In a move almost certainly designed to take pressure off his players, Rafael Benitez told the world that as much as he wants to be in the Champions League next season, it’s not the end of the world if Liverpool don’t make it.
At the moment Liverpool are in sixth place and are relying on slip-ups from fourth-placed Everton and fifth-placed Bolton in order to get up to fourth place. Bolton were the first to slip up, managing only a draw against Southampton, which leaves Liverpool capable of overtaking them with a win at Portsmouth tonight.
The other route into next year’s Champions League for Liverpool is if they win the competition this season. Even then it wouldn’t be guaranteed, as the FA have to choose whether the fourth English place then goes to the fourth-placed League team, or the holders of the trophy. There’s the small matter of Chelsea first though.
Benitez said: "It would be great to be in the final of the Champions League but if we lose the final and don’t finish in the top four then we won’t be in the competition next season. We will fight until the very end though because we don’t know how many points we might need to finish fourth. All we know is that we need more points than Everton and Bolton."
He went on: "It is very important to be in the Champions League and not only for the money. But if we need to work without the money from the Champions League next season then we can do it. We just need to work harder with our scouting department to find solutions for the future. I am not afraid of working outside the Champions League next season, but we want Champions League football."
Four years ago Leeds United got to the Champions League semi-finals, bu were beaten 3-0 on aggregate by Valencia. They then failed to qualify for the tournament the following season after finishing fifth in the Premiership. The club then went through all kinds of turmoil and are currently in tenth place in what used to be called "Division Two" in less confusing times. Liverpool though are not in a position where Champions League money has been spent before it’s been earned. Being out of the tournament next season would not prevent them from challenging for the title according to Benitez: "If we do not qualify for fourth place because Everton or Bolton win their remaining games then we will work even harder to improve next season. I am sure we will be very close to Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United next year whether we are in the Champions League or not. In any job you know more about it in the second year than in the first and so I am sure we will be better."
One thing that surely has to be better next season is the injury situation. All season Liverpool have had players missing in vital positions but the problems are starting to ease – slowly but surely. In addition to the injuries, Milan Baros has missed the last three league games due to suspension, but is now available for selection tonight. At last a selection dilemma of a positive nature for Benitez: "I have got a good problem of who to pick against Portsmouth now that Milan is back. All the players want to do their best and Milan is no different. I want to see goals from the strikers but I’ll be just as happy to see Carra score as Milan, Cisse or Morientes. The important thing is to play well. If we play well we will create more chances for everyone and then it’s easier to win."
Liverpool’s failure to already have fourth place sewn-up is down to the missing strikers according to Benitez, who feels that they are now in position to ensure they can capitalise on any slip-ups from Everton or Bolton: "Now we have three good strikers who can score goals, it is a question of time and luck. We need to improve in a lot of areas, but not only in attack and the amount of goals our strikers score. I do think we would be in fourth if we had a consistent goalscorer. If you have one or two strikers scoring 15 goals a season then it does make things a lot easier. Baros, Cisse and Morientes are all capable of doing that. The problem is we have only had Morientes since January, Cisse has been out injured for six months and Baros has had injuries and had to play a lot of the season alone up front. I think all of those strikers could get 15 goals a season if they didn’t have their fitness problems."
Baros, Cisse and Morientes have actually only managed 13 goals between them in the league this season – Baros with nine and the other two each. Luis Garcia is Liverpool’s second-top scorer in the league with seven.