Benitez will use players to suit Red’s needs

Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez has answered complaints from Sheffield United boss Neil Warnock that the Reds won’t be putting a great deal of effort into their final two league fixtures.

Liverpool are assured of a top-four place in the league and have a Champions League final to look forward to. Their next two games are against two teams involved in the battle to avoid relegation – Fulham today and Charlton next week. Warnock thinks that leaves his side at a disadvantage: “It might not be good news for us that Liverpool progressed. They are going to be involved in some important matches, from our perspective at least, between now and the end.” He does however accept that with the Blades currently in a place outside the relegation zone they are in charge of their own destiny: “The situation is in our own hands now, so we've got to make sure we keep it that way.”

Rafa sympathises with Warnock, but says Liverpool won’t be the only team in the league trying out new players or giving the less-used player a run-out: “It's difficult to do the right things by everyone. I'm sure the teams in the middle of the table will try to use some young players, or players who haven't played a lot during the season because it needs to be decided if they get new contracts.”
 
All teams who are going through the motions of completing the league programme will be using different players to what they’d be using if the results mattered, says Rafa: “If you play against Watford, and I have a lot of respect for them, but now they are relegated I don't think they'll play with the same players now as three months ago, because they'll be thinking about preparing for the future. I think it will be similar with a lot of teams. We'll try to do our best, we'll use a good team with senior players, but we will try to use our squad.”
 
Liverpool fans want to see the Reds end the league season with two wins and third-place, but don’t want to see key players missing for the final in Athens. At the same time it will be three weeks between the semi-final and the final and Rafa knows some players will actually benefit from being used rather than rested. Then there’s the bonus of being able to give the youngsters a rare chance to play in the Premiership. “We need to think about the final but we also want to finish third,” says Rafa, “We will do a professional job, but everybody needs to understand that our priority is the final.”
 
In a later interview, on the official Liverpool FC website, Rafa was asked again how important these next two games were to him: “They are important in terms of being professional and finishing third. You know the other teams are involved in relegation, but my idea is to use the squad. It's been the same during the whole season. It could be a risk to use players who played 90 minutes plus extra-time against Chelsea. I explained my idea before Portsmouth and I'll do the same now. Some teams in the middle of the table will use their squad because they are thinking about the future. Maybe Watford will use some young players. The situation is similar for all the teams, you must accept this, but we will try to do our job and try to win.”

As well as looking to improve and strengthen his squad this summer with new signings, Rafa needs to make sure he doesn’t lose his existing key players due to new rules that allow players to buy themselves out of their contracts. Rafa says they’ve been speaking to those key men about new deals, and that talks were going well until they all agreed to put them on hold temporarily: “We have had conversations with four or five of them,” says Rafa. “We decided to stop the conversations because we were in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Now we will talk again and try to finish something before the final, but okay, if we cannot do it we will try and do it after. These players have contracts and it's not a problem. We need to show them that we want to do a deal, because if you don't do anything they want to know why. We are really close with one, two or three, and also with the young players we are really close.” He said the talks were with: “Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Carra, Finnan and the young players.”
 
Pepe Reina deserves two medals if we go on to win the final in Athens for his performance in the semi-final. He made important saves in open play in both legs, and then saved two of the three penalties he faced in the shootout. Rafa is obviously delighted with the player he brought over from Spain: “I said when he arrived that he was the best keeper in Spain. Now you can say he is one of the best in the world, but not just as a goalkeeper. His mentality is really good. He has a really good character, he's really positive. He has determination, he wants to improve, wants to learn; he is a very good team-mate.” As for the penalties: “We knew how good he was with penalties in Spain. Now we see it every week in training, and that's one of the things you look for when you're talking about top-class keepers.”

The off-field hype for the final has already begun, with Milan’s Gennaro Gattuso claiming Manchester United were better than long-ball playing Liverpool, but Rafa seems reluctant to be drawn into another war of words like that which surrounded the Chelsea games: “I was surprised at the game, because people were talking about United as favourites. Gattuso is a good player, but I don't think he's seen every game of our team. I prefer not to talk about comments after a semi-final. We will try to be calm and analyse what we can do on the pitch instead of talking about the other team.”
 
