring home from their travels. Like all of us though, Reina would have preferred the other two points, which was difficult with Middlesbrough playing like they were the away side: “It's always really important to get a clean sheet, but it was more significant we didn't manage to get the result at the weekend. We know a draw was not enough for us, but at least we can say we played much better. Against Middlesbrough it seemed nearly all the play was in the opponent's half, but we're not interested in draws, we need wins.”
Reina says that Saturday’s draw reminded him of the season’s opener, a 1-1 draw with Sheffield United: “I don't know what the problem has been. Saturday was like against Sheffield, where we showed we were better but couldn't win. The other five away stadiums where we lost are not easy places to win, and you know defeats can happen there, but other games we expect to win.”
It was also revealed today by Chris Bascombe of the Liverpool Echo that the Reds are set to sign an Argentinean left-back for around £1m. According to the report, 17-year-old Emiliano Insua is on Merseyside to sign a deal to become a part of the Reds young reserve set-up. The deal will be a loan initially with an agreement in place for it to be permanent at the end of the season.
Rafa is often rumoured to be frustrated at the lack of control he has over the academy, which it seems is intent on only signing up local players, so now has his scouts tasked with finding the best youngster from both this country and overseas. The report says that Insua turned down approaches from Manchester United and Chelsea. It also says that more youngsters look set to be taken on in the New Year.
One thing different about Insua to the other young recruits taken on by Rafa is that he’s actually believed to be good enough that he could be in contention for first team football this season, and will definitely be part of the first-team squad next season. That’s quite some claim and after what happened with the massively-hyped French pair of Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec, Liverpool fans will be forgiven for not falling for the hype this time.
Insua will be at the ground to watch tonight’s match, which should feature fit-again Spanish midfielder Luis Garcia in the Reds side.