Rafa respectful but confident for Sunday

Ahead of the big game at Anfield on Sunday, Rafael Benitez played down the rivalry between the two clubs, revealing that he even went away on business with his opposite number last week: “I travelled to Geneva with Sir Alex Ferguson for the UEFA coaches conference last week. He’s a nice person.”

Nice person? How many Liverpool fans would say that about the Scot? Maybe we just don’t know him. Maybe what Rafa said next gives away the reason why Fergie was acting so nice: “We didn’t speak about the game this Sunday, but we were talking a lot about the Champions League. He wanted information on Villarreal.”  Did Rafa give him useful information? Maybe not – Manchester United didn’t manage to get the victory they wanted in Spain, although the red card for the hot-headed Rooney was perhaps the main reason for that. Rafa recalls though that the United manager has been nice to him before, saying: “I remember Sir Alex sent me a letter of congratulation when we won the Champions League, praising the tactical changes we made at half-time. He was saying it was a fantastic move to put Didi Hamann on.”

It does actually sound like there’s a genuine respect for Benitez
from the man who’s come closest to overtaking Bob Paisley as most
successful British manager: “Some people may just say well done when
you win a big trophy, but the difference with him is he’s always
thinking as a manager. I like this and his letter meant more to me
because of it.”

Rafa is hoping for more luck and better
performances in the meeting betweens the two sides this season. His two
matches last season were ones to forget, although Rafa remembers them
well – for where things went wrong. He said: “I have bad memories of
playing Manchester United last year. We conceded two goals from
set-pieces at Old Trafford early in the season when we had some new
players. We lost at Anfield because of a mistake.”

He continued:
“I thought we did a good job for 30 minutes at home last season, but
not after that. They kept the ball well and I think you could argue
they were the best team to play at Anfield against us. They were
definitely one of the best.”

Summer changes at Anfield mean that
Benitez is confident of Liverpool at least competing with the
Mancunians: “I remember it was tough, but I think we have a better side
now. I think we are more familiar with each other and our system now,
and our coaching staff know more about how United play. We had some
players like Morientes and Pellegrino making their debut against them
last time, so it wasn’t easy.”

Liverpool’s start to the season
hasn’t been bad – amongst seven Champions League fixtures and a Super
Cup final they’ve also managed to fit in three league games. Whilst
goals have flowed in Europe, in the league they’ve only managed one.
Rafa says: “This time we are going into the match with a lot of
confidence. We have three clean sheets and two points away from home.
That’s not bad, but we know we need to start scoring goals. We’ve done
that in midweek, so that shows that’s not going to be a problem.”

likes to spend time with his young children, has a nice meal out with
his wife occasionally, and even finds time now and again to play chess.
His first love though is probably football, and Sunday’s match is
exactly the type of clash that makes him so fond of the sport: “I like
to face big teams like Manchester United because they always have a top
manager like Sir Alex and I enjoy competing against them. But although
people talk about the coaches, it’s never a battle between managers.
It’s always about the players. You can work out the best tactical
masterplan ever, but you need the players to do the job. If you make
mistakes in the game or their players are just better than yours, you
can do nothing.”

When Liverpool played in Europe on Tuesday Rafa
chose a team with a lot of experience of playing in Spain, and rested a
lot of his team with one eye on Sunday’s fixture. He had his reasons
for doing this, even if the highly-paid pundits on TV before the game
thought he’d lost the plot: “On Tuesday, people said our changes were a
good idea after the game. I know if we’d lost, people would say we were
crazy to pick the side we did. I believe in using all my players and
using fresh legs. You have to have a clear idea about the whole season,
not just a few games.”

In fact that does seem to be Rafa’s
policy. Over recent years United seem to have been happy to spend big
on one star name every couple of years – Rio Ferdinand and Wayne
Rooney. Rafa would rather buy a number of players for that amount of
money so that the quality of his whole squad is improved. As Liverpool
saw last season injuries can strike any player, so spending a fortune
on one player who might be unfortunate enough to miss sixty or seventy
percent of the season is a big gamble. Rafa explains how he intends to
use his full squad: “I will have the chance to rest Steven Gerrard this
season because of the quality of Sissoko. Last year we had Biscan, who
was a good player, but not the same as Sissoko or Gerrard.  Momo has a
similar game to Gerrard so if either or both are playing, I know I’m
going to have a midfield which always has a lot of energy and high

This idea isn’t new to him – he says he used the same
approach in Spain: “The success always depends on the players. We used
the same approach with Valencia. In one game I rested Baraja and
Vicente and we lost at home to Racing Santander. We conceded a goal
because my centre-back gave the ball away. The same player made a
mistake in the second half and we lost another goal. We lost 2-1 and
everyone talked about the error leaving out Baraja and Vicente. It
wasn’t the selection which was wrong, but the mistakes in the match
which led to the defeat. At the end of the season when we won the title
and UEFA Cup, everyone finally understood the decisions.”

Benitez shows that although he listens to criticism, he’s not one to
act on it if he knows it’s not accurate. He’ll pick the right team for
each game as it comes – but will always be thinking about the long term
as well as the short term. The press – especially certain TV channels
in the UK – will jump on the opportunity to criticise Rafa if Liverpool
lose, but Rafa will learn from his mistakes, not from what is spouted
by ex-players with little or no managerial success.

season Rafa will be hoping to show that he has learned from any
mistakes he made last season, as he seeks to put Liverpool into
contention for the title. Winning these big games is an important part
of that. He says of Sunday’s game: “If we win, it will be fantastic for
everyone – we know how difficult it is but if we do our best and win,
when the time comes for us to face Arsenal and Chelsea, who can say how
close we will be? They know it’s always going to be difficult for them
when they come to Anfield. When you beat the big teams, nothing seems
impossible for the rest of the season.”

Last season’s gap
between Liverpool and those ahead was massive. Except for Everton, who
finished only just ahead, Liverpool were unable to catch any of those
above them well before the season ended. Rafa points out a good way to
fix this is to beat those teams ahead: “When people talk about the gap
of 19 points to United or 37 points to Chelsea, there is an immediate
way to cut this. You can reduce the gap by six points in just one game.
If we win, it’s three points more to us compared to last year and three
less for them. That gap can be reduced. If we had won against United
home and away last season, for example, you’re taking about a
difference of 12 points, six for us, six less for them. That’s why it’s
so important when two big clubs face each other and why there is always
a rivalry. We know we are competing with each other for trophies.”