Last time Liverpool won the Champions League, in 2005, they did so after stuttering through the league season. They finished fifth in the league that season, and although they’ve been much better in the league this time round they’ve not been convincing throughout. They’ve been written off numerous times during the Champions League run too, but Rafa had faith in his squad: “The question is, people see us every week in the Premiership and can maybe have some doubts, but, because we have been playing well in the Champions League, I had confidence. To play against Barcelona or PSV or Chelsea, a fantastic team, maybe people were saying it's enough just to be in the semis, but at the end of the day, we have a very good team spirit, and the supporters behind us, which is key.”

Back to today’s game at Craven Cottage and opposing manager Lawrie Sanchez  doesn’t believe for a moment that they’ll have an easy ride agains the Reds. Currently doing the job in a caretaker capacity, Sanchez says the depth of Liverpool’s squad is such that even the second-choice players are of a high-quality: “Liverpool can afford a squad – it doesn't matter who they play they're all top calibre players. Their players are competing for European Cup places so they've all got something to prove tomorrow.”

Sanchez was asked again about his FA Cup winning goal when playing for Wimbledon against Liverpool at Wembley, when the then London-based club overcame the odds to beat the Reds. He claims his current squad didn’t even know about it: “The 1988 cup final was an individual thing as a player. This isn't me against Liverpool. This is about this group of players against the Liverpool side. The players here don't even know I played in the 1988 cup final! Most of them weren't even born! You are talking about a different generation.”

Continue reading Benitez will use players to suit Red’s needs

Reds get to wear Red in Athens

Little details make big differences in European football, and Liverpool supporters will be delighted with the colours they've been allowed to wear in the European Cup final on May 23rd. The Reds stars will be wearing the all-Red colours first worn after a moment of inspiration by Bill Shankly, who felt it would make the already-massive Ron Yeats look even bigger, thus frightening the opposition. That was in the 1964-65 season for a European match against Anderlecht – prior to that Liverpool had worn white shorts.

Liverpool were actually drawn as the away team for the Champions League final, as they were last-time round in Istanbul. At the last final Milan decided they would wear their away kit of all white as they'd always felt it was their lucky colours, having worn white in five of their six successful Champions League finals. They've also lost three finals now, and two of those were in white – Ajax in 1995 and of course Liverpool in 2005.

Liverpool fans were delighted with the choice of kits in 2005 for another reason – Liverpool had won every one of their then four European Cups against opposition wearing white. Borussia Moenchengladbach in 1977, Bruge in 1978, Real Madrid in 1981 and Roma in 1984 had all been on the losing side as the Reds lifted big ears.

With Milan becoming the latest side to lose in white against Liverpool in a final, nobody expected them to make the decision to let Liverpool wear their home kits again in the 2007 final.

Continue reading Reds get to wear Red in Athens

Flo goes

Liverpool have sold Florent Sinama-Pongolle to Spanish outfit Recreativo Huelva, according to Huelva's website.

Pongolle, 22, has spent the season on loan there, scoring 11 goals, and now they have taken up their option to buy.  The figure quoted on the Recreativo website is €4m, around £2.7m. He's signed a four-year-deal.

Recre's president, Francisco Mendoza, said: "Today is a very happy day for all those connected with Recreativo. We have all waited for this moment to see Sinama become a member of the club. The moment came because we made the most significant financial commitment in the 118-year history of this club."

Flo became a Red in 2001 when, along with Anthony Le Tallec, Gerard Houllier signed two players hyped up to be the next big things. Both had done well in under-18 internationals tournaments but Houllier decided to leave them in France on loan to Le Havre until summer 2003. Pongolle was the more promising of the two when he finally did arrive at Anfield full-time, but eventually went on loan to Blackburn for the tail-end of last season. It was whilst there that Pongolle made comments about how he never met any Liverpool fans in Liverpool, one of Everton's mantras, and in doing so made sure there really was no way back for him.

He's now happy with his new club, known in Spain as "The Dean" due to them being the oldest side in the country. He said: "I would like to thank the all the club officials and fans for the affection they have shown me since I arrived at Huelva."

