Reds midfielder Xabi Alonso says that Liverpool could make history by retaining the Champions League. When the competition was in its original format and still known as the European Cup, Liverpool retained the trohpy when they followed their success in Rome in 1977 with victory at Wembley in 1978. No club has retained the trophy since it changed format and became known as the Champions League in 1992.
Liverpool’s defence of the trophy continues tonight when they play their seventh game so far in the competition this season. For some clubs it’s the first game of the competition as the group games get underway. Liverpool face Real Betis in Seville in Group G.
Alonso says that Liverpool proved last season that anything is possible in the game, so retaining the trophy could happen: "It is possible. We saw last season that you never know what is going to happen. It is the first game in the Champions League proper and it is a long way to the final, but if we want to get to Paris then we have to start well in Seville."
As Champions, Liverpool know that any club they face will be more fired up to win, after all taking the scalp of the holders is always something to be proud of. The matches against Chelsea will no doubt be the most talked-about games in the group, but Xabi says Betis are a team to be wary of: "The other teams will try harder against us and will be motivated to play against the European Champions, but we are confident. We need to be careful against Betis."
Liverpool are thought of fondly in Spain nowadays: The large Spanish flavour to the side and the coaching staff is part of the reason, but the Reds’ run in Europe last season endeared them to many fans in Spain. Beating AC Milan in the final was also a sweet event for fans of giants Real Madrid and Barcelona. All of this new-found fondness will be put to one side though tonight, when 40,000 Betis fans will be showing Liverpool what it’s like to be on the wrong side of a strong atmosphere. Alonso says that Betis will likely be playing good attacking football tonight: "At home they are a very difficult team. They play very quickly and have very good wingers, and Oliveira scored a lot of goals here last season. When I have played here for Real Sociedad, Betis have always been a strong team. It is their first-ever game in the Champions League and that will be their motivation."
Rafa Benitez is also looking forward to the game tonight and his first return to Spain as manager of the European Champions. He’s delighted that he goes home with that success behind him, but wants to look forward now rather than back: "For me as a manager I am proud. As a foreign manager, I am the proudest possible. Liverpool have the best supporters in the world and to see the supporters in the bars was amazing. I am really proud but you know in football you cannot think about past things."
Back in England the country has been concentrating on cricket as England managed to do well in cricket after a long absence of success. Their Ashes success will be rewarded with an open-top tour bus ride around London, which will bring back memories to Reds of their own open-top tour of Liverpool, watched by an extroadinary number of people. The celebrations from that glorious night in Istanbul will long be remembered, but Rafa isn’t too keen on showing off: "You need to think about new things. I am not worried about things like a trophy parade at Anfield. I see me in a photo sometimes and I don’t like it. I prefer to do my job and have the respect of my players and the supporters. For me that is enough. I don’t even have a photo in my office of Istanbul – the only photo I have is of the first magazine after I joined the club."
Rafa continued: "I have lots of memories instead. At home I have some photos, but not all around the house. I have some replicas of trophies – it’s good that the children can see them and be proud. But I prefer to look to the new season. I don’t think about winning the European Cup again, only about winning the next game and improving my team. I am very happy for example to see my players with the national team because it means they are improving – Jamie Carragher for example."
In fact of all the players in his charge, Jamie Carragher probably bring the most pride to Benitez. When Carragher was playing at full-back under Gerard Houllier, the arrival of Steve Finnan looked set to bring about the end of Jamie’s Liverpool days. Despite Houllier’s desire to let the player move on, Carragher insisted he would fight for his place. Rafa was impressed with Carra as soon as he saw him in training for the first time and quickly turned him back into a centre-back. A centre-back that has since been described as world-class by many. Carragher’s hard work has played the biggest part in turning him into that player, but it’s Rafa’s guidance that has ensured he’s got there.
Rafa also spoke of how well-loved Liverpool have become in Spain, saying: "Most of the people in Spain now have two teams – the first team is Betis, Seville or Madrid, or whatever the team of the town is, and the second is Liverpool. We have a lot of supporters now in Spain."
One of Liverpool’s opposing numbers tonight is right-winger Joaquín, who’s hoping to overcome a knee injury. He spoke over the weekend of a desire to play for the Reds, saying: “I’d love to play there if they want me.” Rafa though said it’s not something that would be easy to make happen: "The problem is, Seville is a nice town, the chairman has a lot of control and it is not easy to leave. Also, there is a clause in Joaquín’s contract which means you will probably have to pay €30 or 40 million for him.”