According to the statement on the Recreativo official site, they had to fight off competition from other Spanish and European clubs for Sinama's services.

One memory of Pongolle that will live long in the memories of Liverpool fans is his goal in the Champions League match against Olympiakos in 2005. Liverpool needed three goals in the second half to stay in the competition, and Pongolle got one of those three, along with Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard. The club of course went on to win the competition itself in Istanbul the following May.

Continue reading Flo goes

Psychic Rafa predicted final pairing in February

Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez is rapidly building up an excellent reputation for the success he’s brought to Anfield since he joined the club almost three years ago, including taking the club to a second Champions League final in the space of two years.

What few people realised was that he has psychic skills too. Or at least it looks that way.

Back in February Rafael Benítez reflected on the draw for the last 16 as Liverpool were being written off due to their pairing with Barcelona. Speaking to Corriere dello Sport Rafa said: “I think the final will be Liverpool v Milan and that we will win again. It's sure.”

Well he’s got half of that prediction right, and in less than three weeks we’ll find out if he’s got the other half right too.

Rafa was determined to confound the critics back then: “In football there is nothing impossible. We are ready to astonish you once again. Whoever sees us as victims is wrong. We were the same also against Milan in Istanbul's final and to those who see us already beaten by Barcelona, I suggest to see how that match ends.”

Richard Keys was one of those laughing – literally – at Liverpool’s chances of progressing in the Champions League back in January when they’d just lost with a reserve side to Arsenal in the League Cup. Along with Paul Merson he mocked Jamie Redknapp who pointed out that Liverpool hadn’t exactly played their strongest sides in either of the domestic cups. Last night Keys looked quite disappointed that Manchester United had failed to overcome Milan. Now the hopes of England rest on the side he laughed at. Now he must feel quite silly, to say the least. If Liverpool win the Champions League he should go to get his arms waxed on live TV.

Continue reading Psychic Rafa predicted final pairing in February

High price to watch Reds aim for number six

AC Milan's victory in last night's Champions League semi-final brought a huge sigh of relief for many as worries of trouble in Athens decreased substantially. Manchester United had been expected to go through, resulting in an all-English final against some of the biggest rivals in the English game.

More than once this season the Manchester United supporters have been involved in highly-publicised incidents of violence, which have so far gone unpunished. There were fears that there would be more incidents, with two sets of English fans using the same sources for flights, accomodation and (black market) tickets. Those fears have now all but gone thanks to the 3-0 win for Milan – when Liverpool played Milan in Turkey two years ago there was no trouble at all. That said, there are still concerns about a planned strike by local police on the day of the final.

The press in England were convinced the final would be between Chelsea and Manchester United, then when Liverpool beat Chelsea they expected our opponents to be Manchester United. The travel agencies and touts were convinced of this too, and their prices yesterday for flights and tickets were predictably off the scale.

The Olympic Stadium in Athens has a capacity of 63,800, with just 34,000 tickets being shared equally between the two finalists. Another 9,000 tickets went to neutral fans who applied through a UEFA.com lottery. The remaining 20,800 go to the UEFA "football family". This generally means sponsors, football associations and UEFA's guests. And most of these generally find their way into the hands of touts, with very little done by UEFA to put a stop to it.

The face value of tickets is £54, £95 or £136. According to the Guardian, they were quoted £1437 and £1929 for these tickets from ticketing agencies yesterday. These agencies are generally speaking just touts in a suit – and they always manage to find a way to get hold of tickets.

Sky Sports investigated flight costs, and found that travelling two days before the final would cost £851 from Heathrow, £939 from Manchester. The day before the match the costs had rocketed to £1117 from Heathrow and £1339 from Manchester. On the day of the final itself the cost from Manchester dropped to £1282, with Heathrow at £1233. All the flights included return travel the day after the final, and the Heathrow flights were not direct. However these are likely to be scheduled flights, and before the final there will be arrangements made for charter flights, from Manchester and of course from John Lennon Airport in Liverpool.

The club haven't yet announced details of their own arrangements, but it's expected they will offer a package of travel and accomodation alongside tickets. Priority is being given to fans who attended earlier games in the tournament.

Many supporters are looking at the idea of booking a week's holiday elsewhere in Greece – or elsewhere in Europe – and then travelling to Athens for the game either by hire car, train, coach or ferry. Accomodation in Athens itself is likely to be near impossible to find, and expensive when you do find it.

The cost of going to watch this match looks set to be astronomical – but Liverpool fans always find a way.

Continue reading High price to watch Reds aim for number six

Hero Reina’s house burgled

One of the heroes from last night's magnificent win over Chelsea in the Champions League returned home to a traumatic sight. Goalkeeper Pepe Reina had saved two of the three penalties he'd faced in the shoot-outs, as well as important saves in open play, but whilst doing that his house was being burgled.

The players celebrated into the early hours and when the 24-year-old arrived home he found his home was ransacked. They stole his car – a grey Porsche Cayenne – and other items. The car was found burnt out at 6.30am today, but the missing jewellery, paperwork and a Bang and Olufsen stereo have not yet been recovered.

The burglary, in Woolton, took place between 7pm and 12.45am last night. Reina was not feeling up to commenting on the incident.

Continue reading Hero Reina’s house burgled

Result and Reaction: Liverpool through to CL final

Champions League Semi Final, 2nd leg – RESULT

Liverpool 1 Chelsea 0 (Aggregate 1-1)

AET – Liverpool win 4-1 on penalties

Liverpool: Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise, Pennant (Alonso, 78), Gerrard, Mascherano (Fowler, 118), Zenden, Kuyt, Crouch (Bellamy, 106).
Unused subs: Padelli, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Gonzalez.
Booked: Agger, Zenden.
Goal: Agger 22.
Penalties: Zenden: 1-0, Alonso: 2-0, Gerrard: 3-1, Kuyt: 4-1

Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Essien, Terry, Ashley Cole, Mikel, Makelele (Geremi, 118), Lampard, Joe Cole (Robben, 98), Drogba, Kalou (Wright-Phillips, 107).
Unused subs: Cudicini, Boulahrouz, Bridge, Diarra.
Booked: Ashley Cole.
Penalties: Robben: missed 1-0, Lampard:  2-1, Geremi: missed 3-1

Half-time: 1-0

Attendance: 42,554.
Referee: Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).

Reaction:
Liverpool Football Club are through to their seventh European Cup final after beating Chelsea in a penalty shoot-out at Anfield. As you can imagine, the Reds players and manager are delighted – not so the Chelsea boss who’s seen his side lose a major semi-final against Liverpool for the third year in a row.

Jamie Carragher was overjoyed to be heading for this second Champions League final in two years and expressed this without any kind of gloating: “It's a great achievement to beat a team like Chelsea over two legs.

“We thought there weren't going to be a lot of chances in the game and that's the way it turned out. Fortunately for us Daniel scored a great goal and then when it went to penalties we knew we had one of the best goalkeepers in the world and so we always had a chance.
 
Carra hailed the ’12 Man’ in the stands: “Of course we had the fans on our side and they again rose to the occasion. They were brilliant from start to finish and once again proved what a difference they can make.

“To reach the final again is brilliant and we're going to enjoy the fact that we're there again. That's the third year running we've beaten Chelsea in a semi-final.”
 
So Liverpool now wait to see who their opponents will be with the winners of tomorrow night’s second leg between AC Milan and Manchester United joining them in the final. Who does Carra prefer? “I don't care. It doesn't matter who we play. We can relax now and all watch the game on Wednesday night.”

Captain Steven Gerrard has extra reason to be happy with the result. In the aftermath of Istanbul he nearly joined Chelsea. To once again knock them out must have felt a touch sweeter than last time: “The first time round was special but to do it again after being a goal down to a magnificent team like Chelsea. It is unbelievable – together we achieved it.

“The atmosphere helped, the manager’s tactics, everything was spot on. But we crossed the line and we stuck together. We have the best goalkeeper in the world.”

Asked whether the pre-match criticism from Jose Mourinho gave Liverpool extra incentive Gerrard played it down: “That's Jose for you – he's been a credit to English football, he makes us laugh now and then.” Although: “I think he was a bit disrespectful calling us a little club – two finals in three years? Not bad for a little club.”

Dirk Kuyt got the fourth and decisive penalty: “It was very special for me,” said the Dutch star. “It will be my first final in my first year at Liverpool. We just believed in it. Pepe was fabulous.”

Goalkeeper Pepe Reina only let one of the penalties past him and says of the final on May 23rd: “Just a last step. We must do it.”

Manager Rafael Benítez sat in a Buddha pose during the shoot-out, the one part of the game where he had no need to coach. He said of the penalties: “We had confidence because we had players who practice in every training session – they like to do it.” And of Pepe: “He is a player that's always good with penalties.”

He went on: “Every player and every supporter deserves it – the atmosphere was amazing today.”

Meanwhile Jose Mourinho continued to make a fool of himself. His words before the two games had backfired, and if he makes a mess of those pre-planned words he’s little chance of saying the right things when still stinging from the defeat. He started off mildly: “It is a moment when everybody has to be strong. They (his players) have a lot of reasons to be proud. They did a great run in the Champions League.”

Then the sour grapes came out: “We were the best team today, even against a team only playing for the Champions League. In extra-time we were the only team who tried to win, but football is like that and the penalty shoot-out is part of the game.”

He wouldn’t admit that his ill-thought-out attacks on Liverpool FC had worked against him: “I respected Liverpool always in my words. I don't need to say more and today I think the best team was Chelsea.”

Continue reading Result and Reaction: Liverpool through to CL final

Teams: Liverpool v Chelsea, CL Semi 2nd Leg

Rafa Benitez has given Steven Gerrard a start in the centre of midfield tonight for the Champions League semi-final second leg at Anfield. Peter Crouch starts up-front alongside Dirk Kuyt.

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho has picked a team with just two changes from the side that won 1-0 at Stamford Bridge in the first leg. Kalou replaces the missing Andrey Shevchenko, Michael Essien replaces the injured Carvalho.

Liverpool:
Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise, Pennant, Gerrard, Mascherano, Zenden, Crouch, Kuyt
Subs: Padelli, Arbeloa, Hyypia, Fowler, Gonzalez, Alonso, Bellamy.

Chelsea: Cech, Ferreira, Essien, Terry, A Cole, Makelele, Lampard, Mikel, J Cole, Kalou, Drogba

Continue reading Teams: Liverpool v Chelsea, CL Semi 2nd Leg

Rafa glad of 12th man

Liverpool go into tonight’s Champions League semi-final match at Anfield a goal down to the Russian playboy’s plaything, but Rafa is considered by many to be way ahead of his Chelsea counterpart on the psychological front.

The simple facts for tonight are that Liverpool could take it to extra time if they can score one goal without reply before the ninety minutes are up. No more goals in extra time then it all goes down to penalties. Any goal at all from Chelsea however would leave Liverpool needing to score at least three and Jose Mourinho has used that fact to try and send a message to Anfield that this will be too much of a task for the Reds.

Three is a memorable number for Liverpool though. In 2005 they won the Champions League despite being 3-0 down at half-time in the final. On their way to the final they were in a situation where they needed to score three times without reply in the second half of their last group game against Olympiakos, a feat nobody expected them to pull off, but thanks to goals from Sinama-Pongolle, Neil Mellor and Steven Gerrard they were on their way to glory. Rafa’s hopes they won’t need three tonight, but doesn’t think that’s a mountain to high to climb if it does come down to that: “For me, it's better if we don't concede, but we know we can score more than one goal. If we need to score three, okay, we have experience against Olympiakos.”

Rafa wasn’t happy with the performance his side put in last week, he knows they weren’t playing to the best of their abilities and is banking on them putting that right tonight: “I know we were not playing at our level last week. That's the key for the second leg. If we play to our level I'm sure we will win.”

Liverpool played last week’s game at Stamford Bridge on the attack for much of the game, Chelsea seemingly playing a game to avoid conceding the away goal, hoping to get a goal on the counter. Now Mourinho claims they’ll come out of their shells in this game and play to score. He claims it anyway: “We will attack. We know if we don’t concede we are in the final so to not concede is an objective, but we also know if we score goals we have an advantage as we didn’t concede at home.”

He admits that trying to defend against Liverpool for 90 minutes would be a mistake: “If this game was about 10 minutes, then we’d defend but the game is 90 minutes and you can’t defend all the time. The best way to play this game is to scare the opponent and we’ll try to do that.” So is he planning to arrive wearing a scary mask? He doesn’t need one really: “Part of our game must be to scare and score when we have the ball.”

Last week Mourinho had a go at Liverpool claiming they were only any good in knockout football and complained about how hard-done-to his own team were. He complained about how he couldn’t change his team because they were still in the hunt for the league title. On Saturday he did change his team though, and now they are no longer in the hunt for the league title. He’s still not happy with this injustice: “One-nil is a lead and at a knockout stage that’s a good lead but we have 90 minutes to play and the opposition are at home, a team with one week to rest and prepare for this game against another team that had to play only days ago and had to fight physically and mentally in the title race.” Last week, he said Liverpool were favourites to win the tie, but not now: “I don’t see either team as being favourites,” he claimed.

There are many stats against Liverpool going into this game, but all good stats must come to an end, like this one: “Every time we play Liverpool while winning, we get results,” said Mourinho, “When we score first, we win. We are 1-0 up, so we have good reason to have self-belief for the tie.”

One major influencing factor that is against Chelsea – whether they like it or not – is the Anfield crowd. Despite recent denials from some of those at Chelsea about how intimidating it is, the Chelsea captain John Terry has admitted how he felt Liverpool’s fans were better than Chelsea’s. He said this on their own website: “As players, we can always do better. It’s the same with the fans. The game at Anfield was a huge one, and made us realise what the fans can do to influence the ref. Get on his back from the first decision, really make some noise, that sort of thing. The Chelsea fans are great but, like I said, we can always do more.”

Frank Lampard, nicknamed “Fat” by Liverpool fans, tried hard to sound hard about the Anfield sound: “Despite what people say, we were not intimidated by the atmosphere at Anfield and we won't be intimidated by it now.” Not what his captain says: “All of us found it a bit of a shock that night,” said Terry of the 2005 semi, “It was one of the most impressive atmospheres I've played in and credit to the Liverpool fans for that, especially the Kop. They made it a memorable night, something special.”

At least Terry is honest. 

Rafa Benítez, on great form at the press conference yesterday, used his admiration of the Liverpool fans to have a dig at Jose’s self-proclaimed “Special One” tag: “Our supporters – they are the special ones. We don't need to talk about our supporters, it's enough just to hear them. At Stamford Bridge, we won in the stands; that was clear.” Liverpool fans have collected scarves and flags over many years of successful campaigns at home and abroad, but Chelsea actually give little flags out free of charge to their fans in the hope of creating a bit of an atmosphere. Rafa had a dig at this too: “The other supporters were with their flags, but our supporters were with their hearts. We don't need to give flags. It's easy for us.”
 
On a roll, Rafa continued: “Our fans cannot give red cards or award penalties, but they can score goals. I like this about our supporters because we know they will show they are the best in the world again tomorrow night.”
 
And Rafa mustn’t have heard John Terry’s comments: “I am sure you will see that Anfield is very difficult for Chelsea. They can say they've experienced it before, they can say it's not a problem, but it will be a problem for them. We are playing against a very good team, but we have confidence, and playing with 12 men is easy!”

Of course Rafa doesn’t assume the game will be easy, but he was working hard to dispel some of the myths Jose Mourinho was trying to create. Last week’s comments from Mourinho even included a claim that Liverpool –  the most successful club in English history – had no history to look back on. Rafa mentioned this in the middle of more praise for the fans: “It’s something that was so clear,” said Rafa. “If you know the history of our club, you don’t need to say anything else. Our supporters will have the last word. It’s easier for me. I don’t need to give a team talk now.”

Mourinho didn’t quite go as far as Frank Lampard by denying the team of two years ago were rattled by the Kop, but he did try to play it down: “A great atmosphere is always good for the home team, and can be hostile for the away team. It depends on the player’s character but at this level a hostile atmosphere can be extra motivation for players with a lot of experience. I don’t see Claude Makelele not sleeping tonight because of the atmosphere tomorrow. Everybody in football wants a great atmosphere, and Liverpool fans always provide a good atmosphere.”

Mourinho was trying hard to backtrack on his comments about Liverpool’s past when he was sitting at Anfield for the press conference yesterday, perhaps mindful of how his words often come back to haunt him: “The fans have to be happy with me because of my comments. Last week, I said it was impossible to compare Liverpool and Chelsea because Liverpool has a history of success in Europe and Chelsea doesn’t, so I think tomorrow I would deserve some big applause. That is what I think; I have great respect for a great club like Liverpool.” Not quite what he said last week.

If Mourinho’s claims about his players being tired are true – and there’s nothing like telling the world that your players are tired to sew the idea into their minds – Chelsea may be in for a tough night: “It will be really difficult for Chelsea,” says Benitez. “We’ll want a high tempo from the beginning until the end. I don’t know whether we can maintain it, but we can try.”
 
Rafa had an answer to how he feels about the never-ending digs from Jose Mourinho: “We have a phrase in Spain, ‘no ofende quien quiere sino quien puede’ which means you can talk, but it’s not offensive for me because you cannot offend me.” Like our own ‘Sticks and stones’ saying then,  And Rafa thinks the digs will spur the Reds and the Reds fans on all the more: “Now, our supporters will be more focused and more behind their team. I have a lot of respect for their club, but this is one person talking. It doesn’t bother me.”

Nobody believes much of what Jose Mourinho says, but there are some absences expected tonight, including the supposedly dropped Andrey Shevchenko. One of those missing is Ricardo Carvalho. Mourinho claims that makes it clear how Rafa will play: “I think they’ll play with Peter Crouch and go more direct. Rafa is a good manager, he knows Carvalho won’t be playing and I think he is intelligent to play Crouch, it’s normal and obvious. We know that and will have to do our best.”

He’s also unsurprised at Rafa’s comments that Liverpool will be trying to play at high tempo: “They will try and score in the beginning and have a strong and fast game but they know that a Chelsea goal will kill the other side. 1-0 is not 3-0 or 4-0 so maybe they can play with defensive control and try and get the goal. Their team will be Peter Crouch plus 10.”

With the biggest transfer budget of perhaps any team in the world, it’s seems something is wrong if Chelsea are having serious worries about the odd missing player. But they are, unless Mourinho is lying: “Carvalho was our best defender for the whole season, he had played in every game at a high level, and didn’t have Petr Cech behind him for part of season and no John Terry beside him for part and no Michael Essien in front for part, he was the man and the pillar, so to miss him in such a big game is a big blow. But we have other players and solutions and we have to play our game and try to score goals.”

One player Liverpool could have done with being absent is Didier Drogba, but he’s fit and – as yet – unsuspended: “Didier is in good form, Liverpool have good defenders, they play a lot of offside,” said the Chelsea boss, with another little dig. “That’s one of their qualities, but Didier is powerful. He did really well at Stamford Bridge and at Anfield last season.”

A defeat for Liverpool tonight will bring the Reds’ season to an end. For Chelsea there’s still a vague chance of the league, and an FA Cup final, but this is the trophy they really want above all the others. The lost points on Saturday still hurt them, despite what was said, and Mourinho has to pick his players up from that poor result: “I’m not expecting a big reaction because of Saturday. Saturday was the Premiership. Now it’s the Champions League and I don’t think they can be related and there won’t be a reaction. You couldn’t have a bigger motivation than to play in a Champions League final and the players know it’s only one game away now.”

Just in case it does go wrong tonight, Mourinho reminded his fans about the FA Cup: “We have a great FA Cup final to look forward to, so this is not our game of the season. But it would be a great achievement to get to the final, especially for a club without a great history of success in Europe.”

Soon the talking will be over – for ninety minutes at least – and the two coaches can do what they’re actually paid to do.

Continue reading Rafa glad of 12th man